A battle outside, and it's raging
The old are often surprised by the anger of the young, and the privileged jolted by the suddenly revealed bitterness of the disadvantaged. Just as France was at first amazed and unbelieving as Paris suburbs burned in 2005, so Greece stands open-mouthed as rioting triggered by the death of a schoolboy has ripped through the country’s cities.
The Greek troubles are not, so far, on the French scale. The rights and wrongs of the original incident, in which police fired their weapons after being stoned by a group of young men, have yet to be established. And the balance between genuine protest, radical provocation and sheer hooliganism among the demonstrators is unclear. But the level of the violence suggests that something is seriously amiss in Greece—something going well beyond the relationship between young people and the police.
There is no racial factor here, which there was in France, but it is reasonable to speculate that, as was the case in Paris, the depressed expectations of young men and women in an economy that cannot produce enough jobs even for the well educated, let alone for the less qualified, played a major part in the build-up to this explosion.
Greek students have flooded into other European countries, particularly Britain, in recent years, hoping that an extra language and a foreign degree might give them an edge in the jobs market when they get home. But whether they qualify at home or abroad, it is still hard to get a job, and what jobs there are are mostly badly paid. Ordinary salaries, even for older people well established in their jobs, are not lavish, and provision for pensioners is particularly meagre.
It would be one thing if everyone was suffering equally. But of course there are some people in Greece doing very well indeed, including those with connections to a government with a string of scandals, some of them financial, behind it. A sense of being ruled by complacent ministers presumably helped form the resentful mentality which lies behind the troubles. A strain of anarchism and radicalism that goes back to the years of dictatorship, and before that to the civil war which followed the German occupation, no doubt also contributed.
Greece has moved and changed in recent years in fundamental ways. Largely gone is the old anti-American and anti-European Union feeling which sustained the Greek left, but the old-fashioned conservatism which was its counterpart on the right has survived in the form of the present government. Its democratic credentials are authentic, but it has seemed to lack vision and, with its narrow majority, to have no strategy except one of getting by. It is slipping in the polls against the main opposition party, Pasok, whose fortunes, together with those of its leader, George Papandreou, may well be transformed by the events of the past few days.
The more general lesson of these troubles is that unless governments are more attuned to the difficulties faced by their citizens, and particularly their younger citizens, they may well face similar but much worse times in the future as the recession begins to bite. Greece’s difficulties are not a product of the recession, the major impact of which is yet to come in that country.
But that does not mean they are not a sort of model of what might happen elsewhere if governments go into the recession without a new emphasis on equality. Prosperity reduces the political effects of inequality. High expectations and wide opportunities produce one kind of politics, low expectations and limited opportunities another. Solidarity is the key policy in navigating the dangerous waters ahead.—