There was a moment, at the height of the Greek debt crisis in July 2015, when many Athenians went to sleep expecting to wake up in a different country. One Greek academic told me he feared Greece would crash out of the euro currency overnight, that there would be no money in the banks in the morning, that there would be food shortages and then riots: “Greece is a middle-class country,” he told me. “I didn’t think we would be able to cope with the shock.” Several others told me that they had genuinely expected the arrival of a Venezuelan-style dictatorship, perhaps with tanks on the street.
These fears were not far-fetched. Greece was governed then — as it still is now — by a strange coalition of far-left and far-right extreme populists. At the time it was formed, this coalition seemed just as weird and jarring as the new Italian far-left and far-right government does today. Syriza, the larger party, had originated as a faction of the Greek Communist Party. The junior partner, the “Independent Greeks,” believes that Greece’s massive debt is the result of an international conspiracy. Both parties have at times voiced disdain for the institutions of what Lenin dismissively referred to as “bourgeois democracy.”
But the Venezuela-style dictatorship never emerged. Depending on who tells the story, Syriza’s leader, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, was scared off by fear of a military counter-coup; feared the economic consequences of crashing out of the euro zone; or never really meant all that stuff anyway. Although he had stoked up his followers with angry, anti-European rhetoric and promises to enrich “the people” at the expense of the elites, the banks and the Germans, he wound up following the rules set by the international institutions who had taken charge of Greece’s finances. Greece remained inside the euro and inside the international financial and legal systems its leaders claimed to abhor.
Nearly three years later, Greece’s left-populist moment has passed. In the interim, Syriza has made a few more swipes at democratic institutions, attempting to wrestle control of more media and to intervene with the judiciary. But on June 22, the country graduated from its eight-year bailout program. It feels as if a corner has been turned. The price of the Syriza government was extraordinarily high: mass unemployment, poverty, a generation of young people moved abroad. But democracy remains intact.
Greece may now offer a possible answer to an important question: If, as I wrote weeks ago, the response to populism is often more extreme populism, then what happens after the more extreme populism has failed? Part of the answer is . . . nothing: The protracted Greek crisis has led to apathy, exhaustion and a deep conviction that all politics is corrupt. There isn’t huge enthusiasm for any political projects right now.
But the failure of Syriza has also triggered the opposite reaction: a small but growing attempt to revive economic liberalism, for the first time in recent memory, and to celebrate liberal democracy as well. A decade ago, fashionable intellectuals were all left-wing in Greece, and most books on politics and economics were written by Marxists. Now, it’s possible to sit down in a cafe with young people who describe themselves not only as “economic liberals” but also as “neoliberals,” adopting a phrase that was used as a harsh insult only a few years ago.
There is more: A book called “Short Introduction to Liberalism,” by political scientist Aristides Hatzis, was a best seller in 2017 . Publishers have produced new editions of Friedrich Hayek and John Stuart Mill. A little group of liberal think tanks is determined to thrive. In 2021 Greece will celebrate the 200th anniversary of its war for independence, and a host of institutions will commemorate it as the birth of modern liberal democracy in Greece.
These are, for the moment, only signs of a path forward. Dark predictions abound. The Greek economy is still shaky. Many believe that the demise of left-wing populism will produce a rise in right-wing populism. But if opinion polls are correct, the center-right , establishment party that appeared utterly wiped out a few years ago should win the next election. Its relatively new, financially literate and pro-European leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis — an economic and social liberal, the surprise choice to lead the historically conservative New Democracy party — thinks he is ahead in the polls because economic reality defeated Syriza’s voodoo economics. “Syriza is discredited,” he told me. “We can make the case that ‘they lied to you, they are liars,’ and the word ‘liar’ is really sticking.”
Greece plunged into political crisis before the rest of the West, and perhaps it’s emerging first, too. But the lesson for the rest of us is a difficult one. If it’s true, as Mitsotakis believes, that the only cure for populist rhetoric is the bitter, personal experience of its failure, then we have quite a few years of turbulence yet to come.