On the Greek revolt: Sailing away from the shores of normality

by | 11 Jan 2011

The three bullets fired by police special guard Epaminondas Korkoneas that killed 15 year old Alexis Grigoropoulos in cold blood in Athens on December 6th started a revolt that shattered two of the country’s strongest linear political understandings. First, the anarchist and autonomous left has long viewed itself as being in a severe decline in influence, a sense of a bleak future has been growing for years and was only magnifed when viewed against the spectacular success of the movement in the past. Those that remember the near mythical 1973 student uprisings against the dictatorship; the riots that followed the assassination of another 15 year old, Michalis Kaltezas in 1985 and the protests that followed the 1995 police siege of the Athens Polytechnic, had almost lost hope in the voice of the radical left. Tales from such moments of rupture and revolt circulated together with a firm if indirect reminder that none of this was possible any more.

The second understanding, distinct but directly related to the first, is to be found in most if not all societies of the West throughout the 80s and the 90s. For all those long years the monstrous ideology of TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’) would keep pointing at the one-way street of neoliberalism. The individuals that neoliberal society produced in return would invariably join that all-too-familiar rat race: work, consume, obey – but more, more! Crushed between the modernist idea of progress on the one hand and the absence of social bonds of solidarity on the other, people would be left with nothing but a single (and therefore non-) choice: To try and climb up that imaginary social ladder as fast as they could – and to step over anyone they would cross their way.

The revolt that followed Alexis’ assassination in Athens was an extended moment of rupture. The insurgency that irrupted in that moment might have inestimable consequences. It offered an opportunity not only to break away from these suffocating understandings of history but also to redefine where the limits of collective action should lie. During the moment of revolt, the new subjects took action according to what they felt was just ­– whether this was legal or illegal was no longer relevant. In a strange return spanning the generations and continents, a clear message arose from the streets of Athens and the words of the Black Panthers echoed out loud again: “Stick’em up, motherfucker… We’ve come for what’s ours”.

For years, the Greek state had sought an event that would drag society out of its post-dictatorial limbo; something strong enough to close the lid on the past and the social instinct for resistance that came with it. The memory of the dictatorship and the struggles against it haunted those that held power. They knew only too well that their post-dictatorial democracy was, for a large part, a continuation of the dictatorial regime. For this reason they went to great pains to disassociate themselves from it. At the same time the generation of the post-dictatorial era (the so-called metapolitefsi) would keep carrying with it the seeds of distrust, resistance and (occasionally) revolt which had been sown in the resistance to the dictatorship.

There were many attempts to root out those often dormant seeds of resistance, to establish the new hegemony. Political questions were placed out of the question in the new ideological consensus, thus rendering collective action irrelevant. In true neoliberal fashion, people were reduced to units, stripped off all their social qualities and positioned against society: (Every) One Against All. It is therefore bitterly ironic that it took the involuntary and fatal stance of a 15-year old individual (standing up against an authority is very lonely and isolated place) to spell the end of the metapolitefsi. With Alexi’s death an epoch ended and the terms of the new were written in the people’s own words. Mostly led by high school students and newly-arrived migrants (in both cases, people who were not on the streets, or even in the country, during the eighties or the nineties) the new insurgency screamed at the pompous, obnoxious historians and grave-diggers of radicalism: ‘Not only can we do it like 1973 or 1995, we can do it better than that’.

The days and weeks that followed the assassination were alien to anything that Greek society had experienced in the decades following the end of the dictatorship, and for this reason they came to mark this era’s end. Two linearities, two certainties that broke suddenly and violently (the decline of mass social action and the up to that point seemingly unavoidable rise of neoliberalism and individualism) gave their place to thousands of other lines, paths and connections. These cut through Athens and all major cities around the world where the resistance begins: The lines drawn by a barricade, a university gate, a row of students holding hand-by-hand… Lines that marked a new, stark social divide. Behind the barricade or in front of it, defending the university or attacking it, for the revolt or against it.

The new language of the revolt was from its very beginning incomprehensible to the entire plexus of power. Mainstream media and political parties would all agree on that the revolt was entirely foreign to them – and rightly so. From the ‘provocateurs’ discovered by the communist party, to the ‘few hundred’ hooded youths portrayed by the media, one and all tried to downplay and dismiss what they couldn’t  understand, let alone control. And if the self-confessed reactionary parts of the power plexus can at least hold for themselves a consistent position of condemning revolts at all times and places, the same cannot go for the Greek society’s self-declared ‘progressive’ voices. The hypocrisy of the mainstream Greek Left lies in its support for the revolutions and revolts which occur in far-flung regions (the Zapatistas, the Palestinian struggle, the recent ‘credit-crunch’ riots in Iceland and even, the French unrest) while at the same time condemning the revolt when it appeared in their own country. This hypocrisy demands an explanation: At a time when most certainties were liquefied, the mainstream Left (along with the rest of the mainstream political spectrum) found itself unable to move away from its previously established terra firma, its comfort zones. The new subjects of resistance, these revolted individuals-no-longer, on the other hand, were swift in moving away from the rotten certainties of the past. From its beginning the revolt found itself in a terra incognita – an unexplored land, an area where no-one had been before. From here, no demands could be articulated to those that stayed behind, nor did anyone seem interested in doing so. The establishment was too far in the past to listen and in any case, the revolted were not interested in talking to it in any way.

The revolted of Greece demanded nothing – yet that is not to say they did not articulate political words through their actions. ‘May no attack be left unanswered, not any more’, went one of the most popular slogans that they were quick to put to practice. When Alexis was assassinated the revolted took to the streets. When confronted with police, they took over universities to protect themselves and to use them as bases from which to continue the revolt. When the General Confederation of Workers (the British TUC’s equivalent) refused to call an indefinite general strike, they occupied its headquarters… Occupations of TV stations and radio stations came as a response to the blatant lies of mainstream media about the revolt. In all cases, the message was very clear: The revolted had nothing to demand from the present social order. Their revolt broke away with it instantly; it sailed away from a rotten shore, embarking on a voyage toward the politics of direct action; of consensus; of solidarity; of anti-hierarchical structures and relations; of humanity. To power, these words are incomprehensible, foreign. To the revolted of Greece they are the first few words in the vocabulary of a new language for a new political communication to come.

Postscript

On the night of 22/12/2008 Konstantina Kuneva, a Bulgarian cleaner and militant trade unionist employed by Athens Railways via OIKOMET (a subcontracting company) had sulfuric acid thrown at her by thugs used by her employing company, who wanted to take revenge for her militant syndicalist action. It is safe to assume that her employers did not expect the solidarity and anger that followed the attack. Athens Railway’s headquarters and three trade union buildings across the country were occupied; a solidarity demonstration in Athens in late January saw more than 10,000 take to the streets. The wave of solidarity to Kuneva is only one of many indicators of the sharp escalation of political tension in the country. December’s revolt might have been halted, yet one cannot help but think that in January 1974 the Athens Polytechnic uprising of November 1973 would have also seemed like a defeated struggle: The military junta against which the uprising was directed was not only in place but stronger than before, but its ‘liberalisation’ process had come to an end because of the uprising. Yet. a mere six months later, the regime collapsed. The riots of December 2008 have marked the beginning of the end of metapolitefsi, the era that succeeded the military junta – that, at least, is something all actors can agree upon. Just what it is that will follow is an open bet. The future is unwritten… Yet for once, a glimpse of hope is coming through – some hope that what is to come will not be dictated behind closed doors, that the future will be written on the streets.

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