Interview with Occupied London

This interview follows our review of Occupied London’s new edited book ‘Occupied London: Revolt and Crisis in Greece’. The book deals with the uprisings in Greece in 2008 that followed the police assassination of a young man in Athens. Originally published in September 2011.

Can you briefly explain to our readers what the Occupied London project is and where the inspiration for editing this book came from?

Occupied London started off as a free anarchist publishing project in London in 2007. We felt that at the time neither of these was happening in the city often enough, so we strove to create a journal that would try and overcome the boundaries of anarchist discourse both in, and for the city; that would try going to print in spite of the digital times in which it lived; that would remain free despite the culture of commercialisation encroaching it.

We also wanted to take a look at issues of urbanisation surrounding us globally and soon enough many of us found ourselves returning right where we had started from, that is, the anarchist movement in Greece. As we saw and lived the revolt of December 2008 and its aftermath we felt the urge to document what had happened and the traces of the revolt in our everyday lives. That is how the idea for the Occupied London blog and eventually the book came about.

As important as the 2008 December uprising was, of equal importance (if not more) are the possibilities which emerged out of this event. Several of the chapters discuss this legacy, could you briefly discuss the ways in which the December uprising has translated into more long term political projects?

A revolt – a rupture in normality-so-far – would be nothing without this rupture marking a longer presence into peoples’ everyday lives. The uprising of December is no exception to this rule. Apart from anything else, the rupture of the winter of 2008 has armed many people with a strong belief in the effectiveness of the politics of the everyday: from neighbourhood assemblies (relevant, more than ever, at the time of the supranational IMF rule) to concrete interventions at a local level (the self-organised parks in Exarcheia and in Patisia, Athens standing as prime examples) to the spontaneity and the dynamic nature of particular actions (such as the impromptu street confrontation and attacks on one third of all the MPs signing the IMF agreement to date). For us, these all show that peoples’ conceptualisation of what is possible has changed, once and for all. And we can only thank December for that.

Some of the most interesting sections of the book challenge the existing anarchist movement to move beyond its current limits, discussions which resonate equally well here in the UK. Is there much willingness within the Greek anarchist scene to move beyond its limits and how successfully is this being translated into practice?

It would be very convenient (or perhaps even relieving) to say so – that the anarchist movement has kept up with pushing beyond current limits or, in other words, that it has kept up with what it has always been, at least for as long as we’ve known it: a transformational movement, a movement at the boundaries of society that is willing and ready to push things to an extreme, an awakening force at the time of the ultimate hypnosis, the comfortably numb financial prosperity of the nineties. Sadly, to say so today would mostly be a lie. We saw a cataclysmic change in social order as we had known it, with the IMF/EU/ECB deal changing the existing landscape of power for good. And yet the response from the ground – for the best part – has mostly been ‘business as usual’. This glaring disparity could not possibly last long and, sure enough, it revealed itself and collapsed during the Syntagma Square mobilisations. The birth of the square occupation movement saw the anarchist movement split right down the middle: on the one side, the tendencies unwilling to give up what they had carefully cultivated and protected as a subculture surviving in the midst of a wild capitalist euphoria during the nineties. On the other side, a tendency that was willing to join, or at least stand close to some emerging forces that were trying to challenge the newly formed status quo. It is not possible to judge if the second has been successful, not quite yet – since history’s page has yet to turn. It is only possible to judge who has at least tried to turn it.

The book deals with the event that was December 2008 and the potentials that have been opened up in its wake. Can you discuss the relationship between the anarchist movement and the recent struggles born in response to a new round of EU and IMF loans, most notably in Syntagma Square? Is there a connection between the “indignados” movement and the anarchist movement?

It is by now impossible to talk of a single stance of the anarchist movement in relation to these emerging struggles. It would therefore be more logical to talk about our own position, since we collectively participated in the Syntagma movement in a number of ways. The anarchists who participated in Syntagma had several reasons to do so. For many, it started off with the fairly straightforward wish not to see the mobilisations hijacked by fascists and other reactionaries – and the only way to achieve this would be by being present there and take action when such practices would occur.

Yet beneath this, there was a much larger opportunity to be grasped: the Syntagma mobilisation was a very dynamic and profound situation which had vast political potentialities not only in resisting the government effectively but also in forming a completely new political condition in the aftermath of this movement: we saw genuine popular general assemblies attended by four, five thousands at a time; we saw a near complete consensus against police and corporate media, and so on. Direct democracy is obviously not a panacea, as it is a practice that does not necessarily formulate the content: for example, an assembly could potentially decide, in a very direct democratic manner, for the most fascist things in the world. And yet, the daily assemblies in Syntagma were constituted by people who for their largest part would not tolerate racist and fascist statements or practices.

After all, rallying, marching and occupying Syntagma Square in Greece is an action that is symbolically linked with previous counter-establishment revolts that primarily originate from the far Left: the building housing the parliament in Syntagma used to house the palace before and has always been both the symbolic and actual centre of state authority. So the occupation of Syntagma Square had several anti-establishment implications from the beginning.

This movement in itself was also hostile toward both State authority and the government. At the same time it was very inclusive and massive, with weekend gatherings peaking at 200,000 or 300,000 people. The majority of these people had never taken to the streets before. These newcomers – new political subjectivities – got a first hand experience of what State and police repression really meant during the Syntagma mobilisations. Naturally, the plexus of power of course did not discriminate and used its all-time classic repression, including corporate media propaganda, and the rest of the tactics that had been used for years against anarchists or far Leftists. These are the same tools that have always been used against the enemy within. It is just that this time, this enemy was too large and too inclusive. And so, many people saw their illusions about authority collapse. An old anarchist slogan in Greece claims that “[political] consciousness is born in the streets” - this time round, consciousness was born in the squares too.

From here in the UK the recent spate of struggles seem complex and chaotic, whilst many support the protest uncritically others are keen to highlight the role that nationalists and even fascists are playing. How prominent is the nationalist position within current struggles in Greece?

This question will inevitably link back to the previous one and the split of anarchist reactions to the Syntagma movement: indeed, several anarchists refused to be linked to Syntagma because nationalists were there too.

The Greek government and corporate media obviously played an old card, that of evil foreigners wanting to take advantage of Greece. “We are all in this together”, they say, or “we all have to tighten the belt”, as the expression would go, “because the country is under attack”. It is true that the supposed “rescue” agreement eliminates some of the most basic principles of the so-called national independence, which was one of the illusions nourished by the Greek state for years in order to achieve social peace. So yes, there were nationalists waving Greek flags in Syntagma or people who just considered it unfair not to be governed by Greek passport holders but by “foreigners”. But at the same time, a lot of these people do understand that what matters is not where a capitalist comes from, but that they ruin their lives. It is just that right now these bankers, speculators, capitalists, their political personnel and the rest of their gangs overdid it and stopped throwing to the rest even those crumbs they did before.

Putting aside those conscious nationalists who think that Syntagma is matter of national revolution, of the people there some would wave a Greek flag because they had no other flag to identify with any more – we don’t think that’s positive, but it doesn’t make these people de facto nationalist, let alone fascist. The social dynamics there are far more complex than that. An example? On 27th June, anarchists marched to the square, fly-posting and chanting anti-fascist and anti-nationalist slogans. When they would chant slogans such as “In Turkey, Greece and Macedonia, our enemy is in the banks and the ministries” or “national unity is a trap”, thousands would be clapping along, waving their Greek flags to the rhythm of the anti-nationalist slogans! Very surreal, but also very typical of the fluid and complex new political subjectivities that emerged during the crisis.

This is not to underestimate the nationalist potentialities of the Greek flag, nor to say that it is OK to participate in actions along with Nazis. In early June, during the Athens gay pride, some fascists in Syntagma Square tried to interfere in the parade – and anarchists were there to fight homophobia and Christian Orthodox ideals about sexuality and so on. Similarly, during the general strikes of 15th June and 28-29th June fascists who were spotted in Syntagma were beaten up and the riot police came to their rescue, attacking anti-fascists in order to save them. Yet at the same time, on 15th June fascists tricked a lot of other demonstrators into thinking that anarchists were undercover police officers and some anarchists were attacked as result.

This is all to say that the situation is extremely fluid; we must be extremely vigilant in dealing with and distinguishing between fascists and people just waving a Greek flag, as these are not the same. At the same time we should also be extremely alert about the nationalist elements incorporated in Syntagma: after all, it is possible that some of the people there participated in the anti-migrant pogroms of May 2011.

With the movements now leaving the squares and entering the neighbourhoods how will this affect the form and content of the struggles around the austerity package? Is it even possible to speculate on what is likely to happen in the next few months, let alone year?

It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to speculate what might happen. One because this would amount to a prophecy and prophecies fail the prophets, and second because the situation changes so rapidly and the daily life in Greece at the moment is so fluid that just about everything is possible. Three months ago nobody would even imagine the Syntagma movement would ever happen; and two years ago we wouldn’t have been able to imagine Greece ever getting an IMF loan. At this present moment, it seems that the local (neighbourhood) assemblies have got a huge boost thanks to the Syntagma movement; new ones were formed and the previously existing ones became more empowered and received more social legitimation.

We think that the move away from the square and into the neighbourhoods was a great idea that came out of the Syntagma assembly and kept being mentioned nearly every night during June. The question now is how to sustain the momentum during the very difficult winter that is coming and how to transform direct democracy into radical action. Both are necessary in order to challenge the establishment: the people’s assemblies via creating an antagonistic socio-political formation and radical actions directly on the streets - especially now that the Greek police are becoming increasingly militaristic and the government passes new laws for the repression of any form of dissent. A final element that we consider important is that of materiality: how will the assemblies address the material issues of everyday life as these emerge during this crisis, how will they pick alternative/antagonistic economic practices and how will they establish more fixed and permanent material infrastructures across neighbourhoods?

This interview was conducted in July/August 2011 by Ben Lear, who is an editor of SHIFT magazine