On The Greek Revolt

by Mike Davis


I think our societies are supersaturated with unrecognized anger that can suddenly crystallize around a single incident of police abuse or state repression. Although the seeds of revolt have been flagrantly sown, bourgeois society seldom recognizes its own harvest.
In Los Angeles in 1992, for example, every teenager on the streets (or, for that matter, every cop on the beat) knew that Armageddon was coming. The widening fault-lines between inner-city youth and city government should have been visible to even the most naive observer: weekly mass arrests, innumerable police shootings of unarmed kids, indiscriminate profiling of youth of color as gangsters, outrageous double standards of justice, and so on. Yet when the eruption occurred, in the wake of the court verdict that exonerated the police who had almost beat Rodney King to death, the political and media elites reacted as if some secret, unpredictable force had been unleashed from the depths of the earth. The media (mostly flying overhead in helicopters) subsequently attempted to manage the world’s perception of the riot by drastic simplification and stereotyping: black gangs were in the streets burning and looting. In fact, the Rodney King verdict became the nucleus around which very diverse grievances coalesced. Few of thousands arrested were actually gang members and only about one- third were even African-American. The majority were poor immigrants or their children arrested for looting diapers, shoes, and televisions from neighborhood stores. The economy of Los
Angeles was then (as today) in deep recession and the poor Latino neighborhoods west and south of downtown were most affected, but press had never reported on their existential misery, so the “bread riot” dimension of the uprising was largely ignored.
Similarly in Greece today, a “normal” police atrocity finally triggers an eruption which is stereotyped as inexplicable anger and blamed on shadowy anarchists: when, in fact, “low-intensity civil war”  seems to have long characterized the relationship between police and various strata of youth.
I have utterly no qualification to comment on the specificity of Greek conditions, but I have the impression that there are important contrasts with France in 2005. Spatial segregation of immigrant and poor youth seems less extreme than in Paris but job prospects for petty-bourgeois kids are considerably worse: the intersection of these two conditions brings into the streets of Athens a more diverse coalition of students and young unemployed adults. Moreover, they inherit a continuous protest tradition and culture of resistance that is unique in Europe.
What would Greek youth demand? Surely, they perceive with ruthless clarity that the world depression forecloses traditional reforms of the educational system and employment markets. Why would they have any faith in another iteration of PASOK and its broken promises?
But, yes, you’re correct: this is an original species of revolt, prefigured by earlier riots in L.A., London, and Paris, but arising from a new and more profound understanding that the future has been looted in advance. Indeed, what generation in modern history (apart from the sons of Europe in 1914) has ever been so comprehensively betrayed by the patriarchs? I agonize about this question because I have four children and even the youngest understands that their future may be radically different from my past. My “baby-boom” cohort bequeaths to its children a broken world economy, stupefying extremes of social inequality, brutal wars on the imperial frontiers, and an out-of- control planetary climate.
Athens is being widely envisioned as the answer to the question: “After Seattle, then what?”
Recall the anti-WTO demonstrations and the “Battle of Seattle” In 1999, which opened a new era of non-violent protest and grassroots activism. The tremendous popularity of the World Social Forums, the millions-strong turnouts to protest Bush’s invasion of Iraq in
2003, and the widespread support for the Kyoto Accord – all augured enormous hope that an “alter monde” might yet be born. In the event, the war did not end, greenhouse gas emissions soared, and the social forum movement has languished. An entire cycle of protest came to an end just as the Wall Street boiler-room of globalized capitalism exploded, leaving in its wake both more radical problems and new opportunities for radicalism. The revolt in Athens ends the recent drought of anger. Its cadre seems to have little tolerance for hopeful slogans or optimistic solutions? Thus distinguishing themselves from the utopian demands of 1968 or the wishful spirit of 1999. This absence of reform demands (and, thus, any conventional handle for managing the protests), of course, is what is most scandalous, not the Molotov cocktails or broken shop windows. It recalls not so much the student left of the 1960s as the intransigent revolts of underclass anarchism in Montmartre in the 1890s or Barcelona’s “Barrio Chino” during the early 1930s. Some American activists, of course, consider this a renewal of Seattle-style protest, with a temporary quotient of Mediterranean passion. It fits into their Obama-will- bring-change paradigm of understanding the present as a rerun of 1930s and 1960s political reform movements. But other young people I know reject this interpretation out of hand. They identify themselves (as did the fin d’siecle anarchists) as a “doomed generation”  and see in the streets of Athens the appropriate metric for their own rage.
There is a danger, of course, in overstating the importance of an eruption in a specific national setting, but the world has become kindling and Athens is the first spark.

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