What’s Going On in Greece?

Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?

An Athens anarchist throws a stone at riot police

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.

Not, I’m guessing, that you’ve read all that much about them. Certainly the riots’ relative absence from European and North American front pages proves that—the rhetoric of European unity aside—not all European countries are taken equally seriously. Although they are members of the European Union, the Greeks’ major contribution to European foreign policy is their stubborn insistence (for reasons truly too complex to repeat here) on blocking international recognition of the Republic of Macedonia unless it changes its name to FYROM—the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—an acronym that everybody else finds laughable. On the domestic front, the Greeks are best known for having faked the economic data they needed in order to join the euro currency.

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 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 describes the 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.