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Analysis Last Updated: Dec 17th, 2008 - 01:50:28

Greece�s riots reveal the signs of a society in the throes of decomposition
By Chronis Polychroniou
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Dec 17, 2008, 00:17

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The killing on the night of December 6 of a 15-year-old schoolboy by an armed special patrol officer on duty in Exarchia, the bohemian district of downtown Athens and a home base of various self-styled anarchist groups, was the spark that produced the spontaneous and unprecedented in scale student mobilizations and the riots that immediately followed and engulfed in flames part of the city of Athens and many other cities throughout Greece, leaving in their wake a rather conservative society in a state of shock and the political establishment in complete disarray.

What really lies behind the demonstrations is the deep-seated frustration on the part of the nation�s youth over a social system structured in a way that caters almost exclusively to the interests of the rich and powerful, unrestrained anguish over the direction of the country in the hands of a most corrupt and incompetent neoliberal government headed by Prime Minister and New Democracy party leader Costas Karamanlis (the latest government scandal involves illegal public land swapping with a powerful monastery on Mount Athos, with senior ministers having allegedly pocketed money out of this deal) and whose social agenda consists of dismantling public education and social services and privatizing at the same time major and even profitable public enterprises in the name of neoliberal market efficiency, and unaddressed fears about the future. Other elements are also at work, especially when it comes to assessing the riots which bear distinct elements of hooligan-related violence and are in no way linked to the student movement, but they merely reinforce the conditions of social malaise and decomposition that prevail today in Greece.

For starters, Greece has the highest youth unemployment rate in the European Union, hovering between 28-29 percent, with its young people being dependent on their parents way past their adolescent years. To be sure, it is common in Greece, given the state of the job market and that of wage structures (700 euros is considered to be the average monthly salary for the new generation of the labor force), for young people to live at home with their parents even though they are in their late 20s, 30s or even 40s. So much for one�s self-esteem living in a society that carries to great lengths the illusion that it is a developed Western European society.

The high unemployment youth rate occurs against the background of a family culture which views education as a means of social and economic mobility and with parents willing to make great financial sacrifices in order to help their sons and daughters gain a competitive edge in the job market. Thus, the provision of private educational services in Greece is a booming business while the system of public education lays in ruins and constitutes the social site through which generation after generation of students gets initiated into political activism, which frequently involves converting the school and the university campus into occupied territories for symbolic resistance against the system.

Further, Greece has a grim legacy of state administrative authoritarianism and police brutality which not only haven�t been eradicated but, on the contrary, are recreated, manifested and reconstituted whenever the social conditions are unfavourable to the imposition of unpopular economic and social policies. Civil servants in all agencies, lacking training and professional skills, often display arrogance and a form of power that both alienates and angers the citizenry. This is especially the case with the police force which often resorts to brute force against students, immigrants and various other marginalized elements in Greek society. In the eyes of the youth, the police are regarded as the personification of structural state violence even if in pure technocratic terms the Greek police officers tend to be, more than anything else, untrained, unskilled, and underpaid public officers, moonlighting in order to make ends meet, and, like most civil servants in Greece, devoid of a sense of a duty towards the public interest.

In this surrealistic social and cultural environment, provoking the police is a game of sorts for many of the self-styled anarchists who are largely responsible for the fires and the destruction of property that follows whenever public demonstrations take place. Neofascist groups, which often act as a phalanx of the riot police in clashes with leftist groups, also occupy a central if shadowy role in the dramas that unfold in the streets of Athens, making the capital resemble, at times, a civil war zone.

The ongoing student demonstrations and riots in Greece that have captured public imagination around the world reflect the condition of a country in deep political, social, economic and cultural crisis -- a consequence of serious malfunctions in Greek polity and social culture -- -and represent only a small segment of public discontent directed towards a corrupt and incompetent group of neoliberal politicos who use power and state resources for personal gain and against a social system which has extinguished hope for the future and relies increasingly now on state violence in order to suppress civil disobedience.

Of course, the story of neoliberal measures and social discontent is not unique to Greece. In the context of the current global economic crisis, one should not be surprised to see similar developments elsewhere, including other parts of Europe. So to paraphrase the catch title about Greece�s mayhem in a recent issue of The Economist, �beware. . . . of the youth bearing petrol bombs.�

Chronis Polychroniou is an author and columnist who writes frequently on contemporary global, political, social, economic and cultural affairs.

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