Why Athens is burning

Athens, along with several other Greek cities, has been burning for the several days. The rioting was triggered by the death of a teenager killed by the police on Saturday night. How to make sense of a reaction that appears to be so massively disproportionate?

Several observers have pointed to the usual suspects: maladministration and corruption; the collapse of confidence in the government; political scandals; a growing gap between the rich and the poor.

These arguments are wanting: Greece is hardly exceptional in terms of its problems, yet rioting and destruction on such scale are unusual in Europe.

In fact, these riots are a symptom of a deep cultural problem rather than a social one. The rioting youths are not disadvantaged, poor, or even immigrant (as in France). They are, for the most part, regular teenagers, children of the middle class; in fact, the teenager killed by the police lived in one of Athens's most exclusive suburbs. Why are they, then, reacting in such a way?

After Greece's transition to democracy in the mid-1970s, a public discourse of resistance against authority emerged and became dominant. Civil disobedience, including violent demonstrations and the destruction of public property, is almost always justified, if not glorified; the police can only be wrong: If they act too harshly they are brutal; if not, incompetent. This discourse has proven to be extremely resistant to time and momentous world events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is promoted in the media. On the one hand, several journalists came of age in the mid 1970s and are openly sympathetic to it. On the other, political entrepreneurs see it as a resource that can be used handily for political or even economic advantage.

As a consequence, all governments since the 1970s have stood by while an anarchist subculture grew, complete with its exclusive urban enclave (the neighborhood of Exarcheia in downtown Athens which is a no man's land for the police). In regular intervals and on a variety of occasions (e.g. Bill Clinton's visit to Greece, various educational reforms, etc.), anarchists engage in violent demonstrations and widespread destruction. These are led by a hard core of 500 to 1,000 individuals which has grown in strength since the late 1990s and fantasizes that it is enacting some sort of 19th century social revolution against the bourgeois. Depending on the popularity of the issue they are joined, by hundreds or thousands of others of lesser commitment and varying motivations, from ideology to simple looting, who are nevertheless socialized into this culture.

Undergirding these actions is a more or less complete absence of sanctions - few people get arrested and almost no one gets sentenced. Participation in these riots is seen as a fun and low-risk activity, almost a rite of passage. This attitude of toleration covers a variety of other acts, such as the widespread use of graffiti, which has totally defaced Athens in the past few years.

The police lack a consistent policy. They are regularly harassed by groups of youths - a recurrent activity that is perceived as more or less normal; badly trained and inefficiently led, they are prone to outbursts of brutality. The cycle is vicious.

Greece's political, cultural, and intellectual leadership has been unwilling to act against this anarchist subculture. In fact, some have fully, and sometimes openly, justified, abetted, and in some instances endorsed it - especially small parties of the left, as well as mainstream left-of-center newspapers.

Clearly, these riots are undermining an already weak government. The opposition Socialist Party is already calling for its resignation. However, this problem won't fade away with the present government. Opportunities for riots will always present themselves. Addressing this problem requires nothing less than a deep cultural shift at the top.

Stathis N. Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale and the author of The Logic of Violence in Civil War.