We went to where it all started. Messologiou Street, in the Exarchia district of Athens, is a pedestrian alley with a few bars and a few trees. Dozens of young people sat around, some on the ground, drinking beer from 50cl bottles bought at the corner shop (where it’s cheaper). The walls were covered in posters, graffiti tags and yet more posters. Everywhere, there were photos of a boy with an angelic face: Alexandros (“Alexis”) Grigoropoulos, 15, killed by a policeman on 6 December 2008. “It was just there,” a group of youths told us, pointing out a black marble plaque. Did they take part in the demonstrations that followed, several of which turned into riots? “Of course!” they replied. “It was incredible. We were really sad about Alexis, and we were really angry, too. We wanted to smash everything.” Our question was absurd in this neighborhood ? everyone was involved in those December days (and nights) of fires, smashed shops and tear gas.
Exarchia has been described as a hotbed of anarchy, a junkie hangout and a haven for troublemakers. In fact, it’s a maze of charming alleys lined with restaurants, bars, bookstores and craftsmen’s workshops. There were many artists, students and faculty from the nearby universities ? and large numbers of police: hefty young men in shin guards and helmets, carrying pistols, batons and gas masks. “I love Exarchia,” said Christos Papoutsis, Greece’s socialist Minister of Citizen Protection. “Unfortunately, if we didn’t have all those police, the local population would revolt and start smashing windows and throwing Molotov cocktails.” Petros, a local resident, disagreed: “That’s nonsense. Nobody wants to destroy shops. The police are here to cordon off the area and reassure the middle class that they are keeping an eye on the so-called troublemakers.” Exarchia is only one street away from Kolonaki, the smartest part of central Athens. In December 2008 the demonstrators crossed Asklipiou Street and attacked the expensive boutiques of Kolonaki. Since then, it has been full of police. (Responsible for the police, the Ministry of Citizen Protection was formerly known as the Ministry of Public Order. When the socialists changed its name on their return to power in October 2009, their declared aim was to bring about reconciliation between the people and their police. Their next move was to create the Dias, mobile anti-riot units of 20 or so officers on motorcycles (two to each machine: one drives, the other wields his baton), which now patrol the city centre on a permanent basis.)
Is there anything left of the energy the young people of Greece showed in 2008? “Almost nothing ? but quite a lot all the same,” said Vangelis, a member of the Antiexousiastiki Kinsi (Anti-authoritarian Movement), one of Greece’s huge number of anarchist groups. He mentioned “a few collective gardens and a dozen squats” in Athens. Vangelis and his friends run a small building in Themistokleous Street, Exarchia, which houses a bar, a room where they have language classes for immigrants, and another where they have talks on anarchism. Nearby, local people have turned a former car park into a miniature botanical garden, with a refreshment area they run themselves. The junkies who occupied the little square in the centre of Exarchia for many years have been moved on by the residents’ association, with the (sometimes violent) help of anarchist groups. They now vegetate 300 metres away, on Tositsa Street, between the Polytechneio (National Technology University of Athens) and the archaeology museum. The square is once more the centre of Exarchia’s community and its nightlife. All that effort for so little? Vangelis replied: “It gave us hope that we could build our utopias!”
A few hundred metres away, the entrance to the University of Athens school of law, economics and political science was covered with banners saying “Don’t devalue our degrees!” Various student unions had set up tables and were inviting freshmen to join. Alexis Lycoudis is a member of the far-left union EAAK (United Independent Left Movement). In December 2008 he was shouting “Cops, Pigs, Murderers!” in the street, sleeping in the faculty building, which the students had occupied, and taking part in all the meetings. In Le Monde that 18 December, Elise Vincent had said he was “representative of all those young Greeks who take part in the marches.”
A new far-left organization
What has happened since? Alexis replied: “In January 2009 we were a bit depressed. We had wanted to topple the government, and we’d failed. But very soon after that we found ourselves with plenty to do. Students we had never seen before joined the union. People began to fight for themselves through local collectives. December 2008 really helped to give our young people a political education.” In the aftermath, a new organisation was formed ? Antarsya (Anticapitalist Left Cooperation for the Overthrow [of the system – pronounced the same way as antarsia, meaning “revolt” or “rebellion”.], a grouping of 10 small far-left organisations, including Trotskyites. Established to provide a political outlet for urban protest movements, Antarsya won just 0.4 per cent of the vote in the parliamentary elections 10 months later. The other far-left coalition, Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), which is older, saw its share of the vote fall to 4.6 per cent and lost one seat in the Greek parliament. “It’s going to take time,” admitted Alexis. “But we’re moving forward, step by step.”
Then came the Greek economic crisis: 2010 has been filled with strikes and demonstrations, in which the youth of Exarchia have taken part because everyone here is convinced the memorandum Papandreou signed with the IMF and the EU is “a new capitalist trick to make the working class foot the bill for a debt they are not responsible for”, as Christina, an unemployed architect, put it. The demonstrations were not particularly well attended, except on 5 May. “I’d never seen so many people out on the streets ? it was extraordinary!” said Xenia, a social psychologist at Panteion University. “At one point, some people started shouting ‘Burn Parliament!’ And the whole crowd took it up. I’m ashamed to say that I was shouting it, too.” Her friend Maria, a department head at the finance ministry, said: “If those three people hadn’t been killed, I believe we’d be in parliament today.” Three bank employees died in a firebomb attack on their building. Their deaths hit the popular movement hard. The police have been unable to track down those said to be responsible, leaving the field wide open for government conspiracy theories (popular in Greece). The evening of the deaths, a leading political commentator Yannis Pretenderis said on Greece’s Mega TV channel: “That’s what happens when you shout ‘Down with Parliament’ in the street!”
Are the young of Exarchia typical of their generation? Nothing could be less certain. Exarchia attracts journalists ? but it isn’t really Greece, even if its ultra-politicized young and its anarchists can be a major driving force during a crisis.
Every evening, the bars of Psyrri, Monastiraki and Gazi, a few hundred metres north of the Acropolis, fill up with people from the outskirts of Athens. Giorgos, Hara, Panos, Elena, Efthinia, Michalis, Peter and Lalin were all out on the streets in December 2008. Over little glasses of rakomelo (raki with honey and spices, served hot), they explained: “Everyone at my school was there,” said Panos, “so I went, too.” Efthinia, like most of her friends, only took part in the demonstrations for two days: “Just to show that we were there, that we existed. But it didn’t change anything.” Panos, now a student and earning E3.50 an hour from a part-time job as a waiter: “It’s always the same shit. I know I’m not going to get a job. For the last 50 years political power in Greece has been in the hands of just two families (on the right, the Karamanlis family, founders of the ND; on the left, the Papandreou family, founders of Pasok.)You call that democracy?” The person sitting next to him said: “I hate my parents and my grandparents because they voted for that lot!”
Everyone felt the memorandum was “far too complicated”. Even before trying to understand its content, they were convinced that the agreement wouldn’t do anything to change “the corruption that Pasok and the ND have been organising for years” (Pasok: PAnellinio SOcialistiko Kinima – Panhellenic Socialist Movement – ; ND: Nea Demokratia -New Democracy.)
None had taken part in demonstrations during 2010. “It’s become too dangerous,” said Lalin. “And I’m against violence.” Efthinia said: “The unions have all sold out Pasok.” None belonged to an organization. “We have music and we have our friends ? that’s it.”
We are all to blame
A few kilometres north, in the Kipseli district, lies Fokionos Negri Street. It’s lined with caf?s and pubs, but never sees any tourists. Only locals meet here ? the middle class, lower-grade civil servants and tradesmen, and their children. Elena, Dimitris, Panos, Nina, Dzina, Eleni and their friends were having a beer ? “just one, because it’s so expensive” ? while they watched the match between Panathinaikos and Panionios, the two major football clubs in Athens. Most did not take part in the December 2008 demonstrations. “Alexis was killed by accident: why would I go and demonstrate?” asked Dimitris. “The political parties have used his death to attack the government,” said Panos. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with that.” Only Elena admitted having taken part: “But only for one day. Then I saw the violence and I left.” None had taken part in demonstrations against the austerity plan in 2010. “The government and the European Union drew up the plan; what can we do about it?” they asked. One added: “We are all to blame for the debt. Now we’ve got to pay.” Her eyes still glued to the screen (Panathinaikos had just won by 2 goals to 1), Dzina said she was convinced that “the media are working for the government”. The conversation ended with a discussion on immigrants: “There are too many of them; the government should throw them out.”
“It’s true that most of the young people who demonstrated in 2008 didn’t go out on the streets again in 2010,” said Rania Astrinaki, a lecturer in anthropology at Panteion University. “In 2008 they participated in the demonstrations, and even in the violence, on a massive scale, across all social classes, but we still don’t know exactly what their deepest motivations were.” In future, would it be possible for young people and workers to join forces in a single revolt? On paper, the conditions are right. Young people face the same problems as they did in 2008; perhaps worse: degrees have little value, even those who have them can’t find decent jobs when they leave university, prices are rising, the police are still aggressive, the government has just established a new, lower minimum wage for young people and they get less money from their parents, who are also suffering from the austerity measures.
Everywhere, on the windows of closed-down shops and the doors of apartment buildings, were the same yellow Enoikiazetai (To Let) signs. In July, Greek civil servants did not get their usual bonus ? the equivalent of half a month’s pay. Rising prices (petrol now costs more than E1.50 a litre) have traumatised people. In the private sector, companies are going out of business or reviewing their wage agreements. “We can state categorically that 2011 will be a terrible year for Greece,” said Savas Robolis, an economics professor who is also scientific director of the GSEE (General Confederation of Greek Workers, representing private-sector workers) Institute of Labour. “By the end of 2011, real unemployment will pass the 1 million mark, or 20 per cent of the population, as compared with 15.5 per cent in 2009.” Nobody believes the fiscal corrective measures imposed by the government, accompanied by much spirit-crushing propaganda ? “we are all to blame” for the fraud, corruption, debt ? are fair. According to the writer Takis Theodoropoulos: “Not only is the tax system still just as corrupt, but there is collusion, at the highest level, between those in government and a handful of families that have grown rich from working with the state in armaments, communications, maritime transport and energy. These families will never be investigated, yet the authorities continue to pursue ordinary people who are trying to put ?3,000 aside to serve as a fakelaki (a bribe; it is common practice for patients to hand their doctor or surgeon a “little envelope” (fakelaki) stuffed with money to ensure that they get proper treatment.) to their doctor for use in a life-or-death emergency”.
But several major factors are slowing the slide into popular insurrection. Besides their main home, many Greeks own an apartment, which they let out, or a parcel of land. These assets will, for a while, help to soften the impact of the crisis. The extreme fragmentation of the radical left is an obstacle to the emergence of a mass movement: there are as many as 60 political organizations to the left of Pasok. Manos Skoufoglou, a former student of architecture at the Polytechneio and a member of OKDE (Organisation of the Communist Internationalists of Greece), the Greek section of the IVth International, admitted: “Social dissatisfaction may grow, but there is no organization capable of transforming it into political opposition.” Marina, a theatre pianist with anarchist aspirations, said: “In October 2009 I voted for Syriza. But I am disappointed. They never stop slagging each other off. I’m fed up with them.”
The trade union situation also makes for inertia. The Greek movement centres on two federations: the GSEE in the private sector and ADEDY in the public sector. Both are led by influential Pasok executives and don’t want to see the memorandum suppressed. Instead, they claim they are trying to force the government and the IMF to soften the austerity plan, by organising demonstrations and strikes.
Another (particularly Greek) factor is the presence of the KKE (Communist Party of Greece), which still has strong support (9), having won 11 per cent of the vote at the municipal elections in November and is hostile to any alliance with other leftwing forces. Alexandra (“Aleka”) Papariga, secretary-general of the KKE, said: “It would be a criminal betrayal of the workers’ movement if we were to cooperate with the GSEE and ADEDY, especially as they are now doing everything they can to make the workers accept the government’s barbaric measures by promoting the idea that they are unfair but necessary”. (Its relative success is explained by its glorious history of resistance against Nazism, the thousands of members killed in the civil war (1946-49) and its heroic opposition to the regime of the Colonels. Its radical positions ? that members of parliament are corrupt, that Greece should leave the EU and the euro ? have made it attractive to some young people.)
During the big demonstrations, the factions are careful not to mingle: when the GSEE and ADEDY called on their supporters to meet at Omonia Square, the KKE chose Syntagma Square, while the far-left groups congregated on Patission Avenue, not far from the anarchists.
The scale of the anarchist scene, the biggest in Europe after that of Spain, is another feature. Yannis Androulidakis, a member of the anarchist trade union Rossi, told us: “The 2008 riots, in which the anarchists led the violence, produced a boom for the movement, which grew from 5,000 to 10,000 people around Greece.” Advocating “violence against state violence”, the anarchists are seen favorably at all levels of Greek society, (as shown, for example, by the demonstration in support of Simo Seisidi, imprisoned for throwing a petrol bomb at a bus full of police officers, held in Athens on 26 September, in which 5,000 people took part.)
But while some are capable of channelling a popular movement towards revolt, others drive would-be demonstrators away with their violence. Many young people no longer take part in demonstrations “because we are scared of the koukoulofori (hoodies) [who smash shop windows and throw petrol bombs], and the tear gas the police use in response”.
Prognoses for the future of popular protest in Greece vary. The economist Kostas Vergopoulos believes that the social situation in Greece is explosive and little would be required to set off the powder keg. He denounced the IMF plan as “a diabolical spiral, because reducing incomes leads to a fall in consumption, which forces companies out of business, leading to unemployment and a faster decline in incomes”. Takis Theodoropoulos fears “uncontrolled violence, everyone against everyone”. Marina the pianist shared his concern: “I’m really scared that we are going to see a rise in fascism.” Not far from Exarchia, in the Agios Pandeleimonas district, far-right groups attack immigrants in the street every evening.
Angry workers still come on to the streets of Athens every day but have so far failed to find a common voice loud enough to rise above the multitude of claims: those of lorry drivers, fruit and vegetable producers, young doctors who haven’t been paid, employees of the Ministry of Sport, the staff of a publishing house that has gone bust. The government has extended the police presence around the parliament building and in the city centre, which feels like a fortress under siege. According to Sophia, a student from Exarchia: “Papandreou knows that the austerity plan is too much for the people to bear. He wants to scare them and take away their will to demonstrate.”
Translated by Charles Goulden
Pierre Daum is a journalist; Aurel is an illustrator.
This article appears in the December edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.