While neoliberalism’s social consequences have been enough to question its merit as an economic system, it could always depend on its one big strength: economic growth. However, years of slow growth, recurring financial crises, and market failures have resulted in scepticism that attacks the system’s foundational promise. As a result, there is a community of “new economic thinking” slowly entering the mainstream. In our publication Turning the Tide — Landscape analysis of an emergent economic movement in Europe, we map the 100+ organisations in Europe that work tirelessly to design and deliver a new economic system. To shed light more broadly on the state of new economic thinking, we conducted interviews with members of this community in four different countries. Here, we dive into Greece.
In Greece, the neoliberal project never established its solidity fully. Weekly strikes, mass demonstrations, and trash cans burning on a typical Saturday night, signal that Greek people won’t go down without a fight. However, when discussing issues specific to the economy, this societal unrest is not translated into a vision.
By Angeliki Vourdaki
In a country where the people have lost so much, anger is funnelled into protection and conservation of rights, rather than optimism and long-term thinking. The country’s Civil War between the communists and the liberals has ensured that heterodox thinking passed down through generations. But loss and grief have resulted in “us versus them”. While universities constitute public spheres that allow anti-establishment thinking to develop, they do little to solidify it institutionally. The 2015 referendum, where 60% of the population rejected the economics of austerity, did not translate into coordinated action. In the words of an interviewee, the status of new economic thinking appears to always be “pregnant”; ever-existing but never fully coming to life.
Citizen movements and campaigning
Part of why new economic thinking in Greece has not reached full sophistication is that relevant groups stick to almost entirely guerilla and grassroots tactics. This means that anti-neoliberal thinking is expressed mainly through social issues, the fight against police brutality, strikes and civil unrest to protect certain groups, demonstrations, and a strong alternative culture. Social media has given new pathways to action.
Recently, a food delivery company declared that they would force all of their deliverers to change their occupational status to self-employed. This would have dire effects on the deliverers who, under this new status, would have to pay for their own social insurance. A mass movement was instigated immediately through the hundreds of “left pages” on social media, like Luben, RosaProgressive, and Tziz. This resulted in the company’s app reviews falling to just 1 star within a week. The company was forced to retract and hire all of its deliverers, giving them even more rights than they had before.
This was a success story. However, strict employment protection legislation has forced 12.8% of Greek youth into the same insecure and costly de jure self-employment. Action embraces groups that are perceived as weak, thus skipping institutional proposals for society as a whole.
Idea generation and advocacy
As with most EU countries, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the agenda in Greece towards Keynesianism. However, the combination of high taxes, corruption, and high unemployment creates what we call “dysfunctional capitalism”. Consequently, new economic thinking in Greece is bound to be more radical than soft-progressive.
Greece has a leading tradition in heterodox economics. Many internationally renowned Marxist economists, like Yanis Varoufakis and Costas Lapavitsas, are prolific in their critique of neoliberalism. Political economists and social scientists also contribute to a rich and ever-present discussion. Running Marxist theory journals, like Theseis, and heterodox book shops, like Politeia, hold up the ideological fort. Recently, alternative think tanks have started to develop, like the ENA Institute, providing heterodox economic analysis for a policy audience.
When given the chance to speak publicly, the richness of heterodox economics is able to affect public discourse but mainly towards the already sympathetic half of the population. Abstract economic terms and the complexity of systems, likely demotivate the concerned viewer. Moreover, profound ideological disagreement over Europe, the role of the state, technology and digitalisation, make collaboration an unlikely event.
The climate crisis as an opportunity for change
Neoliberalism has found a more united front in the developing promise of the circular economy, the economy of wellbeing, and green transition. In Greece, issues of sustainability are still very high level and practical. The focus is to follow EU recommendations. Yet, this is a space where research, entrepreneurship, and policy come together in agreement.
The Athens University of Economics & Business, for example, runs an interdisciplinary Lab on Socio-Economic and Environmental Sustainability (ReSEES) that focuses on environmental and energy issues. This is an area of fruitful innovation and a beneficiary of a flourishing and lively European community that has formed around these topics. International and local organisations, like ICRE8, SDSN, ATHENA, ClimateKIC, and PESD introduce these topics to an already aware audience for the moment. These efforts have to be embraced by many Greek governments to follow, paired with a long-term focus on reskilling and upskilling of the Greek labour market. As one interviewee put it, the absence of local know-how presents a roadblock to social innovation.
These efforts are not necessarily radical, as they can be sympathetic — or “healthy additions” — to neoliberalism. Yet, a radical innovation emerged in 2018 with the establishment of energy communities. Through shared ownership of their energy, these communities are challenging the absolute foundations of capitalism — like production, consumption, and price determination. Their members are actively promoting the model through advocacy, coalition-building, and campaigning.
Greece holds a vibrant promise in the pursuit of new economic thinking. While the public discourse, movement building, and grassroots campaigning are there, local actors are in need of research funding and a safe space to develop common ground. Contrary to the ideological solidity of neoliberalism, heterodox economic thinking in Greece is a diverse, dynamic, and organic space, built from the ground up. As a result, investment in these (for now) divided communities is unlikely to come from the top. The exception of efforts driven by the effects of the climate crisis suggests that solidarity from abroad is integral. Like a caring but sometimes unforgiving womb, Greece has nurtured heterodox economic thinking for almost a century. To deliver on its promise, guidance and compassion must flow into the country before it is too late.
This article was written for Demos Helsinki’s landscape analysis of new economic thinking in Europe. It has been slightly edited for style and to provide enough context as a standalone piece.
Want to read about the state of new economic thinking in other countries?
- New economic thinking in France — Small but vibrant
- New economic thinking in Finland — Action on the fringes
- New economic thinking in the UK — A curious paradox
Feature Image: Jim Niakaris / Unsplash