Monday, July 04, 2011

The Problem of Violence in Greek Society

The images of violence in Syntagma Square are remarkable because they are unremarkable. The speed with which peaceful demonstration turns into violent protest, the transition of a blue sky into a fog of tear gas and fire, where the baton meets the bat, and where stone and molotov cocktail are hurdled against the policeman's shield, who in turn fights back - these images are as tragic as they are familiar. In a country where protest is recurring, the riot police should have practiced itself to perfection by now. It has not.

Yet this is hardly a clash between a citizenry with legitimate grievances and a brutal police force. Besides the incompetent police lives a society with an excessive tolerance towards non-state violence; a society as tolerant of non-state violence as it is intolerant of police violence. It is a society that puts the police in an impossible position: damned if they do and damned if they do not. A society where peaceful demonstration is the exception, not the rule, and a society that condemns extreme violence but that struggles to repudiate those milder, in-between forms of violence.

In a broader sense, this inability to draw lines, to adjudicate gray areas, to separate right from wrong is linked to the fiscal challenge that the country faces. Unease with violence and fiscal indiscipline are both rooted in the weak legitimacy of the Greek state. The Greece that emerged after the 1967-1974 junta had two challenges: it first had to become inclusive and bring into the mainstream the left, the losing side of the civil war. And second it had to dismantle its repressive apparatus, turning the police into an institution tasked with law and order instead of internal control and violent suppression.

The state met its first challenge through extensive and under-funded state spending, countering favoritism with more favoritism, and enlarging the system of patronage that already existed to reach more people. The explosion of Greek debt was born from that political economy, and so was the state's limited but real legitimacy (see here and here).

But while the Greek state spent its way to legitimacy after 1974, the police as an institution did not. It had an uphill battle to be sure and its blunders have not helped. For those on the receiving end of its brutality (and for their sons and daughters) legitimacy would be almost impossible to attain. And in a country where democratic revival came from the heroic resistance against a military regime, the body politic had a clear sense of right and wrong when it came to protestors standing opposite the riot police.

And yet what started as (fair) resentment towards suppression morphed into a vaguer suspicion towards authority and finally into an all-out awe towards resistance. Such currents can be seen in all societies, but in Greece there has been no counter-current. So much of Greek society still inhabits an underdog-loving, resistance-praising, 1960s and 1970s leftistm without the counter-culture of a Reagan or a Thatcher. Over the years, Greece has found sympathy for “Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, Abdullah Öcalan, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic. Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin sell well (though they are rarely really read), as does Noam Chomsky. The November 17 terrorist organization operated with relative popular support for years, and on the anniversary of that event, downtown Athens was burned regularly with impunity.

More tangibly, this was a society that tolerated violence week after week in its stadiums, the most frequent encounter between people and the riot police, and that struggled to cease that violence. Slogans against the police (chiefly the all-encompassing, “μπάτσοι, γουρούνια, δολοφόνοι,” literally, “cops, pigs, murderers”) are recalled on almost every encounter and they perpetuate an image of the police as a repressive force – an image, we should add, that police stupidity often serves to reinforce.

The bottom line is that the police have never been able to create a space for peaceful protest because they could never quell violence in a way that would be perceived by a large part of the body politic as legitimate. Of course, George Papandreou (the current) ordering the riot police into Syntagma is not the same as Papadopoulos or Ioannidis doing so, and while this elementary fact is understood in theory, it is not in practice. A casual read of how people talk about violence, and the word “junta” and “fascism” pop up quite a bit.

How is this linked to the country’s debt? Violence and fiscal indiscipline are two sides of the same coin. The inability to claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is the most obvious manifestation of a weak state, as are lax tax collection or the ability to command popular support without buying that support. What Greece needs is a revival of legitimacy, the ability to move beyond mere patronage in exercising authority – and in that task, a competent police force that can be violent without being illegitimate is essential.

1 comment:

  1. Utterly fascinating. Please keep posting, I am learning so much about Greece.


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