Modernization (Eksynchronismos) Kostis Stafylakis

Over the last 15 years, the most debated and contested political slogan in Greek society has been that of “modernization” (eksynchronismos). The social, political, and cultural context of its reemergence in Greek public life in the 1990s is currently being subjected to rigorous study and analysis by a majority of academic disciplines and analytical approaches. Any conclusive definition of the term “modernization” appears to be risky since the overall effects of the processes that the term describes cannot be reduced to the current or recent economic and developmental portrait of Greece. Under the first administration of Prime Minister Costas Simitis (1996–2000), Greece joined the European Economic and Monetary Union and experienced a boom in the construction of public infrastructure, a rationalization of its administration, an unprecedented lowering of inflation and a stabilization of its foreign affairs policy. The “Modernization” slogan became an effective ideological nodal point redefining all cultural, economic, and political divisions in Greek society.

The word modernization has been employed in the cultural and political conflicts of the modern Greek state since its foundation (1830). The clash between “tradition” and “progress” has been reenacted continuously since the mid-19th‑century Greek “Enlightenment.” The aristocratic-romantic intellectual mentors of the 1821 Greek War of Independence were deeply influenced by the intellectual wave of the French Revolution of 1789 and sought to disseminate modern ideas about equality and democracy to a population characterized predominantly by agricultural economic relations. According to sociologist Antonis Paparizos, these ideas and values were familiar to a small number of wealthy traders in the Ottoman Empire, as well as to the Greek Diaspora and some insurgent warlords of the Greek Revolution, but completely foreign to the enslaved Balkan orthodox Christians.1 According to political theorist Thanos Lipowatz, while the experience of the rational function of the modern industrial state was absolutely alien to the Greek population, the idea of the nation had already been propagated by the prophetic figures of Greek enlightenment in the late 18th century. The uneven development of nation and state was resolved through a national identity that is structurally permeated by a defensive syndrome of nationalist self-enclosure on the basis of religious identification and a tendency to negate and repress the ambivalent nature of modern reality.2 Traditional clientelism, the lack of an efficient urban experience and anti-institutionalism would eventually become the fundamental constituents of modern Greek political culture. This is the social and historical canvas on which the modern conflict between tradition and progress, modernization and antimodernization would play itself out.

A brief historical account of political and cultural conflicts between modernizers and antimodernizers (or traditionalists) would include the late 19th‑century struggle between Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis’ vision of modern state apparatuses and Theodoros Deligiannis’ nationalist conservatism, the late 19th‑century linguistic conflict between the demoticists “malliaroi” and the archaists “katharevousianoi” on the form and use of Greek language, and the political conflict between the followers of the modernizer Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and the Royalists (Constantinists) that exploded in 1914 and resulted in a temporary north-south rift in the Greek state. Furthermore, the postwar conflict and civil war (1946–1949) between the left and the Nationals (the block of the Right and the Center) reinscribed the dividing lines between ultramodern political projects and nationalist defense.

Across these lines, Nikiforos Diamandouros has broached the “cultural dualism” argument proposing that two distinct cultural camps have been at war since the foundation of the modern Greek state: an introverted “underdog culture” adhering to the “tradition” of the Byzantine and Ottoman past and an extrovert culture that “draws its intellectual origins from the Enlightenment” and expresses the secular demands for modernization.3 Developing the Diamandouros thesis, sociologist Nikos Mouzelis suggests that, on the one hand, there is a “native” culture type that opposes the Western institutions of the Enlightenment and favors clientelism and populism and, on the other hand, a “modernizing” type of culture that seeks to adopt the institutions of the West.4

In 1974, the military dictatorship that ruled Greece for seven years was overthrown after social uprisings and major foreign affairs fiascos. The conservative politician Constantinos Karamanlis was called to return from his self-imposed exile in Paris and lead a national unity government. During his administration, he signed the full treaty of Greece’s accession to the European Economic Community despite the chronic ailments of the Greek economy. The enduring marginalization and exclusion of large sections of Greek society (including the left) from the state apparatus generated a massive effort for “change” that was to be expressed by Andreas Papandreou and his PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement). Papandreou won the 1981 elections with a crushing 48% of the vote. Papandreous’ administration inaugurated an era of “overpoliticization” of Greek social life, partially triggered by his own populist, integrative, and anti-Western rhetoric. According to Diamandouros’ “dualism” thesis, the ideological specter of the first PASOK administration should be considered as part of the “underdog” culture that cuts across different layers of Greek society. Although great social and democratic change was brought about (for example, in 1985, parliament amended the constitution in favor of improved social justice), the irrational use of public funds, massive public loans and a third-world oriented foreign affairs policy imposed an entrenched local mentality. The lower class, rural, and working sectors of Greek society envisioned their integration in the new social structures through distributional economic politics rather than new productive apparatuses. As a result of allegations of financial abuse, corruption, economic scandals, and the consequent prosecution of Papandreou, PASOK lost the 1991 elections to the conservative New Democracy party and although it soon returned to power (1993) but with Papandreou’s health already deteriorating.

When Papandreou was forced to retire in 1996, a dissident pro-European minister in PASOK’s governments and cofounder of the party, Costas Simitis, prevailed as the only alternative party leader and won the internal ballot. He launched the “modernization” slogan in order to detach PASOK from its anti-European populist legacy and stress the importance of economic rationalization and a “strong economy” in an age of global transformation and uncertainty. Simitis won the 1996 elections emphasizing the crucial role of the EU in the future of Greece. Employing his European profile, he strengthened Greece’s diplomatic presence in the EU, managing to alleviate tense relations with Turkey and secure the full integration of Cyprus into the EU. Simitis’ developmental vision was to transform Greece into the Balkan metropolis of the European Union. His administration proceeded with crucial privatizations of public services that caused fierce reactions from the trade unions and the left. The parties of the left (both communist and noncommunist) caricatured Simitis as a neoliberal politician of Third Way politics and never considered the possibility of participating in a social-democratic axis. At times, the tension between Simitis and the parliamentary left exceeded the turbulent relations between PASOK and the conservative New Democracy party. The ideological influence of modernization on the middle class caused a series of chain reactions in the political discourse of the left. Typical of this ideological shift was the transformation of the Greek Communist Party into a safeguard of patriotic sentiments against the “alienating effects” of modernization.

Simitis appointed a new block of modernizers in the economic ministries (often ironically described as “technocrats”) in order to fight inflation and control public deficits. Their economic reforms successfully propelled Greece into the eurozone. Greece’s infrastructure changed dramatically when EU and National funds were spent on large-scale construction projects such as the “Eleftherios Venizelos” Athens International Airport, the Athens metro, the Rio-Antirio Bridge, the Athens “Attiki Odos” large-scale motorway and large parts of the Egnatia Odos (Via Egnatia), a motorway joining western Greece with the eastern Greek-Turkish border. Major athletics infrastructure was also built as part of Athens’ preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games. The opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games, taking place a few months after the electoral disaster of PASOK and the victory of New Democracy, was an acute cultural expression of the middle-class Zeitgeist of modernization: a successful pastiche of archaic and ancient references, a celebration of supposedly perennial values such as Zorba-type frugality and good living, with a touch of technological spectacle and innovative hints of self-critique and satire. The identity codes used by the director, choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, offered an image of a reconquered dignity. The Western perception of Greece had already started to change after the capture of the active members of the November 17 terrorist group in cooperation with foreign intelligent services.

Simitis’ personality was never typical of the common Greek mentality. As a matter of fact, an unprecedented form of hatred was channeled toward him in periods of national and cultural upset. The most virulent ideological enemy of Simitis and his “modernization” was the newly appointed Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church, Christodoulos. In 2000, the minister of justice, a well-respected professor of law, backed by Simitis, announced the deletion of reference to religious affiliation on national identity cards. The Orthodox Church opposed his decision as an act “undermining Greek identity.” The most intense cultural clash of the decade broke out because the division between the supporters of the “modernization” block and the supporters of the Archbishop traversed all different political parties, social classes, and identities. According to political theorist Yannis Stavrakakis, the politicization of the discourse of the Church took place in a profoundly populist manner, employing polarizing rhetoric and hegemonic techniques. The Archbishop launched a campaign against the modernizers that would include two major mass rallies and a petition calling for a referendum on the issue. Stavrakakis suggests that the Orthodox Church’s politicization “is not alien to the recent resurgence of religion, to what has been described as a trend of desecularization” but also involves a very effective populism that presents the church as the only legitimate agent of the “quintessence” of the “Greek people.”5

In the early 1980s, the Greek economy was still relying on alteration and state protectionism. But the collapse of the grand ideological-political regimes and the eve of the postmodern age gradually affected the Greek social fabric as a whole. Mass culture and folk representations were at the gates. A deep-rooted hedonistic feeling governed the middle class and the new professional-managerial class. The gradual integration of Greece into European structures and the consequent deregulation of old relations of production caused a new ideological chasm. While pro-European politics stressed the need for synchronization with the economic and constitutional standards set up by the EU, the antimodernization camp restored itself as the tragic contemplator of Greece’s course into the “vastness” of globalization. Those conflicting ideological-cultural camps were not restricted to party politics but claimed to impose their intellectual hegemony on an intricate social matrix. The tension between them was a clash between a monumental vision of economic development and new forms of folk and spiritualist nationalism.6


1 / Antonis Paparizos, “Enlightenment, Religion and Tradition in Contemporary Greek Society,” Greek Political Culture Today, ed. Nikos Demertzis, Odysseas, Athens 1994, p. 79–82.

2 / Thanos Lipowatz, “The Split Greek Identity and the Case of Nationalism,” Greek Political Culture Today, ed. Nikos Demertzis, Odysseas, Athens 1994, p. 124–125.

3 / Nikiforos Diamandouros, Cultural Dualism and Political Change in Postauthoritarian Greece, Alexandreia, Athens 2000, p. 53–54.

4 / Nikos Mouzelis, Nationalism in Late Development, Themelio, Athens 1994), p. 17–18.

5 / Yannis Stavrakakis, “Religious Populism and Political Culture: The Greek Case,” South European Society & Politics, vol. 7, no. 3 (Winter 2002), p. 29–52.

6 / For example, social theorist Nicolas Sevastakis has coined the term “ethno-romanticism” to describe the 1980s and 1990s intellectual current of the New-Orthodoxy, a group of intellectuals that opposed modern reality with an amalgam of anti-Westernism, agrarian communitarianism, and orthodox theology. See, Nicolas Sevastakis, Banal Country: Aspects of Public Space and Antinomies of Value in Contemporary Greece, Savvalas, Athens 2004.