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The Greek Paradox

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The mainstream media image, which has emerged from the triangulations of the volatile European financial landscape, seems to promote a clear North South divide. The hotter countries of the south Mediterranean, such as Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal are portrayed as having cultivated a languid and hedonistic lifestyle among their citizens, creating a deficit of effort thereby, and compelling those in other places to work all the harder. It is because the Greek worker retires on average at 61, that the retirement age of his or her German counterpart will now be raised to 67, or so the argument goes.

More worryingly still, is that such tropes are being distilled and concentrated into what seem an increasingly ugly set of stereotypes, with stalwarts of a superior and condescending paternalism like London Mayor Boris Johnson lamenting the lack of 'industry' and 'thrift' implicit in the Greek national character, or a presenter like Jeremy Paxman browbeating an interviewee with the openly racist interrogative - 'Why are Greeks so dishonest?'

Furthermore, in the attempt to bolster these stereotypes, many commentators have resorted to statistical analysis pertaining to productivity. It is, for instance, the case that Greek workers are among the less productive of those in Europe with Greece's GDP per hour in 2008 calculated at $33.6 compared with its German equivalent which stood at $53.6

But the German Greek comparison is instructive in historical terms too. During the second-world war German infrastructure had been perhaps more systematically decimated than anywhere else. This had an unintended and paradoxical result, for it paved the way for a super-acceleration in the development of technology and productive technique more generally. The sheer devastation of war created the possibility of a more fundamental modernisation; the latest international investment, technology and development was imported and grafted onto the German locale accordingly.

A similar thing happened in Japan, which explains, incidentally, that country's resurgence as a great technological innovator. The main difference between Japan and Germany, however, was that the German recovery was to some degree retarded by the forcible fissuring of the country into East and West - though once this division had been superseded, there was nothing to prevent Germany from becoming the main economic player in Europe. And so it happened.

Greece, on the other hand, was never subject to such a profound industrial reformation. Industry constitutes 18% of its GDP compared with Germany which tallies at 27.9%. It is because the productive forces are better developed and more entrenched in Germany, that each individual worker exhibits a higher level of productivity.

But productivity should not be conflated with work-rate. In actual fact, and in another delicious example of paradox, the two things tend to stand in an inverse relation, for the worker who is operating within a less honed technological apparatus must work all the more hours in order to compensate, to ensure his or her product remains competitive on a European wide market.

For the ultimate confirmation of this, we can return to the Greek German comparison one last time - here data from the OECD shows how, in 2008, the average Greek worker spent 2120 hours at work compared with their German counterpart who managed to notch up only 1429 hours, a difference of a massive 48%. What this data tells us is that the Greek workforce, far from being 'lazy' or 'feckless', or in any other such way 'culturally' determined - is in fact the hardest working in all of Europe.

Of course those who are nurturing such stereotypes are little interested in the nuances or the historical trajectories of either Greece or Germany. They are concerned with a much more immediate agenda; that is the obsequious and unqualified defence of power. Their methods are nothing new - it is merely the old 'divide and rule' approach which has always proved expedient when it comes to dealing with unruly sections of disparate populations. It's the kind of thing which might be taught in a college seminar entitled Empire 101. And its variants are becoming ever more familiar. If you want to push down wages, publicise shrilly and continually just how good the public sector workers have it at the expense of private sector workers. If you want to push down pensions, turn men and women against each other for surely it is only fair that women's pensions are brought as low as men's (it doesn't seem to operate in the upward direction when it comes to equalisation for some reason.)

And finally, as the eurozone is threatened with financial meltdown, but the privileges of the super-banks are still sanctified as sacred, what else is there to do but try to turn the workers of different countries against each other, driving them ever further in a seemingly never-ending race to the bottom?