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Remnants of a Greek past, image from the future

The tendency to deflect all discussion of protest and resistance onto the issue of violence is also misleading when it comes to assessing the track record and future prospects of Greek anarchism
Pepe Egger
5 January 2011

The Athenian revolt of December 2008 took place nearly two years ago, but its effects are still everywhere to be felt. The Greek anarchist movement, one of the main forces behind those events, continues to play a central role in the country that has since seen near-sovereign default, IMF-dictated austerity measures and three bank employees killed.

The spectrum of those different groups and individuals in Greece who call themselves anarchists, libertarians or anti-authoritarians may be larger in numbers and political saliency than in other European countries, with anarchist demonstrations attracting thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of participants. They are one small part of the organised workers, including the unions who make up the Greek left in general. The anarchists were not the only participants in the events of December 2008: there were high-school students, migrant campaigners, leftist activists such as members of KOE and unionists such as those of PAME, university students and thousands of unaffiliated individuals.

At the same time, the anarchist movement has had an important stature in the Greek political scene for decades. Central to the events of December 2008, it has informed the opposition to political developments ever since. This heightened role within the political culture particular to Greece, may be specific to its history of foreign intervention, military rule, resistance and the deficiencies of its state and institutions. But it is being followed with increasing attention by observers across the world as a phenomenon illustrating the exemplary dynamics of our particular moment in history, therefore offering political insights, and sometimes inspiration, to contemporaries elsewhere.

Greek anarchism

Greece shares with many other European countries a legacy of nineteenth and early twentieth century anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist agitation and organisation. This tradition was severed, however, by the long years of the Metaxas dictatorship (1936-1941), Nazi occupation (1941-1944) and civil war (1944-1949). Rather than a continuation of earlier traditions, the contemporary Greek anarchist movement grew under the influence of Situationists and libertarian positions brought from France by Greek students after 1968.

One of its founding events was the uprising against the rule of the military junta in 1973, in particular the occupation of the Athens Polytechnic, which was squashed by the junta’s tanks entering the university, killing at least 23 protesters on 17 November 1973. Although the contribution of anarchists to this event was probably small in numbers, it was important symbolically, as they, for the first time since WWII, marked their presence and identity by not only calling for an end to the military regime, but also opposing capitalism and government as such, provoking some confrontation with the communist left.

Ever since, anarchists have been a factor in Greek society. Their presence bore witness to the fact that even after the formal end of military rule and the transition to democracy, the Greek state, its institutions and its violence was in many ways the same as before. Over the years, repeated instances of rioting against killings by police showed that they were not alone in questioning or indeed denying the legitimacy of the Greek state: In 1980, two members of left-wing organisations were killed in clashes after the yearly demonstration to commemorate the events of 17 November 1973. In 1985, a policeman killed Michalis Kaltezas, a 15-year old, triggering another wave of protests, riots and occupations. In 1990, another wave was spurred by the acquittal of the policeman accused of killing Kaltezas. In 1995, the Polytechnic in Athens was occupied afresh by anarchists, this time in solidarity with a revolt of prisoners in Athens’ Korydallos prison. Arguably, these periodic occurrences of mass protests in the street, and violent confrontations with the police, which seem to re-enact and repeat (to this day) the original uprising of 1973, each time produced and radicalised a new generation of activists.

But it would be one-sided to reduce the anarchist movement to such a history of 'events', ignoring what occurs in the years between the clamorous clashes with police in the streets: the occupations, the squats, the resistance against the modernisation works for the 2004 Olympics, but also the imprisonment of activists, and the solidarity campaigns with them, in a word, the day-to-day life of a social movement that predates and succeeds the riot which makes the evening news, but without which the latter is without context and hardly understandable. This is certainly the case with the actions of December 2008.

December 2008

On 6 December 2008, Special Guard Epaminondas Korkoneas shot and killed 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the Exarcheia neighbourhood of Athens. As soon as the news of Alexandros’ killing spread, protests, demonstrations, attacks on police stations, occupations, vandalism and looting began in Athens and many other Greek cities and didn’t stop for more than two weeks. Yet what was it exactly that took place over these two weeks? A riot? An uprising? An insurrection? An event comparable to May 1968?

The dispute over the meaning of the two weeks in December 2008 is on-going. The government tried to minimise what happened, and describe it as senseless violent acts devoid of any political meaning. Similarly, the visual media adopted a sort of self-censorship, especially after the images of youths burning bank branches and shops seemed to inspire more youths to do the same. Many reports instantly classified the events as only a riot, a spontaneous, hooliganesque eruption of violence and rage against the existing order of things. Such accounts exclude a whole other aspect of those same events, namely the collective organisation, the occupations, the discussions, the open assemblies. By the same token, May1968 would have to be described as 'a simple riot'.

One noteworthy element in many accounts of witnesses of the December 2008 riots is that the events seem to surpass attempts to limit their meaning or significance to a ready-made concept or slogan. These testimonies express the transformative power of the events, namely how what seemed impossible before, suddenly became reality. ‘Now is the time… Now, when everything has changed’. Where previously abstract rules or hierarchies dictated events, people felt they could affect change, or as one activist expressed it: ‘we’ve taken our lives in our own hands’. One youth explained the meaning of the protest as simply 'we are here', the ‘we’ referring to those who are, under ‘normal’ conditions, without a voice.

Arguably, the anarchist movement (by no means the only force behind the December events) could be seen as the central actor, and as the group that lent its message to all of it, precisely because its message was that nobody could take up such a role and speak for others. The event constituted a 'polycentric revolt', with no avant-garde, no leaders, but many different groups participating from different angles. The anarchists themselves were surprised and overwhelmed by it, with their presence facilitating or preparing the ground for, rather than directing the riots to turn into a revolt against 'the system': suddenly, youths could smash a window and declare the act a statement against consumerism, precarious under-paid jobs, youth unemployment, or lack of opportunity. Thus, a riot triggered by police brutality, turned into a revolt against the police in general, precarious and exploitative employment in general, government in general.

Wager on the future

Without doubt, the December 2008 events gave the anarchist movement a prominence both domestically and internationally which it had not had before. With this might come heightened expectations of what it can achieve, which are likely to be disappointed. But its strength stems precisely from the fact that it is aware and relies on not being an accomplished movement, a finished 'product', but an open wager on the future, a constant leap of faith, trusting its own inventiveness, creativity and force.

Since December 2008, the Greek anarchist movement has lost some of the momentum acquired in the two weeks of open confrontation with the state: Some of its militants have joined armed groups such as the 'Sect of Revolutionaries', adopting the argument  - already failed in the 1970s elsewhere - that terrorist means could accelerate events towards a much anticipated overthrow of the system. Disappointment has also dampened heightened expectations that an anarchist-led revolution would promptly follow the arrival of IMF delegates dictating the radical cutback of the state. But the largest part of the movement has lived on in occupations, project spaces, self-organisation and cooperation with other groups, i.e. engaged in the less noisy valley of anarchist activism after the riotous peak. What’s more, Greek events, and the actions of anarchists there, are being followed across Europe and beyond with enthusiasm or horror, depending on the sympathies of the spectators, and variously seen as leftovers of a by-gone era, or precursors of things to come.

Given how Greece, and its economy and politics are developing through the on-going crisis, it is very likely that the country's anarchist presence will increase, not diminish. And to judge from its recent history, this presence will take new forms, and invent new expressions, rather than repeat the same old adages and tactics.

The fact alone that the question ‘how will Greek anarchism evolve?’ is posed, acknowledges the formidable movement that is Greek anarchism. It represents a true social force, not a sub- or fringe culture, as anarchism often does in other European countries. And not only does the movement appear more militant, willing to confront the police and resort to violence (or ‘counter-violence’, as activists would describe it) than anarchists in other countries. Just as importantly, it is a movement in contact and communication with society, engaging in neighbourhood organisations, allying itself with residents, students or immigrants, opposing gentrification by direct action such as establishing new parks and experimenting with self-organisation and even running anarchist businesses.

Since December 2008, a new generation of youths has supported a wave of self-organisation, squats and community activities; for instance, taking over businesses that would otherwise close down due to the recession.

Others have formed or joined armed groups such as the ‘Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei’, or the ‘Sect of Revolutionaries’. The latter especially seem to be driven by the inability to go back to normal life, to everyday rhythms, after the explosion of December 2008, but instead opting to ‘upgrade’ the level of violence from mass street protests to a small avant-garde urban guerrilla. After gunning down Sokratis Giolias, a journalist, in the street of Athens on 19 July 2010 they stated: “We recommend the total annihilation and destruction of authority relations and dominant civilisation. Only through the rubble and ruins of modern urban centres will a new way of life flourish. The rebel groups are but a small prefiguration of such a future. But as we said in a previous text, even if this future does not come, we will have tasted it, living our own unorthodox way today. And this adventure, the journey towards liberation is worth every moment...”

Most Greek anarchists probably disagree with the idea that 'tasting the future' would include killing a tabloid journalist, and groups such as ‘Sect of Revolutionaries’ earn scathing criticism and distancing statements from within the anarchist movement. A moment of profound shock followed the death of three bank employees in April 2010, after a fire was started by Molotov cocktails thrown by alleged anarchist protesters during a general strike demonstration. The harshest possible self-criticism came from anarchists revolted by the lack of a reaction to the deaths amongst their own circles.

Some anarchists have since joined local residents in occupying, building and maintaining a self-organised park in Exarcheia, Athens, by turning an unused site in the middle of the city into a park created, managed and used by local residents and activists. In a turn of events emblematic for contemporary Greece, the anarchists created a public space managed by its empowered users, thus realising principles of 21st century capitalist urban planning a la lettre. Developments such as this point to an ironic constellation of forces, wherein anarchists would indeed profit from the retreat of the (bankrupt) state and its decimation through austerity measures. Who else could take over than those long experienced in creating autonomous networks of freely cooperating individuals, i.e. the anarchists?

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