|Author: Daniel M. Knight|
|Affiliation: University of St Andrews|
Original Text: Daniel M. Knight, University of St Andrews
Fakelaki (literally ‘little envelope’; plural fakelakia) is the Greek term for a small envelope of money that is used to secure various services such as medical treatment in hospitals or at doctors’ surgeries, legal documents, preferential treatment in public services (local council, electricity company, police) or a driving licence. Fakelakia may also be given as gifts on the occasion of marriages, baptisms or birthdays.
The word fakelaki is often used in popular discourse to imply corruption, bribery, or obtaining something by illegitimate means. That said, the fakelaki is an accepted part of everyday life in many parts of Greece, being so commonplace that local people do not perceive it as corruption in the Western sense. This is partially to do with the ambiguous nature of the fakelaki as something between ‘bribe’ and ‘gift’ in local perception. The multivalent contexts in which fakelakia are given, and the conflation of the term with gift-giving, has clouded the explicit morality of the exchange.
Fakelaki has become infamous since the outbreak of the Greek economic crisis of 2009. As of October 2015, this had resulted in three bailout packages amounting to €295 billion administered by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (known as ‘the Troika’) in return for economic reform and restructuring by Greece (Knight 2015a). International media have repeatedly highlighted the fact that fakelakia, meson (use of contacts), patronage and clientelism (Campbell 1964) in economic transactions are long-standing examples of the ‘bad economic practice’ that provoked Greece’s economic crisis. The Troika set numerous policy goals to be implemented in Greece and aimed at eradicating the ‘fakelaki culture’ and promoting what bureaucrats in Brussels and Berlin term ‘economic modernisation.’
Fakelaki is also connected to a work-culture that perceives the various documents issued by authorities as ‘papers’ that you need to pay a price for in order ‘to buy.’ Anthropologists working in Greece have found that patients have been denied emergency medical treatment, building permits have been denied and university degrees withheld due to the inability to pay the amount required in a fakelaki. At the other end of the spectrum, it has been noted that politicians, civil servants and building companies have obtained office and/or paperwork through significant fakelaki payments that have been made ‘under the table.’ Some particular cases of fakelaki payments have become infamous after being caught on camera as subjects of investigative journalism. Transparency International (TI), the global non-governmental organisation that campaigns against corruption, reports that individuals and companies can bribe inspectors and evade taxes through the payment of fakelakia. In 2012, TI asserted, the average bribe paid to a public servant in Greece amounted to €1,228 (US$1,372). TI puts the average ‘cost’ of a driving licence in Greece as between €100 and €300, while getting surgery in a hospital can cost anywhere between €100 and €30,000.
The practice of giving fakelakia is linked to local conceptions of people in positions of power ‘eating money.’ In 2010, Greece’s then deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos announced to reporters that ‘together we ate it’ (mazi ta fagame). He was referring to the €310 billion public debt Greece had built up during 30 years of economic prosperity since its accession to the European Economic Community in 1981. With this slogan, Pangalos was trying to sell a notion of collective responsibility for the debt. He asserted that, since the 1980s, Greeks had ‘got fat’ from government hand-outs, an almost unregulated banking sector that facilitated handsome personal loans, a stock-market boom, lucrative European Union–endorsed business-schemes and the ‘norm’ of corporate kickbacks. It was common knowledge that people in positions of authority ‘ate money’ (fagane lefta), and the culture of the little white envelope stuffed with money was part of everyday life.
In a comparative context, in West Africa fear of hunger and fear of the insatiable appetites of the political business elites are described as ‘twin demons’ (Argenti 2007:110). As Jean-François Bayart (1989) points out, in Cameroon, myriad subtleties of the trope of eating encompass every form of political life, especially the accumulation of wealth by means of crime, graft and corruption. Both Bayart and Nicolas Argenti explore local idioms that construe the belly as the source of power. In Greece, the fakelaki is inextricably linked to money-eating and the insatiable appetites of people in power to ‘get fat’ on the money of the general population (Knight 2015b). Even so, the provision of fakelakia in return for services and in contexts of gifting continues to occupy an important and morally ambiguous place in local imaginings of socio-economic transactions.
- Knight, D. 2015a. History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
- Campbell, J. 1964. Honour, Family and Patronage: A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Argenti, N. 2007. Intestines of the State: Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
- Bayart, J.-F. 1989. L’état en Afrique: La politique du ventre. Paris: Fayard
- Knight, D. 2015b. ‘Wit and Greece’s Economic Crisis: Ironic Slogans, Food and Antiausterity Sentiments,’ American Ethnologist, 42(2):230-246