The feeling on the street is that Greek society is crumbling at the edges

Paul Mason, economics editor of BBC2’s <em>Newsnight</em>, presents an eyewitness report from Athens

You don't have much peripheral vision when your eyes are stinging with tear gas, but something at the edge of mine is bugging me; by the third or fourth baton charge there is definitely something low, yellow, oblong and unusual in the crowd. For a moment I panic: they've unleashed police dogs. But then it hits me that not many police dogs wear anarcho-syndicalist collars and look like Scooby-Doo. It is Loukanikos ("Sausage"), the world-famous Greek riot dog . . .

I've been down at the campsite of the indignados (a word borrowed from the Spanish). At about 9pm, Syntagma Square in central Athens fills up with as many as 3,000 people. They sit cross-legged and draw lots to see who is going to speak, in the agora tradition. They debate, discuss, always politely and without rhetoric; they are beyond that. Their demographic is like a Greek version of Glastonbury: young students; people with nose piercings and tattoos; the young salariat; old professors.

The most interesting thing about the indignados movement is their political make-up. Apart from some leftists and anarchists who have mingled in, they are people who were not active before. They stay studiously aloof from mainstream politics and the media, and are hostile to both. This is challenging, because it represents - here in Greece and in Spain - the latest stage of a process of "active depoliticisation" of the generation that's had enough of the euro crisis. It may be just a phase - or it may be a harbinger of what the developed world is going to look like if the masses part company from politicians who have become too technocratic, characterless and inept.

Acropolis now

On the day of the big riot, Wednesday 15 June, I'm close enough to observe who is doing what. On this occasion, the broad-chested communist and trade-union security squads bellow slogans, link arms, clutch their three-inch-thick clubs and march in a disciplined phalanx away from all the trouble.

It is the youth who make the streets ungov­ernable. At one point, with Loukanikos leaping around joyfully at their head, the protesters try to retake the square, which is littered with the debris of missiles. Everyone by now is masked - the journos, the rioters, the police - and all bystanders have gone, so in the open space there is a weird absence, virtual silence, except for the occasional pop of tear gas or smashing of glass.
Further down the streets are isolated indi­viduals, masked, smashing a piece of marble to make rocks, texting. Some couples are hand in hand, everybody aimlessly ambling in different directions; it's like a Lowry painting but imbued with menace, and the tear gas drifts and drifts, thick cloud of it, the colour of old furniture.

I decide to walk back to the place from where we are editing the Newsnight report. It's an easy decision because there is now no traffic in central Athens.

On one corner after another, there are just groups of young people hanging around, some masked up. Two lads take their shirts off, wrap them around their heads and dance in front of a streetwide fire they've lit on a side street, about 30 yards away from a platoon of riot cops. The cops make slashing attacks into this eerie mayhem. They are gradually breaking it up, restoring fluidity and danger for the rioters, but this is not exactly order.

Listening to messages on my iPhone, I walk accidentally into a Henry Miller novel - transvestite prostitutes hover on the street corner; a drunk slumps slobbering on the floor, his socks removed, his face deathly; a woman hops from foot to foot as if trapped in a video loop, her hair matted, eyes flickering to the demands of some substance; a junkie couple argue in the doorway of a shop. No cops, no ordinary people, no traffic. Silence. A group of African street sellers come by, serene, smiling. There's nobody around to hassle them.

For a few hours, the rioters control central Athens. They don't smash many banks but they do seem to smash the resolve of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Overnight on 15 June, the EU and the IMF agree to remove the conditions on the €12bn that will tide Greece over until September - though not without some wobbling on subsequent days.

On 17 June the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, reshuffles his cabinet. Out go the western-educated technocrats as well as the left-wing opponents of austerity. In come the party fixers and bruisers making "save the nation" speeches. The plan is clear: get a cabinet vote
of confidence, sign up to anything the EU asks for, on the clear, whispered understanding that it will not be implemented. Buy time. Default later, if possible under a government of national unity.

Gone to the dogs

The most worrying thing is the sense that the Greek state - whose reach never extended very deep into civil society - is slowly beginning to become ineffectual at the margins: rising crime, porous borders, the continued wholesale tax evasion and offshoring of wealth, allegations of under-the-counter bribes demanded from the sick in order to get admitted into hospital. Only Loukanikos remains oblivious to these complications, revelling in the chaos and completely immune, it seems, to tear gas.

In the square, everybody wants to kick the media's head in, because they believe we are complicit with the rich elite in ripping off the country. It's a proxy backlash against the entire establishment. Dads stand by approvingly as their sons shine laser pens into the sensors of the TV cameras and into my eyes. "I don't want you to report what's happening here," says an old guy, quite calm and rational as he waves his hand in my face. "It's too late for that."

Paul Mason is economics editor of BBC2's "Newsnight"

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue