The three countries who did the most to build the modern global, liberal, capitalist and democratic world order (the Netherlands, Britain and the United States) were blessed by both the geography fairy and the culture fairy. Geographically they were placed where they were relatively free to develop on their own without being the playthings of foreign interests. Culturally they were the products of a history which gave them a set of attitudes and values that promoted their success as capitalist countries. The combination of favorably geography and success in capitalism helped to propel each of these countries to global power in their day, and further gave them the power to reshape the world to their liking.
Other countries and cultures like capitalism less and for a variety of reasons are not as good at it. Some, like China and India, gradually get the hang of it and start to gain power and influence in the world system. Others, like Egypt, have a harder time.
For many Greeks, capitalism still feels wrong. The substitution of market forces for traditional social relations undermines aspects of Greek life that are very dear to many people; the inequality that so often results from capitalism offends deeply held social ideas about fairness. More, since the rising powers whose policies and interventions have done so much to shape Greek history have been capitalist, Greeks associate institutions like the IMF and the ECB (European Central Bank) with foreign meddling and unjust usurpation. And the successful capitalist countries (and the foreign multinational corporations who come with it) have never scrupled to press their advantages in less developed or weaker countries like Greece.
In many parts of the world it is easy to spot a vicious cycle at work. Because a country or a culture missed the visit of either or both of the two modernization good fairies (geography and culture) it starts out handicapped in the race to master capitalism and control their own destiny. As a result, they fall behind, and lose power and control to other, faster rivals. Capitalism becomes ever less popular, ever more associated in the public mind with a world system felt to be wrong and unfair. Those feelings of alienation make it steadily harder for the country to adopt and follow the policies that could reverse the cycle and bring it success. And so it goes.
On a global scale, the Greeks are not doing so badly. They belong to three of the rich world’s most exclusive clubs: the OECD, the European Union, and NATO. Their per capita GDP, while low by west European standards, puts them ahead of places like Hong Kong, Israel and South Korea. Yet the feeling of being victims, manipulated by powerful interests who do not have their best interests at heart, and locked into an economic system that violates some of their most deeply felt values is very real.
Greece has a history of muddling through, if not always very happily. It is likely though not certain that this crisis too will pass, leaving Greece still in the eurozone, still linked to a prosperous EU and still relatively well placed in the global order. This is certainly what I hope, and given the debt of gratitude the whole world owes Greece for its extraordinary and unparalleled contributions to global culture it is the outcome that we all ought to seek.
But whatever happens in Greece, we need to remember that its problems are not unique, and the clash between those who like the world that capitalism has made and those who hate it is not going away. The global capitalist revolution offers the best and indeed the only hope that I see for the relief of poverty, the advance of human rights and the protection of the environment worldwide. Like all great revolutionary movements, however, it creates divisions, inequalities and resistance. Revolts against the liberal capitalist world system — fascism and communism above all — shaped the history of the twentieth century and inflicted unprecedented misery and harm until they were defeated. The radical terrorist movement led by Islamic renegades has more recently inflicted grave harm in many places and its violent course has not yet come to an end; we are likely to see more crises and conflict in the twenty first century as the anti-capitalist counter-revolution finds new forms and new allies.
The Greek tragedy now taking place offers us an opportunity to study the forces at work in our world, reflect on the human dilemmas and difficulties that lead to social and economic strife, and perhaps think more wisely about how we can advance the capitalist revolution in ways that make this global transformation a little easier to bear for those who are caught up in it and who feel that their lives are being overturned by hostile and immoral hidden hands.