On December 13 2008 I landed at Athens airport after covering an EU summit in Brussels. Never before had I seen so many foreign journalists interested in the Greek delegation's press conference. The French in particular were very concerned: their president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had just stated that what was happening in Greece could spur a movement of youth violence across Europe. The Greek prime minister had been unable or unwilling to explain the events that were unfolding in Athens and the rest of the country in political terms. He spoke of "incidents", "small, fringe groups", "extremism". In his view there was nothing systemic or systematic in what was happening. But to anyone who had been paying attention, the Athens riots of December 2008 had been a catastrophe waiting to happen.
That Saturday night, a week after a boy had been murdered by a police officer, I joined my generation in downtown Athens where the violence was still very much alive. I felt incongruous to the setting and guilty of hypocrisy; I had no personal reason to be revolting, I was privileged; I had a solid international education, a great job and a good salary; I shared little with the people around me. I was having my private little bourgeois uprising and the tear gas, the shoving and the running away from the special forces that had infiltrated our demonstration made me feel alive. There were plenty of others like me, some not passively teary-eyed as I was, but screaming, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. The composition of the group was interesting. There were teenagers, university students, young professionals and the occasional middle-aged former revolutionary who was reminiscing about their own anti-establishment movements 30 years ago.
What was it that made us all take to the streets? What is it that brought more youths out on to the streets at the weekend? Clearly the motivations were varied, regardless of whether they came together under the influence of crowd behavioural psychology. Many cite Greece's leftist, anti-establishment ideological tradition. Others insisted that the December 2008 riots were the aggregation of random discontents. Mob mentality can partly explain the intensity, the violence and the destruction that made those days so dramatic. The abuse of the state's legitimate monopoly over violence, the murder of a citizen by a police officer, was followed by the state's abdication of the very same monopoly – the inability of the police to control and stop the destruction. To some extent, the thousands of demonstrators were originally showing a healthy reflex to an abuse of state power, before some of them turned into rioters abusing the right of a civil society to order. But these explanations only partly explain the upheaval.
If we are to learn something from what happened a year ago, we must delve deeper into the contemporary social equilibrium of what we complacently call "western liberal democracy". In theory, our institutions are robust; a failure in the system should be dealt with peacefully, because the social and political mechanisms in place allow for remedy and recovery without a complete breakdown. The Athens riots showed that our revered social balance, our glorified liberal institutions, are weak, fragile and faulty. This is not an observation peculiar to Greece; Paris has burnt many times too, and other European capitals experience violent uprisings, however short-lived they might be.
The cause of the uprising was the realisation that progress on a collective level no longer seems to be a realistic goal. Young people, however diverse their backgrounds, are moving towards a future that is worse than the one their parents had, and this is a most unnatural prospect. Uncertainty over labour markets, sharpening demographic asymmetries, failures in the provision of welfare and pensions, the prospect of a collapse in social security due to accumulating deficits, tremors in the foundations of capitalism: all are valid reasons for youth discontent. These are not only Greek traits. They are shared among a collection of otherwise very different European countries.
A year on, what some considered a revolution – to the extent that a revolution in a modern democracy is attainable – has changed nothing. The students returned to school or university, the young professionals are back paying their mortgage and credit card bills, the middle-aged former revolutionaries continue to reminisce about the glories of revolutions past. My generation isn't ready to change the system from which it came; we argue with it, we remember the smell of tear gas and the adrenaline rush and we carry on numbly towards an uncertain future. Unless the systemic political, social and economic failures of our precious capitalist democracies are dealt with, we are bound to the very future we complain about. That is why protesters are out on the streets again.
Matina Stevis, a graduate student at the London School of Economics.