Occupied London: revolt and crisis in Greece

Published online July 2011. Review of the book "Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come", edited by Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou: an Occupied London Project (published by AK Press, 2011).

Submitted by shifteditor1 on May 14, 2013

“We feel that what is being played out in Greece poses some enormous questions that reaches far beyond the place itself, or the people that live there.”

Many of us have been swept away by the struggles currently happening in Greece over the latest loan package to stave off the likely Greek default. The news channels loop familiar images of stone throwing protesters and violent police chasing each other through ubiquitous clouds of tear gas, whilst social media networks hum with the excitement of some of the largest social struggles in recent years. For many of us involved in anti-capitalist politics Greece serves as a suitable repository for the frustrations we feel with the political realities of our current homes.

It is then a timely moment for the editors of the Occupied London project, Antonis Vradas and Dimitris Dalakoglou, to release their first book. ‘Revolt and Crisis’ focuses on the month long Greek uprising of 2008 following the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, its historical precedents as well as the new political terrains that it has opened up in conjunction with the global financial crash of 2008. Through its nineteen chapters the book seeks to dispel the myth of Greece as some exotic Other and explore the linkages between capitalist crisis, social antagonism (or social war) and urban politics. ‘Revolt and Crisis in Greece’ provides us with a window into the Greek political landscape, helping to situate and de-fetishise the 2008 revolt. As the editors are keen to point out “There are no palm trees in Athens”, a reference to the failed planting of palm trees by the Greek state for the Olympics in 2004; Greece shares many of the problems facing the rest of Europe. We need to dig beyond the spectacular images presented to us in order to begin to trace the real dynamics running through contemporary Greek politics. This book provides many useful avenues for doing just this as well as leaving the reader with enough difficult questions and political provocations to mull over. It deserves to be widely read by those encountering the limits of contemporary forms of anti-capitalism and seeking ways to move beyond them.

The book begins with a context-setting section whose chapters cover the history of the Greek ‘metapolitefsi’, the political system post-dictatorship which began in 1974, and its relationship to Athenian politics. As well as serving as a scene-setter these three chapters bring up interesting discussions regarding how the spatiality of a city can influence both positively and negatively the likelihood of social unrest. Athens did not have a Baron Von Haussman, the infamous civic planner responsible for re-designing Paris to assist social control, it marries the highest population density of a European capital with narrow streets and large numbers of intersections which (so argue the authors) facilitate social unrest. This is followed by a fascinating, if brief, dissection of the geography of recent notable urban uprisings in cities such as Paris and Buenos Aires. Further developing a familiar theme of the Occupied London project, ‘The Politics of Urban Space’, is a chapter discussing the nature and implications of two re-appropriations of urban space post-uprising, one explicitly anarchist, the other fascist.

The second section can be considered the core of the book. This section, entitled “The Event: December”, seeks to illuminate December 2008 from a variety of different perspectives and with a variety of different aims. There are discussions on counter-informational strategies, the return of armed vanguardist groups, experiments with popular assemblies and much more. Many of these chapters revolve around Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou’s (of Communist Hypothesis fame) notion of the Event. For Badiou an Event is a rupture with the present which produces hitherto unforeseen after-effects and possibilities. The scale and intensity of the December uprising was unpredicted and the channels of its generalisation can, in many ways, only be guessed at. Perhaps the key political question emerging from this event is whether social movements in Greece, both those that were formed in December 2008 and those that preceded it, can retain fidelity to these newly produced possibilities. Can these movements, to paraphrase an argument of Alex Trocchi’s chapter, not only intensify resistance but generalise its spread. It is clear that those movements that cease to move lose their purchase on the world. The danger of retreating behind safely delineated borders into a familiar political scene or sub-culture must be actively challenged through thoughtful political practice.

These issues are mulled over by several authors in both section two and the last section entitled “The Crisis”. Questions are asked of the anarchist identity by Christos Boukalas who reminds us in his chapter title that ‘no one is revolutionary until the revolution’. The argument is made that some strands of the anarchist scene in Greece have adopted a fetishised understanding of what it means to be a political militant or indeed a revolutionary and that this has led to an understanding of the activist as somehow outside of ‘normal’ society. This misunderstanding of revolutionary politics was highlighted tragically by the death of three bank workers during the huge demonstration of May 5th 2010. This critical analysis of the social antagonist movement in Greece is complemented by Alex Trocchi who places anarchist politics within its broader post ‘68 and anti-global trajectory, a trajectory which Trocchi suggests must be ruptured and superseded if we wish to gain more political purchase post-2008. These political questions are complemented by a thorough analysis of the political economy of Greece, which is similar in many ways to most European states, by Communist group TPTG and David Graeber who takes a historical approach to the topic of debt. This section serves to deal with the legacy of the 2008 uprising by exploring the terrain these movements find themselves on and beginning to deal with some of the political limits stopping these movements continuing to move and gain political traction.

Ultimately the broad range of perspectives contained in this book help to illuminate December 2008, recognising and broadening its complexities as well as, hopefully, generalising these issues to those of us beyond the Greek context. Although there are a (thankfully) few overly academic chapters which say little of interest in a fairly inaccessible way (even for someone with a post-grad degree) this book must be commended for contributing to an emerging problematisation of the ways in which we have done politics in the past decades. It is clear that December 2008 was an event whose importance is certainly not just in its origins or the timeline of conflicts which occurred, but also in the new possibilities it has unleashed. ‘Revolt and Crisis’ succeeds in chipping away at the romantic image of Greek anarchism and the December uprising; beyond the spectacular footage of masked anarchists, “carpets of glass” and Molotov cocktails, many of the questions are the same. How do we move beyond the limits of our current forms of struggle and political identification? How can we find political traction in a rapidly changing, fluid situation? How will the state respond to increasing social unrest as austerity politics are implemented? Ultimately, the question this book asks is can we move beyond our own limits? Just as parts of the anarchist movement in Greece are struggling to move beyond the limits of its current form, so are parts of the anti-capitalist movement here in the U.K.

Given its exciting, inspiring subject matter this book could easily have become an anti-capitalist mirror of the liberal ‘coffee table book’ interpretation of the revolts already popular in Greece. However, the editors have chosen a harder path to pursue and have given us a book full of insights into the Greek context and packed with broader questions, challenges and provocations for those of us frustrated with the limits of current anti-capitalist praxis and for this it should be commended.