Terminating the spatial contract: A commentary on Greece

A very un­usual thing happened on February 12th in Athens: the Greek cap­ital city went up in flames. Now, even the casual fol­lower of events in the country might spot some­thing pe­cu­liar in this sen­tence — not with the event de­scribed, but with the state­ment. Is that any news? Haven’t smoke and flames risen enough times to ques­tion that “Athens is burning” is really that un­usual? For the casual fol­lower of Greek events the array of im­ages of de­struc­tion have be­come a series of near-​unimportant blips. Ever so often, “Athens is burning”. Somewhere. But on that night, Athens was burning. Everywhere.

And yet, in the years that pre­ceded the ar­rival of the IMF/​EU/​ECB troika in the country, throughout the en­tire so-​called Greek Metapolitefsi (the post-​dictatorial era[1]), Athens wasn’t burning just any­where — let alone, of course, every­where. Quite to the con­trary. The city saw pro­longed periods (span­ning over at least three dec­ades) of re­mark­able con­cen­tra­tion of its world-​renown skir­mishes between youth and po­lice. These would often cul­minate in larger-​scale un­rest; riots or urban re­volts — but one thing would al­most never change: nearly without ex­cep­tion, every single one of such in­stances in Greece’s post-​dictatorial era took place in the central Athens neigh­bour­hood of Exarcheia.

“You are not in Exarcheia any­more”: Members of Delta, the rapid re­sponse mo­tor­cycle po­lice unit that was formed fol­lowing, and in direct re­sponse to the re­volt of December 2008.

This com­mentary at­tempts to ex­plain how this con­cen­tra­tion of col­lective vi­ol­ence emerged and how this “vi­ol­ence equi­lib­rium” that it cre­ated was in­ter­laced with the post-​dictatorial re­gime as a whole. It ex­plains the im­port­ance of the re­volt of December 2008 as a lim­inal event[2] — one that was sparked within Exarcheia but quickly ex­ceeded its con­fines. Both a pre­de­cessor and an opening act to the cur­rent eco­nomic crisis, December’s re­volt gave way to a period of vi­ol­ence that was dif­fused across much of the Athenian en­tity — so far cul­min­ating with the wide­spread vi­ol­ence of February 12th. The events of that night il­lu­min­ated an already sim­mering dif­fu­sion of vi­ol­ence, a long-​time-​coming ter­min­a­tion of the “spa­tial con­tract”: this im­plicit yet rigid agree­ment upon which a cer­tain level of so­cial up­heaval and un­rest had be­come pos­sible within the limits of Exarcheia, under a mu­tual but muted un­der­standing that such un­rest would rarely, if at all, spill over to other parts of the city.

Exarcheia bound

Exarcheia, this small central Athenian neigh­bour­hood, is sur­rounded by uni­ver­sities and much in­flu­enced by them: in both ways, it is defined by their pres­ence. The Law School of Athens University is ad­ja­cent to it and the old Chemistry School building is here, too. But the campus that has single-​handedly marked the neigh­bour­hood be­longs to the National Technical University (NTUA, or Athens Polytechnic: the Polytechneio). It was right here, on the night of November 17th, 1973, that an anti-​dictatorial uni­ver­sity stu­dent up­rising would be quelled by forces of the mil­itary junta (1967 – 1974) soon be­fore the re­gime would reach its own end. The struggle of the stu­dents in­side the Polytechneio be­came a symbol of res­ist­ance against the old re­gime. By ex­ten­sion, to be part of the Polytechneio gen­er­a­tion be­came a source of le­git­im­isa­tion within the post-​dictatorial re­gime and by double ex­ten­sion, a source of le­git­im­isa­tion for the re­gime as a whole. In the post-​dictatorial state the an­niversary of the up­rising be­came a school-​celebrated National Day.

From the dawn of the demo­cratic era then, Exarcheia found it­self holding some­thing of an ex­cep­tional status. In the years and dec­ades that fol­lowed the small Athenian neigh­bour­hood would play host to un­rest of all dif­ferent shapes and sizes: commemorative/​ritualistic riots on an­niversaries of the up­rising; at times weekly (per­haps even more reg­ular) skir­mishes between youth and the po­lice that came hand-​in hand with the growing of a counter-​culture also partly tra­cing back to the 1973 up­rising. Last but not least, the re­volt of December 2008 would break out from the heart of the neighbourhood.

The ety­mo­logy of the word Exarcheia could plaus­ibly be of [ex] (beyond) + [archė] (au­thority). Never let the facts get in the way of a great ety­mo­lo­gical definition![3] Had this been true, it would quite lit­er­ally de­note Exarcheia as a space of ex­cep­tion — which it is, nev­er­the­less. The cru­cial dif­fer­en­ti­ation of the neigh­bour­hood is that in­stead of “con­firming the rule” (as in the classic defin­i­tion of Schmitt, 1985, also used in Agamben, 2005), Exarcheia de­fies the rule and by doing so, it le­git­im­ises it. Paradoxical? The short an­swer is, quite! A more com­plete an­swer re­quires delving into this exact paradox.

Three c’s: con­tracts, con­sent, continuities

When ac­cepting the power transfer from the Junta Generals in 1974, the Democratic au­thor­ities must have been fully aware of how dif­ferent their re­gime would be from its coun­ter­parts flour­ishing in the European core. To begin with it, was evid­ently poorer. A state that was there­fore for its largest part un­pre­pared and un­able to enter into a wide­spread so­cial con­tract, this im­plicit agree­ment guar­an­teeing the con­tinuity of a re­gime and the sim­ul­tan­eous so­cial re­pro­duc­tion of its sub­jects. Consent would not have been reached through wel­fare; the state was not rich enough to achieve this. And yet, there is one thing this part of the world has al­ways been rich in, and that is the vivid spa­tial ar­tic­u­la­tion of its politics. The Antartes (Partisans) res­isting the Axis Occupation (1941 – 1944) and fighting the suc­ceeding Civil War (lasting until 1949) βγήκαν στο βουνό (“went out to the moun­tain”) as the saying would have it, to join the struggle[4]. The pun­ish­ment of the dis­sid­ents of the Junta was also an in­her­ently spa­tial one. Those fighting the re­gime — or sus­pected of doing so — would find them­selves out­side the limits (in exile, εξ’ορία — lit. “beyond limits”) of so­ciety yet clearly at the very centre of the regime’s jur­is­dic­tion, its zone of control.

Both these events stemmed from ac­tions that were far from vol­un­tary. The Partisans were forced to take to the moun­tains; the dis­sid­ents of the dic­tat­orial re­gime had the de­cision of exile made for them. But in the case of the demo­cratic re­gime suc­ceeding the Junta, the de­cision to place one­self in the ex-​oria of Ex-​archeia was largely vol­un­tary and re­cip­rocal: those finding them­selves at the mar­gins of Democracy used Exarcheia to ground their mar­gin­ality. At the same time the demo­cratic re­gime al­lowed Exarcheia to be­come this site of ant­ag­onism, of dis­tan­cing from its rule, an in­verted space of exception.

Why? Why would sov­er­eignty, how­ever im­pli­citly or par­tially, lift its rule from any seg­ment of its ter­ritory? There has re­cently been a growing dis­cus­sion on a dis­junc­ture (or, in any case, a rear­tic­u­la­tion of the re­la­tion­ship) between ter­ritory and sov­er­eignty. Agnew (2009) shows how the pro­cess of glob­al­isa­tion acts in­de­pend­ently from state sov­er­eignty, fur­ther com­plic­ating (rather than weak­ening) its re­la­tion­ship to ter­ritory. Elden (2009) ex­plains how the re­la­tion­ship between the two is re­con­figured, par­tic­u­larly in face of the ‘war on terror’.

But the case of Exarcheia might be pointing at an­other way in which this dis­junc­ture is ar­tic­u­lated: as a space of ex­cep­tion, of ex­cep­tional un­rest, Exarcheia out­lines the limits of the Democratic re­gime, there­fore proving it does, in­deed, have a limit. Gone were the days of the dic­tat­or­ship, this to­tal­it­arian re­gime, the days of the total. The new re­gime knew how to show re­straint and Exarcheia was its tan­gible proof. And fur­ther: for the demo­cratic re­gime, the tol­er­ance of Exarcheia and the sub­sequent growth of a move­ment of res­ist­ance there sym­bol­ic­ally al­lowed it to claim a con­tinuity with the dis­sid­ents of the dic­tat­or­ship. By ex­ten­sion, the wide­spread so­cial le­git­im­isa­tion of post-​dictatorial Greek demo­cracy was built on this exact claim of con­tinuity with the anti-​dictatorial struggle. This is key, not least be­cause the trans­ition from dic­tat­or­ship to demo­cracy was ex­actly so: a trans­ition — more of the old re­gime handing over power, less of the new one laying claim upon and af­firming it through any kind of rup­ture. Yet still, a line of con­tinuity in so­cial ima­ginary traced demo­cracy to the dis­sid­ents of the Junta. Thanks to the ex­cep­tional site of Exarcheia, it be­came pos­sible for the con­tinu­ities between the dic­tat­orial and demo­cratic re­gime to ap­pear closer to schisms.

The need for a re­gime to dis­tin­guish it­self from its pre­de­cessor goes a long way back, it would seem. There is a classic ex­ample (no pun in­tended, eve if it is from clas­sical Greece) where re­gime rup­ture was ar­tic­u­lated, once again, through a dif­fer­ence in the spa­tial ex­clu­sion of dis­sid­ents. For Sara Forsdyke, os­tra­cism (a tem­porary, demo­crat­ic­ally de­cided exile of an in­di­vidual in ar­chaic Athens) was “more than ‘a demo­cratic form of an elite prac­tice’”; it was pre­cisely an at­tempt by Athenians to dis­tin­guish “demo­cratic rule from the forms of elite rule that had pre­ceded it” (2005: 2).

This slightly older Athenian ex­ample once again con­cerns the spa­tial ex­clu­sion of dis­sid­ents and the de­marc­a­tion of con­tinuity between re­gimes through it. The sim­il­arity is re­mark­able. The politics of exile (per­manent; mass; un­demo­cratic) versus os­tra­cism (tem­porary; in­di­vidual; demo­cratic) in ar­chaic Greece. The politics of no ex­cep­tion (to­tal­it­ari­anism) of an un­demo­cratic re­gime versus the politics of ex­cep­tion (in the sense that they allow, that is, for ex­cep­tions) of demo­cracy. Here lies the es­sence of the spa­tial con­tract. It goes far beyond an ex­cep­tional site: it en­com­passes sov­er­eignty, its sub­jects and the way in which they ar­tic­u­late and reg­u­late their re­la­tion­ship in public urban space. This, in turn, spans beyond the ques­tion of co­ex­ist­ence. Providing and al­lowing for a spa­tial ar­tic­u­la­tion of dis­sent, in the case of Exarcheia, re­placed and dis­counted for an in­ab­ility to reach so­cial con­sent through wel­fare. Put simply, a so­cial con­tract was un­at­tain­able and the spa­tial con­tract came to the rescue. Just like the so­cial con­tract this con­tract, too, was un­written. And just the same, it was — os­tens­ibly — re­cip­rocal but largely un­even. Although it was centred around Exarcheia it con­cerned a “vi­ol­ence equi­lib­rium” that spanned (pre­cisely through the neighbourhood’s un­rest con­cen­tra­tion) across the en­tire country. A tur­bu­lent Exarcheia trans­lated into a largely peaceful Greece. And what an achieve­ment this was, with much of the country’s tur­bu­lent im­me­diate past being subdued.

Another three c’s: when fin­an­cial rating down­grading hits the streets

In the morning of May 6th, 2010 Greece made global head­lines, once again. For the first time ever, a Eurozone member-​country turned to in­ter­na­tional funding bodies[5] for a fin­an­cial loan[6] in face of the severe ef­fect of the global fin­an­cial crisis upon its na­tional eco­nomy. Not too long ago, the country had once again been in the global spot­light (a never-​ending oc­cur­rence, it seems). The re­volt of December 2008 was sparked by the shooting of a 15-​year old boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, by po­lice in the heart of Exarcheia. How could the country’s two mo­ments of fame re­late to one an­other? Some were quick to brand the un­pre­ced­ented urban re­volt that fol­lowed the shooting of Grigoropoulos as the first re­volt of the global fin­an­cial crisis. Was it so? December was a lim­inal event and — as with all lim­inal events — it is dif­fi­cult to trace whether it marked a be­gin­ning or an end. With its spread across Athens first, then Greece and par­tially even fur­ther beyond, the 2008 up­rising may have been a pre­lude to the mass, wide­spread un­rest that suc­ceeded it, marked and amp­li­fied by the ar­rival of the troika in the country. This is most cer­tainly plaus­ible. But be­fore it turned it­self into this pre­lude, December caused a severe dis­rup­tion to the ex­isting vi­ol­ence equi­lib­rium: the spa­tial con­tract was ser­i­ously put into question.

The ques­tion of ter­rit­ori­ality of un­rest is im­portant. The “spa­tial con­tract”, or the “vi­ol­ence equi­lib­rium” does not de­note a mere clus­tering of un­rest. It is not simply about pin­ning riots close to one an­other in a map; far from so. The ter­rit­ori­ality of un­rest defines its so­cial qual­ities and polit­ical value. Proof? For one, throughout Greece’s post-​dictatorial era, the vi­ol­ence equi­lib­rium did not just see a con­cen­tra­tion of vi­ol­ence in Exarcheia. It saw a level and type of vi­ol­ence that was both con­ceiv­able and man­age­able by the re­gime it was faced against: com­mem­or­ative riots es­sen­tially acted — for many — as a rite of pas­sage, as an in­tro­duc­tion to a tur­bu­lent na­tional polit­ical life. The actors of the riot, and this is re­lated, were pre­dom­in­antly ho­mo­gen­eous in their com­pos­i­tion. Think young, male, white, and Greek; just like Grigoropoulos in 2008. Until the split-​second of his shooting the event fit per­fectly into the ex­isting vi­ol­ence equi­lib­rium. But from the very next split second, it ex­ceeded and un­bal­anced it. This is pre­cisely how it was lim­inal. It ex­ceeded the vi­ol­ence equi­lib­rium not only by breaking through the con­fines of the neigh­bour­hood; it was also a limin­ality in­scribed in the actors of the re­volt, un­pre­ced­ented as they were in the mix­ture of their so­cial and class com­pos­i­tion: mi­grants and school chil­dren, act­iv­ists and sports hoo­ligans, usual and very, very un­usual suspects.

Fast for­ward now to the events of the night of February 12th. International news cam­eras rolled, as building after building was en­gulfed in fire. For the dis­tant ob­server, the spec­tacle may have been hardly cap­tiv­ating; per­haps it would even bring some yawning. But what happened on that night was not just un­usual. It was — lit­er­ally — ground-​breaking, shaking the found­a­tion of the spa­tial ar­tic­u­la­tion in dis­sent in Greece; ter­min­ating its spa­tial con­tract. The actors in the freshest of urban re­volts, too, have gone long past the limin­al­ities of December 2008. School chil­dren, mi­grants, an­arch­ists and Leftists (in short, the usual sus­pects) found them­selves lost in a sea of new­comers to the streets. With the spa­tial con­tract out-​of-​the-​way, the new ques­tions ahead are not merely about where but who and for what reason. With neo-​Nazi sup­porters of the Golden Dawn af­firming their pres­ence in the streets (in­stances of racially-​motivated vi­ol­ence are daily). A “city-​jungle” as per Filippidis (2011), where “war reigns and the so­cial con­tract is buried”. Consent is buried and ant­ag­on­isms beam naked in the urban ter­rain. An end of an era, an opening of an­other one. As al­ways, his­tory is un­written and what hap­pens next is quite im­possible to pre­dict. Yet in whatever fol­lows, spa­tially de­marc­ated ant­ag­on­isms and con­sen­sual politics are bound to be ab­sent. All op­tions are fully, truly and wide open.

From Society and Space: Environment and Planning D


Agamben, Giorgio (2005) State of Exception, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Agnew, John (2009) Globalisation and Sovereignty, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield

Dalakoglou, D. (2011) “The Xenophobic City: Anti-​migratory Violence in Athensand the Extension of the Border in the Metropolis”, Xenophobia and Philoxenia Conference at the Netherlands Institute of Athens

Elden, Stuart (2009) Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Filippidis, C. (2011) “The polis-​jungle, ma­gical dens­ities and the sur­vival guide of the enemy within”, in Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou (eds) Revolt and Crisis in Greece, Oakland, Edinburgh and Athens: AK Press

Forsdyke, Sara (2005) Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Schmitt, Carl (1985) [1922] Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Stavrides, Stavros (2010) Towards the City of Thresholds,Torino: Professional Dreamers


My warmest thanks to Dimitris Dalakoglou, Klara Jaya Brekke, Andreas Chatzidakis and Hara Kouki for their feed­back and com­ments on the ori­ginal text.

Photographs by Ross Domoney, used with per­mis­sion. See his web­site for more ex­amples of his work.


1 Metapolitefsi lit­er­ally de­notes the post-[dictatorial] re­gime; yet the term has been used col­lo­qui­ally to de­note the Third Greek Democracy (1974-​present) in its entirety.

2 Liminality, from the Latin word limen, threshold — see Stavrides, 2010. For a rich dis­cus­sion on the re­la­tion­ship between the an­thro­po­lo­gical rite of pas­sage and lim­inal state as a state of ex­cep­tion, see Dalakoglou, 2011.

3 Warmest thanks to Demi Kazasi for sharing this idea. We already knew when dis­cussing it that it was too good to be true! The neigh­bour­hood was named after Exarchos, a prom­inent local mer­chant who worked there at the end of the 19th century.

4 For a de­tailed de­scrip­tion of the in­herent spa­ti­ality of con­tem­porary Greek politics see Kalianos, un­pub­lished PhD Thesis,University of St Andrews,UK.

5 The IMF, EU and ECB — the so-​called “troika”

6 A re­cord €110 bn at the time, soon to be bloated to ap­prox twice the amount.

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