A crisis of presence: the war on Greek cities

The closure of official channels of debate and establishment of migrant detention camps in Athens, has been the capstone to a long process of turning people against the most vulnerable populations in cities and, by extension, against all that urban culture stands for.

Antonis Vradis
29 July 2013

For the historian of the future, pinpointing exactly what has been the most exceptional element of life in Greece after the troika’s arrival will be a perplexing task –– onerous even. On the one hand, there is a war of words: a martial undertone is now to be found in near every aspect of the everyday –– as well as in the country’s by now toxic political life.

For the historian of the future, pinpointing exactly what has been the most exceptional element of life in Greece after the troika’s arrival will be a perplexing task –– onerous even. On the one hand, there is a war of words: a martial undertone is now to be found in near every aspect of the everyday –– as well as in the country’s by now toxic political life. On the other hand there now exists a social condition very much resembling the ruins of literal post-war societies: suicides, mass lay-offs, sky-rocketing unemployment, vast impoverishment and outright violence in the streets of Athens have become, with little exaggeration, the new normal.

And yet, if I were to offer a humble suggestion I would dare say that the most striking element is neither quite the war of words, nor the actual war-like effects of three years of austerity onto the material reality of people residing in the country: it is the disparity, the distance between the two. If, until a year ago, a key sign of our times had been the recuperation of ostensibly emancipatory terms by the far-right, what seems to be emerging in the present landscape is the complete, the absolute separation between the lived and the articulated –– instead of being twisted around, it is as if words are ripped apart from the experience they are meant to convey.

Two mental images, describing two key developments of recent months in the Greek territory, may best illustrate my argument. First comes the image of the thousands of undocumented migrants forced into the euphemistically named “hospitality centres” that have sprang up across the country, such as that of Amygdaleza, in the north-east outskirts of Athens: having opened in the wake of the equally euphemistic “Operation Zeus”, the centres serve as detention spaces for the thousands arrested since the operation commenced in the summer of 2012.


Amygdaleza detention camp. Rebecca Harms. Some rights reserved.

The second image is a blank –– the blank that appeared on the television screens of those who were were watching ERT, the public media broadcaster, on the night of June 11, 2013. In a decision entirely unprecedented at least by European standards, the then three-way coalition government (of ND, PASOK and DIMAR) ordered and executed the shut-down of the state’s own broadcaster overnight, effectively laying off every single one of its more than 2,600 employees, some allegedly temporarily –– that is, until ERT is “restructured” and gets to function with reduced staff as of the coming fall.


Protestors outside ERT headquarters, Athens. Wassilis Aswestopoulos/Demotix.

At first sight, the abrupt shutting down of ERT by the Greek authorities and the condition of urban purity, the order they had previously attempted to impose (expressed through the migrant concentration camps) would seem to be worlds apart: they are anything but. Think again of camps such as Amygdaleza and what led to their establishment. The entire set of actions leading up to this, from the Operation Zeus patrols to the swift conversion of abandoned military barracks into detention centres was veiled under “humanitarianism” and “hospitality”. At other times, the twisting of words would have been stunning. By now, it has become a pattern; a pattern of the complete reversal of reality –– of the tangible and the concrete around us, by use of a discourse that strives (and, to a large extent succeeds) in convincing most of us: what you see around you is not at all so, it is quite the opposite.

Needless to say, ERT held an important function in this propaganda machine, though perhaps not as effective as particular private radio and TV stations in the country. Its abrupt shut-down leaves little room for interpretation: the sphere of official discourse in which the ever-toughening material conditions of a population living under years of austerity were papered over –– reversed, even –– seems to be no longer needed.

What we are living through is a dramatic shift in the functioning of the entire government apparatus, in the way that the plexus of power constitutes itself: a shift that inevitably includes the material (the concrete) as well as the discursive (the abstract); a battle for –– or is it against? –– the bodies and the minds of an increasingly trapped and stunned population.

It is at this conjuncture, here and now, that the physically trapped migrants of Amygdaleza meet the stunned, fired ERT workers. The establishment of the migrant camps had been the capstone to a long-term process that turned people against the most vulnerable populations in cities and, by extension, against all that urban culture stands for: against the intermingling, that is, and the coming together of variant, diverse urban populations. The lashing out is hardly surprising. After all, a key act for a totalitarian regime is that act of segregation, of compartmentalisation. Time and time again, history has shown how a key step in successfully forming a totalitarian apparatus is the formation and imposition of physical separation: physical distance that in turn allows for the formation of the mental distance required between the authority-inducing and authority-induced, between perpetrators and victims.

In the Greek case, this separation is now at an adequate level: the Zeus operations, the migrant camps –– but also mass unemployment, closed down shops and Greek citizens’ own urban exodus –– have ensured that the urban spirit has been bolted down; the country’s cities simply don’t have their past vitality; public space is under fierce attack. The ERT shut-down might very well mark our entering the next level –– the fragmentation and the breakdown of representation: from the material, the breakdown has shifted up to the discursive; from public space fragmentation now moves to public sphere.

If in the previous stage the public sphere (representation) by and large distorted, twisted and reversed the lived experience on the ground in Greece, at the present stage this misrepresentation (or disrepresentation) is not needed. And intriguingly enough, the path to the complete fragmentation and vanishing of public space that results has followed a strictly linear process, one that commenced back from the seemingly mundane of the everyday: from the case of the initial Nazi organizing in certain public spaces in Athens as early as 2009, before the totalitarian veil laying itself across the urban[1], then upon the national territorial level[2], and now finally at the level of ideas, the level of discourse.

If the plexus of power had previously used the discursive level to twist around (to the breaking point) what it had been doing on the ground, by now it now needs neither. What began as the backwaters of the global financial crisis of 2008/09 washing out in the Greek territory has turned into a crisis of presence and by extension, of existence. For Agamben (2013), crisis can refer to the theological Last Judgement as much as to the medical judgement, the decisive moment determining whether the sick person is to live or die. Both understandings, he continues, carry an element of time –– more specifically, of a chronological moment upon which a decision is made. For Agamben, our perpetuating moment of crisis steals away this decisiveness, positioning us in a seemingly extended limbo: “the prospect of a decision is ever less, and an endless process of decision never concludes”.

The Greek territory comprises, in more than one ways, a field of exercise par excellence upon which this condition of crisis has been tested and carried out. Now we live through a phase change: if the global financial crisis first posed a seemingly indefinite question of who is deemed “worthy” of continuing to be part of the global system of production and consumption, the question in this second phase morphs into an instantaneous system of judgement concerning who is deemed worthy of being altogether present: in public space, in public sphere, in life.

Agamben, G. (2013) “The Endless Crisis as Instrument of Power: In conversation with Giorgio Agamben”,, available at [originally published in German: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 24, 2013]

[1]     The police’s Xenios Zeus operations, or the establishment of the DELTA motorcycle police force are apt examples here.

[2]     An obvious example is the electoral success and subsequent activity of the Golden Dawn –– but another rvery important development is the prevalence of a far-right tendency within the circles of New Democracy, the leading government coalition party.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData