Panagiotis Papadimitropoulos: from Void Network
Perhaps the best manifestation of human agency especially as far as the formation of the modern world is concerned, is that which accompanies the ideas and practices of social movements. During the course of the 20th century different groups of people have struggled for diverse political ends using different political means with the aim to transform the social order. Everywhere around us we experience the product of past and present collective attempts to bring about social change, that is to replace old meanings and forms with new ones according to the ideas, dreams, and aspirations of social groups.
Social anthropology being particularly interested in the meanings and symbols that structure and guide social practice, has always been sensitive to the viewpoint of the weak and the oppressed because of its understanding of the workings of culture and the differential positions of power that are created within it. Especially after the mid-seventies through a series of ethnographies, such as those by James Scott, Jean Comarrof, Eric Wolf (Samuel Popkin), it approached resistance as ameans of facing and critically negotiating the power that was imposed on local societies by world structures of domination and inequality. From the ’70s onwards Marxist social theory detached itself from the model of "basis and superstructure" in which the emphasis was laid on the economic sphere. This change contributed to the promotion of anti-essentialist perspectives and thought with many different branches. The diverse readings of Gramsci, Foucault, French post-structuralism, and the multifarious feminist theory during the ’80s engendered a new field of exploration of culture through the study of subjectivity and power. As a primary consequence, a shift occurred in the conception of culture as a social totality whose meanings are shared by all of its members. The turn was to “culture" as a field of continuous change, opposition, and negotiation of meanings.
The focus has turned on the social context and conditions in which different meanings and perceptions of social reality appear. But since this is conceived in the plural as “contexts," the conditions, the practices, and the "places" in which particular phenomena manifest themselves are not reduced to a unified structural coherence that derives from the economy the values or some functional needs of the social system. The basic change that this theoretical move brought about has been the questioning of naturalised categories or conceptual tools, such as those of class, gender, or for that matter of society as an "objective" reality toward their dynamic conception as categories that develop historically through dominant discourses.
Thus, a central position in non-reductionist approaches is given to discourse analysis as a methodology that imprints and reveals with greater clarity the conceptual universe of subjects and its relation to particular institutions and social practices that construct collective or individual identities. (Scott Joan Wallash, 1988, Gender and the Politics of History). The understanding that identity is not something static but in constant flux is now common place. Much theoretical work has gone into deconstructing essentialist notions of identity based on sameness, replacing them with a conception of identity as multiple, plural or hybrid, and based on difference. In the context of talking about social reproduction and change in a discussion about social movements, we should follow Sherry Ortner in asking how exactly and in which conditions individuals or social groups perceive themselves in a particular way which, on the one hand, excludes alternative perceptions while, on the other, constructs acting subjects who select particular ways of action and reject others.
Perhaps a useful methodological and theoretical route comes from a creative match between discourse analysis and the theory of symbolic meaning in a perspective that views every social action and cultural form - and thus both power and the resistance to it - as constituting cultural constructs. That is, relations that are arranged through the human capacity to construct meaning, to interpret reality and communicate through the use of symbols, ones with a “life" of their own.
What I mean by this is that culture is perceived as inherently a historical process. For Ortner and Dirks the "place" where the cultural order meets with history in a creative combination is the discourse about power. Hence, they speak about “culture as emergent from relations of power and domination, culture as a form of power and domination, culture as a medium in which power is both constituted and resisted." The focus on phenomena of resistance and domination does not imply some essentialist view of culture. Power is not considered“some universal‘drive’ lodged in individuals nor some elementary force transcending society and history" (Ortner). On the contrary; power is interlinked with freedom or resistance in a way that the one defines the field of diffusion of the other. It always appears in an historically specific cultural context in which man as a socio-historical being composes an entire matrix of meanings and conceptions that include a wide range of desires and emotions but also of inequalities that every time are formulated and expressed in the idiom of existent cultural meanings.
Anthropological approaches to social movements and resistance have focused on the culturally specific expression of these movements. Taking culture as a central component of movements, these approaches move beyond debates about resistance and rebellion as "irrational" outbursts by subordinate peoples or carefully calculated strategic expressions of dissent, to ones that talk about movements as cultural struggles over meaning. Generally speaking, social movements and collective action have emerged in close connection with the development of structural inequalities, marginalisation, and exclusion on the one hand, and the ideas of rights, social justice, and entitlements on the other. Different groups and organisations have built platforms of solidarity and mobilisation to make claims and express their grievances targeting either the state or capital or international institutions. If in the past social movements or collective action have emerged and concentrated protest within nation-states or colonial states, with the increasing interconnectedness of different locations and social spaces, currently social movements have attained global dimensions and created transnational communities.
In a context of global flows of identities, researchers like Marianne Maeckelbergh have focused on the decision making practices within the anti-globaliation movement and on the ways democratic values are practised on a global scale through network structures that support and diffuse social movements. Very interestingly Maeckelbergh sees prefigurative practices as a strategic movement practice from which local action becomes part of global action. Eeva Berglund, looking at groups of environmentalists in Germany and Fin- land, has focused on the ideas about citizenship, independent knowledge and political practice that are generated through activism, and has argued that "environmentalist sensibilities that lead to activism arise out of shared experiences of loss of trust in ‘official’ sources of knowledge as well as unsatisfactory environmental conditions.” Activism in this context has been approached as a field of social practice that contests the legitimacy of state-produced scientific knowledge, and creates transnational ideas of independence from and opposition to state or corporate power which is seen by people as hostile to the concept of a civil society. This is not to say that we can talk about universalising models of political transformation since investigations of "civil society" discourses have exposed how such concepts as "citizenship" and “democracy" are deployed in varied forms by different actors (Gal and Kligman, 2000/Hann and Dunn, 1995, about postsocialist countries). We should therefore agree with Berglund that "we must attend to the ways in which activists make sense of local political cultures even as they attempt to transform them and effect social change."
Closer to what I will talk about today Jeffrey Juris has had an interest in studying activist and transnational networking in the context of the anti-globalisation movement in what he calls “militant ethnography” Militant ethnography according to Juris, involves "practice-based and politically committed research that is carried out in horizontal collaboration with social movements." Juris rightly remarks that "diverse activist networks physically express their contrasting political visions and identities through alternative forms of direct action" (2007). This action becomes visible through the communication of powerful and emotive images of protest that are diffused both by activist networks and mainstream media with different interpretations. Furthermore, Juris has also focused on the Black Bloc, that is the anarchist groups that have be- come particularly violent during counter summit protests (Seattle, Prague, Genova, Thessaloniki, etc.), He approaches their violence as performative violence, which he defines as “a form of meaningful interaction through which actors construct social reality based on available cultural templates." His argument, with which I agree, is that Black Bloc performative violence tends to be neither random nor senseless.
On the one hand, performative violence of anarchist groups operates on an instrumental level, that of the attempt to directly transform the social environment. On the other, we may use "performative violence" to "refer to symbolic ritual enactments of violent interaction with a predominant emphasis on communication and cultural expression." In fact, the two are interlinked. In a context of political action, and following a particular perception of social reality activists seek to effect social transformation by staging symbolic confrontation based on "the representation of antagonistic relationships and the enactment of prototypical images of violence" (Schrober and Schmidt, 2001). Very importantly the ritualistic element seems to be ever-present, especially as far as clashes with the police are concerned. A riot takes place (and in Athens riots occur almost every week), anarchists (if they participate) decide to attack particular targets that represent the State and capitalism, they move first, the police respond, activists set up barricades, and a small scale street confrontation begins with anarchists throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails and the police responding with tear gas and, when possible, with arrests.
As Kertzer has pointed out ritual is important in all political systems and there are many ways that ritual is employed in politics. Ritual, defined broadly as symbolic behaviour that is socially standardised and repetitive, is used to create reality for the people around it, while at the same time channels emotion, guides cognition, and organises social groups. In addition, ritual does not only legitimise authority since it is also used by those who want to overthrow it. That is, there are rites that legitimise authority and rites that delegitimise it. Ritual characterises conservation or continuity as well as change, transformation, or revolution. At the same time as all human conduct and perception of reality are symbolically organised, that is they represent not an essence of things but rather a relation between them, it follows that politics arises as a sphere of symbolic meanings, a sphere that on the one hand rests on existent habitus, while, on the other, creates particular discourses about power, ideal forms of social relations, the role of man, and the "nature of things" at large.
Symbols are means, indeed the primary means, by which we give meaning to the world around us. They allow us to interpret what we see, and of course they allow us to see ourselves in certain ways while excluding others. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this symbolic process is, as Kertzer remarks,“its taken-for-granted quality.” People are not generally aware that they themselves and their culture endow the world with their own symbolically constructed version of reality. On the contrary people believe the world simply presents itself in the form it is perceived. "But what else could you call a hippopotamus" Geertz remarks, and this, fortunately or unfortunately, is also true for anthropologists - at least in their non-academic activities. We could not get out of bed in the morning (at least for those who want to get out of bed) if we did not subscribe to this view, for if we fully recognised the extent to which our notions of reality are the product of an artificially constructed symbol system, it would be, as Kenneth Burke pointed out, "like peering over the edge of things into an ultimate abyss."
Through symbols we confront the experiential chaos that surrounds us, and create order. By objectifying our symbolic categories, rather than recognising them as products of human creation, we see them as somehow the products of nature, “things” that we simply perceive and recognise. Indeed, l as many (e.g. Cassirer and Bauman) have remarked, the very distinction we make between the objective world and the subjective world is itself a product of humanly created symbols that divide the world of fact from the world of opinion.
However, this is not to say that people or cultures can freely create any symbolic system imaginable, or that all such constructs are potentially equally tenacious in the material world. There is a continuous interaction between the ways people have for dealing with the physical and social universe and the actual contours of that universe. As Sahlins has emphasised, when symbolic systems collide with refractory social or physical forces, the potential for change in the symbolic system is ever present. Moreover, symbols do not simply arise spontaneously nor is the continuing process of redefinition of the symbolic universe a matter of chance. Both are heavily influenced by the distribution of resources found in the society and the relationships that exist with other societies. The key is two-fold: no meanings appear outside the existent tank of cultural materials, but at the same time it is human creativity that produces change and alternative understandings by situated individuals. Though symbols provide people a way of understanding the world, it is people who produce new symbols and transform the old. This seems to be especially true for societies like our own in which, due to their complexity; everyday practices depend on a higher degree of abstraction.
Having said this,I consider the social practices that I will refer to as fundamentally symbolic action that is organised around a particular understanding and categorisation of the social world, largely subversive. Although a lot has been said about anti-globalisation movements in the context of a reaction to processes of globalisation, my interest here is mostly on the violence performed by anarchist groups in Athens, and thus it is not necessarily or directly linked with the anti-globalisation movement. Their discourse producing a particular perception of major political institutions and their function, such as the State, as well as of basic social relations and forms such as ideas around wage-labour or the commodity form have been around long before popular discourse about globalisation begins. So I am more concerned with an agonistic rhetoric that characterises anarchist discourse in Athens and that in my view both constructs identities and opens the way to the performance of violent acts, mainly in the public space, by creating a certain perception of antagonists that the individual not only has to encounter but also to win.
December has been quite unique in Athens and to some extent in the whole country The murder of a young boy by a police officer in the area of Exarchia, well known to the whole country for its anarchist activity, led to what many saw as a spontaneous insurrection that lasted for about two weeks. Thousands of people went out to the streets, demonstrating and fighting against the police. Riots became very violent, and hundreds of banks, luxury shops, and cars were smashed and burned, as well as whole buildings. Extensive looting was taking place, while in the square outside the Parliament the burning of the city's Christmas tree, symbol of the city’s prosperity order, and normality was reported by the media as proof that the country had surrendered itself to chaos and to the destructive intentions of mindless individuals who did not know how to protest. In the first four days the riot police launched more than four tons of tear gas in Athens alone, and had to import more from Israel because they had run out of it! Barricades were set up in major avenues of the cities especially outside the squatted universities that people used as their base of operations (in Greece the universities have a constitutionally guaranteed asylum in recognition of the events of November ’73, so according to the law the police cannot enter). In the context of political processes run mainly by anarchist groups, open assemblies were taking place every day in the universities to discuss means for the continuation of the upheaval. Many texts were being printed and distributed in different areas of the city.
Although it is difficult to interpret what exactly has happened there are a few certain things that I could mention. Firstly that the death of the child was only the spark. The causes are certainly deeper and are related to specific ideas of particular people about Greek society and capitalist society as a whole, as well as to specific underprivileged statuses (e.g. a lot of immigrants participated, feeling that they were striking back in some way). Secondly, the people (people from different age groups, social classes and ethnic groups) who participated were a minority. Most people could not understand where this thing was coming from. Finally being to a large extent a destructive force, the insurrection did not express any specific demands - besides the rage against police brutality - that made many people wonder even more about its character. It seems to me that some people (especially anarchist groups with ideological discourse and orientations) knew quite well what they were doing whereas others responded more spontaneously. But for the anarchists too the major question - an ideological one - has been what the next step would be, what this situation could leave behind as a seed. Clearly for some this was resistance against the State. The antagonist was the State represented both in the places where commodities were being destroyed and in the riot police that were being attacked.
The crucial factor here is a powerful discursive formation, that of anarchist ideology that, largely based on Marxism, is characterised both by a specific revolutionary narrative about the social world and a specific conception of the individual. It begins with the presupposition that a better and more just society in which social and economic equality can be attained, is possible. A belief in the self-determination of the individual and the autonomy or self-management of his community considers that hierarchically structured social relations produce societies of inequality and exploitation in which people are divided into the oppressors, those who have power, and the oppressed, those who are subjected to the control and the power of the former. From this perspective a polarised conception of the social world creates a dichotomous view of society as constituted by subjects categorised on the basis of their access to material resources that is thus equated to the power to control. In this manner, the majority of people are presented, to a large extent, as lacking agency, not being able to determine the conditions of their own existence, but being subjected to the will of individuals and institutions that manipulate them in order to further their utilitarian needs and interests.
In this context, anarchist ideology and discourse aspire to a general ideal of "human freedom" which is defined as a condition wherein the individual lives and creates according to his/her desires that, in turn, spring from a reference to the concept of self. The self should be the creator of both the community and its institutions that are presented in direct opposition to the existent ones as consolidated on the basis of man’s "real" needs, that is not following economic interest which only supports a class society. Interestingly the utopian society of anarchists is not one of absolute harmony, but one where conflict appears when people themselves decide so. This is why the nation-state is considered an artificial construct that homogenises and unites people by force for the promotion of class and power interests of the elite. The abolition of the State comes as the answer to the issue of ideal political organisation that, according to this view, must aim to the autonomy of a smaller community.
The vehicle of this fundamental social change is considered to be the mass mobilisation of people, the movement to revolution which can bring "human freedom" when people realise the fetters of the State and its mechanisms, but also their own power to act shaping their conditions of life. From this point of view, representative democracy is viewed as an oppressive system of governance that maintains the distinction between rulers and ruled, and perpetuates in a sly way human heteronomy.
At the same time, especially among the groups I am focusing on, wage-labour is considered perhaps the most oppressive condition in modern societies and it is thus often referred to as "wage-slavery" mainly because of the restrictions it is thought to pose to “human desire," but also because according to the Marxist point of view, it reifies what is in fact a social relation. Indeed, the notion of "desire" is a fundamental one -and for the researcher a crucial factor - because it implies an essential self that differs from the so cial self in its will to live in ways that are not related and are contrary to the restrictions put by dominant culture. And as I said, perhaps the most important such restriction is considered to be wage-labour. Labor is identified with economic interest, which is ethically inferior in the hierarchy of values. But more importantly; wage-labour is considered to be the greatest compromise of an individual’s personal freedom. From here springs the disrespect for the workplace (a place that is by definition presented as oppressive) and the will for one to physically attack it, especially when it reflects the interests of capital. In this manner, what is the workplace of some becomes the target of violent attacks by others, since these are perceived not only as spaces of exploitation and alienation but also of promotion of material-capitalist interest.
These observations concerning the anarchist ideal and discourse cannot be of much help in understanding performative violence if they are not contextualised within Greek political history, a history of intense political violence. Towards the end of the sixties anarchist ideas began to appear in Greece as a further radicalisation of the already existent social struggle and the wider left social movement that fought through severe strikes, demonstrations, and clashes with the police for social and labour rights in a society in which the civil war of 1946-49, between the national government and the communists, had cost the lives of about 70,000 people, with tens of thousands of leftists exiled to small inhospitable Greek islands. In contrast to other countries, like Spain, anarchism in Greece appears, mainly as an urban political culture embraced by - but not limited to - the young (although its influence is also present in rural mobilisations at the beginning of the 20th century). The initial ideological influences came from the French May of ’68 but also from the legacy of the American counter-culture, and blended with the Greek left tradition of disrespect for a state that from the beginning of the 20th century was characterised by its nationalistic orientation, policies, and discourse and that until 1974 - and especially during the years of the dictatorship 1967-1974 - was fighting against what it perceived as the communist threat. Very importantly, in 1974 the Greek Communist Party was recognised as a legal political party and officially became a member party of the Parliament. At the level of ideology this change meant an important withdrawal since the Communist Party could no longer evangelise the possibility of a revolution.
Thus, towards the end of the seventies anarchists (that part of the libertarians who found the Left to be conservative both in lifestyles and in their political agenda) began to perceive the use of violence as an authentic expression of the old political and social dream of revolution and themselves as continuing and persisting with the conditions of the civil war, a war that had ended with the communists’ defeat and surrendering of arms. Violence, in this context, performed not as terroristic acts by groups like November 17th, which planted bombs and assassinated people, but in the open public space during riots, or today as small scale hits on targets such as police stations or specific companies and banks by a number of people with a “teaching them a lesson" logic. Violence of this sort began to express the authenticity of intentions/the most honest way" as an informant said, to preserve the flame of revolution. It is in this sense that violence during riots represents those who see themselves as keeping alive the dream of revolution. And as Pratt has demonstrated about anarchism in Andalusia, the moral vision of anarchists for a new social order without class divisions has given rise to a revolutionary narrative in which revolution is associated with destruction.
In the early eighties came the influence of the German movement of autonomen-chaoten and its symbols. Anarchists in Greece, now operating independently from the numerous leftist groups, began to identify themselves as "anarchist" and to use the now well-known circled "A." Most importantly they borrow from the German movement the use of the hood/mask, as a symbol of an unexpected attack by an invisible and fearful aggressor (today most would argue that the primary reason for one wearing a mask is not to be traced by the surveillance systems of the police, thus downplaying its powerful symbolic value).
From the early nineties onwards, anarchist groups started to have an interest in influencing society more than they did in the past - they became more social and less marginal, in a sense - not necessarily with the aim of forming a movement, but more in the sense of their attempt to be politically visible during times of important social problems. A basic idea begins to take root that of the transformation of everyday life brought about both by Situationists like Debord and Vaneigem and the German and Italian Autonomia. So, in riots for instance, they begin to respond to specific central decisions and plans that came with neoliberalism after the fall of the Soviet Union, such as privatisations. But most importantly through a public discourse that manifested itself in thousands of printed pamphlets and street posters distributed in the whole country they further cultivated the idea of "an anarchist attack."
Now, the whole idea of the attack has great significance, it appears a lot in anarchist discourse and can enlighten us on perceptions of violence. I am referring to a widespread view that anarchists hold for themselves, according to which it is they who attack. In this manner, they are self- identified not so much as a movement of resistance - since this characterisation is followed by connotations of a weak position - but as a movement of offence/attack/assault. Practically this means that the police (which are perceived as a class mechanism that stands as a barrier between the people and capital) should not be the ones, strategically speaking, to make the first move, that is they should not be the ones who attack first. On the contrary it is the anarchists who retain the momentum, that is they select the occasion, exact place/spot and the exact time of the performance of a violent act. As a consequence, they do not perceive themselves as victims of police brutality. Being the aggressor prevents one from victimising oneself. Not victimising oneself means that even if you "lose" there is reference to the category of an agonistic dignity - as indeed occurs - which thus increases. So, accordingly the struggle is always offensive, thus the slogans with such strong imagery: "clashing opens passages" or "think revolutionary, act aggressively".
This is why the discourse in brochures and street posters presents themselves as the aggressors with the use of an eager rhetoric of continuous war, self-sacrifice but also open conspiratory activity aiming at the subversion of the existent social order. An example of this comes from the text that followed the attack by twenty people on a police station, burning the parked police cars and motorbikes in July 2008. To explain their position they stated: "And if some (people) continue to spin round on a roulette wheel waiting to end up on a lucky number, if some leave their lives to chance, there are others who ambush, thinking that they only live once and owe it to hemselves to draw a course of dignity in the everyday life that surrounds them choosing the role of its denier. And we are some of these people, and we organise our desires with rage and consciousness and not with blank justifications for inaction and passivity We are the carriers of hatred for your world. Disgusted by everything that provides the sense of order and security, your police stations are always our target."
What we have to emphasise is that in this militarised anarchist discourse we find implicit the conception of the perpetuation of attack to the capitalist order and the State that leads to the idea of an ethical legitimisation and higher responsibility. What is more, this legitimisation of violence is, in the anarchist imagination, to be sanctioned not by present society but from history that is by the society of the future. Anarchist discourse does not negotiate, does not converse about the value of violent activity with those who find violence senseless or useless. This is why during riots, whenever people from the Left attempt to persuade and prevent them from carrying out acts of destruction they fail. Indeed, holding a view of modern society as bankrupted and resembling a "desert" (a now commonly used metaphor), I would argue, creates a conviction that today’s violent acts will be validated by people in a distant future, that is by future generations. In this way there is a displacement of the dialogue for recognition of violence from present society to that of the future. So, a belief that an act of revolution is an act of destruction and that nothing else from society as presently constituted is to be carried forward, creates a dialogue with the future, thus the powerful slogan that we saw during December: "we are an image from the future" in which one traces the idea that a certain violence performed against what is perceived as political targets will only be understood in the years to come. In this context, decisions about the performance of violence are beyond dispute since they represent a higher goal that cannot converse with or be compromised by present conditions, considerations or ideas. In this way; the culturally accepted idiom that could set the terms of a dialogue breaks down, or is being transcended. Hence, there is no discussion about whether it is right or wrong to burn down a store ("if in the society of the future private property will not have the same content it has today we can, today, attack it"). Such a categorisation armours individuals since it legitimises violent activity by considering that this will only be understood in the future.
In this sense, violence is necessary for the message it sends to future generations. Since past experience informs the understanding of the present and marks possible routes of action, it is certain that the frequent performance of violence creates specific conceptions in society about the tolerable and normal limits of it, not in the sense of its acceptance but in the sense of the consolidation of an expected degree of violence, a degree that is manageable both by society and the State. Especially as far as the police are concerned, they (the police) seem to operate within a specific set of meanings that define the relation of the antagonists on the basis of a past experience of violence, an experience that is guided by and at the same time recognises a particular ritualistic sequence in a confrontation that usually does not allow for this violence to become murderous. There is in a way; an implicit and mutual understanding between the antagonists - between anarchist groups and the police - that violence during riots must not lead to the loss of human life, which is appreciated more than material loss in the whole system of cultural meanings. This, on the other hand, could be regarded as an antithesis since a discourse of war does not account only for material damage but for human loss as well. But as we remarked, violence does not only have practical - instrumental aspects, but also symbolic - expressive ones (Riches). Going back to December, the confrontations in the streets and the heavy material dam- ages all over Greece were followed by an attack on a riot police bus with machine guns by the terrorist group Revolutionary Struggle that aimed at the assassination of police officers as a response to the assassination of the young boy Most of the people I talked to said that they were not sure if this was a proper reaction, since it was taking the conflict to a different level, that is taking away the legitimation of violence that had taken place in the streets. From this point of view, violence was useful and successful, that is serving the interests of a social movement that wants to gain popular support, only as long as it does not become murderous. However, those who believe in an open and continuous confrontation with the State and "its guards," those who engage in a discourse of perpetual war thought that the identity of the revolutionary is defined by him negating that the State should have the monopoly of violence. As one person told me: "why is it normal for the police to walk around with guns, while I am taken for a crazy and dangerous person if I do so? They killed a young boy in cold blood. Aren’t they dangerous?"
The State employs discourses of law, order, and good citizenship and uses symbols to legitimise its authority. A different set of symbols (the violent confrontation and its targets) are used by anarchist groups to mobilise opposition and communicate a negation of what is perceived as a coercive institution and mechanism that according to a Marxist and anarchist perspective collaborates with the other major force of human exploitation that historically helped in its creation and development, namely capital or the capitalist establishment, which is identified with the State and its ordering of human life.
So far the anarchist argument follows a well known leftist or libertarian logic familiar to all of us: capital accumulates social wealth and at the same time creates and supports the State to safeguard its interests. The State does not represent or promote the needs of society but those of the capital that produce social inequality and exploitation. So, the argument goes, the State lies in its self-image and pseudo-identification with society. The problem, certainly not a social one, arises when some people believe this is so more than others and decide to act in a more, we could say direct manner, one that is considered by most, at least in our societies, as less “civilised," Indeed, for most people, although political protest is a legitimate means for advancing certain demands and interests - social, economic, political and so forth - this must be performed within certain limits of legality established by the laws of the State, And by no means do most of us know enough or feel comfortable enough to become violent during a demonstration (to burn a few cars, to smash some banks or throw Molotov cocktails at the police or luxury shops). All the more so since this usually involves some preparation that is mostly a matter of interpretation which is linked to the multivocality of symbols (the same symbol may be understood by different people in different ways). You either feel that a Ferrari should or could be burned or you don’t, you either consider it a manifestation of social inequality or a proof of higher technology and beauty or a little bit of both, but more one than the other. Of course, what is at stake here is a basic organisational principle of our societies: that of private property and its sacredness.“No one has the right to touch what I have gained through hard labour." The anarchist understanding is slightly different: if you own a lot it means that you have been subjecting others to some sort of exploitation since someone has to be poor if someone else becomes rich. At the same time, there is a powerful idea that surrounds behaviour towards objects, that of the nature of the commodity form. According to a Marxist and Debordian perspective commodities being the product of alienating social relations are themselves alienating, supporting a reified picture of the world, that is a world comprised by “things" and not social relations.
Commodities are being produced by people who sell their product to those who own the means of production, thus giving up what belongs to them. What is left to them from the produced product is the paid labour, while capital is produced through the unpaid labour, known as surplus value. Alienation, here, is conceived as a process by which the paid worker experiences a sense of loss that the giving away of his product creates, and the simultaneous implicit misconception that what you buy is not yours. The products that an individual has produced with his labour return to him through consumption in which he is called to buy what he himself has produced. As Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle) has argued, especially after the explosion of the advertising industry; the commodity form is being diffused to all levels of society; falsifying all social activities and relations through the strong imagery it creates. In a society where everything can be sold, it is thought that reality is transformed into an economic transaction. Social relations are mediated by commodities as when status is acquired through the consumption of particular products. The commodity form, being diffused, is transformed into images mediated by it so that it can be sold. This, according to the particular perspective, creates the various lifestyles that the advertising industry promotes, thus constructing identities based on consumption. In this manner, the argument goes, the commodity is being internalised, that is it exists as a mediated image that guides human behaviour and consumerist culture. In a world where image dominates, we begin to relate not to real individuals but with the images of the commodity If human relations are mediated by their images, and images are mediated by commodity then, in the final analysis, social relations are mediated by commodities.
In anarchist discourse then, it is this perception of commodities as falsifying elements of human interaction that provides legitimisation to the acts of destroying commodities (and the shops which sell them) and allows individuals to imagine looting as an act by which products are being taken by those who "really" own them.
This is precisely what anarchist discourse does: it provides individuals with particular knowledge that helps in ordering the world and providing necessary material for action. And action is indeed their speciality. Without getting into detail I would say that anarchist groups appear in at least seven cities around Greece. Influenced by a different range of theoretical stances such as the situationists, classical anarchism, the German and Italian autonomia, and more recently but less so, the so-called insurrectionists like the Italian Bonanno and the French “illegalists," they develop a discourse that conceptualises major institutions in the way I have described.
Now, when I am talking about anarchist groups I am referring to organised ones, that is groups that can range from five to forty people (from diverse social backgrounds. Aya has remarked on the fact that the anarchist movement in Spain constituted an alliance of different economic actors, and has seen this as one of the reasons for its weakness) with specific political activity. This includes three main practices. The first is the printing and distribution of street posters and brochures. The second is regular horizontally-structured, closed meetings in which various topics and routes of action are discussed and analysed. The third involves participation in larger open anarchist assemblies in which a great deal of networking activity and common organising takes place on a local or national level. All three practices seem to be crucial and their coexistence is important for a sense of collective identity.
Regarding the first, with the printed material groups present their political views and criticisms in a written text that, through its distribution, is announced and communicated to society. As far as the second is concerned, the closed meeting comprises a proof that the group indeed exists and is operative through a process of dialogue between equals who see each other as "comrades." To a large extent it is the main decision-making mechanism of small collectivities, and it being closed means that certain people not only have attained a certain degree of friendship and personal contact, but also a particular way of thinking and vocabulary that excludes others-anarchists and non-anarchists alike. Coming to the third, participation in large anarchist assemblies (often held in universities) indicates participation in political processes that extend from those of one's own group and facilitates wider decision-making by people with similar outlooks and common interests. In such assemblies, which can last from two to five hours, anyone can present his views and decisions are taken through consensus, not a majority vote. This is seen by many as an intrinsic feature and a central element that distinguishes “us" from “them," that is from non-anarchist decision-making practices that are hierarchically or vertically structured. Such assemblies might be open to everyone - as when possible participation in protests is being discussed - or closed, that is by invitation to particular people and groups - as when decisions regarding risky and violent acts are about to take place.
In relation to these, they can include a wide range of targets and different practices. Banks may be smashed or burned (with molotov cocktails), as well as luxury shops and cars, supermarkets might be looted, also sabotage of surveillance cameras may take place - especially during riots - but most importantly state buildings are attacked, and finally what is a relatively recent practice, from the last two to three years, police stations are attacked by groups of thirty to fifty people with sledge hammers and molotov cocktails, burning police cars, and smashing the building.
Mainstream media and a lot of people who find this violence meaningless and posing a danger for democracy wonder why the police cannot arrest these people. The answer is very interesting, but also very simple, and quite far from the experience of most people in modern cities. The answer is that if thirty people, and thirty is a lot of people, decide to perform a violent act against someone or something, they will most probably succeed in doing so.
What we have to keep in mind is that we are talking about small groups, both men and women, who come together in order to plan and perform unexpected attacks. But the most important element is not the accuracy of a plan - though this is definitely important - but the fact that small hits of this sort are based on close, long-lasting interpersonal relationships of friendship and intimacy What is more, the most fundamental element appears to be that of trust. You cannot carry out a violent act with people you do not know. On the contrary people who cooperate have done so in the past and know that they can rely on each other. And there are certain criteria and characteristics that are appreciated and valued for creating this sense of trust. A person must be courageous (i.e. bold but always sticking to the plan), must not set himself or the group to additional risk, must be able to move fast, to perform certain tasks, and also to show an ability to improvise in case something goes wrong.
What is more, setting oneself into frequent danger and risk of arrest and imprisonment, as well as the fact that experience of this sort transmits a sense of certainty about success, create a different perception of one’s own position towards state repression, and most importantly a different perception of normality It is not only that notions of “citizenship" are being challenged here. Performative violence constructs subjects with a different relation towards the emotion of fear. In this context, what is normality for some becomes a passive state of being for those informed by an agonistic discourse that guides them into social practices that most of us would consider life-threatening. From this perspective, I would argue, that since what prevents some people from such acts is the internalisation of the fear of arrest and punishment that flows from the dominant discourse of an ever present and powerful state, what we find in groups like these is precisely a better management of this fear constituted through experience. This involves a powerful notion that relates to the different expectations of the people concerned: the notion that "anything is possible," that increased empowerment constructs a strong sense of agency in people who conceptualise the State as a major force of restraint of human agency and initiative. This, then, becomes a crucial factor of contestation of State power by groups that perceive it not only as coercive but also as defeatable.
It is through personal initiative for violence that individuals construct an identity of an active subject that resists perceived conditions of general passivity and apathy. The insurrectionist, the term most commonly used, is identified with the person who resists the determination of his life by an antagonistic State. In a country with a long history of intercommunal political violence, the insurrectionist constructs himself the field of conflict and steps into it by becoming either an urban guerrilla or an activist.
In one of his papers, Jeffrey Juris remarks that anti-corporate globalisation activists face the challenge or having to develop new approaches in the face of their mass direct actions becoming stagnant. He sees the need for sustainable organisation - even if decentralised and network based - that can survive the flows of mass mobilisation. On the other hand, anarchist groups in Greece do not face, in my view, a similar challenge. Their discourse and a long history of violence provide the necessary material to continue with a solid perception of the State as their main antagonist. It is this perception that being internally uncontested generates performative violence as a basic means to articulate identities that will reproduce it.
It has been said that the impact of a particular ritual is a product of its past performances. Memories associated with earlier experiences guide new enactments of rites. This is why rites have both a conservative bias and an innovative potential. This is also why December reinforced the pre-existing view among these groups that this specific sort of violence, with its spectacular characteristics, can operate as a successful political and subversive technique. To the extent that the whole country watched in awe what a few thousand people can do when they coordinate reinforces this truism.
The so-called "chaos” that anarchists create, the absence of specific - read “logical" - demands, and their rituals (violent confrontation and assemblies) - to the extent that they do not represent a particular political program-operate as crucial elements in the creation of an alternative structure. While not devoid of organisation, their non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian modes as well as the fact that they do not stand for - like the organisations of other radicals - a counter-structure helps in retaining characteristics of anti-structure that are not easily contested. Acts of destruction communicate in an explicit way their utopian vision for a change that is perceived not as political but as cultural, therefore generating even stronger moral judgements and passions. At the same time, they themselves comprise an important example of the multiplicity of cultural discourses that can lead to a multiplicity of cultural experience and subjectivity within the same society.
In the cultural invention of the frequent use of violence we see not only an attempt to retain agency but also the ways dominant discourse and power are contested. We see not a burst that reaffirms the value of maintaining the social order but a claim for its transformation. This is why performative violence might be a subversive process that challenges the preservation of existent meanings and not an element that reinforces them.