The spirit of December spread round the world

A.G. Schwarz

I have heard many anarchists from other countries ask,"Why weren’t the Greek insurrections generalised to other countries, and what could we have done to make them spread?" Most often, the question was not asked in a constructive way but posed to suggest that the local movement was worthless because the insurrection was not generalising. I have to say that this question strikes me as ignorant. A vital fact that anarchists must come to terms with and work their way around is that insurrections usually do not jump national borders. In the early years of the 20th century there was arguably more common consciousness among the lower classes of Europe that mitigated national divisions. Nonetheless, the much more extreme situation in Russia, which passed from insurrection to revolution, did little more than encourage pre-existing movements in other countries. It did not spread. The same is true in 1968. A rebellion here certainly encouraged a rebellion there but things always kicked off in response to local situations. The insurrection in Greece came from years of experience preparing society and anti-authoritarians themselves to fight back with everything they had, and that experience obviously cannot follow the photos of the riots as they race across the Internet.

Formed in part by the summit-hopping of the anti-globalisation movement, many anarchists forget that we live in a reality very different from most people. We are friends with anarchists in other countries or we at least know that when something happens the anarchists in other countries will stand in solidarity with us. In other words, we have emotional ties. I won't minimise the importance of theory but I will put it in its place: most people do not risk their lives in struggle on the basis of theory but on the basis of empathy love, courage, and rage. When an anarchist in Spain hears they have shot an anarchist in Greece and the comrades there are rioting, the insurrection has already come to her heart: she feels rage and a desire to join in the fight; an empathy and even a love for the living comrades who are pushing that fight forward in spite of the repression; and on the basis of these feelings and with the support of comrades in her own town she will find the courage to act. But everyone else in Spain, though they might hear about the assassination on the television, though they may think badly of the Greek police and even sympathise with the rioters, they will not understand how it applies to them. Because solidarity is based on affective bonds.

The nation is not only a trap created by the compulsory education of the State and the cultural institutions of capitalists to divide and conquer the lower classes, although it is that, too. In the absence of State and Capital the nation is a fictive community united by a common language, culture, and history; it is a context in which common experiences can take place and it is therefore also an affective universe. In other words as the world is not homogenous and there are many languages and cultures, there will also be nations (as distinct from nation-states, which is something else entirely). This is why insurrections are sparked off by local events, rather than spreading between nations: because it is much easier for people to identify emotionally with someone whom they see as belonging to their larger community. The high school students who started burning dumpsters in Patras did not personally know Alexis, but they saw him as“one of us." High school students in Italy are unlikely to make that connection because they live in a different cultural context and the death of a Greek high school student, even if it reaches them emotionally on some level, does not have the significance of constituting an attack on them. The common experience of the oppressiveness of high school or the oppressiveness of the police does not overcome these cultural differences.

Western anarchists, on the other hand, make up a common cultural group and in some senses we even speak the same language. We are something like a nation in diaspora, so repression against one of our communities in another country will make sense to us and will affect us emotionally. But we would be wrong to assume that other people are like us in this regard.

And we may even be overestimating the limits of our own solidarity. When immigrants in Omonia rioted in June 2009 after a cop ripped up a Koran in a racist police raid, shockingly few anarchists took part. The tearing of a Koran was interpreted by many immigrants as an attack on their identity their difference, and thus their very survival. Greek anarchists seemed to interpret it as a religious squabble, much the same way that Italian high school students might fail to understand what the killing of a Greek kid has to do with them.

After nation or culture, a second factor seems to be proximity but I think it is actually a matter of signals. The immigrant neighbourhood in Athens below Omonia is full of people who are not culturally integrated into Greek society people from many different nations, whose experience of life does not resonate within the national context. In other words they are excluded.Yet they became participants in the December rioting on a massive scale, especially on Monday when the riots kicked off right in their neighbourhood. Looking at it from a map, it seems that the insurrection spread geographically. Yet there are many culturally distinct groups that might not join an insurrection even if it is occurring right next to them. The Broken Windows theory of policing used by the authorities may propose a better explanation. Acts of disorder (such as broken windows) provide a signal to the people that authority is weak and further acts of disorder will be tolerated. The State itself implicitly recognises that authority is a provocation and by showing weakness it invites counter-attack; thus everyone carries within them the seed of insurrection.

The massive rioting on Monday provided a clear signal that everyone with a vendetta against State and Capital (and this includes a majority of the population, potentially anybody from whatever class who has not sold themselves out so completely) is free to take revenge. This idea of the importance of signals of disorder explains why people in different cultural groups with no physical proximity to the rioting, for example the Roma community outside Athens who attacked a police station with rifles, also took part in the insurrection if they had any personal cause to hate the authorities, because the signals of local disorder are also spread via the media. And this is one reason why people living under other governments, no matter how much they personally were affected by the killing of an anarchist youth, did not riot with abandon. The signals of disorder were absent, because other governments were not directly weakened by the situation in Greece.

A substance that lies behind both of these factors is the emotional, the subjective. The masculinised, depersonalised, and bureaucratic politics of the Left have long succeeded in removing emotional concerns from our concept of revolution, but you cannot have a liberating revolution while ignoring the emotional half of human existence. All you can have are square-jawed calls for sacrifice issued by a manipulative leadership and a convenient confusion between freedom that exists on paper and freedom that exists in the heart. It is only through the recognition of this subjective, personal, and emotional revolution that people can fight for themselves and recognise the constant attempts to recuperate the struggle through appeals to a false common good. This is not to say that struggle must be individualistic, but that only individuals who are free to feel their needs and desires can participate in a liberated collective capable of overthrowing authority and creating free communities.

Many of the things that happen in Greece could technically be carried out by anarchists in other countries - we have the numbers, the materials, and the proficiency - except that we are afraid. A striking feature of the insurrection and the anarchist movement in Greece is the centrality of courage.

But courage is largely a social phenomenon. There are always some people who have a little more of it, who are able to make the first strike, even if no one is behind them,but these people will never be a majority nor should they be (how terrible the world would be with so many impetuous jackasses running about!) In general, humans being social animals, courage is fostered firstly by peer group support, and secondly by broader community sympathy If you have enough comrades to act with you, or if you are an anonymous member of a like-minded crowd, you can perform superhuman acts you never would otherwise. And if you are in a group of fifty anarchists facing a hundred well-equipped riot police, you are much more likely to kick things off if you know that all the bystanders are cheering for you, then if you think they would disapprove of your actions or tell the police which street you ran down after it’s all over. The mood on the streets provides another vital signal that directly affects the morale of the police and the morale of the comrades. Take the same fifty anarchists and the same hundred cops, and put them on different streets with different moods, even if no bystanders actively intervene in the situation, and you end up with entirely different outcomes.

But courage is also a matter of practice. The first time you do something is always the scariest. And if you only do an illegal action after meticulous planning - not that planning isn’t necessary in many scenarios - you will not learn how to act spontaneously how to react to the immediate situation, which is a crucial skill for anarchists to have. The December revolts were not planned, they were not prepared by some assembly or vanguard party but they were prepared for. The insurrection would never have flowered at that moment if the Greek anarchists had not readied themselves to react, and they did this by developing proactive affinity groups united by trust, common politics, and practical experience together; and by carrying out dangerous actions with varying levels of preparation, from spontaneous (reacting in the heat of the moment) to minimal (deciding to do something in just a few hours or the next day and just going and doing it) to meticulous (with intensive planning). This capacity among hundreds or even thousands of anarchists was built up in the years before December, and it allowed them to react immediately upon Alexis’s death and define the character of the revolt in all the days to come. If they had needed to hold a meeting first, a long debate, do reconnaissance, weigh other options, and have the first counter-attacks ready a week later, Alexis’s murder never would have been avenged.

Additionally; because in the previous months and years Greek society was accustomed to seeing occasional attacks on police stations and banks carried out by anarchists, this form had entered the social consciousness and was ready and available for all the tens of thousands of high school students, immigrants, and others who needed some tool, some expression to their rage. If all they had seen in their worlds were peaceful protests in response to the aggressions and insults of State and capitalism, that is probably all they would have organised in response to the murder. There would have been a few scuffles with police to vent the worst of the rage, and the rest would have to be buried inside them, weighing them down even more and stealing more of their dignity; preparing them for adulthood, for integration, for retirement.

Now it should be clear how the spirit of December can spread internationally The insurrection of the comrades in Greece can animate us and rejuvenate our hope. It can invite us to study their situation and identify what made it possible, so we can go on building the foundations in our own corners of the world. We can also use it as an opportunity to increase the internationalism of those around us, by holding protests and memorials so our neighbours can consider the possibility that what the police do in Greece is important to us too. But it is counter-revolutionary to pull out our hair, as so many comrades have done, to lash out and insult our local movements for not being able to spread the insurrection, for misinterpreting the geographical limits of the insurrection as evidence of weakness or laziness in other parts. December is an opportunity to rejoice, to boost our morale. How terrible that some hotheads blogging endlessly on the Internet have used it as an opportunity to drain us of even more self-confidence. The opposite is needed.

The December insurrection arose from very specific local circumstances, and it was allowed to arise because people believed it could, within an anarchist movement that did not and does not consider itself special. The insurrection will arise where we are, and we can help it along in a number of ways.

- By understanding that insurrections are not controllable, and they do not follow ideological lines. They are an opportunity for all the oppressed and exploited to fight back in their own ways, but that in this light, many different people can meet one another, if they are willing.

- By understanding that insurrections usually do not topple governments, but if people do not base their hopes exclusively on the simple act of rioting, they will see that after people are physically exhausted and the lighting in the street stops, if the movement chooses to it can build off those experiences, lay deeper foundations, use the change in the social balance of power to open autonomous spaces and build the beginnings of an anarchist world, and move closer to stronger insurrections and to revolution.

- By organising attacks against authority and developing a capacity for spontaneous reaction, so that anarchists prepare themselves for insurrection and make it more likely that an event blooms into an insurrection, and so that society itself is prepared to accept the reality of struggle and counter-attack.

- By starting now to find whatever communal and anti-authoritarian traditions exist within our society and expanding on them to counteract the effects of capitalism on culture and to create a popular culture that supports violent resistance, distrusts authority and cherishes communal values.

- By intervening now in ongoing social conflicts, working respectfully with other non-institutional actors in these conflicts even if they are not anti-capitalists, and forcefully opening spaces or employing methods that transform the logic of the struggle from the mediating loop of conservatism vs. reform into one of authority vs. people.

- By building infrastructure and vital capacities (skills, habits, traditions) that reflect and cultivate the world that we want, not as alternatives but as beachheads, so that when we are able to force the police off the streets we will have something creative to move forward with, and so that in the meantime we can give substance to our dreams in a way that sustains hope and sustains us in our struggle, which is hard and long and cannot be fought just for pie in the sky.

These are some of the ways that we can be ready to seize the event and help it expand to its natural shape, a swelling rage and creative collectivity that knows no boundaries and denies logics of control, an explosion that will start to burn away the old world and leave us open ground for the planting of the new oner that we carry with us, if only we are courageous enough to seize the opportunity with both hands.