by Antonis Vradis, City
The world is watching Greece: hands on smartphones, fingers on shutter buttons breathlessly waiting to capture and tweet the iconic Fall of the Euro…
In the minds of many the images are already there, alive and vivid: locked-up ATMs, angry crowds banging at empty bank building shutters Argentina-style, an overnight return to national currencies and then… then what? The most pressing questions of course lie further ahead, yet our obsession with The Moment, it seems, has obfuscated our collective ability to grasp or even simply try to imagine what these days could look like. More importantly even, it has obfuscated that —as always— the new world is built in the shell of the old. A careful reading of events unfolding on the ground in the country at the present moment can help us trace the possible futures lying ahead of us.
No matter what happens at the national election of June 17, in other words, and regardless of whether the country eventually exits the Eurozone any time in the near future, there are already changes and reconfigurations of state power, sovereignty and the entire social plexus happening yet going largely amiss. To trace these changes would allow us the ability to make a projection or two of a future that is in so many ways already with us; to give a stark warning to those who, carried away by the prospect of a first genuine “Government of the Left” in Europe, fail (or simply choose not) to see the pitfalls of our present and future moment. CITY is the perfect vehicle to do so. Not only because, unusually for an academic journal, it tries to look ahead into our collective futures (see Adrian Atkinson’s excellent series of articles on ‘Cities After Oil’(1), (2), (3) as an example) but also because at the current conjuncture the crisis is coming a full circle: having taken off with domestic, private tragedies embedded deep in the urban terrain (the subprime mortgage crisis in the US, one of the first indicators and predecessors to our present condition) it lands back right in the middle of its public space — and this time with a bang: police-fighting-demonstrators, by now uncountable numbers of buildings set ablaze, ferocious “dog eat dog”-style racist pogroms and every possible combination in-between… Greek cities have become theatres of the repeated social implosions and explosions aptly symbolising a society going through much of the same. The world is watching Greece, just like spectators attend to an ancient drama, some drama unfolding in the veins of cities, their streets. But unless we manage to understand the momentous events that are no longer ahead of, but with us, we risk watching this drama turn into tragedy.
Pack-eat-dog, after dog, after dog
Even the casual spectator would have little of a difficulty sensing that something rather unusual was unfolding in the run-up to Greece’s national election of May 6, 2012. Of course, there was the misery and pain inflicted by near-exactly two years of hard-line austerity programmes. Sure, there was the aftershock of an even more prolonged period in which rioting had become something of a given, a blip in headlines. Or those casually angry conversations on the streets, in buses and street markets; the news of financially-motivated suicides becoming somehow banal. ‘Banal’: not in the sense of the uninteresting or the unimportant, of course, but close to Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ (4)… ‘Banal’: because the repression and despair playing out in the Greek streets are driven by people accepting the premise of their current condition; what was unthinkable has become a given. A perplexing moment, and I dread to say that Kaika is absolutely right when she refers to another famous Arendt quote, adapting it to conclude that “we are currently in a moment that produces meaninglessness” (5). What happens after this moment is the subject of this intervention piece; but in order to begin to conceptualise future possibilities, we need to unwind slightly in time.
A very peculiar feeling lingered in the air of Greek politics in the days leading to May 6: gone were the days of both tangible and wild pre-election promises, glittery TV debates and large crowds cheering party parades. After all, George Papandreou’s infamous ‘there is money’ 2009 election slogan haunted him until what might very well be the dusk of his political career. “As carrots vanish, whips appear”, read a poster in Athens shortly after his government had signed the memorandum of agreement with the troika (IMF/EU/ECB). And truly enough, from those very early post-memorandum days, the Greek state invested in its policing infrastructure, single-handedly the only part of the public sector to see heavy recruitment and wage freezes rather than cuts. Month after month, austerity announcement after announcement, anyone attempting to record a presence in the streets (from “usual suspects” — the anarchists, far Left and so on, all the way to the spectacularly popular movement of the Aganaktismenoi, the Indignados of Syntagma square) was met with the sheer force of police brutality. But it would take another ingredient, aside from sheer shock (by austerity measures) and fear (of police brutality) for the silent majorities to remain so. These majorities had to be stripped off their collectivity, that potentially rabble-rousing feeling. And so the dominant media and political discourse in post-memorandum Greece was hastily built around the doctrine of “everyone against one at a time”. More than “dog-eat-dog”, think here “pack-eat-dog, after dog, after dog”… After the libelling of public sector workers, government and media discourse quickly took on private sector employees one-by-one (ship workers, taxi drivers, pharmacy owners) — and, soon enough, just about everyone.
There was a new type of fear emerging in Greece’s post-memorandum days, then, a type of fear that went beyond the ‘shock doctrine’ and beyond the fear induced by sheer police force, too. A type of fear epitomised in the formation of a social Other — or even, of multiple, successive Others that were to be immediately vilified and torn apart. This formation of individual ‘social Others’ is, in a way, a logical extension (and at the same time, individualisation) of the generalised social crisis linked with the neoliberalisation project in the country, one that was developed since the 1990s (as shown excellently in Dalakoglou 6), culminating at the present moment.
Having traversed this passage from ‘social crisis’ to the ‘social Other’, and having taken out these ‘enemies within’ one by one, the only Other left to turn against by the time of the May 6 election was the largest segment of the population holding little electoral rights — no else, of course, but the country’s migrant population. And so, with weeks left before the electoral crashing of their PASOK party, social-democrat Ministers of Health (Andreas Loverdos) and Citizen Protection (i.e. the police, Michalis Chrisohoidis) led a campaign of scaremongering targeted against migrants who, in the former’s words, comprised a “hygienic bomb” and posed a health threat “to the Greek family” (sic). Here, scaremongering exceeded the level of discourse; it was coupled by a very much concrete, tangible institutionalisation of fear.
There are two vivid examples of this institutionalisation. One, the announcement by Chrisohoidis’s predecessor, Papoutsis, on the Greek state’s intention to build a so-called ‘security fence’ (euphemism for a border wall, an EU first) along the country’s NE Turkish border. The construction of the wall is already under way. Second, Loverdos’ ‘hygiene speak’ was matched by parliamentary decrees ordering compulsory health checks and the issuing of health cards to all migrants entering the country, directly implying these could potentially pose a threat to public health.
Where was this state policy of fear coming from? Why introduce it now? Clientilism as a pillar of the state-subject (citizen) relationship in Greece collapsed; for the first time in the country’s post-dictatorial era, it was impossible for any party to promise its way into to power. Think a welfare state without funds; now think the clientilism of the Greek state as a specific, skewed variant of welfare for Mediterranean climates. And think, finally, what happens when this is gone: when the state is no longer able to offer welfare (as limited as that might be) to its citizen-subjects. A pillar safeguarding the reproduction of the citizen-subject and the perpetuation of its relationship to the state had vanished. Something had to replace it, and replace it fast.
Hello, welfear state
It didn’t take long to find another pillar, that of control through fear, which was epitomised by the complete criminalization of the migrant subject. Government plans for the border wall were quickly followed by the announcement of the construction of migrant detention centres across the Greek territory (one of which is already operating in the Attica region). Add this to everyday ‘scooping’ (so-called ‘broom’) operations across Athens and the pattern emerges: far exceeding the ‘usual’ pre-election anti-migrant rhetoric what has been unfolding in the Greek political territory is the ultimate institutionalisation of racism and fear in state discourse and practice.
But the emergence of this ‘welfear state’ far exceeds the Greek territory, spanning across a European continent that delves deep into a political recession. What is unique and intriguing in the case of the Greek ‘welfear state’ is that this experimental mode of governance has seen this state’s subject-citizens becoming perpetrators and victims, both at the same time.
We can only conceptualise this ostensible paradox with the aid of shifting our national and political scale. Take the national level first, where Greek citizens are taught to fear the too-close Other that has now arrived at their doorstep. New laws, but also new praxis, include institutional and media support for the Nazis of Golden Dawn, a party that had always maintained excellent links with the state mechanism. An entire new plexus of law and practice reigning over everyday life are rolled out supposedly in the name of curbing fear, when they actually create a reign of fear instead: vote ‘institutional’ or risk seeing the country exit the Eurozone (with an additional layer of scaremongering scenarios created for the day that would follow), accept a wage reduction or risk losing your job, refrain from demonstrating or risk being injured, and if you are a migrant/leftist/alternative-looking? Disappear from public view or risk injury… or worse. What the Greek state and its entire plexus of power is engaged with at the moment is not merely the administration of a financial bankruptcy: it is the “administration of fear”(7). “States are tempted to create policies for the orchestration and management of fear”, tells us the perceptive Paul Virilio; fear that now becomes “an environment, a surrounding, a world” (2012: 15).
Now, zoom out at the Eurozone/EU level and you will see that ‘the Greeks’ have themselves become thistoo-close Other: they are the ones inducing the fear induced upon them on the national level. At the exact same time when Papoutsis would close off Greek borders to the Eastern Other, Theresa May boldly proclaims her intention to do the very same for the European Other, the Greeks — should the country’s Eurozone membership cease. It is an astonishing turn of events. If the treatment of Afghanis and Iraqis at the Greek border and in the Greek territory is the geographical expansion of the War on Terror, the treatment of Greeks as the European Other is its absolute culmination. The long-lasting effects of this absurd War on Terror initiated by the 9/11 Event are well documented and analysed (see here CITY 15.3-4and CITY 15.5, both featuring sections on the ten years since 9/11, for some excellent examples). But I dare say that we have moved one step further: from the discourse of Fear induced by the far-away ‘terrorist’ Other post-9/11, we have trickled down to the discourse of a too-close Other: the Enemy Withinthe European fortress. It’s still North against South, but this time round both sides are inside this fortress. This is, truly enough, “neocolonialism in its neoliberal version” and it is happening in “post-colonial Europe”(8). Fear has come back to its European home to roost.
Now zoom in again, only this time bypass the national level, to go straight to the ground. If fear has become an environment, how does this play out on the everyday — or, in other words, what effect do these reconfigurations of power have on politics playing out on the street level?
Beyond and before a government of the Left or Right, the street
In the upcoming repeat elections of June 17, Greek citizens are asked to choose between a leftist, progressive management of the fiscal crisis and its conservative steering. The former, led by the SYRIZA coalition, promises an alternative relationship of the country to its debtors, potentially even denouncing its debt altogether. The latter has seen the country’s conservative political representation crouched around the conservatives of New Democracy (Nea Dimokratia), all ready to face the supposed ‘red menace’ of SYRIZA. For a place that has seen the extremities of a Civil War and the atrocities of a dictatorship all still in a living person’s lifespan it might not be that peculiar to see such level of polarisation. Still, it is astonishing to watch this polarisation between two ends of the political spectrum create rifts, ruptures, outbreaks and an all-out reshaping that would have otherwise happened over the course of decades, not days. Both ends are preparing for ‘the day after tomorrow’: the weeks and months that will follow the election; the management of the country’s (amazingly, still undeclared) bankruptcy. Yet in the buzzing of premature celebrations, enthusiastic analysis after analysis, media panels and twitter wars, much of the mainstream political representatives seem to have lost much of an ability to sense the radical, violent transformations roaring from the ground. As Lila Leontidou is absolutely correct to point out (9) there is a huge risk in this “ascent of the far Right”. She points us at Gramsci, who “affirms spontaneity, but also proposes to raise it to a higher plane politically, with the help of leadership, in order to prevent its absorption by right-wing forces”.
In the post-memorandum days, such spontaneity is primarily acted out in the streets. And already, as of the early summer of 2012, parliamentary parties (with the exception of the Neo-nazi Golden Dawn and the Stalinist KKE) have lost their capacity to organise on this street level, to hold open-air gatherings, or demonstrations: popular anger against them is simply too high. Even in the case of SYRIZA, which is not deemed by most complacent in the crisis, its snubbing of the power of the street beggars belief. Following the party’s record performance at the May 6 elections Greek president Papoulias invited SYRIZA, as the second party, to form a coalition government. In an apparent attempt to ‘do politics differently’ Tsipras used the time allocated to him to meet leaders of trade unions and smaller parties of the Left even before meeting his more heavyweight political counterparts. His message was supposed to read “society before the politicians” — yet the message Tsipras allegedly carried to trade unionists and leaders of the smaller leftist parties was chilling. What he asked for was no less than the halting of strikes and street-based articulation of demands as a gesture of ‘tolerance’ toward a possible Government of the Left — this, remember, in a political landscape rapidly turning conservative and reactionary.
Is the above evidence of political short-sightedness, historical amnesia or the exuberance for power lying at arm’s length? Have the leaders of the Left seriously forgotten that so many dark movements dominating 20th century history were born in the ‘humbleness’ of the streets? The Freikorps of the Weimar Republic turned into the Nazi vanguard; the repression of Italy’s ‘Red Years’ (1919-1920) flattened the ground Mussolini then tramped over (10) and the list goes on… The spectacular victories of the most totalitarian of regimes always began with a withdrawal. The withdrawal of all other political power from the streets.
In Greece, already, the void left wide open by this withdrawal is staggering. On May 22, the southern seafront avenue of the ex-industrial port city of Patras saw an impromptu mourning gathering for Thanasis Lazanas, a 30-year old Greek male stabbed to death by Afghani youth a day earlier. By the morning after, with the avid support of the Neo-nazis of the Golden Dawn (whose members were quickly bussed into the city) some —thankfully, not most— of the mourners attacked police lines protecting an abandoned building where some undocumented migrants had sought refuge. They drove a bulldozer toward it and tried to enter, brandishing steel bars, in search of migrants hiding inside. Patras’ race riots received a fraction of the coverage they deserved in international media, remaining a footnote to the tweets, the breaking news, the array of analyses about the tiniest sway in the country’s political mainstream and the tinniest twitch of the nervous financial markets.
The world is watching Greece. And yet, glued on the melting of its mainstream political landscape and its economy, as it is, I am very much afraid that it fails to spot the obvious: what matters at the moment is not the battle of euro-philes versus euro-sceptics, the prevalence of the euro or the drachma camp, enthusiastic newcomers in the management of the crisis or the insistence (for not much longer, in any case) upon tried and failed recipes. What matters is our ability to conceptualise and to re-concueptalise the distance between us: In his editorial to issue 16 (3, forthcoming) of CITY, Bob Catterall quotes Lila Leontidou in celebrating trans-national solidarity. In the Greek language, the word “is ‘allilegyi‘, which means literally ‘close (egys) to each other (allilous)’”. In order to stay close to others, we must resist the false formation and vilification of the Other, we must strengthen cross-border solidarities… but most importantly, we must stay grounded in the streets, the spaces public, the spaces where this proximity with the other becomes possible. Only there — feet on the concrete, ears on the ground — will we be able to sense the social antagonisms cracking through the unsound ground of our collective present.
Antonis Vradis is a doctoral candidate at LSE Geography, member of the Occupied London collective and alternatives editor of CITY. See also http://blog.occupiedlondon.org/. Photos by Ross Domoney, Aletheia; see more of his work at http://www.aletheiaphotos.com/ross-domoney/
- Atkinson, A. (2007) “Cities after oil—1: ‘Sustainable development’ and energy futures”, CITY 11(2) ↩
- Atkinson, A. (2007) “Cities after oil—2: Background to the collapse of ‘modern’ civilisation”, CITY 11(3) ↩
- Atkinson, A. (2008) “Cities after oil—3: Collapse and the fate of cities”, CITY 12(1) ↩
- Arendt, Hannah (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, London: Faber &Faber ↩
- Kaika, M. (2012, forthcoming) “The economic crisis: a view from the everyday… or the global affective consequences of a local debt crisis”, CITY 16 (4) ↩
- Dalakoglou, D. (2012, forthcoming) “Urban neoliberalisation, criss and protest in Athens, and the (post)spontaneity question”, CITY 16 (5) ↩
- Virilio, Paul (2012) The Administration of Fear, New York: Semiotext(e) ↩
- Leontidou, L. (2012, in Greek) The reconstruction of the “European South” in post-colonial Europe: from class conflict to cultural identities. In Afouxenidis, A. (ed.), pp. 25-42. ↩
- Leontidou, L. (2012, forthcoming) “Athens in the Mediterranean “movement of the piazzas”: spontaneity in material and virtual public spaces”, CITY 16 (3) ↩
- For an excellent analysis of the dangers of abandoning the streets, see the article “A small reminder to the late friends of Democracy” http://rioter.info/2012/05/11/m%CE%B9%CE%BA%CF%81%CE%AE-%CF%85%CF%80%CE%B5%CE%BD%CE%B8%CF%8D%CE%BC%CE%B9%CF%83%CE%B7-%CE%B3%CE%B9%CE%B1-%CF%84%CE%BF-%CF%84%CE%BF%CF%85%CF%82-%CF%8C%CF%88%CE%B9%CE%BC%CE%BF%CF%85%CF%82-%CF%86/ (in Greek)