(PART OF OUR DOSSIER ON GREEK RIOTS OF 2008: FROM NP 12)
Few events in recent Greek history have created such an avalanche of hermeneutical ingenuity and analytical perspicacity as the widespread protests of December 2008. The causes put forward for the explosion of young people have been many, varied and often contradictory: primarily economic (youth and graduate unemployment, underemployment, neo-liberal economic measures, general economic uncertainty) but also political (persistent and unpunished corruption, reform of social security, multiple failures of the educational system, sclerosis of the semi-dynastic political system), cultural (a pervasive protest mentality, anti-statism but also the weakness of ‘civil society’) or ideological (perseverance of anarchism and leftism, toleration of antinomianism). The catalyst for the insurrection was of course the killing of the 15-year old Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 6 and the spontaneous reaction to the homicide, to extensive police brutality and violence and more generally resistance to power’s oppressiveness.
Yet despite the extensive commentary in foreign and Greek media the prominent reaction of intellectuals, journalists and politicians has been one shock and bemusement, incomprehension mixed with incredulity. When journalists and politicians conclude either with the condemnation of ‘raw violence’ or with a shocked recognition of the ‘sudden’ awakening of hitherto apolitical teenagers, they admit to a certain failure of political imagination. If the events have tested the ability of society and state to react to its multiple failures they have also put the interpretative ability and analytical acumen of political and social scientists on the line.
The events lack the standard markers of political legibility and in this sense cannot be easily integrated into existing analytical frames. No political organisation or other agent directed the insurrection, no single ideology motivated it, most importantly no overwhelming demand was put forward to be negotiated, conceded or rejected by the government. This is what riled the commentators mostly. Against the abundance of interpretations canvassed by commentators, against the desperate attempt to squeeze a modicum of explanation from participants, a sense of bewilderment followed the lack of a ‘clear’ political agenda. The question ‘what do the kids want?’ permeates the responses of the commentators mimicking Freud’s famous quip ‘what does the woman want?’ In both cases, the incomprehension lies on the side of the questioner. The insurrection has no ‘political’ meaning for our hermeneutical detectives, it does not follow a linear temporality of before and after. In standard social scientific terms, effects have a (causal or interpretative) link with causes allowing those coming after the events to comprehend them in reference to their before.
But the main characteristic of these events was their resistance to causal linearity. What seems to transverse the insurrection is a refusal, a ‘No more’, an ‘enough is enough’ without a categorical reference. This is precisely the novelty of the situation and what has mostly baffled and even outraged commentators: a negativity that stubbornly yields no meaning to the pursuers of hermeneutical clarity and defies the lovers of political certainty. A stubborn negativity characterises the insurrection, a Bartleby-type ‘I would prefer not to’. Is this a new modality of resistance appropriate to our globalised urban space, to out post-political condition and the debasement of democracy?
The urban space with its built and unbuilt, proper and improper places, its churches, football pitches and cruising spots has always expressed the inequality of social relations and has always offered a site of conflict. Urban legality comprises planning, architectural and traffic regulation, public entertainment, protest and expression rules, licit and illicit ways of being in public. It imposes a grid of regularity and legibility, ascribing places to legitimate activities while banning others, structuring the movement of people and vehicles across space, ordering encounters between strangers. Yet from the regular urban riots of early modernity to the Bastille, the Paris Commune, the British reform movement and the suffragettes, the American civil rights movement, May 1968, the Athens Polytechnic, Prague and Bucharest uprisings, to name a few iconic cases, the ‘street’ has confronted and unsettled urban legality. Urban space offers ample opportunity for political action which has changed social systems, laws and institutions. The December riots join in a long series of street action across epochs and places. The vote, the vote for women, basic laws to protect labour and stop discrimination and many other entitlements, today taken for granted, were the result of street protests, violence and riots. The abstract denunciation of protests for their violence combines the defence of the status quo with historical ignorance. Let me look first at the special and temporal aspects of urban action.
According to Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, urban resistance takes strategic and tactical forms: “A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre)…The ‘proper’ is a victory of space over time. On the contrary, because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time – it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ‘on the wing.’” Strategy establishes a new place against already existing static places of authority or against structures of power. This spatial base facilitates resistance against temporal synchronicity and cyclical legality. Tactics on the other hand utilise temporality, the kairos or the timely; through an acceleration or disjointure of time, the propriety of place or structure is unsettled.
In these terms, the December events were a recognisable but transient form of ‘street’ resistance. It established its proper places, the Polytechnic, Exarcheia, the Law School against the authoritative stability of Parliament, Ministries or the Police HQ. It used the opportunities of school, University or pre-Christmas time (the burning of the Christmas tree, the disruption of shopping districts) to unsettle the propriety of cyclical temporality. Imagine Westminster and Whitehall, the White House and Congress under siege everyday for two weeks. This is not the use of public spaces for legitimate protest, as the liberal commentators conceded with some embarrassment, quickly turning their discontent and incomprehension to a condemnation of violence.
What permeates the stubborn negativity is a condensation of causes, strategies, tactics and actions. The variety of causes which stabilise around a No, the multiplication of actions - some conventional protest forms, others highly novel and imaginative, the intensification of tactics indicates that this is not an ephemeral explosion. As events developed, the insurrection took on an impetus of its own, drawing in ever larger numbers in a snowballing effect that kept unsettling every attempt at calm and peace. At that point, it became clear that the listing of possible causes could not offer an understanding of the effects, that the before and the after became indistinguishable, that causes, effects and actions were intertwined into a knot, a nodal point that cannot be unravelled. In the same way that its arrival could not have been predicted, its long terms effects are unknowable.
This turns the insurrection into an event, in the technical sense of the term in post-Heideggerian political philosophy and primarily that of Alain Badiou. An event is a modality of political action which was not inscribed in the inventory of the situation from which it emerged and cannot be reduced to the sum of factors that made it possible. Every situation consists of an infinite series of elements. The current Greek social and political formation includes many types of people, with different customs and habits, beliefs and ideologies, tastes and dislikes, straights and gays, fans of Olympiakos or Panathinaikos, lovers of rebetiko or punk music. But in the midst of this infinity of difference there is also an empty place, a void which, while invisible for the dominant forces, supports the stability of the totality. This void lies close to the most anonymous and vulnerable of the situation. The December events disrupted this settled state of recognised differences by performing the void of the socio-political situation: what was invisible, unspoken and unspeakable (under the pre-existing rules and procedures) while at the same time sustaining the coherence of the whole came to the fore. This is what made the insurrection difficult to comprehend, what stopped the disturbed commentators from ‘receiving its message’ as the Greeks use to say. It turned these events from a usual protest by students or workers into something new which sublates, both retains the characteristics of urban resistance and politics, and overtakes them radically changing the situation.
Let me complicate this analysis: according to the most advanced contemporary political philosophy (Ranciere, Mouffe, Zizek), late modern politics accepts the overall social balance, Badiou’s state of the situation, and aims at marginal (re)distributions of benefits, rewards and positions without challenging the structured order. This post-political or post-democratic condition takes economic and deliberative forms. In the former, individuals, groups and parties are seen as rational pursuers of interest while politics turns into an activity resembling the market-place. The budget debates exemplify this horse-trading amongst the recognised interests. In the deliberative mode, politics is organized according to argumentative strategies which apply communicative ethics. In this Habermasian ‘ideal dream situation’, politics is predominantly the field where rational consensus about public goods can be reached.
Approached as a neo-liberal market-place or as a town-hall debate, politics pronounces conflict finished, passé, impossible, and at the same time, it disavows and forecloses its appearance. Recent proposals about a grand coalition between New Democray and Pasok or about the appointment of ‘neutral’ mutually acceptable technocrats to the key Ministries exemplifies this ‘conflict-free’ approach to politics. The replacement of conflict by a collaboration of modernising bureaucrats and liberal reformers turns the state into the muscleman for the market internally (exemplified by the severity of public order legislation and police brutality) and a superficially tolerant enforcer of humanitarianism externally (as seen in the recent ‘humanitarian wars’). But conflict does not disappear – the imposition of the imported ready-made recipes of neo-liberal capitalism if anything increases inequality and fuels conflict.
Here we must introduce a key distinction between ordinary politics and the political. If post-politics veers between a ‘free for all’ market place and moralizing deliberations (what we can call with Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe and Mouffe) the political, as the expression and articulation of the indissolubility and inescapability of social conflict, is the horizon within which ordinary politics is conducted. In this sense, the political puts into circulation the absence of a common foundation of meaning or value and becomes the instituting function of society. When however social conflict cannot be expressed in politics and is foreclosed from the symbolic order, it returns in the real as radical evil and criminality, as xenophobia and fundamentalism, as terrorism and intolerance of the different; or indeed as reactive violence, the affective response of those invisible to the settled situation to the void which engulfs them.
In the Greek case, antagonism results from the tension between the structured social body and its political representation, where every group has its role, function and place, and what Jacques Rancière calls ‘the part of no part’: groups, causes and interests radically excluded from the social or political order. Huge numbers of people find themselves in a situation where their most essential demands cannot be formulated in the language of a political problem. Against the surfeit of causes, the abundance of (inadequate) meanings, the hermeneutical bonanza of commentators, conventional political meaning cannot be extracted from or imposed on this performing void.
In this sense, the insurrection as event is the performance of the political as such. It is an unadulterated expression of political agency at its degree zero. This makes the insurrection a ‘phatic’ expression according to Roman Jacobson’s definition. It does not say ‘I want this or that’ but simply, ‘here I am’, ‘here I stand against’ (Zizek). Not I claim this or that right, but I claim the ‘right to have rights’. Being invisible, outside the established sense of what exists, speaks and is acceptable, the inhabitants of the void must perform their existence. We, the nobodies, they seem to be saying, the schoolkids, the suffering University students, the unemployed and unemplyable, the generation that must survive on a salary of 600 euros, are everything. We, the apolitical, voiceless, indifferent nothings, are the only universal against those who have always interpreted their particular interests as universal.
When the director of state television dismissed people who raised protest banners during a live news broadcast by calling them ‘disorganised rabble’ or people with no ‘social identity’ he came close to the truth, malgre lui. When the disorganized become visible (and TV news is symbolically significant) politics proper erupts. When an excluded part demands to be included and must change the rules of inclusion to succeed, a new political subject is constituted, in excess of the hierarchical and visible groups. ‘A division is put in the “common sense” about what is given, about the frame within which we see something as given’ (Ranciere).
The TV director reminded me the American congressmen who voted down the early Bush-Paulson rescue pack to bail out the ailing financial institutions because they saw it as a communist conspiracy. This is also the state of most Greek politicians and commentators. Ideology is at its strongest when it turns its axioms into the natural, given way of understanding and living in the world. At times of crisis, these axioms (the kids are apolitical, the market is the best mechanism for organizing public goods, law is a neutral protector above politics) become denaturalized and are seen for what they are: pure ideology, shameless lies that pass for the truth. This rift in what was perceived as the natural order of things and as a main support for identity is emotionally experienced as great loss. No wonder that many people whether against or for them felt the December events as an unprecedented draining experience.
Before the event, political change is a matter of policing and consensus. After the rift, politics returns to a certain normality; its terrain will have changed, however, through the appearance of a new subjectivity and the re-arrangement of the rules of political visibility. For Badiou, the event is evanescent, its very purpose is to disappear. ‘The event will be recorded in its very disappearance only in the form of a linguistic trace, which I call “the name” of the event, and will supplement the situation with next to nothing’. The insurrection only respectively can be recognized as an event, if people, some people remain true to that ‘next to nothing’ of the performance of the void. This is a wager on all of us. Whether the insurrection becomes an event or remains just that (important as that is) depends on those who after its disappearance will give it a name (ta nea dekembriana) and will remain loyal to the idea of re-writing the rules of political visibility.
As far as the recently depressed followers of liberalism are concerned, let us remind them some honourable parts of their tradition: If the hallmark of democracy is the disappearance of certainty about the foundations of social life, in the absence of foundations, the meaning and unity of the social is constituted, negotiated and fought over in physical and metaphorical public spaces. Urban space is the product of conflict, the space of a democracy that recognises conflict as its very nature and, rather than trying to repress or marginalise it, finds in it its greatest strength. In this sense the city may be replacing the nation state as the citadel of new forms of politics and subjectivity.