What's the matter with Greece?

Since rioting broke out in Athens and many other Greek cities earlier this month, several colleagues have approached me seeking to understand what lay behind the extreme violence. It is not easy to come up with a rational explanation for the decidedly irrational activities in the country. But if we are to avoid the trite explanations that have been offered thus far, we will have to strip away the shallow interpretations of the facts and get at the unvarnished truth about the ugliness of anarchy. Then we can make good progress in understanding how mobs of youths could be mobilized to continue a campaign of destruction in an advanced and wealthy European country, which even draws migrants from less well off countries the world over.

First the facts. Over the weekend of December 6th a group of self-styled anarchist youth decided to confront a police patrol car in the Exarcheia neighbourhood of Athens, known as a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes, anarchist groups, and students seeking low-cost accommodation. As the mob pelted police with bottles and rocks, one of the officers fired what he says was a warning shot. A ballistics report indicates the bullet ricocheted off a wall, and hit 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos in the chest. He died en route to hospital. Since then, both police officers involved have been arrested. One has been charged with murder, the other as an accomplice. The reaction to all this in the Exarcheia neighbourhood and elsewhere in Greece has been violence and looting aimed at private businesses, banks, police stations, and government institutions that has lasted more than a week. Dozens have been injured. Property and economic damage will reach into the billions of dollars.

Various commentators have offered to explain the violence in Greece in ways that truly fail to grasp its root causes. Some suggest dissatisfaction with government corruption. Labour unions have pointed to poor job prospects and disappointment with the educational system. The BBC’s Michael Brabant in Athens even suggested that the voting public feels alienated by the policies of conservative Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis. Such explanations are offered and believed mainly by academic type commentators who breathe each other’s air and avoid any rationale that involves individuals taking personal responsibility for their behaviour and the practical outworking of their political philosophy.

The truest explanation is much simpler than looking for the type of causes you may learn about in a sociology or political science textbook. In the last generation, Greece has seen much worse economic conditions, higher unemployment, less organised universities, and considerably worse corruption. Yet, none of those factors led to the type and extent of rioting that broke out earlier this month. There is something else at work. Anarchy, by definition, is the absence of authority. And it is that reaction to authority, and the attempt to revolt against it, which is what we are witnessing in Greece today.

In many ways, the ugly riots are the results of social breakdown. Today’s anarchists in the country are wedded to a life of untrammelled freedom that is aided and abetted by the state of the modern family and the national educational system. Greece is living through an alarming increase in family break-up that typically leads to less discipline of children and higher tolerance for anti-social behaviour.

Professors Vasiliki Georgadou, Nikos Demertzis, Persephone Zeri, Elias Katsoulis, Thomas Koniavitis, Thanos Lipovats, and Pantelis Basakos wrote on the subject in Greece’s Kathimerini Newspaper on Sunday, 14 December, 2008. They say, “The educational system is tossed about and falters at all levels, while young people usually don’t learn about the limits of personal desire and ecological behaviour from their parents or their teachers. So, they consider that everything is permissible and that all things belong to them.” In layman’s terms, spoiled children who need not worry about any unmet physical need are too often drawn to the extreme hooliganism and permissiveness that marks today’s “anarchist” movement.

But perhaps John Sitilides from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington D.C. has made the most insightful observation about the root causes of this violence. "Official restraints on forceful police actions are exploited by violent anarchists to continue rioting with impunity," Sitilides told the Los Angeles Times. "Many university students are inculcated with an anti-Western, anti-capitalist mind-set that views police as unworthy of respect, and where politicians are wary of the slightest comparisons to the hated dictatorship that brutalized many young Greeks."

There is great wisdom in Stilides words. And they are backed up by the experience of others involved in the Greek post-secondary educational system. Retired economics professor Stratos Dalakas points out that the greatest official restraint on police actions to reign in roving youth mobs in Athens and elsewhere is the constitutional principle of academic asylum. Greek police have not been allowed on university campuses since 1973 when the country’s dictatorship fell shortly after a police crackdown on student activists at the Athens Polytechnic University. That principle, Dalakas points out, “has become an abused privilege” since that time. While allowing freedom for student activism, it now also provides shelter for criminal elements and hooligans who perpetrate violence. They can freely commit violence in Athens’ Exarcheia neighbourhood, then retreat to the safety of a university campus. Despite repeated government attempts to restrict academic asylum, all such efforts have failed.

Those are the conditions that breed the type of violence we’ve seen in Greece. While it is tempting to explain the riots as the result of deep unrest and a struggle for social justice, the truth is much less glamourous. Though less alluring, that understanding of the facts is the first step toward bringing the violence to an end. But more than that, it will take bold leadership to finally bring the anarchist element to heel. A full solution requires parents to regain control of their families, citizens to recapture the educational system, and governments to recover the power to enforce the law.

Daniel Proussalidis is a journalist and broadcaster in Ottawa, Canada.

Photo credit: murplejne @ Flickr under Creative Commons Licence Agreement


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