Belmont Club

All Greek to me

A number of emails have asked for a post on the Greek situation, of which I personally know little.  I feel a little bit like Casca, who when asked by Cassius in Shakespeare’s play what Cicero had said, answered that “those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me”.

The press has a number of explanations. The Economist says that the riots are merely a symptom of frustration with corruption, maladministration and poverty that has finally reached a boiling point. For example, Greek public health care and education are not all they are cracked up to be:

In health, schooling and other public services, bad state provision fuels a huge under-the-counter market—creating in turn vested interests opposed to any change. Life is tough for youngsters with energy and talent but no cash or connections. To get anywhere, they spend all day in rotten state classrooms, then trek off to private night schools where the same teachers do a slightly better job in return for money.

The Wall Street Journal writes that the Greek government, which is press styles as conservative or pragmatic, is so incompetent it can’t even defend itself. What is worse, pragmatism in Greece has apparently become redefined to mean a total lack of principle. The result is a perfect storm.

When Greece’s conservative New Democracy party came to power in March 2004 it promised three things: to “reinvent” the state, to eliminate corruption and to initiate much-needed educational reform. Four years later, the situation remains unchanged: The state is still a tool for bestowing benefits and favors, corruption in the public sector is still rampant, and all attempts at educational reform have quickly fizzled out. …

What was unique about the events in Greece — as opposed to, say, the riots in the banlieues of Paris a few years ago — was the total withdrawal of the government and the security forces from the scene of the riots. Civil society was left alone and unarmed to fend off the violent attacks on their property by the hordes of predators. On Tuesday night, one of the worst nights of rioting, more than 400 shops were attacked in Athens: Some were torched, others looted and seriously damaged. Similar events happened across the country.

The Daily Telegraph says that while the core of the protesters have come, as is usual in Greece, from the radical left, their often ignored antics have found large quantities of dry tinder lying on the ground so that even they are surprised by what they have touched off, rather like someone who lights a firecracker and finds it has lit off a ton of thermite instead.

True, Greece has a particularly violent radical left. Students have spearheaded anti-globalisation and anti-establishment movements since the 1970s. The university quarter of Athens is often under a police lock-down. Also, the scandal-riddled conservative Greek government has alienated much of population, not only extremists.

But this uproar is unprecedented – even for Greece. It spread rapidly around the country. Rioters have targeted banks, looted stores and burnt cars. The police were caught off guard and have responded with enough violence to fan the flames of discontent. The protest is no longer limited to an anarchist fringe. There is widespread anger at the government.

Though as I have explained, the events are personally Greek to me, I can’t help wondering how much dry tinder is on the ground in some of the weaker European countries whose system of state benefits will come under pressure from the world economic downturn and demography. Low European birthrates have caused an explosion in the proportion of the elderly to the young. Whatever the particular conditions of Greece, a continent in which the proportion of people over 65 is will rise to to 30% by 2050 — up fivefold from 1900 — while the proportion of children below four will fall from 10% to 3% in the same period, is bound to put pressures on the young. When the ratio between children and the old changes fifteenfold (5×3) in a century in a half, then the young are enslaved to the old. But those are just random thoughts. Time will show what the events in Greece mean.

Below, come on baby light my fire.

[youtube 8a2OeWS3G-A]