A Golden Dawn demonstration in Athens, June 27, 2012. (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)
There’s a shadow play going on in Athens, a symbolic political war that also involves real actors and real bombs. The one that went off on Sunday in a suburban shopping mall owned by oligarch Spiros Latsis peppered the front pages of this morning’s papers with shrapnel—“Security cameras show four hooded men”; “Police speak of new terrorist generation”—and made The New York Times : “Bomb Attacks in Greece Raise Fear of Radicalism.” Over the last ten days there have been small explosions outside the homes of pro-government journalists, at banks and local party headquarters and in the building where the brother of the government spokesman lives; someone shot a Kalashnikov into the empty office of the prime minister. So far the only casualty has been people’s sense of security and sanity, the feeling that they can grasp what’s happening around them—but that’s been in intensive care now for some time.
Who’s doing this, and why? The attacks outside journalists’ homes were claimed by an obscure group calling itself the Lovers of Lawlessness/Militant Minority, but that doesn’t tell us much. They could be, as the government says, “far-left anarchists”; they could be, as some on the left say, provocateurs linked to a murky parastate intent on more repression; they could be both at once. But whoever they are, their actions are part of a tightening, an escalation of tension, a narrowing of possibilities, that seems to be gathering speed.
Violence has been simmering for some time in Greece, not just among the young who rioted in Athens in December 2008 but among older people, too. Austerity wears the gentleness out of people’s hearts. At first it was mostly rhetoric. “There are plenty of guns in Athens, plenty of guns, you wait,” an elderly man shouted at me back in 2011. Words became weapons: “They should all be hanged”; “Burn the brothel parliament”; “There’s going to be blood”; “I want Golden Dawn  in parliament to beat the others up.” But from the beginning, there was physical violence too: in the attacks on migrants by Golden Dawn supporters with the connivance of the state; in the beating of peaceful protesters and the wild spraying of tear gas by the riot police; in the rain of stones and Molotovs at every demonstration; in the surge of suicides. You could say that hunger and homelessness in the midst of plenty are a kind of violence, too.
That’s not to say that these things are equivalent, or that one form of violence justifies another, only that violence in itself is nothing new. What is new, perhaps, is violence as spectacle, part of a coded dialogue: security theater against the propaganda of the deed. I’m not sure which of the two I dislike more.
The rash of bombings began after riot police raided two anarchist squats in Athens and arrested the occupants; Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias described the squats as “centres of lawlessness.” The older one, Villa Amalia, had been going for twenty-three years in an old neoclassical building, a crumbling former boys’ school in the center of the city with flaking stucco and a grassy, gap-toothed balustrade. The squatters had put up scaffolding to protect passers-by from falling masonry, and carefully restored one side elevation. A blue sign on the corner, printed to look official, listed the contractor as “The Solidarity Company,” the funding as “Self-Organized,” and the sponsor as “The Organization of Living Buildings.”
Villa Amalia had long been part of the local scene, viewed slightly askance by some but mostly tolerated. The squatters kept the place from becoming a shooting gallery, ran a café and free concerts and a radical printing press. Lately they had taken a more active role: local people told me that “the kids” were their best defense against Golden Dawn vigilantes who were moving into the neighbourhood, terrorizing immigrants and extorting protection money. (Last week two Golden Dawn supporters stabbed to death a young Pakistani man, Shehzad Luqman, in an Athens suburb; his coffin was carried  past City Hall as part of an anti-fascist protest on January 19.) When blackshirts came with clubs to “clear” the nearby square, it was anarchists and other supporters of Villa Amalia who stood their ground against them.
During the raid on Villa Amalia police said they found 1,247 empty beer bottles, sixty-two ball bearings, fourteen flares, one plastic container with flammable liquid in it, one knife, one firework, one folding metal club, one gram of cannabis, twenty staves and four catapults—materiel for mayhem maybe, but not quite a cache for the coming insurrection. In photos, the squat’s interior looked like a teenager’s bedroom on a very bad day, strewn with coffee cups and computer parts. But watching Greek television, one might be forgiven for thinking it hid the pulsing heart of violent revolution.
The show was a good distraction from a vote to enable the new round of austerity measures, and from parliament’s farcical discussions  about whom to prosecute over the government’s handling of the “Lagarde List” of 2,000 Greek depositors in a Swiss bank. It was also a trap for Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, which is pretty much neck and neck with New Democracy in the polls and has repeatedly been accused of supporting street violence (and even blamed, by some, for the rise of Golden Dawn). A Syriza MP put his foot right in it by declaring his anarchist sympathies while sporting a red keffiyah; party leader Alexis Tsipras made the requisite distancing noises. New Democracy’s spokesman, though, did not hesitate to blame “the hoodlums of Syriza” when the first firebombs went off outside journalists’ homes. A slanging match ensued, further denting what little is left of the Greek people’s faith in any of their politicians.
Nor has Public Order minister Dendias felt it necessary to address the most powerful “center of lawlessness,” the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which has infiltrated the police and part of the judiciary, recruits in schools, trains militias, openly advocates civil war and beats people up under the nose of the police, and whose supporters post pictures of their treasured weaponry on Facebook. For the state has two ways to deal with challenges to its monopoly on violence: repression and cooptation. For the left, the Greek state has chosen repression; for the extreme right, tolerance and cooptation. That is its historical pattern and its comfort zone; it’s also what best suits the neoliberal model being imposed in Europe.
The suppression of left-wing protest isn't always violent. Read Allison Kilkenny's take  on the curbside protests of Obama's inauguration.