Through the broken mirror

By Nikos Konstandaras

The shocking scenes on Syntagma Square last Thursday, where young Greeks tried to pulverize and burn fellow Greeks, showed in the most tragic way how much we have undermined our institutions and how far our society is in danger of regressing. Watching bodies fall under the weight of blows and kicks from the rival swarm, with murderous pieces of marble and Molotov cocktails raining on the crowd, we saw once again how the collapse of institutions helped lead to today?s crisis, and how, in this chaos, our only hope is a return to institutions and their reinforcement.

Wherever we look we note the absence of state structures and institutions. The absence of police from the battle between rival groups of citizens on Thursday showed just how important it is to have specially trained officers controlling demonstrations; the garbage piling up in our streets highlights the responsibilities that municipalities will not shoulder; a strike by judges underlines the incompetence of previous years, when their shortcomings created a sense of selective justice. Everywhere we see evidence that we simply pretended to live in a civil society, while corruption, nepotism and indifference resulted in our confusing democracy with a lack of accountability, and our confusing the pursuit of benefits with a parasitic feeding off the rest of society.

For things to change we must change our mentality. When the crisis began, many hoped that the new, widespread deprivation and insecurity would bring us together, that there would at last be a rapprochement between different groups in society. Unfortunately, things got worse at every level -- from the impassioned clashes of our political parties to the vengefulness of an IKA social security fund employee toward a helpless pensioner. Our common fate has not united us (not yet, at any rate). Maybe this will be achieved by the frightening social regression which today seems inevitable -- not only through the loss of privileges that accumulated over the years but because we seem to find the illusion of comfort in the past, in the furious rejection of today and tomorrow.

Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos says that our incomes will go back to 2004 levels. That sounds optimistic: as a society, we are in danger of being trapped in the period 1973-74, the years that saw the end of the seven-year right-wing dictatorship and which shaped the following years as no others. In the sit-ins at schools and ministries, in the countless displays of civil disobedience and lawlessness, on the Internet and in city squares, we see people reliving the tactics that were used against the dictatorship, in full-frontal clashes, with no spirit of compromise. It is as if we are compelled to repeat an era that we have idealized.

The founding myth of Greece?s Third Democracy comprises students, workers and intellectuals working together to bring down the right-wing, foreign-backed junta. It is too good to avoid repeating, over and over, irrespective of whether today?s target is a democratically elected government. Perhaps it is inevitable that we should keep doing this, seeing as -- 37 years after the dictatorship?s fall -- our society has not managed to adapt to the new world, to create functional structures and forms of behavior that are more democratic than always trying to impose our will on the rest of society. We tolerated the crimes of others as an excuse for our own (real or potential), until we reached a point where we did not know our own powers and responsibilities, nor the powers and responsibilities of our institutions.

This climate nurtured the aggression of all types of criminality (including that of hooded, self-proclaimed anarchists) and the illusion of each organized group?s omnipotence as it pursues benefits or tries to defend its interests. We all grew up fighting a non-existent state -- one that would not fight back. Now we see that we are nothing but small units lost in a hollow shell, after decades of undermining the state whose help we now need. We kept going into battle against the state in the sure knowledge that we would win, that we would get what we wanted. Now we learn to live with defeat.

Narcissus stares at himself in a broken mirror.