Why the future of Greece lies in the rise of a new civil society and education

One of the biggest challenges for post-austerity Greece will be the rebuilding of a strong civil society. Future foundations are already being laid out through new and exciting citizen initiatives, but much is yet to be done.

Yannis Theocharis
14 January 2013
A TEDx conference in Athens. Flickr/TEDx Athens. Some rights reserved.

A TEDx conference in Athens. Flickr/TEDx Athens. Some rights reserved.

A light breeze of transformation seems to have started blowing silently in Greece. The younger generation has inspired a wave of voluntary initiatives and actions targeted at resolving collective problems in the last couple of years. The recent manifestations are numerous and exciting: voluntary-based events that encourage structured debate and spreading new ideas, such as those organised by Intelligence Squared and TEDxAthens; urban regeneration actions such as Imagine the City; network-building platforms for volunteers such as Human Grid, #Tutorpool and Citizens 2.0 that encourage collaborative action between citizens and a rethinking of the institutional status quo; social contribution-oriented crowdfunding platforms such as Up Greek Tourism; Groopio, Greece Debt Free and community projects such as the Swapping Bookshelf; and even state-organised events for young people directed at spreading ideas about voluntarism, education and innovation, such as Meet Greece 2.0.

All these initiatives have enormous value. Each one of them carries a tiny dose of the medicine that can help cure the social pathologies that preceded the economic malaise currently traumatising the country (and that will surely succeed this crisis too, if not drastically tackled now).

The medicine – which the citizenry itself seems to be administering to Greek society – is the sum of all the bonds of collaboration, trustworthiness, solidarity and mutual aid that are developed during collective (mainly voluntary) initiatives. These bonds enable people to work together, learn from each other and build what is known as social capital. According to Robert Putnam’s widely quoted description, social capital refers to ‘the connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them’ and is the fundamental ingredient of a healthy civil society.

In the last decade, Greek civil society has been repeatedly characterised as ‘underdeveloped’, ‘poorly organised’, ‘with few and weak civil society organisations’, subject to a ‘dominant central government’ and, overall, as having a ‘limited impact on society at large’ (although some have argued that a rather stronger ‘informal’ civil society exists too). What this means is that, compared with other European countries, until recently very few citizens were likely to engage in voluntary or non-voluntary collective actions aimed at the general welfare, or to donate money for such purposes. Although such findings are occasionally reported in the mainstream press, little attention is paid to what it really means to lack the societal benefits of a healthy civil society.

Civil society is an irreplaceable democratic institution and represents a formal or informal societal element that is beyond, independent, and not directed by states, governments, political parties or markets. It allows citizens to form social networks of trust, cooperation and action to achieve collective aims and resolve common problems.

A healthy civil society encourages the formation of groups composed of people who neither know one another nor share a common background, but who can facilitate a rise in a society’s stock of social capital. A strong current of social science research has long conceded that citizen interactions under the auspices of a healthy civil society (and through voluntary community work) constitute an inherently democratic process because they allow citizens to develop civic skills (more on this below) and social capital.

That a society characterised by high civic virtue and trust has significant democratic benefits should hardly come as big or recent news – especially for the citizens of Greece. Pericles succinctly and memorably highlighted Athens’ economic and democratic prosperity 2,400 years ago in his famous funeral oration:

There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes [...] We make our friends by conferring, not by receiving favours. Now he who confers a favour is the firmer friend, because he would rather by kindness keep alive the memory of an obligation; but the recipient is colder in his feelings, because he knows that in requiting another's generosity he will not be winning gratitude but only paying a debt. We alone do good to our neighbors not upon a calculation of interest, but in the confidence of freedom and in a frank and fearless spirit. 

What is celebrated by Pericles, and has since been stressed by dozens of social scientists, is the value of mutual obligation and cooperation – key features of a society characterised by high social capital – and citizens’ trust (as opposed to suspicion) in each other and in the society’s institutions for the democratic cohesion of a community.

As I have noted previously, over the last two decades there has been a visible lack of trust in Greece: among citizens in each other, and between citizens and social and political institutions. Evidence from some of the world’s most credible fact-gathering organisations, such as the World Bank, the World Values Survey, the European Social Survey, Transparency International and the Eurobarometer, places Greece among the last in Europe in citizen-to-citizen and institutional trust. Social scientists have long studied social trust and the stock of social capital in Greek society and found it to be very low.

Today in Greece, perhaps more than anywhere else in Europe, we think that most people cannot be trusted, that they would rather take advantage of us than be fair, and that they are more likely to look after themselves than try to be helpful. Greek people have lost virtually all trust in politicians (a trait that is, however, far from unique among western societies), political parties and the parliament, while their trust in the institution of democracy itself is vanishing.[1]

Why become a member of an NGO or community group if you are suspicious about the true motives of the other members? Why help your fellow citizen when you suspect that she, in fact, does not need any help and that all she cares about is herself? Why donate your time for voluntary work? Why would anyone? Trust, as Ken Newton notes ‘forms the context of social relations and it is based on experience of social relations’ and a culture of distrust is the defining symptom of a society with low social capital, and one that blocks the development of a healthy civil society.

Yet it is precisely the blending of citizens with diverse backgrounds and profiles in collective processes that fosters the development of the civic skills that citizens need to successfully participate in public life. By civic skills I mean those that play a fundamental role in the functioning of democracy, such as:

- learning to discuss and engage in conversations with others, rather than initiating monologues that result in ideological food fights;

- learning to negotiate with others and solve common problems in a cooperative and creative fashion; and, most importantly

- learning to tolerate others and, as Bertrand Russell wisely said, come to terms with and put up with the fact that some people say things others don't like.

The importance of acquiring civic skills for active participation in civil society, and public life in general, is another issue that has not preoccupied only today’s thinkers, politicians and critical citizens. It was also a serious matter of debate in antiquity. The central disagreement between the philosopher Socrates and the sophist Protagoras was whether civic virtue, an essential prerequisite for participating in public life, was transferable[2]. Responding to Socrates, who was doubtful that civic skills could be taught and transferred, Protagoras claimed that citizens could (and ought) to learn them in order to be able to develop sound judgement (ευβουλία) about private and community issues, and to be able to successfully manage their personal affairs and participate not just with words, but also with actions, in public life. Pericles’ words are also instructive:

For, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. 

For Pericles, respecting one’s fellow citizens, accepting obligations from them and returning them to them, and acting justly were priceless skills for a society that belongs equally to each and every (Athenian) citizen, and were essential prerequisites for living alongside each other harmoniously. Today, 2,400 years later, social research agrees that civic skills advance democratic values: the more knowledgeable citizens are about civic principles, and the more they participate in voluntary and community-based initiatives, the more likely they are to support democratic values – starting with tolerance in others.

This ideal of civic virtue lies at the centre of an active civil society that is mobilised for collective problem solving. Only such a civil society can help cultivate the skills that Greek citizens so desperately need to develop.

The important question that inevitably arises from such thoughts is: what steps can we take to bring us closer to a society in which more citizens internalise and act on the basis of these ideals, especially during such troubled times? Social research findings can come in handy here once again.

One of the long-standing findings of social research is the long-term and defining impact of participation in extracurricular and voluntary associations during childhood on civic engagement. Injecting civic education into schools, participating in voluntary associations and engaging in community service programmes that combine community outreach allow children and young adults to develop participatory skills and an interest in and concern about the general welfare. Although civic skills are already part of the school curriculum in Greece (though only once, at 3rd grade), much more can be done on the institutional, community and individual levels, especially when the social fabric is under such strain and the formal institutional structure is highly dysfunctional.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is indeed up to the citizens themselves to bring about social change by engaging in the necessary initiatives. Why not help the new generation develop civic skills (and virtue) when it is so obvious that this is what went fundamentally wrong in the past? Cementing young people’s civic socialisation can have generation-defining outcomes. On the institutional level, schools should embed voluntary work into their programmes and offer regular, practical voluntary training. Civic socialisation can also be achieved through schoolchildren’s voluntary learning programmes initiated by NGOs with experienced members. These specialists could take groups of schoolchildren and their parents on volunteering exercises on a frequent basis. This is already offered by a number of Greek NGOs but must become much more widespread. 

On the community level, this can be done by organising more (and more frequent) voluntary initiatives for children and young adults to help them learn to tackle local problems together: spending a Saturday cleaning a plot littered with rubbish, or cooking for the local homeless are just two examples. In the neighbourhood, socialisation can be the outcome of a decision made by a few neighbouring families or friends who live in the same street that grows into a community initiative, or the outcome of a parents’ association in the local school. Still more fundamentally, this process may well involve taking one’s little sister or child to give a helpful hand for a few hours to the local immigrant centre, homeless shelter, reforestation group or a local charity that delivers goods to poverty-stricken families at Christmas.

There is a large segment of the new generation that understands the roots of Greece’s social problems much better than the older generation. The biggest gift citizens of Greece can give to this younger generation, which is the only true agent of change in the country, is to make sure their social upbringing is not only characterised, but defined, by the mentality, attitudes, norms and values that have been silently lost over time: trust, social consciousness, tolerance, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid.  

A light breeze of transformation seems to have started blowing in Greece. Whether it will turn into a wind of change is up to its citizens.

[1] This last development is particularly painful because of two reasons. First, because of the rapidity in which it is happening: according to empirical research based on the World Values Survey, in 2002, Greece was one of the countries with the most highly committed citizens in the democratic ideas in the world in a sample that includes countries from Western, Southern, Central and Eastern Europe and North and South America and Asia. Second, because of the rapidity in which ultra-right undemocratic ideas are breeding within society.

[2] It is worth noting that for both Protagoras and Socrates, civic virtue is mostly related to the craft of politics. 


Some of the views expressed in this article arose from the debate panel 'Mobilising for Problem Solving' of the 'Meet Greece v 2.0' event, organised in Athens by the General Secretariat for Youth, December 14-15.

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