What’s Going On in Greece? What does it mean?

These are both interesting if differing perspectives on the rioting in Greece. 

  1. Why Athens is burning“, Stathis N. Kalyvas, International Herald Tribune, 11 December 2008
  2. What’s Going On in Greece?“, Anne Applebaum, Slate, 22 December 2008 — “Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?” 

Even more interesting is that the journalist sees the full dimensions of this more clearly than the political scientist.  Calling this “anarchism” confuses this decline of the state dynamic with the 19th century political movement — political theory unknown to these rioters.  Nor would they care if they knew.


1.  “Why Athens is burning“, Stathis N. Kalyvas, International Herald Tribune, 11 December 2008 — Excerpt:

Athens, along with several other Greek cities, has been burning for the several days. The rioting was triggered by the death of a teenager killed by the police on Saturday night. How to make sense of a reaction that appears to be so massively disproportionate?

… In fact, these riots are a symptom of a deep cultural problem rather than a social one. The rioting youths are not disadvantaged, poor, or even immigrant (as in France). They are, for the most part, regular teenagers, children of the middle class; in fact, the teenager killed by the police lived in one of Athens’s most exclusive suburbs. Why are they, then, reacting in such a way?

After Greece’s transition to democracy in the mid-1970s, a public discourse of resistance against authority emerged and became dominant. Civil disobedience, including violent demonstrations and the destruction of public property, is almost always justified, if not glorified; the police can only be wrong: If they act too harshly they are brutal; if not, incompetent. This discourse has proven to be extremely resistant to time and momentous world events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is promoted in the media. On the one hand, several journalists came of age in the mid 1970s and are openly sympathetic to it. On the other, political entrepreneurs see it as a resource that can be used handily for political or even economic advantage.

As a consequence, all governments since the 1970s have stood by while an anarchist subculture grew, complete with its exclusive urban enclave (the neighborhood of Exarcheia in downtown Athens which is a no man’s land for the police). In regular intervals and on a variety of occasions (e.g. Bill Clinton’s visit to Greece, various educational reforms, etc.), anarchists engage in violent demonstrations and widespread destruction. These are led by a hard core of 500 to 1,000 individuals which has grown in strength since the late 1990s and fantasizes that it is enacting some sort of 19th century social revolution against the bourgeois. Depending on the popularity of the issue they are joined, by hundreds or thousands of others of lesser commitment and varying motivations, from ideology to simple looting, who are nevertheless socialized into this culture.

Undergirding these actions is a more or less complete absence of sanctions – few people get arrested and almost no one gets sentenced. Participation in these riots is seen as a fun and low-risk activity, almost a rite of passage. This attitude of toleration covers a variety of other acts, such as the widespread use of graffiti, which has totally defaced Athens in the past few years.

The police lack a consistent policy. They are regularly harassed by groups of youths – a recurrent activity that is perceived as more or less normal; badly trained and inefficiently led, they are prone to outbursts of brutality. The cycle is vicious.

Greece’s political, cultural, and intellectual leadership has been unwilling to act against this anarchist subculture. In fact, some have fully, and sometimes openly, justified, abetted, and in some instances endorsed it – especially small parties of the left, as well as mainstream left-of-center newspapers.

Clearly, these riots are undermining an already weak government. The opposition Socialist Party is already calling for its resignation. However, this problem won’t fade away with the present government. Opportunities for riots will always present themselves. Addressing this problem requires nothing less than a deep cultural shift at the top.

Stathis N. Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale, is the author of “The Logic of Violence in Civil War.”

2.  “What’s Going On in Greece?“, Anne Applebaum, Slate, “Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?”  Excerpt:

Fires burned in courtyards, shops were looted, and Molotov cocktails whistled through clouds of tear gas. Hundreds of schools and campuses were occupied by students, and riots brought a major European capital to a halt for more than two weeks. The police seemed powerless, the politicians helpless, the media confused.

No, I am not talking about Budapest in 1956 or Paris in 1968. I am talking about Athens over the last two weeks. Since Dec. 6, when Greek police shot and killed a 15-year-old boy, Athens, Thessaloniki, and other Greek cities have been consumed by apparently unstoppable violent demonstrations. Unlike the French riots of 2005, which were mostly led by disaffected immigrants and their descendants, the participants in these Greek riots appear to be middle-class university students. They weren’t smashing up shops in impoverished suburbs, either:  These self-styled anarchists are based in a “bohemian” neighborhood of central Athens called Exarhia and at a nearby university campus whose unused buildings, according to a rather extraordinary Greek law, cannot be entered by the police. So far, the rioters have done some $1.3 billion worth of damage.

There may also be other, more local, explanations for why these riots feel as if they are taking place so far away from mainstream events. Greek political scientist Stathis Kalyvas argues brilliantly {shown above} that they are facilitated by Greece’s unique political culture: In the years since it overthrew military rule, the Greek political class has come to treat civil disobedience, even violent and destructive civil disobedience, as “almost always justified, if not glorified.” Rioting is a “fun and low-risk activity, almost a rite of passage”; the anarchist subculture that thrives in central Athens is “abetted, and in some instances endorsed” by Greece’s left-wing parties and mainstream newspapers.

And yet — even if Greece is unserious, even if anarchist subculture has uniquely deep roots in Athens, even if Greek corruption and youth unemployment are unusually high — it’s a mistake to dismiss these riots as altogether peripheral. If nothing else, they show what can happen to a highly developed, post-ideological society where organized politics no longer interests large groups of people. One sympathizer says the rioters can be divided into three groups: communists, anarchists, and “younger people who like to think that they are anarchists but … don’t know what they stand for. They are the ones who have been looting … they feel the only way to make themselves heard is to do these things.”

Another describesthe anarchist world of Exharia, approvingly, as “a parallel society with parallel values and parallel ideas.” Yet another told a reporter that the tiny shops near the university deserved to be looted because they represent “the corporate machine.” The thinking here isn’t exactly sophisticated:  This is a revolution, among other things, being conducted to the strains of Pink Floyd (“We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”).

Some are also blaming the weakness of Greece’s mainstream social democrats, who, like social democrats elsewhere in Europe, have lately lost ground to the further left and are having trouble attracting young people. But I’m guessing the problem runs even deeper: The fact is that political parties in general are weak everywhere, and democracy is therefore weak, too.

Which isn’t that surprising: After all, we are heading for a global recession, the causes of which may lie far away from Athens—or Paris or Cincinnati—and the solutions to which may not lie in the hands of local Greek, French, or Ohio politicians. Nobody much admires powerless leaders, and nobody much sees the point in voting for people who can’t do anything, anyway.

Hence the riots in Athens and, maybe, elsewhere soon: If you aren’t sure why you are unemployed, if you don’t have the political vocabulary to explain what’s wrong with your country’s economy, and if you don’t have leaders who seem able to fix it, then perhaps random violence seems a plausible response.

Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post and Slate columnist. Her most recent book is Gulag: A History

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

Posts about decline of the State (esp Mexcio):

  1. The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2005
  2. The Rioting in France and the Decline of the State, 8 November 2005
  3. The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld, 12 November 2007
  4. Is Mexico unraveling?, 28 April 2008
  5. “High Stakes South of the Border”, 13 May 2008
  6. “Mexico: On the Road to a Failed State?”, 14 May 2008
  7. Stratfor: the Mexican cartels strike at Phoenix, AZ, 6 July 2008
  8. “Drug cartels ‘threaten’ Mexican democracy”, 24 July 2008
  9. Stratfor reports on Mexico, news ignored by our mainstream media, 19 August 2008

4 thoughts on “What’s Going On in Greece? What does it mean?”

  1. Interesting subject and both very intelligent comments. Unfamiliar with contemporary Greece, I can’t say if they’re omitting or simplifying or overstating something. I heard a slight contradiction between “affluent middle class youth” and “teeneage unemployment. In every respect, it’s hard to believe that Greece, a latecomer to European prosperity and “democracy”, could be a model for trends in the advanced economies like France and Germany’s, or ours. If anything, this free-spirited, contentless anarchism seems like a quaint atavism compared with the locked-down, conformist, cluelessness of the American middle class.

  2. Instead of acknowledging the obvious, we search for esoteric causes(denial).

    An observer of Southern Europe wrote in March(!) 2008:”… we missed the situation in Athen, that is not less dramatic. Power outages(!!!!), the Underground, elevators stop etc. Waste(!!!) doesn’t get disposed. Inflation of 4.4%(yes, only 4.4) makes the Greeks(he means the middle class) go mad…”

  3. Quoth the “sympathiser”: “…They are the ones who have been looting … they feel the only way to make themselves heard is to do these things.”

    Huh. And here I always thought that looting was a way to get stuff. To think that all these years, I have missed the this subtle dialect of the language of political discourse. Gotta go…make myself heard.

  4. There’s no mystery here. I submitted a paper of sorts back in 2008 Q2 – letting a sliver of Bruxelles’ Eurokrats on to what their pending autumn/winter had to offer up – trigger aside. (Heck, all one had to do was buy diapers and feta at any given Athenian grocery while keeping in mind Grecian wage scales. Geez, I fear I’m sounding off like a sociologist sprung out of a Marcusian Frankfurt de la 1970)
    Fabius Maximus replies: This sounds useful, but unclear (i.e., to those of us who know little about modern Greece). Can you explain, or provide a link?

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