Social Unrest, Conflict and Recovery in Europe: The Exarchia District of Athens as the New Face of Urban Europe?

When people are in their own community, they can be quite peaceful. But when they are disenfranchised by the central government and placed in the context of their national existence and identify, they can suddenly turn rather violent. There is a lesson in this for all the governments in Europe and perhaps further abroad as well.

The face and nature of the new urban Europe may be forming now in the Exarchia District of Athens.

How do we know what social unrest will look like in Europe as the downwardly mobile economy continues to disappoint? How will masses of the unemployed rebuild after years of turmoil? What will the youth of Europe do when faced with unemployment running to 50% or more?

syntagma
Syntagma Square, Athens showing a minor police vs crowd confrontation on the 2012 national day. Photos by the author.

Surprisingly, the Exarchia District may hold some clues as to what the future of Europe holds. Being among the first areas to be hit by the economic downturn in Europe, it has the most experience in how you live through an economic collapse.

Last year, I spent a few days in Athens, with most of the time spent in the Exarchia District. This area is known to be the “home” of the rioters who occasionally attack Syntagma Square (Constitution Square) and other iconic symbols of the Greek central government.

I have a strong interest in economic matters and considerable experience in social unrest movements. I had read the usual warnings from foreign embassies to stay away from the dangerous areas of Athens such as the Exarchia District. I was also informed that the Exarchia District is so bad that even the police will not go there, except in riot squads. Worst of all – OMG! – you are warned about violent anarchists.

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A mural in the Exarchia District – much of the artwork on the wall is actually rather well done – and carries a strong message with it.

Lacking as I do the proper amount of reverence for authority, the adventure path headed into the district. However, I did consider myself properly warned and ready to bolt should I run into hostile locals. Much to my surprise, the next two days in the district were spent without so much as a hostile glance from the locals – even though it was clear I was a foreigner.

What can we learn from this experience? Why might this be important for analyzing the new future of Greece and Europe?

  1. Despite the warnings from embassies about the danger, there was not a single incident of violence nor was I threatened in any way. And this was on the day before the Greek national day and military parade in Syntagma Square.
  2. The streets were relatively clean and free of litter. Every available wall space, however, was plastered with protest protesters and murals of every imaginable subject.
  3. I did not see a single credit or debit card reader on a counter for a Visa, American Express or Master Card. All transactions were in cash.
  4. Unlike the area around Omonia Square, it was noticed that there is a vibrant trade occurring in food, electronic goods, services, clothing etc. Very few store fronts were closed, unlike much of the rest of Athens. In Omonia Square, I was approached by local hawkers to buy anything from an I-phone to cocaine. The square and the streets around Omonia Square were filled with destitute people begging for food or money. Much to my shock, I saw few people like that in the district.
  5. There was not a single sign or shop relating to a major international franchise such as Starbucks, Costa, or McDonald’s, unlike the rest of Athens.
  6. Service at the sidewalk cafes on Exarchia Square was friendly and efficient despite language barriers. The food (and beer) was good and under half the cost of the downtown areas.
  7. Not a single police officer was seen for the entire time. It is not clear to me what happens when something does go wrong.

Observations

A new and vibrant sub-culture is being formed in the Exarchia District from the wreckage of the Greek economy. Little solid information exists about what is really happening there beyond anecdotal views such as my own. Clearly, an economy exists, but my best guess is that little of what happens there is captured in the official Greek statistics (which are known to be poor anyway). The cash only economy appears to functioning well based on the number of shops open and the high rate of foot traffic in the restaurants, bars and other businesses.

Urban density in Athens.

Despite its fearsome reputation as the home turf of violent anarchists, there was no visible stress or hostility to foreigners such as myself. This is really difficult to reconcile to the riots in Syntagma Square which can be quite violent.

Conclusions

In much of urban Europe, it is probable that self forming community structures will emerge which are only loosely politically linked to the central authority. This linkage will be primarily though infrastructure such as water and electricity rather than social services and law enforcement. Even the infrastructure links will likely be less centralized than in the past as technology will allows for more efficient localized power production. Less money will be spent on smart phones and more invested in local enterprises.

The population in the urban areas will be less accepting and trusting of central authority and will seek to avoid it. At the same time, the new urban population youth will have lower expectations of the central government and will place less demands on it. Local councils will have more self-awarded powers and will defer less to large city mayors.

The urban community will be able to maintain a standard of living with fewer resources as it will seek to build value in the local community. Products will be bought from local suppliers rather than international ones (i.e. no frozen French fries imported but local potatoes instead). Businesses will be locally owned with no franchises – especially international ones. International franchises such as Starbucks mean that a larger share of every purchase leaves the community. Menus will feature more local, fresh and inexpensive products obtained from shorter supply chains which will mean safer and healthier food.

A cash economy means more value stays in the local community. Every time a credit card or debit card is used, value leaves the local community and goes to large, centralized and international banks. Less money will be kept in banks.

Youth in the traditional 16-29 category will continue to be hard hit. They will have to create their own opportunities in the local area or head to a more rural existence. This will be the toughest part of adapting to the new economy, especially given that the youth now are better educated in academic skills, but less competent in the technical skills of running a small business or managing a food producing property.

And perhaps most importanlty, the behaviour of people may become increasinly contextual. When they are in their own community, they can be quite peaceful. But when they are disenfranchised by the central government and placed in the context of their national existence, they may suddenly turn rather violent. Somewhere in here is a lesson for most of the governments of Europe (and maybe everywhere).

Outlook

This is the future of what economics may look like for the rest of us. Time to start paying closer attention.

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