Dr Panayis Panayiotopoulos, Sociologist, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Athens
Greece is probably for the first time since the Military Junta (1967-1974) in the interest of international Media, politicians, researchers in social sciences as a modern society and not as a Balcanic or Mediterranean one.
By the revolt of young people in December 2008, Greece is getting rid of its folkloric tourist and ancient image.
The highly violent revolt spread out in all big cities of the country from the 6th to 12th December raised many societal questions that were pushed away for many decades. The need for a societal questioning can no longer be ignored.
The youth revolt broke out after a serious and without doubt deliberated police “error” when a police officer shot at a group of young people in the centre of Athens and dropped dead a 15 year-old student (his justification in terms of defence only run high the social and Media anger during the whole week). Very fast in the evening, college and university students, leftists and anarchists (a group somewhere between political identity and informal institution of socialisation, anchored in young population since the ‘80s), were informed by mouth-to-ear, sms, facebook et indymedia.gr, to gather in the streets of the capital and other big towns. On Saturday night, the first signs of an extreme violence were about to show up: many parts of the city centre were left in the mercy of the crowd, a dozen of shops were damaged and burned down, and the police (stigmatised by similar acts of violence and in tension with the young population since several years) were absent in the field of action. In this point, we have to note that the Media system had completely underestimated the affair and it kept silent during Saturday night whilst the observers were already capable to predict a protestation wave without precedent.
And that’s what actually happened from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday. The government and the police forces were silent and absent in front of the uprising power of protest. The big cities of the country were risen up. For 48 hours and in particular during the night of Monday 8th the centre of many big cities and mostly this of Athens were “outlaw”. Dozens of buildings were in the mercy of flames, destructions and thieves. During Monday, hundreds of police stations everywhere in the country were attacked by tempered young people (these attacks were carried out by college students of the same age as the victim). Faced to this revolt, the government took refuge in calling for cohesion and social responsibility without being able to calm down the spirits or to suppress the rage. The political parties of the opposition seemed absolutely disconcerted by the massive rising of a violent crowd that took possession of the city for many days, without ever expressing precise political claims. Greece found itself in a whirl of violence and anti-violence without precedent that exceeded not only the police forces but the anarchist movement as well (despite its presence in violent acts).
What is totally new in this phenomenon of urban violence, besides its expansion in the Greek territory, is the mistrust of police authorities and the negligence of the consequences of violent acts, the huge presence of young collegians coming not from popular or excluded classes but from different stratums of the Greek middle- class. Children from the economic expansion of the last 35 years, heirs of a consuming democracy. (They were not all alone in this revolt: anarchist groups, leftists, an important number of Greeks who lost social privileges and migrants – treated today as scapegoats - were also mixed in the violent crowd).
It is obviously impossible for the time being to analyse in systematic way the social causes of such an explosion in some lines , which is also an explosion of sense and speeches (both fragmented and clumsy) of protagonists, without the support of a bibliography on violence, on structures and the everyday life of the middle- class and finally on the questions linked to subjectivation in Greece.
However, we can give some sociological keys in order to approach the phenomenon.
- This revolt has no political aspiration, in any sense of the term. It is spread by violence, which forms its primary identity and it reminds by many ways the urban violence already experienced in developed countries with cruel assassinations-errors committed by the police (L.A., France). The only leitmotiv to be recognised was indeed an adversity both in the police (at loss of their professional identity and hidden behind their notorious history) and in the “system”. It is the case of a non-conflict; that means two things: firstly, that there was no way that the protagonists would moderate violence and secondly, that they would not commit themselves in a process of control or construction of identity.
- This revolt takes place in the political conjunction of legitimacy crisis of the party in power (real estate affairs, general corruption, crisis of public revenues etc.) and of an opposition incapable to emerge as an alternative power. The harassment of moral foundations of the political system since many years is already a factor of social freezing.
- Social bounds are less and less tight, in spite of the economical progress of the last decades and the integration of the country in the Eurozone. The consuming individualism with its new liberties and limits are badly handled by an economy that still depends on state-controlled structures. A State on the strings of clientelism, whose historical tendency to hire people seems more and more impossible to be tolerated.
- In general, the experiences of individuals of a vast middle-class do no longer correspond to economic structures and social institutions that remain archaic. At this period of economic and political crisis, the tension of the society becomes extremely high in the sense that it creates ambiguity, insecurity and it takes away the subjectivity of individuals. The loss of sense, the difficulty of setting up (trans)individual projects, the freezing of social ascension movements, historically deeply identified to the Greek middle-class, form the frame of an intense identity crisis.
- This tension between ultramodern experiences of individuals and archaic structures gives rise to disjunctions for individuals and their biography. A circle of life that extends youth to 30 years-old which is stilled focused on a moral liberty that has nothing to do with ultramodern practices and on a marital maturity connected with traditional structures. Greece has a very important ratio of marriages (fast marriages that are usually preceded by engagements) and divorces and a very low percentage of non-marital unions.
- The maternal touch in family governance, the liberalisation and afterwards the subdivision of school system, in parallel with the obligatory passage from private courses to access to Universities create tensions in the age class of protesters. The suffering inside these families which stand somewhere between pre-modern systems of reproduction (role of grandparents, religious stereotypes, little family enterprises, political clientelism) and ultramodern practices are few of the limits that extend the process from a subject to an actor. The infantilisation of parental, educational and social instructions to youth is in contrast with the cultural stereotypes of the social fabric. A year ago, the “moral panic” caused by Emotional Kids (EMO) and their practices of community subjectivation (bisexuality, corporal modifications, holiness of nervous depression) witness the tension.
- Greek society preserves an ambiguous relation with violence. This has to do with a pacified society focused on the consumerist well-being, which at the same time conserves a residual violence in the social imaginary. The forms of individualism, management of technologic dangers and the respect of social responsibility vis-à-vis people, these same forms that call for humanitarian ethics in a “society of risk” can not be established in sustainable way. Radical political left forces continue to see in violence signs of authenticity, a stable focal point of romantic ideology and Greek nationalism. For the last five years we have seen an increase of “political violence”, at Universities and in the surroundings of the anarchist movement, that was never firmly condemned or penalised by the political and public authorities. In the meantime, the police, under the government of Costas Caramanlis, repressed the movement of students as well as multiple youth protests in the name of rule of law. Migration was also badly handled by the police. Besides the identity recess of the police in regard to their historically authoritarian face, the fact that both government and Greek society have functioned with no compassion in front of the death of more than 45 people in the forest fires in the summer of 2007, contributes to the establishment of a culture of catastrophe and tolerance of violence.
A society in crisis of modernisation, a blocked middle-class, a political system that looses its legitimacy, a national culture stressed by globalisation, a democracy hung up on national collective mythology and indulgent with violence, a strong tension between ultra modernity and archaism that doesn’t leave much space to the subject, are some traces of the Greek society that can be served as keys of analysis for the revolt of December 2008.
The “relative frustration” of a fragile middle-class and the looseness of social bounds that are not compensated by other tools of socialisation (political projects, associative work etc.) can be used as explicative patterns for a suffering that turns into anger and later on into force of destruction.
However, these patterns are not enough to support a classical “sociological explication”. All these ways of being, the forms of individualisation, the patterns of transindividual life, the microsociology of the family, the biographic breaks but also the gaps of social, institutional and economic modernisation are few parameters that we mention with moderation so as to understand the cruel aspects of this revolt.