You may have heard that there were huge protests in Greece over the financial measures, basically pay cuts, that the government put in place to get its finances under control. A minority of the protesters were violent. Someone set fire to a bank, there were staff inside, and three people died.
This must seem like tragic madness to outsiders, and even to many who live in Greece. When societies fail, it’s easy to conclude that people are irrational, that therefore there’s no prospect for improvement, and that imposing a basic plan or order upon them might be a good idea. Let me try and allay these notions.
Greeks are upset about the economic hardship that they now face. In this they are partly justified and partly naive. Greece was never rich, but it lived on borrowed money and immigrant labour for nearly twenty years, so now it feels poorer. Greeks would like the government to do something about their economic situation. Greece has relatively generous employment laws, like Germany, so the labour market and the pace of structural change in the economy are slow (when they are followed). The government is liberalising the labour market and Greeks are reasonably protesting because there’s no link between that concession and any specific growth prospects, and once the concession is made it’ll stay whether or not the economy improves.
What Greeks ought to be protesting even louder, and holding their politicians to discipline over, is failure to develop any strategy for economic growth. Greece has a mentality of economic servitude. There’s supposed to be some focus of wealth — the government, the EU, the abstract concept of tourism — and Greeks are used to attaching themselves to such a source of revenue, preferably for life. That worked, of sorts, when the country was economically insignificant. Now that it’s a reasonably-sized Western economy it has to produce as much as it consumes, and Greeks are incredibly naive not to face up to this reality. Both the public and politicians are arguing about moving the bar of entitlement a small amount up or down, without considering economic realities. A shared concept of economic growth, or the discourse needed to develop it, are absent.
Greece is structured as a strong welfare state, like France or Germany, but large scale industry never developed and aggregate output is way short of entitlement. Since the 1980s Greece has pursued a poor imitation of the American dream, becoming a highly individual, materialist, and power-seeking society. For a small country that’s delusional. Some people would like Greece to become more socialist, like the ex. Yugoslavia or the Nordic countries. It’s also possible that Greece could develop an entrepreneurial high-tech economy like Israel, hopefully without a war. In terms of tradition, family values, and temperament the cultures are quite similar. But the question of growth is not discussed. Only schoolchildren persistently bring it up, and the older generation brushes them aside.
There’s also a second issue. Many Greeks are enraged at their government’s dismal human rights record. That’s something both domestic and international media would prefer to ignore. Greece had a fascist dictatorship as recently as 1973, when it was normal practice for the police to abduct and torture dissidents. There followed forty years of democracy, ultraconservative at first but now similar to the centrist governments of other western states. Crucially, a reconciliation and cleanup process never happened. The first democratic leaders didn’t have the stomach for it, and subsequent ones hoped that the whole issue would be forgotten as affluence and European integration carried the country forward.
For a while it looked like Greek police had become a civilised agency, but the main victims of its abuses were immigrants – mainly informal workers and prostitutes from Eastern Europe. Over the last ten years these countries have found their equilibrium, and those immigrants who are still in Greece either became Greek or at least settled as long-term guest labourers. A small Kurdish minority, which could best be described as refugees from persecution in Turkey, was rounded up and hidden from sight a few months before the 2004 Olympics. Athens has small urban slums of Far-Eastern vendors and labourers and African prostitutes, but these are small areas and whatever the police does to these people is not widely seen. Recently, however, the police has been running out of invisible targets.
Some changes that styled police like a professional force were gradually reversed, and now they look and behave like a barely restrained occupying army. Police troops patrol in fatigues and carry automatic weapons. At demonstrations they hurt people — and not the few who come angry and prepared to fight with the police. Those usually know how to run away. Riot police beat random people, sometimes very young, sometimes old, severely enough to send them to hospital with serious injuries. Police release dogs on demonstrators or charge at them two on a motorcycle, running them over sometimes or the rider striking random people on the head with a steel club. That terror tactic serves its purpose of keeping the more compliant and “decent” people away from demonstrators. It is not picked up by the media.
There are also an increasing number of individual cases of severe abuse or death. Two were so extreme that they shocked the public for months:
- On 6 December 2008 a 15 year old high school student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot by the police after an altercation. The incident sparked days of riots (Wikipedia).
- On 22 December 2008 an immigrant trade union leader at a cleaning firm, Konstantina Kouneva, was attacked with sulphuric acid (a powerful corrosive) and suffered severe burns in her face, eyes, oesophagus, and stomach (Amnesy International UK). This attack was carried out by unknown thugs, but no satisfactory investigation took place despite the obvious appearance of a labour-related terror attack involving a specific firm.
There are more cases that are less celebrated, if that is the word. Greeks see these events come to pass and conclude, correctly, that there is a failure of governance. There is specifically a failure, or rather a callous unwillingness, of those who hold the monopoly of violence to protect the citizens. When Greeks riot, what they are saying is that the police do not have the public mandate to hold the monopoly of violence. One clumsy, visceral way to reclaim it is to riot. Another desperate and misguided way is to attack the police, and there have been isolated attacks and even murders of police by random extremists.
As peaceful people get assaulted at demonstrations, most of those who witness it become fearful and disengaged. A few, however, become radicalised and they show up at the next demonstration eager to fight the police. The same happens when the police fails the public trust, low as it is. A cycle of violence develops, not unlike the kind that persists in occupied territories between disempowered youths and the much more powerful occupying force. That’s how it happens. It may be tragic and senseless but it’s not insane and real governance issues are behind the violence. These issues could potentially admit solutions and need to be brought in the open.