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...

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood