Happy New Fear

Sick of a corrupt political elite, young Greeks continue to take to the streets. Their words of rage

If painted slogans could tell the story of a city, then, at present, that city would be Athens. Like most things in the Greek capital, graffiti arrived late. But when it did come, it erupted with a vengeance, leaping from street corner to street corner and pillar to pillar, exhorting anyone whose eyes might skim it to “fuck authority” and “bring down the system” and “kill the rich”.

This was long before early December, when Epaminondas Korkoneas, a special guard seconded to the police, allegedly shot dead Alexis Grigoropoulos, a tousle-haired teenager, plunging Greece into an orgy of violence not seen since the collapse of military rule in 1974. And long before thousands of rock-throwing students and schoolchildren took to the streets in protest.

But like so many others, I failed to see the warning signs, to read the writing on the walls. Now words of rage are everywhere, splashed across buildings, banners, hoardings and road signs. In squares, streets and boulevards, passers-by are told that "Athens is burning", that "Cops are murderers and pigs", and urged to "Remember, remember 6 December", the day young Grigoropoulos died from a bullet to his chest, the day "the uprising was born". Self-styled anarchists have sprayed one word across the four pillars of Athens University's ornate neoclassical façade: XAOS (chaos).

On 5 January, gunmen pumped 40 bullets into a 21-year-old policeman standing guard outside the culture ministry - a brazen attack, conducted in broad daylight, that has fuelled fears of a resurgence of domestic terrorism. Four days later, when Eastern Orthodox Christians had barely celebrated Epiphany, thousands of student protesters again took to the streets. Fresh clashes erupted between Molotov cocktail-wielding youths and police and, in a sign of the union unrest also gathering pace, farmers erected roadblocks on highways nationwide.

On 12 January, as anti-terror police intensified their hunt for those who had attacked the police guard a week earlier, Pericles Panagopoulos, a prominent Greek shipping tycoon, was also targeted by gunmen. He was abducted with his driver - who was later released unharmed - as he travelled to his office along the Athenian Riviera. A ransom of ?40m has reportedly been demanded.

The euphoria that enveloped Athens during the 2004 Olympic Games seems a long way away. Pessimism, like the acrid tear gas that has become so commonplace, hangs heavily in the air. For politicians, who have been left speechless by the intensity of the protests, the destruction they have wreaked and the discontent they have exposed, the new year could not have begun more ominously.

At no time in the past two decades of reporting from Greece have I encountered such despondency. The shooting of 15-year-old Grigoropoulos ignited the wrath of a nation that has never had much time for the police, but it was also the flame that lit the inferno. The country is a tinderbox. Its state apparatus, institutions and political and ecclesiastical elite - ossified and corrupt, archaic and scandal-ridden - no longer inspire confidence or trust.

As I write, workers are planning yet more mass strikes over fiscal policies that have brought many to their knees; far-left groups are readying for rallies; children are moving to take over schools; university students are announcing sit-ins, and employees are occupying factories. And the global financial and economic crisis hasn't reached these parts yet: Greeks know that with their public sector labouring under unprecedented debt, and their economy so dependent on tourism, things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better.

The ruling conservatives, already clinging to power with a parliamentary majority of one, also know this, because they understand that the young and disenfranchised - those behind the protests - have nothing to lose.

The generations who worked to re-establish democracy after civil war, decades of authoritarian right-wing rule and, in 1974, the end of military dictatorship, had dreams for a better Greece. In many ways these dreams have been shattered. But younger Greeks, who have seen their parents exhaust themselves to educate them, who have laboured through private language schools and college education and are now finding themselves jobless and struggling to make ends meet, aren't going to give up so easily.

"All my life I have only known scandals and corruption with nobody ever paying the price," 25-year-old Fotini Papadopoulos told me as we marched together through the centre of Athens. "It's sickening. My parents own a kiosk in a rural town. My mother wasn't allowed to go to college because her father said it would turn her into a slut, so I worked hard to go to university, to study psychology, to fulfil her dreams. Now, without connections, I have no chance of getting a decent job. Please write that it's people like me who personify what is going on here."

In the absence of any credible alternatives in a political system that appears increasingly blocked, young Greeks say the street is the only place where they can "fight and be heard".

Whether their protests will morph into an organised movement of civil unrest is anyone's guess. What is certain is that Greece's children have been surprised by their own runaway success. "We won't sit quietly," says another slogan. "Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear."

Helena Smith is the Guardian's Athens correspondent

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain