Revolution in Rural Greece

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One of my olive trees in the village where I was born, Valsamata, Cephalonia, Greece. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Neolithic origins

Hellas / Greece started in villages long time ago before our common era, going back to more than seven thousands years BCE. Archaeologists call that prehistoric period Neolithic (new stone age). Greeks and other humans stopped wondering from place to place hunting and gathering their food. They started setting roots in the same place of the country, which to this day, in Greek, is called chorio, part of the land / country, village. It was in those Neolithic villages that farming came into being. Wild seeds of crops, wild animals and trees were domesticated, found a fertile ground around those who started cultivating the Earth. Their name in Greek, georgoi, describes their devotion and cultivation of the Earth, Gaia, Ge.

We don’t know why this massive transformation took place. Without doubt, it was the greatest revolution in history. Farming in Neolithic Greece gave rise to the Bronze Age and Greek civilization. Settled communities divided the land in the village, worked together for common defense, and invented Linear B writing, which in the late Bronze Age became alphabetic Greek. Neolithic Greeks also invented the plow, the gods, weaving, which in the Bronze Age gave rise to craftsmanship, metallurgy, architecture, and the earliest versions of citizenship in the polis / village.

Aristotle’s political theory

In his Politics (especially books 1, 3, 4 and 7), Aristotle urged the Greeks of his day to be self-reliant in food, calling that virtue, autarkeia (αυτάρκεια) the pillar of independence and survival, “an end and perfection.” He favored land for public uses for the support of the temples of the gods and small amounts of land for farmers. He favored eudaimonia. Which is to say a state of friendly and joyful relations for the people of the village and polis, a condition of wisdom or phronesis guiding all citizens in their daily personal actions and policies for the common good. To facilitate this ideal condition, Aristotle spoke of the middle life being the best life, that is, a life that avoided the extremes of too little or too much. The same golden mean he demanded of the polis constitution because the constitution was a mirror of political life. After all, Aristotle said, the state existed for the good life of all its citizens. In addition, Aristotle said, nature, habit and reason help man become good.

True, man, Aristotle’s political animal, was formed by the natural world all around him. His family and community and the challenges of raising food introduced habits of behavior that potentially make man good. A sense of justice and the exercise of justice give virtue to man. Without virtue, Aristotle said, man becomes a savage animal. Then reason, according to Aristotle, was another virtue that only man had. And reason had the power of improving the life of human beings, making them good for themselves and their village / polis.

In the fourth century BCE, the time of Aristotle, most Greeks lived in villages / poleis (city-states). Eudaimonia, phronesis, autarkeia, logos / reason, arete / virtue, have been exercising the mind of civilized people everywhere – for millennia. They are principles of political theory and wisdom that can lead people to secure government and good lives.

Greece in modern times

However, in modern times, Aristotle has become all but invisible. The countryside of Greece, its thousands of villages, is being undermined by dark-age and foreign-inspired ambitions of large landlords hiding under the names of science, machinery, chemicals, food production and globalization.

The European Union in Europe, for example, has been enforcing standards in agriculture that promise the homogenization of food, and the neglect of villages. Its weaponized subsidies favor industrialization of food and agriculture, and the abandonment of agrarian traditions and the obliteration of villages.

This message and the aggressive buying out of peasant farming has blasted Greek villages from within and without. The ideology of surviving peasants has changed. They, willingly or not, have ended the kingdom of donkeys, mules, oxen, and horses that provided the muscle power for the cultivation of land. Now you see petroleum-powered small Japanese trucks and small tractors. Some of the former peasants, like American farmers, say that they cannot raise food without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

The result of this ideological and cultural revolution in the Greek countryside is the concentration of land to the hands of fewer farmers, those who can afford Japanese trucks and tractors. Moreover, the difficulty of having money for the mechanical underbelly of “modern” farming in the village is the slow but steady erosion of the rural population. Young village boys are tempted to go to school for non-farming training or advanced studies for becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers or sailors and captains for the merchant marine. Meanwhile, their parents fight endless battles over housing, inherited houses, or apartments. But they avoid raising food. Even honeybee keepers are struggling to outbid each other over the price in euros of a kilo of honey rather than cooperating and selling their honey to their own organization.

These tragic upheavals are changing the villages to small towns. You see vineyards and olive groves, but you don’t see vegetable gardens or chickens or flocks of sheep and goats, much less oxen and mules — in most village households. You also see too many cars circling all over villages. You wonder what happened to the villages.

For example, during my June 2023 visit of Cephalonia, my home island in the Ionian Sea, I risked my life each time I walked village streets. Narrow mule roads have become full of fast-moving cars fueling a steady traffic. Certainly, an increasing number of tourists renting cars is exacerbating the traffic in village roads. But this transformation is invisible to locals and responsible officials who only see euros in tourism.

The climate dragon and debt

Climate change is another major force of change and destruction. It adds more danger to the undermining of traditional villages in Greece. In both Cephalonia and the rest of Greece rains wrecked the olive trees and vineyards. This means Greece in 2023 will produce very little if any olive oil and wine, both great food staples for all Greeks for millennia. Importing olive oil and wine will be another blow to the misery of debt: keep paying interest and capital to lenders: all that the country earns from tourism, archaeological sites, museums, and agricultural products go to the EU and America’s International Monetary Fund.

This debt extorsion is another form of looting. It’s now 13 years old. With a 700 euros monthly salary for most Greeks and still a $ 400 billion in debt, how’s the country going to stand again on its own feet? Lenders have found a willing cow for ceaseless milking. Time has come for the Greeks to say enough is enough!

Aristotle denounced paying interest. Tokos / τόκος, birth, “currency born of currency,” Aristotle said, is a bad business practice, the “most contrary to nature” (1258a).

No wonder Aristotle is so unpopular in our times of billionaires, oligarchies, and money tyrannies. Modern Greeks deserve to read Aristotle and tell their money exploiters to get lost. Stop paying interest. Banks no longer pay interest to depositors.

Agrarian renaissance

Greece has a chance to undo the harm of industrialization. Focus on the countryside, its millennia history and knowledge and assets. Encourage and fund willing and capable city folk to return to the villages. Make the country self-reliant in food. Bring back oxen and mules for the cultivation of small pieces of land. Forbid the use of petrochemicals / pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Create small agricultural schools throughout the country that will teach agroecology to young and old. Agroecology is a new science that brings to life old traditions of raising food. Moreover, it joins that ancient agrarian culture to the latest discoveries of ecological science.

Such an agrarian renaissance may spark the revival of village population as well as the rebirth of ancient Greek village festivals, theater, and the raising of wholesome food. These changes will make the country even more interesting and attractive to tourists seeking understanding of Hellas, the country of Aristotle that made our world.





Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.