City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

Conference

Took place on May 9th & 10th, 2014 Athens Polytechnic (NTUA)

The conference was in English, free and open to all.

The full conference program here.

Conference publication can be read and downloaded here.

Conference poster here.

Videos here:

Panel 1: Flows, Infrastructures and Networks

Panel 2: Mapping Spaces of Racist Violence

Panel 3: Between Invisibility and Precarity

Panel 4: The Right to the City in Crisis

Panel 5: Devaluing Labour, Depreciating Land

 

For the purpose of the conference that will take place in Athens we asked our guests to develop some thoughts based on an idea or a question that we posed them. In collecting their answers, we aimed to create a framework for the preparation of the conference itself, which would help in the outlining of those aspects of urban everydayness that we consider to be the most important ones in helping us understand the questions set to us by the city itself, at this moment of crisis. We have used this section to publish these brief interventions, offering opportunities for further reflections on the city, the crisis and the importance of one residing at the intersection of the two today. These interventions have been published in the conference publication (see link above). In this section you will also find documentation from the conference which will be uploaded shortly. 

27
Jul2014

by Andy Merrifield (originally published in AntipodeFoundation.org)

I was in Athens not long ago, at a conference called “Crisis-Scapes”, organized by a talented anarchist collective who a few years back had put together the poetically inspired and politically charged collection Revolt and Crisis in Greece (Vradis and Dalakoglou 2011). Staged at Athens’s Polytechneio, the epicenter of anti-junta revolt in 1973, in the heart of grungy far-left neighborhood Exarcheia, “Crisis-Scapes” set the dramatic tone for debate about a polis in meltdown: Eurozone meltdown; debt crisis meltdown; austerity-driven meltdown. Meanwhile, political fallout from this meltdown was ripping the polis apart. At the May 2014 Euro elections, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn bagged almost 10% of the vote, third behind the radical left party Syriza, who topped the poll with 26.6%. If there’s any “consensus” in Athens these days, it’s a resounding thumbs-down to Troika banker-bureaucrats, and to Greece’s handmaiden parliamentary elites.

I’d been invited to talk about radical urbanism, about what to do amid this crisis. But the truth was I hardly knew anything about Greece, aside from what I’d read in the press. So I really came to learn, and a lot I did learn, getting inspired along the way by this learning, by what I saw and heard. Still, I knew enough about the ancient Greeks to know they still had plenty to tell contemporary Greeks. I knew enough Homer, Thucydides and Plato to know that crises, wars and laws have been a part of Greek culture since the very beginning of Greek culture. Remember Homer in The Iliad, telling us about antagonists “locked in a common field … fight[ing] it out on the crammed contested strip”. Somehow that crammed contested strip describes Athens today, an Athens still very much a “common field” for democracy battling it out with anti-democracy.

One of the first celebrations of Greek democracy was Pericles’ (495-429 BC)–Athens’ charismatic elder statesman, its “first citizen”. Pericles’ famous “Funeral Oration”, commemorating the city’s Spartan War dead, delivered in 431 BC (and narrated by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian Wars), remains the greatest ever paean to Athens’ democratic openness, to its lack of walls, to its inclusive public spaces, the nemesis to Sparta’s militarism–and to the Golden Dawn’s: “We throw open our city to the world,” said Pericles, “and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in the system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens”. Half a century on, Plato put the boot into such Athenian “liberality”, criticising the native spirit of its citizens. Athens, said Plato, was at once too liberal and too tyrannical; the latter, for Plato, derived naturally from the former, since “the most extreme form of liberty” opens the floodgates to tyranny, “to an excess of slavery”. Plato said Athens’s laxity and openness actually brought about its own downfall against the highly disciplined and ordered Spartans. Though, in 404 BC, when the Spartans installed “Thirty Tyrants” to rule Athens, Plato was equally depressed by the reign of terror that ensued. After “democracy” was restored, Plato’s disdain for Athenian governance turned into vicious hatred in 399 BC, when his mentor and friend, Socrates, was condemned to drink hemlock at a show trial that resembled Kafka’s The Trial.

In The Apology, Plato tells of Socrates’ refusal to make an apology; instead, a prescient warning was issued: “I tell you my executioners,” Socrates said, “that as soon as I am dead, vengeance shall fall upon you”. “You will have more critics … and being younger they will be harsher to you and cause you more annoyance. If you expect to stop denunciation of your wrong way of life by putting people to death, there is something amiss with your reasoning”. Plato never forgot Socrates’ belief that wise philosopher-guardians would best govern Athens, would best govern anywhere; they wouldn’t so much apply political dogma as govern according to virtuous philosophical principles. Get rid of untutored people from controlling government, Plato said, replace them with smart oligarchs–“perfect guardians,” he called them–who’d then direct things through calm philosophical judgment. Ordinary citizens shouldn’t meddle in the administration of justice, Plato said, neither should poets. The latter arouse all kinds of bad feelings and mad passions, incite all sorts of destabilizing emotions that rock the boat, that disrupt the strict ordering of things. Feelings of anger and desire, of pain and pleasure, should be summarily purged, Plato said, “withered” with “the waters that make them grow”. Thus poets should be expelled from the city, along with the poetry they pen.

*         *         *

The anarchist-poet organizers of “Crisis-Scapes”, I joked in my talk, wouldn’t have stood a chance in Plato’s Athens: he’d have never let you in! The city gates would be firmly locked for you rebel-rousers. You’d have never been invited to any Platonic feast, nor to any Platonic symposium. But Plato’s Athens isn’t here yet, so there’s still room for hope. On the other hand, one of Plato’s biggest fears is that playing on people’s visceral emotions, on people’s knee-jerk reactions, peddling a discourse that arouses these passions–thoughtless passions–is a discourse that’s on the way to jackboots and flag-waving, to lashing out, to racist and xenophobic lashing out. In fraught meltdown times, stupid dogma, forcefully proclaimed, often falls gladly on fraught, desperate ears.

So a bit of critical moderation and temperate thinking isn’t so bad, I say. But here, too, there are dangers, perhaps even greater dangers; not of jackboots but of pandering to a “cool” ideological interpellation: “hey you there; you think there’s an alternative to austerity…?”. Appealing to moderation and consensus, means appealing to the business-as-usual status quo. We’ve heard these refrains voiced from Greece’s power elites; we’ve heard them voiced from Brussels, from European Central Bankers; we’ve heard them voiced by the whole European business community, irrespective of culture or nationality; we’ve heard these refrains from everybody intent of propping up the Euro currency, at every cost–including human costs. We’ve heard it firmly yet calmly from all Europe’s ruling classes.

And we’ve heard it proclaimed as the Voice of Reason, heard it to quell protest, to quell extremist protest–no matter what kind. The Voice of Reason is sober, moderate and centrist. It is for European integration, for globalization, for growth, for austerity. It has a commonly identified program: reduce debt and prune budgets; strip down and sell off public infrastructure; do anything and everything to improve flagging competitiveness. Do it at all costs because market confidence must be restored and bond markets assuaged, economic fear-factors diminished. The “center” must prevail. Without a center, the centrists say, everything falls apart: Europe falls apart; monetary union falls apart; the entire continent falls apart, splinters into tribal extremism, into extremist tribalism, into political instability, into nobody ever agreeing about anything; the harmony and stability of Plato’s New Republic is thereby thwarted.

It’s hard for the Left to engage with such a “sensible” logic because our “extremism” gets tainted with the same brush as the Right’s. But the question remains: who are the extremists? Is it those guardians that Plato, two-and-half thousand years ago, suggested should govern us? Lately, those guardians have transformed themselves into anti-philosophy-espousing pragmatists, conditioned not so much by deep concerns of morality and equity as shallow dictates of profitability and market vitality. And they’ve become custodians not of people’s consciences but of business confidences, converting guardianship into directorship, and state governance into accountancy dominance. And nobody at their symposia wears robes anymore, but instead don elegant suits and convene in corporate boardrooms and official chambers far away from any public agora. Extremism here is the extent to which they abhor democracy, fear democracy. Extremism here is the utter failure to implement representative democracy, to even pretend to implement representative democracy. Little wonder participatory democracy comes knocking at the door; or, because participants seldom know which door to knock on, comes ranting in the streets.

In this context, we might recall Plato’s The Laws, written after his more famous The Republic. The idea of “laws” sounds pretty draconian, and indeed the book is pretty draconian. After all, control, for Plato, comes directly from the top, and brooks no dissent. But Plato also insists on a few checks and balances, things that now seem woefully overlooked, or purposefully forgotten, by folks in power. Plato said the guardians had to be elected by the whole citizen body; citizens had to feel they had some stake in the system, that they weren’t disenfranchised; every official had to be accountable for their conduct, had to be made accountable to the people. Crucial for Plato was a suggestive body of “Scrutineers”, overseers of oligarchic power, overseers who ensure that this power isn’t abused. Imagine, Plato says, a government scenario, an all-too-familiar government scenario: “what if one politician proves so inadequate to the dignity and weight of his office that he gets ‘out of true’ and does something crooked?”. “It is desperately difficult”, Plato says, “to find someone of high moral standards to exercise authority over the authorities, so to speak, but try we must”.

*         *         *

The switch from guardianship to directorship, to public servants serving private interests, has been abrupt and subtle over the past thirty-odd years. In the 1970s, state guardianship was firmly in the hands of elected public representatives. At the municipal level, councilors and administrators undertook guardianship roles; “urban managers” helped dole out public services to people. The English sociologist Ray Pahl became fascinated by the functioning of these urban managers, coining a new school of sociological thought after them: urban managerialism. By urban managers, Pahl meant planners, councilors, social workers, housing officers and other public sector bureaucrats who affected the whole urban allocative process around public goods and services–notably housing provision. These officials, Pahl said, were “social gatekeepers” determining peoples’ “life-chances”.

However flawed this system was, at least, Pahl said, it functioned through some equity principle, through some vague notion of redistributive justice. Urban managers were public servants and should always be kept on their toes, should always practice fair and just decision-making, which was the whole political purpose of urban managerialism in the first place: to keep tabs, to scrutinize public servants, to keep them public, to keep them publicly-minded, to keep politics public. Communication channels had to stay open. Concerned citizens, Pahl said, “need to know not only the rates of access to scarce resources and facilities for given populations but also the determinants of the moral and political values of those who control these rates. We need to know how the basic decisions affecting life-chances in urban areas are made … The controllers of the urban system seem to control more completely than the controllers of the industrial system”.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, guardians of this urban system assumed other managerial roles, other controlling roles more market-driven, more fiscally prudent. They started to recede from public view, dabbled with privatization, with contracting-out service delivery, doing it at minimum cost. After a while, this dabbling with the public budget became downright babbling: entrepreneurial managers turned into managerial entrepreneurs, and soon into middle-management technocrats, each with their own private hegemony of meaning. Before long, a new nobility assumed the mantle of political and authoritative power, a para-state of accountants and administrators, of middle-managers and think-tank “intellectuals”, of consultants and confidants who reside over our privatized public sector, filing the paperwork and pocketing the rents and fees, together with the interest-payments and bonuses, in our ever-emergent rentier and creditor society.

And nobody seems bothered to keep tabs anymore. These managers fulfill public duties and undertake public roles yet do so within a more expansive and invasive private sector. Now, we have a whole array of accountancy firms administering the privatizations and sell-offs, calling the economic shots as they draft the private contracts in which the public sector is destined always to lose. Now, we have a hybrid species of public-private sector bureaucrats, of Troika bureaucrats and Euro technocrats, of international fonctionnaires, for-profit public sector venture capitalists who determine the life-chances of the Europe’s crisis-scapes zone. Now, we have the managers and accountants presiding over Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s, who affect the fortunes of whole cities and regions everywhere, giving “specialist” financial opinions that condition the credit-worthiness of entire metropolises, holding the latter hostage to global bond markets.

The task beholden to us, the people, to us, the shadow citizenry, I suggest to the “Crisis-Scapes” audience, is to cast our critical investigative eye over the doings of these managers and guardians. Let’s try to name names, try to make them accountable to us; let’s scrutinize their behind-closed-doors machinations, expose their hidden ideological leanings, contest their austerity plans. Let’s do what Ray Pahl did, only do it on a much more enlarged public-private terrain, one in which state and civil society have basically melded into one giant privatized zone of free-market orthodoxy and rich-persons plutocracy. The project before us is two-fold, waged on two fronts. On the one hand, we, on the outside, have to get at them on the inside, force this private inside to be answerable to our public outside. We need to access the inside, enter inside their HQs, inside their centers of technocratic and financial power, get transparency around what goes on in this inside, ascertain information from their disinformation. And, if necessary, we need to evict these insiders as trespassers on public land, prosecute them as illegal squatters, as expropriators of public property. On the other hand, shadow citizens need to do this at the same time as we battle the “common field” of the outside, fighting it out with the jackboots and the flag-wavers on the outside (and a few on the inside), battle them everywhere neoliberalism stakes out its boundary stones.

To get in on the inside, we need to muster up enough energy to break though those boundary stones, to break on through to the inside. We need to appoint some of Plato’s trusty Scrutineers, delegates from the shadow citizens’ outside who might establish a sort of “Nocturnal Council”. The Nocturnal Council is an idea Plato brands in The Laws. But we can rejig it here, make it sound less autocratic and more democratic, more popular, more popular in a way that safeguards against popularism, that safeguards against power abuses both on the inside and the outside. The Nocturnal Council might consist of elected Scrutineers, salt of the earth shadow citizens, men and women who, according to Plato, “are better than the officials they scrutinize, and display irreproachable integrity”. Didn’t Marx once speak of the need to “educate the educators”? Here we’re talking about regulating the regulators, regulating regulators who’ve serially refused to regulate big business, who’ve kowtowed to big business, who’ve come from big business.

What we need are Scrutineers who oversee the overseers, those inept and dishonest overseers, Scrutineers who might replace those inept and dishonest overseers, ensuring that democracy is restored, that citizens participate in representative democracy. The Nocturnal Council would uphold what’s best from a philosophical awareness: the spirit of fairness and equity around matters of state and society. The Nocturnal Council might immediately convene to discuss the billions drained from the public finances because of corporate tax avoidance. You don’t have to be Socrates to get it: governments insist on belt-tightening austerity policies across Europe, run down collective consumption provision, but do so while they turn a blind eye to tax dodging corporations and super-rich individuals, do so as they clamp down hard on weaker players, on easier targets, auditing and monitoring the little guys, the smaller enterprises, the independents and freelancers, the poor, people who don’t have accountants at their beck and call, who’re squeezed for tax revenue, for the peanuts they apparently owe.

Such a system of taxation needs a complete overhaul, a thorough reconstitution on a new democratic basis, reloaded on equity and progressive principles. Equity here means applying the same progressive logic to capital as to work, taxing the huge gainers from global capital transactions, from currency and stock markets, from property speculation, from predatory rental extraction. Meantime, the Nocturnal Council might try to execute the necessary planned shrinkage of the financial sector, of the bloated and unproductive financial sector everywhere, waging war on its monetary blood-sucking in the same vein as ruling classes waged war on supposedly bloated and unproductive public services during the 1970s and 1980s. Plato may have been damning of poets in the polis; but he hated spendthrifts and idle embezzlers there as well, the parasites who “disturb the social constitution”, he said, “just as phlegm and bile disturb the body”. Any wise-lawgiver, said Plato, “must take careful precautions against them; first for not letting them get into the city; second, if frustrated in the first care, cutting them and their cells out as speedily as possible”.

*         *         *

Maybe the profoundest thing we can glean from the ancients is thinking big about human value systems, thinking big on a vast philosophical plane. Not on the plane of solitary contemplation, of dealing with rarefied, abstract and abstruse phenomena, but fiercely engaged with politics, fiercely engaged with concerns of democracy. We can recapture lost terrain by changing the rules of this contested terrain, by shifting the ontological ground away from anti-intellectual pragmatism and visceral reactionaryism toward a philosophy of combat, of fighting for the values one believes in, for more meaningful and virtuous values, for critical and positive values, ones that can help us develop another ideal of the Good Life, another measure of value, beyond wealth, beyond price.

In the 1970s, urban theorists like Ray Pahl and Manual Castells thought the polis served a vital reproductive function. It was a “spatial unit of collective consumption”, they said, an agglomeration of goods and services provided by the state, necessary for supporting growth, necessary for the survival of capitalism, yet in themselves unprofitable for private capitalism. Thus public capitalism needed to step in to fund and manage these items, needed to anoint the wheels of motion for private capitalism. Forty years down the road, these theorists have been proven right for reasoning that turned out to be wrong: yes, public goods and services remain vital for capitalism; but do so only insofar as they can be valorized and capitalized, do so only insofar as they can be productively plundered, used to actively generate capital, used (and abused) in evermore exploitative and extractive rounds of primitive accumulation.

So the notion that the polis is a unit of “collective consumption” continues to instruct. But here again not as Pahl and Castells initially imagined: “collective consumption” isn’t so much an analytical category as an inspiring normative construct, an ideal of what the polis ought to be. The polis ought to be an arena characterized by collectively consumed use-values, by public goods and services consumed in common, consumed by a public, by citizens who’ve stepped out of the shadows, who’re expressing themselves in the public light of day, even as they convene as a Nocturnal Council. The polis ought to be a form of human sociability, a collectivity, beyond the logic of profit, beyond speculative exchange-values; the polis ought to be a site for social reproduction, a space in which a different, non-marketized definition of value prevails. Over the past few decades, we’ve had lots speculators and rentiers, lots of administrators and middle-mangers, lots of accountants and guardians who seem to know the price of everything, who obsessively and cynically tot up the wealth of public culture; yet they sneer at the real value of things. We, on the Left, need to affirm another value yardstick, another definition of collective consumption, free from the cynics’ speculative grip.

In a curious way, I’d already glimpsed this new value system, seen it operative in Athens, happening almost behind the backs of Athens’ shadow citizens, happening as they struggled in the crisis and meltdown, happening precisely because they struggled in the crisis and meltdown. When all is gone, is seemingly lost, one has nothing left but each other; and out of this nothingness something beautiful can be created, is getting created, something full. I’d glimpsed this fullness in its natural state at the conference, with the heartfelt solidarity and warmth expressed by the participants and organizers, with the wonderful hospitality and great dinners we had after each day’s sessions. I’d also glimpsed and felt it the Sunday evening the day after the conference, when I’d met a cohort of young Greek women activist-researchers, who, since 2010, have called themselves Encounter Athens. I found the label intriguing, not least because of my book, The Politics of Encounter (Merrifield 2013). Now, somebody was showing me what I really meant, doing it much better than I could ever say.

Encounter Athens have been vocal trying to resurrect the “public” discourse for central Athens, organizing and speaking out at workshops and demos about mainstream media’s inciting of a politics of fear, about rising xenophobic and racist violence, about the lack of affordable housing in the city. They’ve also been active mobilizing people against the auctioning-off of Greek cultural and economic heritage, as engineered by the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (TAIPED). A purported fiscal strategy, TAIPED is really a jumped-up privatization scam, imposed by the Troika and rubber-stamped by Greece’s center-right government in July 2011. It isn’t so much a public entity as a lucrative private resource, a “limited liability company” with the explicit goal of using state-owned assets–land, infrastructure, public companies, airports (e.g. Hellinikon airport), coastal fronts, and even whole islands–to repay the nation’s debt. Yet once sold-off these assets can’t be transferred back to the state: they remain firmly in private hands, guarded by private law. TIAPED grants “investment incentives” that blithely ignore statutory land-use and environmental regulation. TIAPED is a “vehicle for a massive land dispossession and land-grabbing process in Greece”, Encounter Athens say, “that sells-off state-owned property … of vital importance for both the present and future of the whole Greek society”. And this “to contribute to the repayment of a commonly acknowledged non-sustainable debt”.[1] So a massive bargain basement asset clearance program is in motion, exchanging Greece’s long-range future for immediate liquidity, for fast cash, to satisfy the whims of the Troika’s fiscal targets.

I’d met Encounter Athens in one of Exarcheia’s many bars, sitting outside in the balmy May night air, a stone’s throw away from Navarinou Park, which for years had languished as a makeshift parking lot. But in 2009, local anarchist activists reclaimed it, and put in considerable sweat equity to transform the once drab concrete into an exotic green oasis, into an experimental community garden; fruit and veg are grown and local residents reconnect to the land; kids now play free of cars. The park acts as an ad hoc cultural space, too, a hanging-out and lingering space; movies get projected there, and, like this evening, musicians groove. I’d passed by to check things out earlier, and from the bar we can hear revelers partying, commemorating the park’s fifth anniversary, the feting of micro-militancy as non-monetized urban sustainability.

Despite the nearby joy, the Encounter Athens women are subdued tonight, depressed even, at the personal and political state of affairs. They’re hanging on, but only just; they’re tired and tiring, feeling they’re fighting a losing battle. “What should we do?”, they ask me. “Keep going, keep battling”, I say, lamely, somewhat embarrassingly, because this sounds banal, sounds so facile coming from somebody so relatively privileged. I’d love to give them a straight, easy answer, an absolute practical answer, aWhat Is To Be Done? answer, but there is none; I know it, they know it. I tell them a little of what I’ve said hitherto here. They listen. I listen. Our conversations are deeply political, deeply engaged and engaging. They tell me they have no money anymore, they’re writing up their PhDs but know that afterwards there’ll be no jobs, certainly no academic jobs, not in their professional lifetimes; they can’t afford to buy new clothes, or new shoes. Some of the group have been forced to move back with their parents, who themselves hustle to live off dwindling pensions and benefits.

As we exit in the wee hours, everywhere is deserted. In the darkness, it suddenly struck me that inside all this negativity, within it, lay an amazing positivity, a wonderful source of inspiration about how to live differently. Needless to say, I don’t want to romanticize hardship; but I’d glimpsed nonetheless a mode of living here that had somehow dispensed with representation: with money as a representation of value, with mass media as a representation of truth, with representation as a vehicle for democracy. All that had been stripped away, and a bare, unaccommodated life remained, a directly lived life without mediation. The women from Encounter Athens had other concerns than the stuff young men and women elsewhere interest themselves in, like fashion and conventional ambition, like making money and owning property (and being mortgaged up to the hilt), like doing a job (usually a not very interesting job) and slavishly following a canned capitalist image of success. The billboards around Athens stand empty: there’s no point advertising to a populace without money, to people whose life is no longer defined by conspicuous consumption. There’s something else at stake now, something else worth fighting for: a life with common assets, a shared public life. A new kind of collective consumption is emerging, a coming community, defined by young people feverishly discussing politics and reinventing the Greek agora. In this new agora, Greeks come of age as political animals, which, in the end, is all Plato meant about natural human existence.

 

Endnote

[1] http://encounterathens.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/sell-off-of-public-land-greece/ – Antonis Vradis describes this process as “gentrination”, a form of national-level gentrification. The economic and political fabric of the whole nation-state is devalued via depreciation and austerity disinvestment; then, as a profit gap akin to gentrification’s rent gap ensues, the national territory witnesses an influx of private capital and the complete overhaul of its key public foundations and structures, a jamboree for rich enterprises and elites, and for accountants and bankers (see Vradis 2014).

 

References

Merrifield A (2013) The Politics of the Encounter: Urban Theory and Protest Under Planetary Urbanization. Athens: University of Georgia Press

Vradis A (2014) From crisis to gentrination. Political Geography 40:A1-A2

Vradis A and Dalakoglou D (eds) (2011) Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come. Oakland: AK Press

08
May2014

by Sonia Vlachou

During the last two decades, a commonplace realization among scholars, practitioners and activists involved in the study of the EU migrant policy has been that the evolving model of migration management is based on securitization, deportation and exclusion (Boswel et al. 2011; Bourbeau 2011; Carling & Caretero 2011; Dijstelbloem et al. 2011; Enenajor 2008; Hansen et al. eds 2011; Huysmans 2006; Spivak 1997; Triandafyllidou 2010 ao.).

However, with regard to children and youth in migration, developed, law- abiding states conventionally proclaim the degree of respect towards Children’s Rights as defined in the context of the internationally ratified CRC (UNICEF 1989 [1997]) to be an utmost indicator of the states democratic sensibilities and a ‘script sample’ of the degree of their compliance to fundamental Human Rights. While examining thus minor age as a potential refuge-, or last resort- endowment on the course of migration, the basic question arising is whether within the current repressive policy framework the legal quality of childhood (under 18 years old) actually forms a beneficial interstice among structures of the existing deportation regimes.

Since the implementation of the Dublin II regulation, a series of reports with reference to Independent Juvenile Migrants’ border-crossings in European borderlands, with special regard to Greece have demonstrated that the documentation system upon entry arrests has constantly been malfunctioning. Summarily, either authorities perpetually failed to localize minors among mixed flows and provide access to protection provisions, or the minors themselves tendentially ‘oldened’ themselves in order not to fall into the trap of being taken hostages of authorities in a condition of re-infantilization in establishments especially foreseen for the internment of minors, a fact that would imply the loss of the last pigments of their freedom of mobility.

(Forschungsgruppe, T. M. 2007; Papageorgiu & Dimitropoulou 2008; Pro Asyl 2007; the Citizen’s Ombudsman 2005; McDonough & Tsourdi 2012; Naskou-Perraki 2012; Theodoropoulou (2012); Touzenis 2006; Troller 2008; Troubeta 2012; Tsapopoulou et al. 2012 a; a.o.).

In the context of this presentation, in order to encompass agents migrating alone within a generational spectrum extending from puberty to early adulthood, i.e. those represented in the framework of the bureaucratic categories of Unaccompanied Minors, alt. Separated Children, I will henceforth employ the description Independent Juvenile Migrants. Following, I’m going to provide some characteristic samples of experiences that these –according to legal definitions extremely vulnerable- groups are confronted with on the aftermath of border detention, while trying to orient themselves and settle in the new environment. I am therefore going to refer to important aspects of those juveniles’ experiences a) during their efforts to cope within metropolitan space, b) during internment in unaccompanied minors’ reception units and c) after the point of reaching the age of majority. All of the following statements are based on ethnographic findings from participatory research with West Africans, hence, largely rely on own observations and people’s primary testimonies.

 

A. Metropolitan hunters and waste gatherers.     

Customarily, regardless which border juvenile migrants enter Greece from (land or sea) they head towards Athens, in hope of opportunities to work and to connect to existing peer networks. In fact, they land in a situation of long-t­­erm homelessness characterized by survival hardships, arrests, degrading treatment, and repetitive detention instances, whereby racial depreciation and police brutality hold a central place. Accommodation is mainly found within abandoned, crumbling houses, food by queuing up for charity meals, by generating minimal sums of money through picking return bottles from the garbage, and begging for non- merchandisable vegetable and meat parts at shop- closing times.

The following juvenile’s narratives illustrate the rigidity of prevention of accessing even waste- survival resources and evoke thus the strength of a state- promoted fascist status quo in matters of interior migration management:

 

_ A: ‘Five stars! This is the first shelter of people who come here. There is five stars, and four stars, the ‘hotel royal’! But we knew that if the police find us there, things are going to go bad. We used to enter at two o’clock in the morning in order to exit around six before the police comes.[…] It was panic the whole time, we couldn’t sleep! We were getting beaten up, getting evicted and were then coming back again because we had nowhere else to go, since it’ s obligatory to sleep sometime, somewhere.

_MB: I stayed there for two months [meaning the two crumbling houses]. It was very difficult. We had to walk for about half an hour a day to arrive to ‘mama Africa’ before eleven in order to be able to eat during the day […] In Omonoia the GCR gave some food rations but it was really hard to arrive there in the first place and to finally get some food. There used to be such long queues that when you arrived in front, you were sometimes told that the food was over. There were even people beating each other in order to get in front at the line. Sometimes I preferred to stay without any food at all rather than start fighting with others over a meal. […] But in the place where we stayed at night the police raided every day, every day, every day, poured our food over, smashed everything around and bat the people. Sometimes they would take the people with them and have them spend the hole day a la dapon [acoustically transfigured ‘allodapwn’, hence, the foreign police at P. Ralli] without giving them any food or drink. ‘A la dapon’ is the migration office of Athens. It is a prison but it is migration at the same time. Then they would release them after midnight after the last bus had gone, so that they cannot even ‘steal the bus’ and have to walk back all of the long distance.         

_A: ‘We had a system to beguile the time and to make some money to buy something to eat. This system was picking Heineken and other bottles from the garbage. Because over there in Athens, you can sell beer bottles between ten and twenty pence each. We knew that we could get some food at six [means p.m]. in Athens, we had three places where you could eat, we had ‘mama Africa’, which is a church. The people call it ‘mama Africa’ because all Africans like us go to eat there. There’s Victoria and Omonoia. […] And then there was Omonoia, which was in the evening but there we could not eat every day, because there where we could eat the police was awaiting and blocking the way in the surrounding streets. So we could not pass without getting arrested and beaten up.

Thus, we were collecting the bottles to sell. One bottle, 10 cents. We were going through garbage, and going through garbage. If we had a couple of euro we all contributed and then parted tasks, one paid a little gas bottle, the other bread, there’s bread down there that costs 50 cents, another one paid for oil or rice and we got by like that. That was what we cooked before going to sleep and then we could eat.

There are also cans you can put to the recycling. If you gather a hundred of them you have one Euro, then you’re ready to go to the supermarket or at butchers’ around Omonoia that sell cheap chicken meat throats, intestines, and so.

And if anything was left, [meaning money], we would go to a cyber café to listen to music and talk with friends, to beguile our time, until returning to the sleeping place.       

    

2. Internment deficits

After usually having come in contact with the GCR, juveniles have the opportunity to apply for a transfer in an Unaccompanied minors’ reception unit. This might happen after longer waiting durations and following they might become relocated in a variety of places all over Greece. As documented in the case of the specific reception unit where my research was conducted (Konitsa), the main aspects of institutional protection deficiency comprised:

  • Funds scarcity/ irregularity of budgetary flows[1].
  • Unsettled employing arrangements[2].
  • Lack in qualified instructors,
  • Lack of design for specific educational needs; lack of methodological knowledge: Hence, un-preparedness to educate analphabetic- and/or further people with limited educational experience, or people of mixed origins (languages).
  • Staff lacking intercultural competences and therefore, essentializing social - educational deficit. A negative atmosphere of constant communication gap, in combination to scarce and delayed fulfilment of the Centre obligations to material supplies towards UMs have even sparkled shorter duration hunger strikes twice, during 2009 and 2010[3].
  • UMs’ exclusion from apprenticeship workshops on the grounds of their insufficient linguistic competence in Greek.
  • UMs’ exclusion from the public- national schooling system as directed by the UNHCR and the EP[4] due to a variety of complications[5].
  • Lack of the political will to create cultural encounter opportunities between Juvenile Migrants and the local society.
    • A complete lack of an institutional transition plan towards a sustainable adulthood.

Besides the delimitations listed above, there exist moreover a number of invisible constraints on those people’s settlement capacities. These constraints are attached to the lack of legalizing documents (‘red cards’), a fact that deprives people of civic and social personhood beyond their stay in reception units, and activates hence a type of vicious circle of mobility- and quest for income incapacity.

In total, the majority of my interlocutors expressed a feeling of being plainly tolerated but not welcome within the reception unit[6]. With special regard to the quality of daily communication between Juvenile Migrants and some of the institution staff the following quote is indicative:

”Some of the people working in the centre address me by calling me “mavro” [black] in each case. They only call us “mavro” all the time and ignore our names. Last time they asked me to give them a hand with something by calling: “Hey, mavro, come here”! I answered: _ “No! I’ m not helping you unless you call me by my name. I’m not called “mavro”! You should know by now that my name is I.” (Interview, 14.05.11).

 

Children grow up

Due to the lack in an institutional transition plan, on the aftermath of people’s ‘Coming of Age’, striving for survival takes once again place under conditions of constant psychosocial tension. Thus, after leaving UMs reception centers, encounter with authorities represents a major stressful instance. Systematic breaches of duty on behalf of the Greek police in renewing ‘red cards’ have been narrated, observed and documented. Usual hazing techniques are seen to include the following practices that generate a type of ‘hamster- wheel’ effect for Juvenile Migrants:

Thus, upon applicants’ appearance to the police station in their immediate proximity, officers deny their positional relevancy to renew asylum application bulletins on the grounds of the applicants’ lack in documents proving their administrational belongingness to the given police department (e.g., housing contracts, or a signed declaration of being hosted by someone under a relevant home address[7]). Next, applicants are mostly being indicated to return to the initial location of placing their asylum claim[8], where they are once more denied renewal on the grounds of administrational “non- belongingness”, since that they are no more registered as residents there either. Thus, they end up getting perpetually posted somewhere else (participant observation sessions & conversations, 2010-2013). However, since that people are mostly destitute and house either unofficially in crowded apartments or are homeless and errant, this type of mobility in quest of lawfulness forms an interdictory option for the large majority.

Hence gradually, added to the rest of undocumented migrant populations, juvenile asylum applicants increasingly end up circulating with expired asylum application bulletins as they become progressively hesitant to appear to any police department for renewing them in fear of an arrest, potentially leading to deportation. In fact though, the law takes into consideration the eventuality of those people being homeless and errant. Article 6 of Presidential decree 220/2007 foresees accordingly that also homeless individuals can get their bulletins stamped at the police headquarters of any prefecture around the dominion, provided that they declare their homelessness to authorities[9]. (Amnesty International 2010:21; Government Gazette, 13.11.2007, p: 5007).

Additionally, juveniles among further asylum applicant migrants have repeatedly attested duty misconduct on behalf of police officers who arbitrarily destroy or confiscate asylum application bulletins during identification procedures, without providing any further explanations to their holders regarding motives of such actions. These instances are usually marked by what is legally defined as “unlawful racial and ethnic profiling” [10], i.e., by practices overtly entailing discriminatory behaviours including verbal abuse and physical brutalization. This situation has been described as a type of daily terror especially for those living in Athens and represents an additional propulsion of fall into clandestine (HRW 2013; Pro Asyl 2012).

 

Conclusion

Juvenile refugees made in Europe?

In this part of the presentation I have demonstrated that through a series of legal and normative treatment practices beneficial juvenility qualities melt into the contour of the entire ‘bogus migration’ problematic. Thus, settlement possibilities for youth of third nationals are countered by a rejection of civic and sociocultural belongingness, corroborated on the level of daily interactions with the aid of rigidly pronounced nationalist and racist discourses.

With regard to Unaccompanied Minors’ reception units, the type of assistance actually supplied attempts to fulfil the absolute minimum of standards, so that the state will have the alibi of complying with international protection principles in order not to be made reprehensible according to conventions that it has ratified. In conformity with the logics imposed by the ‘permanent emergency’ situation imposed by the monetary crisis- vehicle, an examination of ways to enhance juvenile migrants’ self determined development and prospects of sociocultural and affective settlement are viewed as redundant. Alien juveniles are reduced to mere ‘structural units’, whereby this reduction reflects a perception of them on unequal terms with native youth. (Ejorh 2012; Fangen 2012; Hörschelmann and Colls 2009; Sabates-Wheeler & MacAuslan 2007; Schapendonk 2010).

Especially in the case of juveniles, all migratory displacement forms an amalgam of emergencies and aspirations. Nonetheless, regardless of the percentage in components within this amalgam and due to the tremendous amounts of structural violence people are systematically exposed to while trying to set a foot on European territories, I argue here that it is precisely on these territories that migration undertakings become forced. Coercion, as a constitutive component of juvenile migrants’ daily livelihoods in parallel to compartmentalizing asylum procedures governed by a rationality that attributes lower, individualistic motives to poverty migration in contrast to the dignified, martyrous status of legally defined refugee-ness may lead people to an awareness of having to strategically reinvent their stories in order to adapt them to the standards of occidental institutional humanitarian empathy[11]. Therefore, it is the rejection- inflicted and martyrdom-rewarding character of those procedures that invites for people’s tactic lying as a potential survival remedy in an ocean of high class, governance- naturalized lies.

As an ending remark inspired by Bok’s analysis regarding the ethics of deception, the question that arises is: What could actually in this case be the arguments against lying (Bok 2011)?

 

 
Notes

[1] For press publications in support of this observation see: AlterThes, 23.09.2010.

[2] In evidence, see the following local press online publications under references: ‘anon’ 14.01.2011; ‘anon’, 05.01.2011; ‘anon’ 09.04.2010.

[3] In connection to the 2009 and 2010 hunger strikes see ‘anon’, 14.05.2009 and anenecuilco14 03.05.2011 respectively.

[4] Initials mean “European Parliament”. For details, see article 9 of directive 2003/9/EP under references.

[5] Omissions to integrate Asylum Applicant internees to the schooling system were justified on the grounds of the minors’ fluctuating numbers, as well as on their poor linguistic competence in Greek. However, reluctance on behalf of the institution administration to launch a relevant generalized schooling plan additionally relied on fear of a contingent native parents’ reaction against the ‘intrusion’ of numerous poorly performing, foreign pupils in the classes as a handicap to their children’s educational progress (conversation with the institution direction, in June 2012).   

[6] See also the use of the term “philanthropic tolerance” in Trubeta (2010).

[7] It must be underlined that even hosts and patrons of people who regularly rent and/or work somewhere usually deny to provide them any documents in proof of their stability in a location.

[8]In the case in question, ex-minors are usually being recommended to travel back to Ioannina for a renewal of their claim. Some of those who are able to realize this journey, attempt to recur to the Konitsa institution for legal help. Some others try to resolve their confusion by taking a shorter trip to Athens, in order to pile themselves up along the queues of migrants waiting to place an asylum demand or asylum applicant bulletin renovation demand outside the central Aliens’ Police Department in “P. Ralli”. In both cases, those moves are proved to be taking place in vain, unless migrants have the seldom luck of encountering an officer who simply acts lawfully and actually renews their cards without presenting them with further complications regarding official housing contracts. For a visual documentation of conditions while queuing up outside the “P. Ralli” police department see also Reel News, 20.04.2013.

[9] In that case it moreover becomes a duty of the ‘Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity’ to provide asylum applicants with accommodation solutions. For further details on administrational complications to renew asylum claim bulletins due to lack of regular accommodation see the relevant paragraph 4.6 of the 2010 Amnesty International Report under references.

[10] For a definition of the notion of unlawful racial/ethnic profiling see also ECRI 2007: 8. 

[11] This kind of morality somehow reminds policies of private health- insurance companies that decline compensation of one’s medication costs in case where no lethal disease has been detected with the patient!

 

References

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Asyl, P. (June 2012) ‘I came here for peace’. Germany, Stiftung Pro Asyl. Acquired from: http://www.proasyl.de/fileadmin/fm-dam/p_KAMPAGNEN/Flucht-ist-kein-Verbrechen/Patras-Webversion04D-DS-k_03.pdf [accessed on the 18.12.13.]

_               (2007). The truth may be bitter, but it must be told. The situation of Refugees in the Aegean and the Practices of the Greek Coast Guard.

 Bok, S. (2011). Lying: Moral choice in public and private life. Random House LLC.

Boswell, C., Geddes, A., & Scholten, P. (2011). The Role of Narratives in Migration Policy‐Making: A Research Framework. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 13(1), 1-11.

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Fangen, K., Fossan, M. K., & Mohn, M. F. A. (Eds.). (2012). Inclusion and Exclusion of Young Adult Migrants in Europe: Barriers and Bridges. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

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04
May2014

by Andreas Chatzidakis, Royal Holloway, University of London

 

A Consumer City in the Making

I grew up in Athens throughout the 80s and 90s, in the midst of a transition period that brought dramatic changes to the Athenian cityscape. In many ways, the “ancient city” was in a fully-blown and ferocious transformation into a “consumer city”. For despite the ubiquitous view of the Acropolis and other ancient sites, Athens began to look more like any other European “future-oriented” city: introducing some of the biggest shopping malls in Southeast Europe, iconic buildings by celebrity architects, bigger and wider motorways for ever-so-bigger and wider cars, new museums, urban lofts, retail parks, theme parks, and various new cafés, artspaces and multi-purpose buildings for an emerging and increasingly confident “creative class” (Florida, 2002). By 2004, the year of hosting Olympics, Athens was keen to erase its more recent memories and eager to fetishise antiquity in its rebranding as a world-class destination. Major facelifts and investments in urban infrastructure had turned the city itself into an alluring object of consumption: contemporary yet rich in history, sophisticated, even as “chic” as Parisi and as “creative” as Berlinii, and above all full of opportunities for consumption catering to all cosmopolitan tastes and sensibilities.

But the transition of Athens into a city of consumption was far more pronounced not in the physical surroundings but in the everyday logics and practices of its residents. In the neighbourhood I grew up, and which in many ways epitomised the Greek model of urban gentrification, the formation of new subjectivities akin to the neoliberal consumer-citizen began to manifest in all spheres of daily life. At least for some time, nearly everyone seemed blessed with the freedom of experimentation and identity differentiation through the acquisition of an ever-expanding list of consumption objects. Soon it became not only about what people were consuming but also where, marking the formation of neighbourhoods with distinct class identities. Popular songs and TV series, for instance, narrated stories of people from different districts of Athens (middle versus working class) that were to fall in love and strive a life together despite different class-related tastes and sensibilities. For a city that never underwent a process of heavy industrialisation and class-stratification, as for example Paris or London, this was a remarkable cultural shift. Concurrently, some academic studies began to take note of Greece’s transition from a “collectivist” to an “individualist” culture (e.g. Pouliasi and Verkuyten, 2011).

 

A Contested Consumer City

The years of the Athenian spectacle ended violently and abruptly in December 2008, uncovering various underlying tensions and contradictions, not least in the consumption-led model of urban development (see Vradis and Dalakoglou, 2012). Capitalist “cracks” (Holloway, 2010) and “societies within societies” (Papi, 2003) began to appear in various parts of Athens and beyond. One of the most striking examples, for instance, was what is now known as “Navarinou park” or “the park”, a former parking lot that was turned into an open squat by Exarcheia-based residents (and other enthusiastic supporters) who, in the aftermath of the 2008 riots: “….united to squat on the space and demand the obvious, that the parking turns into a park! They broke the asphalt with drills and cutters, they brought trucks carrying soil, planted flowers and trees and in the end they celebrated it”iii. Operating on the basis of self-management, anti-hierarchical structuring and anti-commercialisation, the park aspired to be:

a space for creativity, emancipation and resistance, open to various initiatives, such as political, cultural and anti-consumerist ones. At the same time, it aspires to be a neighbourhood garden which accommodates part of the social life of its residents, is beyond any profit or ownership-driven logics and functions as a place for playing and walking, meeting and communicating, sports, creativity and critical thinking. The park defies constraints relating to different ages, origins, educational level, social and economic positioningiv.

Consumerist society and atomised logics and practices were at the heart of critique in various other “here and now” experimentations with doing things differently. There was a collective, for instance, that directly traded with Zapatistas and various other alternative trading networks that brought together politically like-minded producers and consumers without intermediaries. There were also various no-ticket cinema screenings, collective cooking events, time banks, gifting bazaars and “anti-consumerist” spaces where people could come and give, take, or give and take goods without any norms of reciprocity. For a consumer researcher, post-2008 Athens seemed to be an ultimate laboratory where alternative tactics of consumer resistance and modes of consumer-oriented activism were constantly tried out.

 

A Failed Consumer City

Fast forward five years, however, theories and critiques of consumerist society and possessive individualism (Graeber, 2011) have to a certain extent been made redundant. As Skoros, an anti-consumerist collective put it:

When we started Skoros... everything was easier. It was much easier to propose anti-consumerism, re-use, recycling and sharing practices. Later however the economic crisis arrived―of course the social and cultural crises pre-existed―and made us feel awkward. How can one speak of anti-consumerism when people’s spending power has shrunk considerably? How can one propose a critique of consumerist needs when people struggle to meet their basic needs?...” (leaflet by Skoros, Dec 2011).

Indeed, Athens is now by and large inhabited by people who can no longer fully express themselves on the basis of what they consume and where. Their city is no longer a “world-class” city for consumption (Miles, 2010) and cannot pretend to be so either. After all, it is the capital and by far most populous city of the first developed country to be downgraded to “emerging” market statusv. By 2014, the average Greek salary was reduced by 40%vi. In many ways, the consequences are far more pronounced in Athens than anywhere else. The once well-to-do Athenian middle-classes now parallel the world’s so-called “emerging middle-classes” in reverse, experiencing everyday precariousness and the fears of “falling from the middle” (Kravets and Sandikci, 2014)―and straight onto the poverty zone―in an unprecedented magnitude and scale. Increasingly, Athenians approximate Europe’s “defective” and “disqualified” consumers (Bauman, 2011, 2007), unable to fully define themselves neither in terms of what they consume nor what they produce: with unemployment rates hitting a record 27% across the entire population and over 50% among the youthvii.

Present-day Athens is the world’s “failed” consumer city par excellence: comprising “zombie” retailscapes for increasingly disempowered consumers who still mourn the dramatic decline of their spending power and unfulfilled consumer desires that seem all the more unreachable. I have seen, for instance, various individuals visiting gifting bazaars and desperately trying to revive consumer fantasies and a “customer ethos” remnant of a not-so-distant past where much of their leisure time was spent around department stores. I have heard of others that walk into stores and pay a small deposit to reserve items, pretending they don’t know that they know it is no longer possible to return to buy them. In a (European) society of consumers, “a world that evaluates anyone and anything by their commodity value” (Bauman, 2007, p. 124), both Athens and its residents have comparatively little, if any, status.

To the untrained eye―and a remaining Athenian elite that still lives within secluded walls of excess and affluence―it may be difficult to fully grasp the depth and the breadth of such failure. After all it is still possible to consume Athens subject to (carefully) guided tours and the (fragile) success of various “re-thinking” and “rebranding” projectsviii,ix. According to the New York Times, for instance, the city is “surging back”, a testament to that “vibrancy and innovation can even bloom in hard times”x. Potential visitors are rest assured that various neighbourhoods have witnessed a “resurgence”, are “quickly gentrifying” and getting a “cultural lift”xi. Indeed, some streets of Athens are still buzzing and there are various new “entertainment zones” where opportunities for hedonistic pursuits and “experiential consumption” (e.g. Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982) abide. But the proliferation of new cafés and budget eateries is also understood in the context of the heroic Athenian entrepreneur who, facing dire prospects, invests in small businesses with low start-up cost and (at least) some potential of reasonable profit margins. More profoundly perhaps, they can be understood in the context of the (failing) Athenian consumer, who having lost their ability to assert themselves through more traditional performances of conspicuous consumption, invest in “low-involvement” yet symbolic daily expenditures instead. Put differently, these new sites of consumption represent a very last but much-needed resort for consumption-mediated expressions of identity positioning and differentiation.

 

Athens is Calling: From Solidarity Across Difference and Distance to “In-Group” Solidarity

“….How can we insist that ‘we are not a charity’ when poverty is next to us, around and above us and it is growing massively? How to counterpropose solidarity and community when the crisis isolates individuals and makes them turn against each other?...” (leaflet by Skoros, Dec 2011)

Against such dystopian present, solidarity was bound to surface as a keyword. But it is hardly a new word in the streets of Athens. In my first systematic photographic recordings of graffiti, posters and various flyers around the city (back in 2008), “solidarity” was already everywhere: from calls in support of comrades facing juridical charges to supporting under-paid (and non-paid) workers; from Athens to Mexico and into Palestine; from race to age and into gender. Soon after the crisis, however, discourses of solidarity diversified and multiplied. Various social actors began counter-proposing their own solidarity logics and practices. The notion itself became a symbolic battlefield where even the most accountable for peoples’ misfortunes claimed part of the pile. The government, for instance, soon introduced its own version of additional “solidarity taxes”. It was now as if all other taxes did not have to do with solidarity. Meanwhile, in collaboration with various marketplace and religious actors, Sky TV―a pro-establishment broadcaster―launched a relatively successful campaign titled “Oloi Mazi Mporoume” (United We Can), comprising “actions for the collection of food, medication and clothes for those who need them as well as scholarships for those children that want to further their education but cannot due to financial difficulties”xii. Any willingness left to extend solidarity across difference and distance was therefore displaced into firmly depoliticised acts of pitifulness, supporting an implicit ontological understanding of the crisis as accidental rather than systemic (Harvey, 2010), a temporary rather than prolonged state of being (Agamben, 2004). Thanks to Sky TV’s campaign Greece’s youth could still further their education had theywanted to; and presumably enjoy a life of linear chronological progress (i.e. from education to full-time employment) once the painful years of crisis are over.

Concurrently the strengthening of ingroup-outgroup categorisations and practices of othering undermined universal solidarity. For instance, Golden Dawn, a political party with explicit links to Nazi ideology and which won 7% of the vote in the last national elections (July 2012), performed solidarity through the creation of migrant-free zones (Vradis and Dalakoglou, 2010). Among others, proudly Greek citizens concerned with the rise of migrant-led crime could now enjoy benefits such as guarded walks to ATMs. A kind of walk that for psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein could be read as the projection of paranoid-schizoid mechanisms into the other: including migrants, antifascists and homosexuals. Soon Golden Dawn also introduced soup kitchens and solidarity trading initiatives ‘from-Greeks-for-Greeks-only’. As I have illustrated elsewhere (Chatzidakis, 2013) the struggle was no longer only about urban space but also the phantasmic realm of commodities. From Zapatistas coffee to so-called “fascist rice” (rice circulated in solidarity trading networks by right-wing producers) and “blood strawberries” (named after the racist shooting and injuring of migrant strawberry pickers by their bosses) the Athenian’s shopping basket was full of street-level politics.

For most Athenians, solidarity therefore failed to channel itself into more politically progressive realms. If anything, it was the family institution and the notion of intergenerational family solidarity that took centre-stage to firefight the gaps left by the dramatic cuts in standards of living and the demise of the welfare state. Moving back with the parents and grandparents, having extended family meals, sharing salaries and consumption objects and trying to get rid of these that once a sign of freedom had now become burdens (e.g. expensive cars) became part of daily life. In Athens and beyond, an increasing number of people had no choice but to rediscover the pleasures and the perils of (extended) family living.

 

Athens in the Here and Now

“…We are not sorry at all, quite the contrary, that the current socio-economic system is in a deep crisis and we try, being part of the society, to put human lives above profits. In a capitalist system that is reaching its end, we are not going to feel nostalgic about the illusions of happiness offered by consumerist lifestyles but we are going instead to seek for novelty. We pose questions around degrowth, issues of scale and balance, and we deny the hegemony of financial profits. We propose small, “self-managed” communities and not gigantic multinational enterprises. We believe in solidarity, social support and collaboration and not in charitable giving. We are part of society, not its rescuers. Our suggestion is simple. We produce and share goods, services, knowledge. We become independent of the old structures and develop new ones. These new structures will cultivate an environment that will allow a way out of the current economic, social and cultural crisis. A way out on the basis of equality and justice…” (leaflet by Skoros, December 2011).

For those with an alternative vision of public and community life, one less mediated by consumption, the crisis represented a threat but also a welcomed opportunity for the cultivation of new ways of doing and thinking politics. An increasingly popular movement of “de-growth” (Latouche, 2009), for instance, called for redefining urban (and national) wealth not in economic terms but quality of life, social relations, equality and justice. But present-day Athens is far from having entered such “virtuous circle of quiet contraction” (Latouche, 2009). Consumers of the spectacular Olympics and super-sized shopping malls were forced to embrace less materialistic lifestyles but not on the basis of voluntary downshifting or some kind of “alternative hedonism” (Soper et al. 2009). Their way of living changed drastically but their political (consumer) subjectivities proved to be rather less versatile.

Concurrently, new politics of time and space stretched the Athenian antagonist movement to its limits. The utopian “here and now”, which largely inspired the formation of various “societies within societies” (Papi, 2003) and experimentations with doing things differently, was soon confronted by the “here and now” of the crisis: a different kind of spatio-temporal logics focused less on ideological imperatives and more on here and now pragmatism, an urge to attend to people’s immediate needs. In their attempt to firefight the various gaps left by the welfare state and to respond to multiple calls for solidarity beyond traditional territories, some social movements went on “automatic pilot” (emic term). Ideological principles had to be bracketed off, paying emphasis on “urgency”. For example, although alternative and solidarity-based economies continued to proliferate the imperative for “fair” and “transparent” rather than “low” prices became somewhat redundant. For most people participation in alternative trading networks simply made sense in their quest for lower prices. It was hard to blame them for doing so whilst watching them nearing (and falling below) the poverty line. Likewise, Skoros, the anti-consumerist collective who took a conscious decision to provide solidarity for all, soon turned into a space of “over-consumption”, catering to an increasing population of failed consumers who kept coming back to acquire more stuff they did not really need but could no longer purchase in the conventional marketplace.

There is currently widespread fatigue, anxiety, and an “overwhelming sense of futility” (Ross, 2014)xiii in the streets of Athens. But some find it hard to stop thinking and dreaming rather more dangerously. After all, the history of their city reminds that there will always be potential turning points and critical junctures that can trigger radical upheavals.

 

 

 

References

Agamben G 2004 The State of Exception Stanford University Press, Stanford

Bauman Z 2011 The London riots―on consumerism coming home to roost Social Europe Journal http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/

Bauman Z 2007 Consuming Life Polity, Cambridge

Chatzidakis A 2013 Commodity fights in post-2008 Athens: Zapatistas coffee, Kropotkinian drinks and Fascist rice Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 13 (2) 459-468

Florida R L 2002 The Rise of the Creative Class: and how it's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life Basic Books, New York

Graeber D 2011 Consumption Current anthropology 52 (4) 489-511

Harvey D 2010 The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism Oxford University Press, Oxford

Holbrook M B & Hirschman E C 1982 The experiential aspects of consumption: consumer fantasies, feelings, and fun Journal of Consumer Research 132-140

Holloway J 2010 Crack Capitalism Pluto Press, London

Kravets O and Sandikci O 2014 Competently ordinary: new middle class consumers in the emerging marketsJournal of Marketing forthcoming

Latouche S 2009 Farewell to GrowthPolity, Cambridge

Miles S 2010 Spaces for Consumption Sage Publications, London

Papi A 2003 Una societá nella societá Arivista Anarchica 33 294

Pouliasi K & Verkuyten M 2011 Self-evaluations, psychological well-being, and cultural context: the changing Greek society Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 42 (5) 875-890

Soper K Ryle M H & Thomas L 2009 Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently Palgrave Macmillan, London

Vradis A & Dalakoglou D 2010 After December: spatial legacies of the 2008 Athens uprising Upping the Anti 10 123-135

Vradis A & Dalakoglou D eds 2011 Revolt and Crisis in Greece―Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come AK Press & Occupied London, Oakland and Edinburgh

 

 

iv Ibid.

xi Ibid.

 

04
May2014

by Hyun Bang Shin, London School of Economics and Political Science

 

Clearly, everyday domicide is as systematic and widespread as the pursuit of economic interest. It has affected and will continue to affect large numbers of mostly powerless people, especially in the developing world. The murder of homes is an intentional act. Domicide violates and terrorizes its victims as bulldozers and cranes reduce their homes to rubble. It severs its victims’ lifetime attachment to homes and community and deprives them of the built environment that has shaped their tradition and identity. It also wounds their sense of dignity. Everyday domicide, in other words, in many ways cruelly redefines the existence of its victims and severely diminishes, if not destroys, the quality of their lives. Considering all of the immediate and lingering damage it causes, perhaps it is time to think of domicide as something beyond mere ‘moral evil’ (Shao, 2013, p.28)

In her latest book on displacement in Shanghai, Qin Shao vividly reports the disastrous effects of China’s urban development that evicts people from their homes, demolishes long-established communities and impairs people’s psychological well-being. While her findings are largely based on the city of Shanghai, the stories of uprooted families and flattened dwellings are reminiscent of millions of other similar cases around the world. In China, such traumatising human consequences have been facilitated and exacerbated largely by the Chinese state’s drive to transform its nation into an urban society, resulting in the country’s own version of ‘urban revolution’.

 

China’s urbanisation as a political and ideological project

China’s urbanisation is a political project that receives the utmost attention from the top leadership. When China’s new Party leadership came to power in late 2012, a heavy emphasis was placed on sustaining the country’s stride to urbanise. It was openly claimed that China would achieve a 60% urbanisation rate by the year 2020 and 70% by 2030 as part of realising the China Dream (Kuhn, 2013i). This was equated with the addition of another 300 million urbanites by 2030. Obviously, this does not mean that all 300 million rural villagers are to migrate to existing cities. It is expected that this addition would occur through the further expansion of small and medium-sized cities, townships and counties and through the conversion of rural villagers into urban citizens and their relocation from original villages (as was the case in Chongqing). Measured by the share of urban residents in the nation’s total population, and official enumeration of urban population obviously faces all sorts of limitations and errors. However, what is important is not its accuracy nor the possibility of putting this into reality, but the political statement of aspiration by the Party State that proclaims the Party State’s commitment to continue with the state efforts to maintain the extant processes of urban-oriented accumulation.

China’s urbanisation is also an ideological project that envisages the urban as the most desirable status quo for the country and population. Vertical landscape resulting from the amassing of state-of-the-art skyscrapers and high-rise estates becomes the representation of China’s newly found modernity and the symbol of its latest economic success as well as global prominence. The 2010 World Expo held in Shanghai vividly exhibited this urban-oriented political rhetoric. While the Shanghai Expo’s official English slogan was ‘Better City, Better Life’, the Chinese slogan targeting its domestic audience had a completely different nuance: It read ‘Chengshi, rang shenghuo geng meihao’, which can be literally translated into English as ‘City makes (your) life happier’ (see Figure 1). While the slogan in English was emphasising the importance of improved urban management, the slogan in Chinese was simply an emphasis on the ‘city living’ itself. In other words, all that is required for a happy life is to live in cities. The question is: who does China’s urbanisation truly benefit and who loses?

 

 Figure 1: The slogans of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo (Photographed in 2010 and edited by Hyun Bang Shin)

Figure 1: The slogans of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo (Photographed in 2010 and edited by Hyun Bang Shin)

 

China’s urban revolution comes with large-scale population sorting and displacement. Existing major mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai go through the redevelopment of its inner-city cores as part of their attempts to convert the space into a higher and better use and transform the cities into ‘world cities’: this endeavour involves the attraction of particular types of urbanites (highly skilled professionals and expats) and the displacement of low-skilled workers and low-end service industries. One of the two inner-city districts, which accommodate the new CBD was announcing in 2012 that it would aim to displace 100,000 residents from the district by 2015, with the long-term goal of 30% population reduction in the next 30 years (Jin, 2012ii). The aim was to transform the urban space to attract highly skilled migrant workers including expats and to rid of low-skilled workers and the poor who do not conform to the ‘world-class’ urban image.

 

Speculative urbanisation: the reinforcing interaction between the primary and secondary circuits of accumulation

China’s urbanisation produces urban-oriented speculative accumulation that is centred on the commingling of the labour-intensive industrial production with the heavy investment in the built environment (e.g. high-speed rail networks, airports and metro construction as well as commercial real estate projects). The Chinese central and local states have been particularly proactive in making sure that these processes are mutually reinforcing, ensuring that productive investments in the built environment are made as a means to facilitate the primary industrial production. The investment in fixed assets has been a quick speculative solution to ensuring the GDP growth at both local and national scales. According to government statistical yearbooks, real estate construction has also been growing phenomenally, accounting for more than half of fixed asset investment in major cities like Beijing in the 2000s (see also Shin, 2009iii, pp.128-130). The speculative urbanism is also spreading to other second and third tier cities and to counties that try to emulate the kind of urbanism originally centred on the eastern coastal region.

In this regard, China’s urban revolution differs from the experiences of the post-industrial West that has seen the ascendancy of the secondary circuit of capital accumulation in place of the declining industrial production (see Harvey, 1978iv and Lefebvre, 2003). As Henri Lefebvre states, “As the principal circuit, that of industrial production, backs off from expansion and flows into ‘property’, capital invests in the secondary sector of real estate. Speculation henceforth becomes the principal source, the almost exclusive arena of formation and realization of surplus value... The secondary circuit thus supplants the primary circuit and by dent becomes essential” (Lefebvre, 2003, p.160). For China, it is not simply the over-accumulation in the primary circuit of industrial production, which facilitates the channelling of fixed asset investment into the secondary circuit of built environment. Both circuits reinforce each other’s advancement, while the state monopoly of financial instruments provide governments and state (and state-affiliated) enterprises to tap to the necessary finance.

China’s domestic regional disparities are turned into advantages for capital to further exploit surplus labour. In discussing the logics behind the emergence of East Asia and China from a geopolitical perspective, Giovanni Arrighi (2009) refers to the ways in which the United States-led reconfiguration of East Asian geopolitical economy resulted in the establishment of vertical integration of firms in low-cost labour-intensive production network, initially led by Japanese firms that exploited its former colonies such as South Korea and Taiwan, and later adopted by the East Asian tiger economies to ‘snowball’ such practices to other Asian and Chinese economies as the labour costs of initial recipients of such production facilities rose (Arrighi, 2009). China’s rise and export-oriented industrialisation based on low-cost labour-intensive industries is the process of internalising this snowballing process. Labour exploitation therefore occurs to ensure the capping of labour costs in industrial production as much as possible. For the foreseeable future, this internal snowballing process of industrial relocation seems likely to continue given the huge geographical scale of China, but obviously this will face greater frictions as years go by.

Therefore, China’s uneven development fuels this process of commingling the primary circuit of industrial production with the investment in the built environment. This is epitomised by the gradual infiltration of Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronic goods manufacturer, into the central region. Foxconn, which is known to be the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, has been expanding its factory basis from the Guangdong province to other locations in the central region, where land and labour supply can be acquired more cheaply (Pun and Chan, 2012v). The expansion is facilitated by the intervention of entrepreneurial local states that ensure the timely provision of land and infrastructure to accommodate both workers and capitalists. Local states in particular also ensure that capital enjoys access to pacified and disciplined workers as much as possible. Such investments in both production facilities, infrastructure and housing occur not only within existing cities, but also in urban peripheries and rural villages as well as in special zones of exception, combined together to produce the urban. The city as the container does not become a meaningful unit of analysis, as this process of accumulation through the secondary circuit does not limit itself to existing urban (administrative) boundaries but spills over onto peripheries (see also Brenner and Schmid, 2014vi; Merrifield, 2013vii). The urban is also created in rural and suburban areas as well as the rural is reborn in urban counterparts (see Keil, 2013). In this way, China is urbanising as urbanism spreads to inner regions away from the eastern coastal centre. It does this by taking advantage of the geographical uneven development of production and reproduction of labour power, while controlling for demand (for urban citizens) and for supply (proletarianisation to continue to supply cheap labour). China’s construction of capitalism therefore is the urbanisation process itself.

 

The right to the urban as a political project

As the built environment has become both the end and the means of capital accumulation, the right to the city remains important in China as a political project (Shin, 2013). While some critics may discuss the limitations of the right to the city (or right to the urban, given the limitations of the city as an analytical unit) to become an effective mobilisation principle for urban social movements, it still remains an important conceptual framework in China’s urbanisation, as the country sees the significant position of the secondary circuit of accumulation heavily controlled and manipulated by the state and capitalviii. In this process of urban accumulation, urban spaces, old and new, increasingly embody the rapidly exacerbating inequalities in society. While the fruits of accumulation benefit the top officials, overseas investors and domestic industrialists as well as the emerging middle class populace, the masses―including rural villagers―experience dispossession of their lands as local governments carry out land-grabbing to put this land into industrial and commercial use. Homes are flattened as part of land assembled to make ways for more lucrative sources of revenue for local governments, who also aspire to promote ‘world-city’ landscapes. Workers, most of whom consist of migrants from rural hinterlands, face harsh working environments, poor job securities and suppressed wages. Affluence rises in major cities as centres of accumulation, but the pace of wealth accumulation alienates those who produce it.

 

Figure 2: Flattened former rural village in Guangzhou (Photograph by Hyun Bang Shin, 2010) 

Figure 2: Flattened former rural village in Guangzhou (Photograph by Hyun Bang Shin, 2010)

 

China’s unequal processes of urbanisation and accumulation therefore indicate that there is a strong urgency for the country’s masses to claim theright to the urban. It is going to be a revolutionary project to organise the urban according to inhabitants’ need and desire, aiming at taking the power from the state and capital that produce the urban in their own taste (see Marcuse, 2009ix). Claiming the right to the urban is also inevitably a political project as it only has any chance of seeing any kind of success when disparate classes experiencing exclusion and deprivation come together across regions, which the Chinese state endeavours to stop from emerging. Here, for grassroots organisations, jumping up the scale to overcome spatial isolation is very important (Smith, 1992). So are the efforts of regional, national and transnational organisations to link up with grassroots organisations to contextualise and embed universal agendas in concrete realities.

 

Constraints on claiming the right to the urban

In China, claiming the right to the urban faces huge constraints for a number of reasons. First, claiming the right to the urban directly challenges the state that sees urbanisation as the fundamental basis of the country’s development and economic engine, for the reasons explained above. Second, the authoritarian Chinese state is highly sensitive to any bottom-up struggles to form cross-class and cross-regional alliances to challenge authority (see Shin, 2013x for more detailed discussions). While various socio-economic reform policies have been designed and put into practice, political reform is deeply lagging behind. While some measures have emerged to enhance local democracy (e.g. village and urban community election), democratic experiments still remain isolated and heavily influenced by the Party State. Third, as China’s urbanisation is also regarded by the state as a nationalist project built on the rise of China’s geopolitical power, rights claimants may be seen as hindrance to societal progress and national prestige. Socio-economic inequalities and regional disparities are often glued over by the logics of nationalism (e.g. China Dream) that is increasingly replacing socialism as the ideological basis of running the country by the Party State. In this regard, the voices of discontent (including voices of separatism in the Western region) are suppressed in order to ensure the stability of the country, and nationalism acts as a means to justify the Party State’s intervention in society (see Shin, 2012xi).

More recently, the state project to build a middle class society provides an ambiguous but not so promising situation for any claim on the right to the urban by the masses. When the director of the Research Office of the State Council was reporting on the size of China’s middle class in 2007, about 6.5% was estimated to belong to the middle class, who enjoy an annual household income between 60,000 and 500,000 yuan (China Daily, 2007xii). Looking at the household disposable income in 2006 according to the China Statistical Yearbook, the bottom threshold of such an income range refers to mostly the highest income decile group that the government was envisaging as being the middle class. The middle class that the Chinese Party State envisages is clearly the most affluent in China’s urbanising society, whose lives are detached from the masses. While the middle class (including managerial personnel, professionals and office workers―see Chen, 2013 for this occupation-based classification) is known to be advocating individual rights, a recent study by Jian Chen (2013) finds that China’s middle class populace tends to endorse state policies and feel reluctant to the expansion of democratic rights such as the right to politically mobilise and launch popular protests unsanctioned by the state. On the other hand, what turns out to be more progressive is the lower class, that includes blue-collar industrial and service sector workers, the small-scale self-employed, the unemployed, retirees and college students. Nurtured by the state and being the major beneficiaries of the state-led urban accumulation and economic development, China’s middle class populace is unlikely to be an agent of social change; for as long as the state protests their wealth and ensures their current economic position, they would be unlikely to join up with the rest of the society in what Andy Merrifield (2011) refers to as “crowd politics”.

 

Strategising discontents

Let me conclude. I have argued in this essay that China’s speculative urbanisation is both an ideological and a political project that disrupts and destroys the lives of the masses, while it is the few that benefits from it. As the state and capital proceed with their heavy investment in fixed assets and rewrite the built environment, displacement becomes the norm for villagers and urbanites. As China’s urbanisation hinges on the primary circuit of industrial production as much as it does on the secondary circuit of built environment, there is a potential for workers’ struggles to form an alliance with urban inhabitants’ struggles to protect their neighbourhoods and communities. In other words, China’s particular trajectory of urbanisation requires the right to the urban struggles to be inclusive of the struggles by the new working class, who are fighting for their access to the ‘redistribution’ of surplus value and for their ‘recognition’ as legitimate citizens and not simply migrants (Han, 2013; see Laclau and Mouffe, 2001 for the emphasis on ‘redistribution’ and ‘recognition’). The cross-class alliance of the type above, which had emerged and prompted the brutal oppression in 1989, would be something that may not be established in the near future but remains to be a political imperative if the hegemony of the dominant interests is to be subverted. The alliance is in need of further inclusion of village farmers whose lands are expropriated to accommodate investments to produce the urban, and of ethnic minorities in autonomous regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang whose cities are appropriated and restructured to produce Han-dominated cities.

What else is to be done to challenge the state and capital in China? Here, I refer to the proposition of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe who wrote in November 2000 for their preface to the second edition of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy:

To be sure, we have begun to see the emergence of a series of resistance to the transnational corporations’ attempt to impose their power over the entire planet. But without a vision about what could be a different way of organizing social relations, one which restores the centrality of politics over the tyranny of market forces, those movements will remain of a defensive nature. If one is to build a chain of equivalences among democratic struggles, one needs to establish a frontier and define an adversary, but this is not enough. One also needs to know for what one is fighting, what kind of society one wants to establish. This requires from the Left an adequate grasp of the nature of power relations, and the dynamics of politics. What is at stake is the building of a new hegemony. So our motto is: ‘Back to the hegemonic struggle’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001, p.xix)

It will be important for the discontented to educate themselves and others to reveal the underlying logics of China’s capital accumulation, how it produces a hybrid of developmental statism and neoliberalism, how it evades the Chinese state’s own legitimacy (by constantly deviating from the socialist principles and by producing prosperity at the expense of the masses’ economic hardship), and how the fate of urban inhabitants is knitted tightly with the fate of workers, villagers and others subject to the exploitation of the urban-oriented accumulation.

 

References

Arrighi G 2009 China’s market economy in the long-run in Hung H-f ed China and the Transformation of Global Capitalism Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD 22-49

Brenner N and Schmid C 2014 The ‘urban age’ in question International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38 (3) 731-755

Chen J 2013 A Middle Class without Democracy: Economic Growth and the Prospects for Democratization in China Oxford University Press, Oxford

China Daily 2007 China has 80m middle class members, 21 June URL http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2007-06/21/content_899488.htm

Han D 2013 Rail worker from Tiananmen producing hope in Lee C-h and Park M-h eds Interviewing China Changbi, Seoul (in Korean)

Harvey D 1978 The urban process under capitalism: a framework for analysis International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 2 (1-4) 101-13

Jin K 2012 New Dongcheng ‘to draw’ four cultural districts The Beijing Daily 17 February URL http://bjrb.bjd.com.cn/html/2012-02/17/content_49903.htm

Keil R ed 2013 Suburban Constellations: Governance, Land and Infrastructure in the 21st century JOVIS Publishers, Berlin

Kuhn R L 2013 Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream The New York Times 4 June URL http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/05/opinion/global/xi-jinpings-chinese-dream.html

Laclau E and Mouffe C 2001 Hegemony and Socialist Strategy Verso, London

Lefebvre H 2003 The Urban Revolution University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

Marcuse P 2009 From critical urban theory to the right to the city City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 13 (2-3) 185-197

Merrifield A 2013 The urban question under planetary urbanization International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37 (3) 909-922

Merrifield A 2011 Crowd politics, or, ‘Here comes everybuddy’ New Left Review 71 103–114

Pun N and Chan J 2012 Global capital, the state, and Chinese workers: the Foxconn experience Modern China 38 (4) 383-410

Shao Q 2013 Shanghai Gone: Domicide and Defiance in a Chinese Megacity Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD

Shin H B 2013 The right to the city and critical reflections on China’s property rights activism Antipode 45 (5) 1167-1189

Shin H B 2012 Unequal cities of spectacle and mega-events in China City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 16 (6) 728-744

Shin H B 2009 Life in the shadow of mega-events: Beijing Summer Olympiad and its impact on housing Journal of Asian Public Policy 2 (2) 122-141

Smith N 1992 Contours of a spatialized politics: homeless vehicles and the production of geo- graphical scale Social Text 33 54–81

 

Endnotes

viii Here, the capital includes all types of capital (joint ventures, etc.) that maintain various forms of connections with the state despite the absence of state presence in the investment structure of a given company.

15
May2014

 

For the purpose of the conference that took place in Athens May 9th and 10th we had asked our guests to develop some thoughts based on an idea or a question that we posed them. In collecting their answers, we aimed to create a framework for the preparation of the conference itself, and to help outline those aspects of urban everydayness that we consider to be the most important for us to understand the questions posed by the city itself, at this moment of crisis.The contributions were published here on this site, as well as gathered in the conference publication which was distributed at the conference.

The full publication can be viewed via ISSUU and Scribd or downloaded below (by clicking on image).  

 

 

01
May2014

by Christy (Chryssanthi) Petropouloui, University of the Aegean.

 

Global shifts, neoliberalism and right to the city movements in Mexico and Greece

Mexico and Greece comprise typical cases of the so-called semi-periphery where neoliberal policies have been applied (Mouzelis, 1986) but also where social movements tried to resist the implementation of the policies in question. During the 1960s and the 1970s these movements grew first in the build-up to, and then again following the rise to power of totalitarian governments (Mexico) and dictatorial regimes (Greece). Yet recent history and the movements that flourish within it are characterised by glocal processes (Koèhler & Wissen, 2003). Mexico was faced with severe economic crisis in 1982 and then again in 1994 that intensified after the WTO orderii, and despite the veneer of development given to the country in the early nineties, at the prospect of it joining NAFTAiii (1994). The intervention, under special conditions, of NAFTA and the IMFiv, increased the country’s debt and its reliance upon those mechanisms―and the so-called “consensus of Washington” in particular. In the years that followed and up until the present date, these policies would accelerate, in the name of some swift economic development, the privatisation of public goods―most of which would take place under intransparent, oft-times scandalous conditions. They contributed to the increase of social inequalities while at the same time fuelling policies of surveillance and control, as well as para-statist organisations (Toussaint, 2006). Mexico has a long tradition of resistance: revolutions, great revolts and guerilla movements, student and worker mobilisations, urban and peripheral movements, artistic movements, and so on. From 1994 onward in particular, this tradition was articulated through movements that would not only contest, but also put their claims into practice: most telling in this regard are the Zapatistas movement in Chiapas, the network of movements of the Other Campaign and many other social movements, among others. These movements managed to surpass bureaucratic trade unions and party organisations alike.

During the same time period and following the World Trade Organization (WTO) order (1994), Greece appeared to be in a direction of development, yet a type of development that was strongly dependent upon neoliberal decision-making centres and international organisations that were pushing for the privatisation of public corporations. The country’s entering in the Euro currency after 2002 initially covered up but then made very evident the crisis in 2010, opening the discussion about the structural crisis that had been haunting its economy from 1982 already and prior even. The intervention of the so-called troika (ECB, EU Commission, IMF) led to painful financial measures and the privatisation of public goods comparable, and perhaps more demanding even than those imposed by the IMF in Mexico. This situation lead to a sharp decrease in the standard of living and provisions in health, education and public services; an increase in social inequalities and the emergence of neo-fascist groups. From 2008 onward in particular, a multiform movement started to emerge with major mobilisations (Douzinas, 2013) that far surpassed bureaucratic trade unions or party organisationsv.

From the 1950s onward, Athens and Mexico City saw some intense urbanisation with serious consequences for the environment and socio-spatial segregation, while at the same time maintaining a level of social mix in their centres (Hiernaux, 1997, Ward, 1991, Leontidou, 1994). After the 1980s, and despite the maintenance of such social mixing in central neighbourhoods, these divisions become more intense in the peri-urban space, while their centres started to become gentrified. During this time, many Right to the City movements (Lefebvre, 1968 and Vradis, 2013) start to emerge, focused particularly on the right to habitat―in Mexico City in particular. Yet from the 1990s on, the most important RttC movements concerned the claims to public space and common goods, while at the same time opposing privatisations (Petropoulou, 2011).

Contemporary attempts to impose a Northern-Atlantic way of configuring space and the relationships between people through the command of the IMF and its local overseers builds on from the attempt to create capitalist nation-states under the global watchful eye of the representatives of major capital and its local political-economic allies (Graeber, 2011/2013). Perhaps, it then comprises the eventual culmination of the destruction and subsequent transformation of nation-states into more totalitarian neoliberal repressive regimesvi of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2006). And so, capitalism’s great restructuring shifts have played and continue to play an important role in the changes that took place and still do so in cities and in the development of movements within them―in turn influencing a number of housing or environmental policies. Yet this relationship is not linear (cause/effect)vii and it holds, in addition, some glocal (local-global) characteristicsviii.

So far, the response above appears to have carefully omitted any reference to the idea of the spontaneous. This idea, it would appear, is something widely accepted as fairly hazy and not of particular importance in the neighbourhoods of popular self-construction and in the revolts of the cities of the so-called “semi-periphery”. In the following pages, I will attempt to tackle and overturn this approach.

 

The notion of spontaneity and its variations in the city and in the right to the city movements

As Holloway (2010: thesis 13) says, “the abstraction of doing into labour is a historical process of transformation that created the social synthesis of capitalism: primitive accumulation”. This period of primitive accumulation gave birth to capitalist relationships, and immediately followed the colonial era (Wallerstein, 2004). It was during this period that the new social relationships were established, primarily defined by economic relationships (Polanyi, 1944/2001). During this time, the body was the first machine to be invented―even prior (Federici, 2004) or simultaneously with the watch or the steam engine.

The people participating in acts characterised as “spontaneous” (We build a house in a way of solidarity, we participate in a revolt in a way of solidarity, practising participatory democracy) without rules enforced by any superior authorities, simply refuse to define their bodies as machines. They also refuse to put their thought to the service of political choices and relationships that do not concern them. This fundamental difference makes many thinkers from the Western (or otherwise Northern-Atlantic) tradition to see them as non-compliant to the rules and to name them as spontaneousix, stigmatising them as marginal (in order not to say the terrible word “masterless”).

The limits between the spontaneous and the organised are fairly blurry, hence referring to the social construction of differencex (Bourdieu, 1979) and being related to habitus (Bourdieu,1986). Nothing is entirely spontaneous in the world’s so-called spontaneous neighbourhoods (as the UN would define them in 1976) and in the so-called spontaneous uprisings: they are merely other forms of organising, which may set off as spontaneous manifestations, yet they are constituted through acts that are very much organised: it is for this reason that I name these neighbourhoods as spontaneously-born neighbourhoods. And it was proven that informal economy both played and continues to play an important role in the economic development of cities and of those spaces, resulting in the dropping of the term “spontaneous” by many official documents, too. As I have shown in another text (Petropoulou, 2007) the neighbourhoods of popular self-construction may have often-times been born in a spontaneous way, yet they developed in many and different ways, depending on the role of those actingxi within and beyond these―and they were defined by various writers in different ways, depending on the socially pre-constructed approach they had for the landscape of these neighborhoods.

I therefore claim that the notion of the spontaneous way of expression is not an outcome of pressure, nor of the politico-economic crisis―but that it comprises instead an outcome of the years-long process partially related to the tradition of rebellion (Damianakos, 2003) that many people around the world share; between the many collectives or occasional encounters of residents of neighbourhoods of popular self-construction (particularly in the areas where RttC movements developed) and later on, of youth who participated in the recent uprisings of December 2008 in Greece and in the recent movement “Yo Soy 132” in Mexico, in 2012.

That it is more related to the notion of prattein (of creation, of non-alienating “labour”) and the culture of resistance that opposes repressive, alienating labour; not with some stigmatised “marginal spontaneity” that offers nothing and that is supposed to gradually diminish from contemporary society, just like writers of the 1950s had claimed when talking about the culture of poverty as well.

That it is more related to people inclined to create relationships of solidarity in order to respond to living needs, forming cracks in the compulsory relationships of exploitation and of their overall understanding as machines, as imposed to them from the outset of the birth of capitalism.

That it is related even more to dynamic minorities of the “human economies”, which can still feed “nowtopias” (Carlsson & Manning, 2010) and comprise possible cracks in capitalism. I explain this further on.

 

The relationship between the spontaneous and human economy in the city

As noted by Graeber (2011/2013:290-296) the biggest pitfall of the 20th century has been so: on the one hand, we have the logic of the market, where we think that we are individuals who owe nothing to one another―and on the other hand, we have the logic of the state, to which we are all indebted without ever being able to pay this debt off. Yet in reality, the two are not antithetical to one another: “states create markets and the markets presuppose states” (Graeber, 2011/2013: 295). If we were to apply this schema to cities, we would see that in the first case we have the private, purchased or rented residencies and individuals―all of which must act only out of individual interest, in any mobilisation. In the second case, we have the debt toward the state, which offers the so-called “social housing” and to the legal trade unions, which are there to defend our rights.

Contrary to the above schema lie the so-called “human economics”, which were only expunged with violence and constant surveillance from substantial portions of the planet. Human economics are economies in which what is considered important about people is the fact that each of them comprises an unprecedented link with the others and that non of these individuals can be the exact equivalent with anyone else (Graeber, 2011/2013: 296). The preservation of such relationships in societies like that of Greece or Mexico (bazar, non-precise demarcation of private and public space, solidarity economies at the level of family or friends, refusal of unjust debts’ payment, neighbourhoods of popular building self-construction thanks to urban movements, open solidarity occupations, grassroots unions of open assemblies―and so on) has to do with the fact that there is still a tradition of human economics deeply rooted in relationships that concern the land and the body: a relationship that, despite all major attempts to regulate and to succumb them, was never fully enforced on peoples’ everyday lives. In these, the highest goods are relationships and quality of life; not the accumulation of money and power through it. Cracks are left over, in other words, that may at points create revolts and overthrowsxii.

On the other hand, the development of a flavour of capitalism lacking any clear political or economic adjustment in these countries has led to an entire network of clientilist political relationships that reproduce the space and often-times obstruct the formation of social movements. Relationships of this type are not related to relationships formed on the basis of the spontaneous and of solidarity; instead, they are based on the logic of the state―or its political representative, to which we are all supposedly indebted. But how was this debt created in the first place? Through this particular way of development of capitalism: since the state could not safeguard public goods and peoples’ basic rights, this role was taken on by some politicians, for their protégées alone. In times of crisis, when they could no longer play this role, their role and relationship was revealed to the private sector and the state, through scandals that do nothing else than to confirm that “states create markets and markets presuppose the states” (Graeber, 2011/2013: 295). Through this process, and despite the fact that certain social segments may be turning toward new protectors (sometimes even to fascist organisations), there are moments when forces are released, directed toward claims over life; it is then that human economics are unveiled and flourish, once again―and the so-called tradition of rebellion (Damianakos, 2003) once again comes to the fore.

Typical examples of such are the recent RttC movements which commenced from mere claims of space and turned into wider political movements―such as the movement against the construction of an airport and large Mall-like complexes in Atenco, Mexico; the movement against the privatisation of the ex-airport of Elliniko in Athens and its adjacent beach; and the movements against gold extraction in Chalkidiki in Greece and in many parts of Mexico as well.

These movements are concerned with claims toward life and toward common public spaces; they oppose large-scale works that take place in the midst of crisis, during which a policy is heightened, holding as its central characteristic the selling-off of public and community lands and the creation of large projects without environmental studies and without the study of their potential social consequences.

 

Social movements and spontaneity in the so-called semi-periphery

Regarding the relationship that politicised, anti-systemic actors may hold to these movements that were originally spontaneous, but consequently very much organised-from-below, and the discussion that has recently opened up (Leontidou, 2012, Dalakoglou, 2012). I will agree more with the approach of Zibechi (2010) who extracts his knowledge from the movements of Latin America. These approaches would be particularly useful for the comprehension of contemporary movements that have taken place in the Mediterranean in recent years. According to Zibechi then, the main characteristics of the contemporary movements of Latin America are as follows:

 

  • Territorialisation (grounding) of the movements in spaces they have already occupied or retrieved (in this way, the de-territorialisation of labour does not affect negatively, as before).
  • Claim of autonomy from the state and from parties.
  • Re-estimation of the culture and defence of the identity of the popular strata (against the notion of the citizen, which would systematically exclude them).
  • Creation of their own intellectuals, of their own education.
  • New, decisive role of women in the everyday action of the movements.
  • Interest in a more meaningful relationship to the natural environment.
  • Non-Taylorist relationships―networks of self-organised groups (non- division between mind and body labour). Face-to-face relationships. Avoidance of large, faceless structures. Use of various social networks.
  • Production of their own life, involvement with the everyday, with matters of shelter, food and the production of industrial goods―but also with matters of culture, education, health, entertainment...

At the time when this article was written, creative resistances that practice social economy have been on the rise (Wallerstein, 2008; Tsilibounidi, 2012; Petropoulou, 2013). The important thing is for us to follow their action by helping in their interaction, the exchange of experiences and actions―and not with some violent politicisation that may lead to their breakup or to their premature dismantling. The act of these collectives, which sometimes form social movements, resembles the movement of the so-called Zumbayllu: “the whirligig that transforms fear and poverty into light and hope, according to the myths of the indigenous people of Peru. The Zumbayllu means to invest toward the empowering of the movement of the flow against the logic of the representation that sacrifices everything in the name of order”. As Zibechi says: the whirligig of social change keeps on revolving... The temptation for us to push it, in order to accelerate its tempo, may stop it dead on its tracks… (Zibechi, 2010: 337).

 

Conclusions, thoughts and directions for a most comprehensive research

As shown above, major structural politico-economic changes and tendencies led the international organisations have played a key role in local change, and vice-versa. Yet the relationship of this interaction to the spontaneous is considerably complicated and related to what, by whom and why would be included in the discursive category of the “spontaneity”.

In order to respond to the question more fully, a type of a treatise would be required that would pose the following questions:

1. How was human economy persecuted in Greece and in Mexico, and how were the so-called debtsxiii and the so-called politics of clientèlist relationshipsxiv formed?In order to respond to a question of this type we would go back to studies on the drawing of the first debt, which marked the birth of nation-states in many Mediterranean and Latin American countries (Mouzelis, 1986; Svoronos, 1972; Beloyiannis 1952/2010), and in the processes which followed the first social revolution of the world, in 1910 Mexico (Gilly, 1995). The repression of the structures of human economy and community structures of participatory democracy which were formed during the periods of national-liberation revolutions, and the social revolution of Mexico in particular, happened in many and various ways exactly following the respective revolutions. And so, these revolutions never fulfilled their key demands (among which were matters concerning land, labour, housing and real democracy) which were instead skewed by the status quo and turned into an instrument of control of the everyday lives of the people. This, of course, has happened in most countries around the world.

2. How anything that would not abide to the dominant new order was named “spontaneous” in an derogatory way and was identified with remnants of the past that had to be either eliminated, or civilized/modernized. This is where we can initially re-read the descriptions of the travellers in Greece and in Mexico, who spoke of indigenous populations in a very derogatory manner, considering them to be “uncivilised”―and systematically tried play down their possible relationship to the ruins of the grand material civilisations they were there to record. And so for many years, the labyrinthine (organic) tissue of the city, the popular market, the popular feast, the popular art were accused of being a remnant of the past―after they were first meticulously separated from the scholarly one, which served the Western European-leaning status-quo instead. Naturally in Mexico this whole process was much more intense, since anything popular would be related to the long history of the indigenous peoples (Maya, Mexica, Zapotec, Huichol etc.) which had to be shown to be inferior to their conquerors, by any means possible (Villoro, 1950).

3. How the revolts of 1968 re-opened the matter in another way, speaking in different terms about the spontaneity in Europe. Inspired by the libertarian traditions of people of the world, these revolts commenced from the areas of Western Europe and the USA where the most severe repression of the spontaneous had become socially accepted. During this same period the critics of Leninist thesis about spontaneity (Lenin, 1902; Luxemburg, 1918) by existentialists (Sartre, 1970 and others) and many libertarian authors (Debord, 1968 and others) are intensified. The question is how the conversation about spontaneity was transferred to the countries of the so-called semi-periphery amidst great repression (Mexico 1968) and the dictatorship (Greece 1967), and how it was used for an analysis of the everyday life (Lefebvre, 1968 a, b; Gramsci, 1971). This discussion has since influenced research that focused on the cultural characteristics of Athens (Leontidou, 1994; Damianakos, 2003) and of Mexico City (Núñez,1990; Canclini, 1995) showing interest for the so-called “marginal actors”, the “neighbourhoods of popular self-construction” and the hybrid-comparative forms of culture. These analyses showed that there never was an actual separating line between the spontaneous and the organised―but that this border was, instead, a social construction aiming at downgrading anything that was culturally different and threatened the status-quo.

4. How the discussion about the subjection of the spontaneous returnedthrough the crisis of the global biopolitical capitalism (Castoriadis, 1999; Fumagalli, 2011) and through the interventions of the IMF and other global organisations in the social, financial, political, cultural and environmental situation of the countries of the so-called semi-periphery―while at the same time the notion of the spontaneous returns even in the primary research projects of financial corporations, which aim to embed it through the internet and behaviour prediction averting, in this way, the unexpected occurrence, the studies of the emergency, The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Taleb, 2007), etc.

5. How, on the other hand, the so-called spontaneous resistances became, or may become, under certain conditions, dangerous cracks (Holloway, 2010; Villoro,2007). In this case, we would have to talk about the examples of contemporary revolts which were presented as spontaneous, since they were not related to parties nor syndicates―yet they were organised over a long period of time (e.g. the movement of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico) or other, more spontaneously organised revolts from below, which were then turned into an organised social movement (Oaxaca and Atenco in Mexico; Chalkidiki in Greece), or still echo in the minds of the youth (December 2008 and the Squares Movement in Greece; Yo soy 132 in Mexico). The common elements between all these revolts is that they make decisions through open assemblies that do not have permanent representatives toward the outside (something that destabilizes the normal certainties of the status-quo and its politicians), that they have global characteristics, while at the same time being rooted in places of resistance where women play a determinant role in the organisation of everyday life, and that they continue their activity through new, multiform collectives. All of the above call for some further and more thorough investigation.

 

References

 

Belogianis N 1952 [2010] Foreign Capital in Greece Agra, Athens (in Greek)

 

Bourdieu P 1979 La distinction. Critique Sociale du Jugement Les éditions de minuit, Paris

 

Bourdieu P 1986 Habitus, code et codification Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales 64 40-44

 

Canclini N G 1995 Consumidores y Ciudadanos. Conflictos Multiculturales de la Globalización Grijalbo, Mexico

 

Carlsson C and Manning F 2010 Nowtopia: Strategic Exodus? Antipode 42 (4) 924–953

 

Castells Μ 2009 Comunicacion y Pode Alianza Editorial, Madrid

 

Castoriadis C 1999 [1975] L'Institution Imaginaire de la Société Seuil, Paris

 

Dalakoglou D 2012 Beyond spontaneity City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 16 (5) 535-545

 

Damianakos S 2003 La Grèce Dissidente Moderne. Cultures Rebelles L’Harmattan, Paris

 

Debord G 1992 [1967] La Société du Spectacle Gallimard, Paris

 

Douzinas C 2013 Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe Polity books, London

 

Federici S 2004 Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, New York

 

Fumagalli A 2011 Twenty theses on contemporary capitalism (cognitive biocapitalism) Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 16 (3) 7-17

 

Gilly A 1995 [1971] La Révolution Mexicaine 1910-1920: Une Révolution Interrompue Editions Syllepse, Paris

 

Graeber D 2011 Debt: The First 5,000 Years Melville House, Brooklyn

 

Gramsci, A 1971 Selections from the Prison Notebooks International Publishers, New York

 

Harvey D 2006 Spaces of Global Capitalism Verso, London

 

Harvey D 2012 Rebel Cities Verso, London and New York

 

Hiernaux D 1997 Mexico, vers une ville duale? Communication à: I Congrès International pour la ville de Mexico, Organisation: Union de Sociologues, UAM, UNAM, COLMEX

 

Holloway J 2010 Crack Capitalism Pluto Press, London

 

Klein N 2007 The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism Metropolitan Books, New York

 

Koèhler B and Wissen M 2003 Glocalizing protest: urban conflicts and global social movements International Journal of Urban and Regional Research Volume 27 (4) 942-51

 

Lefebvre H 1968a Le Droit à la Ville Anthropos, Paris

 

Lefebvre H 1968b La Vie Quotidienne dans le Monde Moderne Gallimard, Paris

 

Lenin V I 1902 [1961] What is to be done: burning questions of our movement in Lenin’s Collected Works 5 Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow

 

Leontidou L 1994 Mediterranean cities’ divergent trends in a united Europe in Blacksell M and Williams AM The European Challenge Oxford University Press, Oxford

 

Leontidou L 2012 Athens in the Mediterranean “Movement of the piazzas”: spontaneity in material and virtual public spaces City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 16 (3) 299-312

 

Luxemburg R 1918 [1961] The Russian Revolution in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor

 

Massey D 1994 Space, Place and Gender Polity, Oxford

 

Mouzelis N 1986 Politics in the Semi-Periphery: Early Parliamentarism and Late Industrialisation in the Balkans and Latin America MacMillan, London

 

Núñez O 1990 Innovaciones Democratico-Culturales del Movimiento Urbano Popular UAM-A, Mexico

 

Petropoulou C 2007 Quartiers d'origine spontanée: approche critique de la planification urbaine (villes d’Amérique Latine et de la Méditerranée) Revue d'Aménagement PRAXIS 1

 

Petropoulou C 2010a From December’s youth uprising to the rebirth of urban social movements. An attempt of a space-time approach International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34 (1) 217–24

 

Petropoulou C 2010b Vers un Mouvement Social Poétique Urbain? L’Harmattan, Paris

 

Petropoulou C 2011 Développement Urbain et Écopaysages Urbains. Une Étude sur les Quartiers de Mexico et d’Athènes L’Harmattan, Paris

 

Petropoulou C 2013 ‘Alternative networks of collectivities’ and ‘solidarity-cooperative economy’ in Greek cities: exploring their theoretical origins Journal of Regional & Socio-Economic Issues 3 (2) 61-86

 

Polanyi K 1944 [2001] The Great Transformation Nysides, Thessaloniki (in Greek)

 

Sartre J P 1970 Masses, spontaneity, party The Social Register 233-249 http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5300#.U10zuq1_uBE last access 27/4/2014

 

Stavrides S 2011 Crisis vs Commons URL http://www.rebelnet.gr/pages/publishing

 

Svoronos N 1972 Histoire de la Grèce Moderne Presse Universitaires de France, Paris

 

Taleb N N 2007 The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Random House, New York

 

Toussaint E 2006a Banque Mondiale: le Coup d’Etat Permanent. L’Agenda caché du Consensus de WashingtonCoédition CADTM, Syllepse & CETIM, Liège, Paris & Genève

 

Toussaint E 2006b La crise de la dette mexicaine et la Banque mondiale URL http://risal.collectifs.net/spip.php?article1753

 

Tsilimpounidi M 2012 Performances ‘in crisis’ or what happens when a city goes soft? City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, 16 (5) 546-556

 

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Villoro L 2007 Los Retos de la Sociedad por Venir FCE, México

 

Vradis A 2013 Intervention―The Right against the city Antipode foundation http://antipodefoundation.org/2012/10/01/intervention-the-right-against-the-city/ last access 27/4/2014

 

Wallerstein Ι 2004 Understanding the World: An introduction to World Systems Analysis Duke University Press, Durham NC and London

 

Wallerstein Ι 2008 Historia y Dilemmas de los Movimientos Antisistemicos Los libros de Contrahistorias, Mexico

 

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ENDNOTES

i I would like to thank Antonis Vradis for his contribution to the English presentation of this text.

ii The World Trade Organization (WTO) replacing (1994) the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

iii The North American Free Trade Agreement.

iv The International Monetary Fund.

v Yet no contemporary social guerilla movements developed, as happened in Mexico, which had this kind of tradition.

vi On this matter see: Naomi Klein, 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster Capitalism.

vii See the critique by Massey (1994) on the classic linear approach of history, which ignores space and leads to wrong views on the level of development of each country or each place.

viii A discussion on the previous one takes place in the volume by Petropoulou, 2011. This research argues that the big cities of the Mediterranean and Latin America present comparable processes of urban development imprinted in their urban landscapes. The concept of the urban eco-landscape enables the analysis and comparison of both cities landscapes at different spatial and temporal scales.

ix A typical example is the interpretation of the spontaneous as “indigenous” (between other interpretations) in an English dictionary.

x On the construction of difference of the popular as an anti―Kantian aesthetic, see Bourdieu, 1986:42.

xi During the period between 1968-1988 the right to the city movements in Latin American spread and organised in a Latin-America wide, strong coordination network that would strongly fight back against mass repression. The decision by the "Habitat" secretary of the ONU “for the right to habitation” in 1976, which called for governments to aid, with infrastructures and loans, the residents of these areas, and not to go ahead with destructing them, arguably comprises the most important international u-turn on the matter.

xii The fordist model never fully reigned over the lives of people; further back even, when capitalism was being born, not all “witches” were burnt... Some escaped them, and many turned into guerrillas...

xiii In this case I accept Graeber's analysis of debt.

xiv Also see Petropoulou, 2011 :38-50, 175-314.

 

25
Apr2014

Facets of access and (in)visibility in everyday public spaces

by Dina Vaiou, National Technical University of Athens (NTUA)

It is by now widely acknowledged that four years of implementing bailout agreements with the IMF, European Commission and the ECB have led to a deepening and multifaceted crisis in Greece. Recurrent memoranda and more or less extreme austerity programs do not seem to provide effective remedies. On the contrary, they lead to deep recession and social crisis, while the promised recovery is postponed to an unknown future. It seems that the small and peripheral Greek economy has provided an easier site for neoliberal experimentation on a number of frontal attacks: to demolish whatever there is of a welfare state and abolish workers’ rights, pension systems, wages and salaries, to reform an economy based on SMEs and self-employment and discredit informal practices of getting by, to attack the public sector and its tight links with family strategies, to marginalize democratic institutions and challenge national sovereignty1.

As the crisis deepens, lively and often conflictual debates take place among politicians and commentators across the political spectrum, with arguments which become “obsolete” very fast as the speed of local, European and international developments increases2. However, a dominant debate seems to consolidate, which focuses on the size of public debt, the re-capitalisation of banks, the probability of Grexit, the size and timing of a new loan installment etc. This macro-economic approach permits certain aspects of the crisis to surface/occupy central ground while others are hidden or deemed peripheral and perhaps “luxury” concerns. Among these, questions of spatial scale or the diverging and unequal ways in which the crisis is lived in different regions and in particular places and most prominently cities, “where austerity bites, [h]owever, never equally” (Peck 2012: 629). It is even more difficult to bring forward the “scale closest in”, i.e the concrete bodies that suffer/resist the policies of austerity, or to debate openly the growing appeal of ever more conservative attitudes which weave together xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, racism, antisemitism, islamophobia, class politics (see also Athanasiou 2012). Analyses which stress the gendered facets of the crisis and its unequal effects on women and men are rare and do not permeate the allegedly “central” or dominant understandings (among the few Karamessini 2013, Avdela, Psarra 2012). It seems that the issue taboo, even among left-wing analysts, it is thought to pertain to a “special”, i.e. less important, matter which may detract from the “main problem”3.

 

missing from the picture

This short contribution is part of work that has grown out of my interest in the less debated aspects of the Greek crisis. Through a series of examples and taking the risk of “strategic essentialism”, I discuss some of the ways in which the current crisis, that is also or primarily urban, as Harvey (2012) argues, hits women as embodied subjects. I start from the premise that, behind statistics and macro-economic calculations, different women (and men) live with unemployment, precarity, salary and pension cuts, poverty and deprivation or shrinking social rights and mounting everyday violence in the crisis-ridden neighbourhoods of Athens. The stories (or “snapshots”) of ordinary women that I evoke here are drawn from research in different neighbourhoods of Athens (see for example Vaiou 2013, 2014, Vaiou & Kalandides 2013). These stories of significant changes in women’s everyday lives help to reflect on how concrete experiences fit in/diverge from general patterns and common understandings of “the” crisis when the spaces of everyday life become test beds for coping/resisting austerity and authoritarianism.

“suspended” bodies

A significant part of austerity policies has to do with downsizing the state, which practically means dismissal of thousands of public sector employees. Among them, 595 cleaners of the Ministry of Finance and 1700 administrative employees of universities. Administrators have fought a bitter and inventive struggle, striking for 3 months at the end of 2013 against layoffs and suspensions and are now in a process of fierce negotiation with the Ministry of Education. Cleaners demonstrate in the streets for many months now, repelling police brutality and media misrepresentation of their struggle and demands. It is seldom, if at all, mentioned that these bodies in struggle are female4 - women of different ages, persuasions and backgrounds. These bodies do not passively accept the dictums of the Troika; they claim publicly their right to a decent job and to bearable livelihoods.

exclusion from “the market”

In the years of austerity, the registered unemployment rate of young women (under 25) has reached 61% (in 2013). Skyrocketing unemployment, whose effects are felt in many neighbourhoods of Athens, excludes young women, even with high qualifications, from a whole range of social rights, jeopardises life prospects and personal choices, let alone stable careers, and deters from even claiming publicly the right to decent paid work. Precarious small jobs with very low and irregular wages inhibit economic emancipation, restrict emotional and sexual choices and undermine self-esteem, mental stability and health – ultimately leading the most dynamic and creative to emigrate to more promising environments.

lapsing into “illegality”

Cuts in salaries and pensions, along with dismantling of public services, feature very high in the critique against memoranda-inspired policies, particularly among Left analysts. What is hardly acknowledged, however, is the fact that this dismantling hits primarily (a) women as recipients of services for themselves and for other members of their households, (b) local women as workers in those services5 and (c) migrant women as workers in home care, a sector which had spectacularly expanded since the early 1990s. Loosing a job as home carer jeopardises not only the livelihoods of migrant women but also their “lawful” presence in Greece and the livelihoods of their families elsewhere – pointing to the global/local links of the Greek crisis with many “other” parts of Europe and beyond.

living with violence

The insecurities of unemployment, income cuts and precarity are aggravated by everyday fear, particularly in some central neighbourhoods of Athens where the Golden Dawn has chosen to claim territoriality and control over space. These practices and hate discourse, apart from direct violence, seem to lead to a creeping acceptance of aggression and a fast slide towards more conservative attitudes part of which is rising sexism and the adoption and promotion of extreme sexist models, behaviours and discourses. In a context where violence becomes ubiquitous, violence against women, within families and in public, is also on the increase – albeit hidden in a conspiracy of silence. Data is rare but very telling: over the past three years one in five women have experienced bashing or beating by their partners, one in two has experienced sexual abuse including rape, one in ten serious injury, while verbal and economic violence are on the increase6. By the same token, visibility in public space becomes ever more difficult and ambiguous.

solidarity activists

Coping/resisting the crisis is not limited to private arrangements in which women assume an ever increasing and more burdensome bulk of domestic and care work, in deteriorating and often violent conditions. It extends to women’s dynamic, albeit not prominently visible, involvement in the wealth of solidarity initiatives which have sprung up in Athens (and other cities) - an archipelago of social experiences” attempting to re-constitute a social tissue and cracking social bonds (Espinoza 2013). These include collective action for immediate day-to-day survival (like soup kitchens, social groceries, communal cooking, social medical wards and pharmacies, exchange networks…), actions based on broader political claims and practices of living together (e.g. social spaces, local assemblies, advice and support centres, occupied public spaces, or «no intermediaries» initiatives), as well as attempts of making a living collectively (employment collectives). The generally acclaiming discourse of solidarity misses out a significant “detail”: the particular bodies which put in time and passion to keep these initiatives going are female bodies, often excluded from “the market” but dynamically fighting back in private and public everyday spaces.

 

re-visiting the crisis

The passage from general data and theoretical conceptions of “the Greek crisis” to concrete place/s and to the experiences of particular embodied subjects – and back - is not an easy project. But such crossings of scale help carry the argument forward in two directions. First, they help understand the multiple determinations of an otherwise unqualified “one-fits-all” reference to an almost generic conception of crisis. Second, they help shape an approach which consciously oscillates between levels of reference which are usually kept apart: on the one hand, discourse/s and explanations constituted by “big pictures” and global analyses and on the other hand urban space and the spatialities produced through the bodily presence and everyday practices of individuals and groups.

The uncertainties that the crisis creates seem to lead to more conservative behaviours and gender divisions of labour, to a hardening of gender hierarchies and to an increasing acceptance and “normalisation” of downgrading women. The sexist, racist and homophobic discourse and aggressive macho behaviours of Golden Dawn find fertile ground among people personally and collectively disenchanted with the “state of emergency” which austerity policies constitute. In this context, real or imagined threats settle in and affect everyday practices and ways of being in public space and in the neighbourhoods of the city, now shaped by insecurity and fear. At the same time, struggles against job “suspensions” and practices of living together in the common spaces of various initiatives (may) open room for empowerment and negotiations of gender hierarchies.

As the stories of ordinary women also tell us, living with multiplicity and mutual engagement and with a plethora of possible trajectories and life choices – constituting “a progressive sense of place” as D. Massey (1994, 2005) urges us – is more than a theoretical conception. It is a major stake, a process of familiarisation with difference/s and otherness, which includes controversies, requires investment of time and labour, both material and emotional, abundantly contributed by bodies which usually “do not matter” – bodies which move out of isolation and desperation into newfound ways of not only coping but also of resisting the crisis.

In this sense, the stories of ordinary women are not an idiosyncratic particularity that can be easily ignored when we deal with (understandings of) “the” crisis. This choice of this scale, linked in multiple ways to many other scales (local, national, European, international), reveals areas of knowledge that would otherwise remain in the dark, as feminist geographers have forcefully argued for many years. The change of focus (like in photography) does not mean amplification or diminution of the subject itself; it means a change of view about it. Stories which connect concrete bodies with global processes enrich our understandings with more complex and more flexible variables and inform the “big pictures” - and not only the reverse. Such a theoretical and methodological approach is important, I believe, also politically at the present conjuncture, because it provides a vantage point from which to re-examine the meanings and practices of “doing politics” and re-evaluate claims of access, visibility and participation in urban public space/s and discourses.

 

Notes

1 The harsh austerity measures demanded by the so-called Troika have met the unquestioned approval and support of Greek banks and successive governments. Only the political Left, in its many facets and groupings, has strongly criticised and resisted them.

2 For alternative analyses, see among many Douzinas 2013, Tsakalotos and Laskos 2013, Papadopoulou & Sakellaridis 2012, Varoufakis 2011

3 An exception here is unemployment, particularly of young women, to which I come back below

4 one cleaner is a man and less than 25% in the administration of universities are men

5 79% of women’s employment concentrated in the service sector in 2009, which absorbed a high proportion of women with higher education

6 See the recent survey by the Institute of Andrology on men’s sexual behaviour: the agressor’s profile is that of a man a little over 40, with intense job insecurity or unemployed – but also 17% well-off. These data match the elaboration of results from the SOS helpline of the General Secretariat of Equality, as well as more scant data on wife killings, collected by the “feministnet” network

 

References

Athanasiou A (2012) Crisis as “state of emergency”. Critiques and resistances, Athens: Savvalas (in Greek)

Avdela E and Psarra A (2012) Secret aspects of the black vote. Synchrona Themata, 117: 4-5 (in Greek)

Douzinas K (2013) Resistance and philosophy in the crisis. Greece and the Future of Europe. Cambridge: Polity (first published in Greek in2011)

Espinoza V (2013) Local Associations in Chile: social innovation in a mature neoliberal society. In Moulaert F, MacCallum D, Mehmood A and Hamdouch A (eds) The International Handbook on Social Innovation. Collective Action, social learning and transdisciplinary research. Cheltenham: Ed. Elgar pp. 397-411

Harvey D (2012) Rebel Cities. From the right to the city to the urban revolution. London and New York: Verso

Karamessini M (2013) Structural crisis and adjustment in Greece. Social regression and the challenge for gender equality. In Karamessini M and Rubery J (eds) Women and Austerity. The economic crisis and the future for gender equality. London: Routledge: 165-185

Massey D (1994) Space, place and gender. Cambridge: Polity Press

Massey D (2005) For Space. London: Sage

Papadopoulou E and Sakellaridis G (eds) (2012) The Political Economy of Public Debt and Austerity in the EU. Athens: Nissos Publications and transform!

Peck J (2012) Austerity urbanism. American cities under extreme economy. City 16 (6): 626-655

Tsakalotos E and Laskos Ch (2013) Crucible of Resistance. Greece, the Eurozone and the World Economy. London: Pluto Press

Vaiou D (2013) Transnational city lives: changing patterns of care and neighbouring. In Peake L and Rieker M (eds) Rethinking Feminist Interventions into the urban. London and New York: Routledge pp. 52-67

Vaiou D (2014) Tracing aspects of the Greek crisis in Athens. Putting women in the picture. European Urban and Regional Studies online first

Vaiou D and Kalandides A (2013) Claiming urban space: micro-geographies of collective action in Athens. Paper presented at the RC21 Conference on “Resourceful Cities”, Berlin 29-31 August

Varoufakis Y (2011) The Global Minotaur. London: Zed Books

 

 

22
Apr2014

by Lia Yoka, Aristotle University

Some years ago we were talking about Fortress Europe. Today we should be talking about KZ Europe. The spread of detention centers across the vieux continent does not only thicken the pattern of black dots on the map, it is also burning a deep fascist turn in the matrix of citizen consciousness.

The non-place of detention centers, which over the last twenty years has gradually taken on the historical charge and symbolism of traditional concentration camps, is now setting up a whole new anthropogeography of hate and exclusion.

Since their first appearance in the early 20th century in the Boer War, concentration camps have been a method of mass population management, drawing a clear line between the excluded and the incorporated, between those who no longer have a body and those who actually constitute the social body. Their function is at once to dehumanize both detainees and society at large. That is why they can easily be employed as a technique of mass extermination, as they were in the case of African rebels in western South Africa, African slaves in the Belgian Congo in the early 20th century, Jews (and gypsies, and others...) in WWII.

The shift in the function of detention reveals a profound broader change. During the period of prosperity in Greece, where social space was fully colonized by a blindly optimistic phase of commodity society, detention centers for migrants aimed at managing the workforce and the labor market favorably for Capital. They contributed to the creation of a class of illegalized workers, who would be cheap and without rights. Now, in the period of the so-called crisis, detention centers are turned into concentration camps, defining the excluded as prey, since manhunt, the actual chasing and hunting down of humans, is the only unifying practical ideology of governance on offer.

Hannah Arendt elaborates on the mechanism: "Despite their 'cynically avowed anti-utilitarianism', concentration camps are the key to maintaining total domination: The system of camps infuses society with an 'indefinable fear', necessary not only so that society remains under control by the spirit of totalitarianism, but also in order to inspire its attack squads with fanaticism."

 

I. Three acts: A vicious circle of profit and destruction

a. Immigrants as outlawed workers

“Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved” (Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a large-scale looting operation was launched throughout Europe. Greece participated joyfully in the plundering, as hundreds of thousands of cheap workers (mainly Albanians) were crossing its borders. This round of primitive accumulation was hidden behind a curtain of nationalism. The name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia became a major issue of patriotism for the media, and with the breakout of the war in Bosnia, this strange nominalist patriotism was met with by a new type of "couch-nationalism": Tele-fascists started mixing conspiracy with Orthodox church journalism, and during the massacre in Srebrenica, members of the neonazi Golden Dawn were actually portrayed in the media discussing their reasons for creating paramilitary troops on the side of the Serbian army. A well-known talking head tried to even "broaden" their argumentation, by adding to the reasons for joining the war also the "shared Orthodox faith" and "our old friendship with the Serbs" (August 1985, Evangelatos, Sky channell). Joining the Serbian troops, he felt was "effort that comes straight from the soul".

In 1991, the government voted a law (entitled "Entering, exiting, staying, work, deportation of foreigners, recognition of refugees") which institutionalized and officialized the reproduction of cheap illegal labour power. In 1997 the PASOK government connected the legal status of the immigrant with the "needs of the market". With presidential bills 358 and 359 immigrants were also documented and the ratio of legals and illegals was taken into account for the first time. In 2001, Clause 2910 officialized the connection between acquiring a residence permission and having earned a high number of work stamps. The stamps were of course bought illegally, since most work on offer was illegal anyway.

This way the temporary character of their legal residence was emphasized: They were legal only insofar as there was a job. 'Broom operations' (sudden arrest sprees by the police) made sure Albanians knew they could be deported anytime. When they were deported, they soon came back and again found themselves trapped in a vicious circle of legality and illegality, the labyrinths of state bureaucracy and the sadistic attitude of the cops.

The temporary worker and the flexible worker were born.

In the first years of the new millenium security overrode any concern about human rights on an international level. Most crucially, it turned the issue of entry into the EU without papers into an issue of international terrorism. The EU set up the Schengen InformationSystem II, the Visa Information System, the EURODAC, a database for fingerprints of asylum seekers, as well as the FADO, a photographic database.

This was also the beginning of the process of externalization of the security borders of Europe. The construction of detention centers was promoted in Mediterranean countries. On the Eastern borders, the Ukraine was rewarded for its efforts in the war against illegal immigration, and so were Northern African countries, especially Libya, which for a while kept tens of thousands of sans papiers from approaching the European South.

More specifically: Dublin II was voted in February 2003 and Frontex started operating in May 2005. In the same year, hundreds of African immigrants tried to jump over the fences protecting the two Spanish clusters in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. 15-20 immigrants (we don't know the exact number...) were shot dead, numerous others were pushed to the desert to die of hunger and thirst. This made the much-advertized need for the externalization of EU borders even more pressing. Spain sponsored Moroccan detention and Italy sponsored Libyan prisons in a series of unofficial agreements, which soon become official with Berlusconi's promise of 5 billion dollars to Ghaddafi in exchange for "managing the immigration problem" for him.

Towards the middle of the decade, entries from Italy and Spain decreased dramatically, and the Greco-Turkish border became the focus of efforts to get into the EU. In Greece detention spaces were improvised. After the escape in 2002 of hundreds of migrants from Venna, Sapes and Elaphochori, (all unofficial detention centers in the Evros are), there began the construction of organized places for detention. Official detention centers were built in 2003 in Pagani on Lesvos island, in 2006 on Chios, in 2007 in Fylakio (Evros) and on Samos. Unofficial detention centers continued to function in containers, old depots, defunct factory buildings and old hotels, redundant barracks, police stations across the country. In 2008, 90 such places were documented.

 

b. Immigrants as human surplus

“A nation cannot develop and become strong without a sense of urgency and a sense of crisis.” (Long Yongtu, China's chief WTO negotiator, Financial Times, 17 November 1999)

In 2005, Law 3386 was passed for the management of migrants, according to which there should be a yearly report on the needs of the market which would determine the number of permissions to stay and work (on a single document) that could be issued each year. Bureaucracy became even more complicated and the fines got higher.

This is the symbolic beginning of the treatment of migrants as human surplus. It marks the transition of migrants from cheap labor depot to human waste.

This change of status, from cheap labor force to waste, had been anticipated right after the Olympic Games in 2004. In December of that year, when an Afghani had run away after his arrest, special guards and police forces had launched a full scale attack against several Afghans, raiding houses and chasing them on the streets and beating them up wherever they could find them. Two Afghans were arrested, held at a police station and were systematically tortured by the police.

At this stage, while the naturalization of human waste was still underway, detention centers were still kept a dark secret. So were deaths at the EU border. In 2007 there were 280 deaths in the Aegean, while a report by the German NGO ProAsyl was openly confirming that torture methods were being systematically used by the coast guards. (ProAsyl 2007, "The truth might be bitter but it must be told": www.proasyl.de/fileadmin/proasyl/fm.../Griechenlandbericht_Engl.pdf‎)

How did this transition take place? First on Samos, at the new "model" detention center bosses were allowed to have their pick every morning amongst the refugees for "tasks of the day". So they chose hands for the olive business and their only obligation was to return them to the detention center at night. On a lucky day, the sans papiers would have 15 € in their pockets - compared to the 50 € that Albanians would ask for. Exploitation continued with the full dependence of immigrants on the trafficking circuits that promised to pass them over to Northern Europe, to an extent that would allow us to speak of a fully developed parallel State, a Parastate of slavetrade and trafficking. In 2008, three quarters of all migrants who crossed external EU borders did so through Greece. They did not necessarily remain in Greece. The commodity "migrant" acquired great surpus value because of its illegality: The slavetrade networks made lots of money. There was a boost in the criminal side of exploitation: Migrants were kidnapped for ransom until they starved to death, minors disappeared, the organ trade thrived, drug trafficking and prosititution too.

This is a criminal dimension that did not reach the media. Meanwhile, a pilot "State of Emergency" was being manufactured in the center of Athens. By then, it was already clear: The refugees of the wars of the New World Order and the "War on Terror" were now becoming the protagonists of a "humanitarian crisis" in specific neighbourhoods that were turned into the breeding ground for fascists.

In Greece, already after the Olympics in 2004, the future had been predetermined. It was the methodical destruction of productive forces and of living labor, for a new round of capitalist accumulation: the game of destruction, devaluation and profit. The choice of accumulating "human-garbage" in the center of Athens has often been attributed to a systematic reduction in land values as part of a broader "gentrification" plan. This may be true, as it is also true that this "human accumulation" contributed to the expansion and multiplication of many types of mafia structures.

The core, however, of the "policy of human waste" is that it set an example for Greek society, an example which naturalized the necessity of totalitarianism, whether in the form of fascist assault squads or in the form of police raids.

With our description of the mechanism of "immigration chaos" we do not imply that the ruling elites designed it in every detail. They simply watched and encouraged the situation unfold in that direction. They reinforced what contributed to this direction and fought against what could prevent it. The attack against the lives of immigrants was not aimed at, or at least was not exclusively aimed at creating cheap labor depots. It also served to create a paradigm of devalued humanity, a kind of "naked life" unworthy of rights or protection. EU legislation, which the parliamentary Left is always appealing to, provided the legal justification for control through prolonged detention. Until December 2008, maximum's detention time in Greece was 3 months, with the EU "Shameful Directive on Return" it was extended to 18, as it remains until now.

The counterinsurgency that followed the December 2008 riots was realized through an attack against immigrants and refugees, which began in the spring of 2009. Until then, they had been relatively invisible. Now they were suddenly too visible and too many, they were "the greatest threat for Greek society".

Immigrants were criminalized a second time, this time also as victims deprived of their human existence. They were turned into a problem, which was presented to us together with its solution. In the summer of 2009, there was the first official announcement of the creation of concentration camps. The shift towards a full-blown fascist discourse and the transformation of society into a pro-fascist audience culminated in 2012, with the minister of Public Order Chrysochoidis announcing the creation of dozens of concentration camps in which 30.000 undocumented immigrants should be imprisoned.

On August 4th, 2012, Greek institutional racism celebrated the anniversary of the 1936 military dictatorship by launching the "Xenios Zeus" operation, a spectacular celebration of mass arrests of sans-papiers in the center of Athens... The police operation was named "Xenios Zeus" (what a wicked sense of humor!), after the god who protected strangers in Ancient Greece. The reasons justifying the operation went back to some contested conception of Bronze Age history: "From the Dorian invasion, 4,000 years ago, the country has never accepted such a large scale invasion ... migration might be a bigger problem than the economic crisis" (Nikos Dendias, Minister of Public Order, August 4, 2012).

The symbolism of concentration camps was a completely conscious choice within the framework of the publicly announced state of emergency, the public pronouncement of the politics of exception.

 

c. Immigrants as human prey

"State sovereignty is based upon the distinction between friend and enemy" (Karl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 1927)

“The legitimation of violence against a demonized internal enemy brings us close to the heart of fascism.” (Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, 2004)

77,526: The number of immigrants captured by the Greek police since the beginning of the "Xenios Zeus" police operation, in the city of Athens mainly. The vast majority of them were "legal" immigrants, the number of undocumented migrants who were actually arrested in Athens is 4.435. This is a huge, military-style manhunt, in every sense of the term.

7,000: The number of sans-papiers immigrants currently detained in concentration camps in Greece. To that should be added an unreported number of undocumented imprisonments of migrants in police stations throughout the country.

50.7%: The percentage of policemen voting for the nazi party in the May 2012 elections in the special voting center for the (militarized) police motorcycle units ("Dias", "Delta" and "Zeta" squads) in Athens. If you add to this the 12.5% of them that voted for the populist far-right party "Independent Greeks" and the 5% that voted for the Le Pen style party "LAOS", you get a clear idea. The relevant percentages in the riot police voting center in Athens are: 46.7% for the nazi party, 10.7% for "Independent Greeks" and 5.5% for "LAOS".

40%: The decline of life standards in Greece in just three years.

 

II. The end of the circle and the beginning of a new one...

a. Getting rid of the surplus

The intensification of anti-immigrant policies was allegedly intended to "restrict immigrant population in the country". Immigrants however did not and do not leave Greece because of the fascist attacks, for hardship and insane violence is nothing new to them. They leave the country mainly because there are no jobs and no way to get by. In the last two years they have been returning to their countries, even going back to Turkey (where they are still offered the bitter privilege of brutal exploitation as extremely cheap labor force), or they get trapped in other Balkan countries (Serbia, Rep. of Macedonia) trying to reach the "European dream" and end up working in construction for some Russian mafia at Montenegro tourist resorts.

The decrease in the number of undocumented migrants entering Greece is not due to "anti-immigrant policies" but because of the policy of planned economic disaster. The sharp decline in the number of immigrants entering through the Greco-Turkish border in the Evros region is not due to the much-advertized fence. Before, this route was the choice of workers from northern and central Africa, the Middle East and Asia who could travel without a visa to Turkey and enter Greece crossing the river on boats and on foot. In the last years in Greece we are facing a systematic destruction of productive forces and living labor. So, simply put, migrant workers just do not come anymore - they know there is absolutely nothing to do here.

It might sound contradictory to even try to explain the decline in the number of incoming immigrants in Greece through the economic crisis, since most of them are "transit immigrants" and do not want to stay in Greece anyway. However, for the mere passage through Greece one needs money. If the undocumented do not have money, they must work to raise the amounts demanded by traffickers for the next part of the trip. If they have money, they should not spend it elsewhere. But as they are trapped in Greece, even if they do have money for the traffickers, eventually they have to spend it for their own survival. As there are no jobs, the passage from Greece is not a choice anymore, and the same goes for choosing Greece as a final destination.

Let us repeat this. The number of undocumented immigrants arrested on Greek territory had been in sharp decline before the launching of the "Xenios Zeus" operation in Athens and the "Operation Shield" in Evros: From 146,337 in 2008, the number of arrested fell to 76,878 in 2012. This number does not reflect the number of incomers, as only 60% of the arrests happen at the border. The total number includes many immigrants arrested again and again in big Greek cities: 28,558 of the 99,368 arrests of 2011, 27,541 of the 76,878 arrests in 2012 and 11,636 of the 31,050 arrests in the first 9 months of 2013. According to Greek Police data, the number of undocumented immigrants entering Greece fell from 90,000 in 2010 to 60-70,000 in 2011 and to 40-50,000 in 2012. In comparison, the number of undocumented arrested on an annual basis throughout the EU according to the website of the department of internal affairs of the European Commission is an astonishing 500,000. The overall decline in the numbers of undocumented in Greece is reflected by the fact that in 2013 the number of those who left Greece for central Europe via the Balkan countries was double the number of those who entered Greece from Turkey according to the Frontex Risk Analysis bulletin-second quarter of 2013. The passage through the Western Balkans also demonstrates the economic dead-end that undocumented immigrants face in Greece. Is not the only route out of Greece, but it is chosen by more and more as it is the cheapest passage, since there is no strong network of traffickers yet, and the passage is largely done impromptu.

The sad confirmation of the change of the entry route of immigrants into Europe comes from the hundreds of recent deaths in Lampedusa.

The passage to Greece through the Aegean increased sharply (505%), mainly because of the war in Syria. According to the Reuters agency (21/10/2013) more than 600,000 refugees of this war are now in Turkey. A comparatively small number of refugees from Syria (which has a land border with Turkey) cross Anatolia on foot and try to enter Greece through the Aegean. The tragic result: Dozens of refugees dead in ship-wrecks in the Aegean and mass graves on Lesvos.

 

b. Cheap workforce without rights, now "for Greeks only"

The new Greek "Immigration Code" attempts to regulate "legal" immigrants who, in the new context of the devaluation of workforce, are seen as "useless labour overaccumulation". The Code basically says to the "legal" immigrants: "Thanks for your cooperation, now goodbye". The new Code encourages "flexibility" in the conversion of previously "legal" immigrants into "illegal" ones (because of unemployment and inability to collect work stamps necessary for them to remain "legal"). This flexibility is accompanied by a new regulation, which promises to convert the immigrant status of "long-term residence" in Greece to a legal option of going to work in another EU country. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are threatened to become "illegals" because of the "economic crisis" are practically forced to move to another European country. As far as Greece is concerned, Greeks are now meant to occupy the position and the social status of immigrant workers. Both fascists and neoliberals agree on this: Cheap workforce without rights is now an option "for Greeks only".

The same goes for concentration camps: Greeks are intended to occupy the position of immigrants in the camps (or rather to obey, "or else the camps await"): Last spring Greek drug addicts were shut in the Amygdaleza immigrants detention center. Some weeks later, plans were (deliberately) leaked in the mainstream Press about the use of former military barracks for the imprisonment of Greek tax debtors: "After all", the report went, "you used to send your kids for military service there, it couldn't be so bad to spend some time jailed in a military barrack yourselves, or would you prefer immigrants to take advantage of this hospitality offer?" Dimokratia newspaper, 19 April 2013)... The intensification of anti-immigrant policies ultimately aimed mostly at the management of locals, not the immigrants.

 

III. Concentration camps as crisis management through the destruction of human

 

“…dominion can be established, that is, men can be unified only in a unity against - against other men. Every association of men is necessarily a separation from other men” (Karl Schmitt, Political Theology, 1922)

 

The politics of the Greek State, with fascism as the “extremist of the center”, is the politics of devaluation. It is the politics of permanent emergency, of constant exception and of sustainable, organized chaos. It attacks immigrants first as part of the management of the whole population.

With the sudden depreciation of life becoming the norm, a renewed totalitarianism needs its iconography. Now we know: The images from concentration camps in Greece were not "leaked" in order to denounce brutality, but in order to advertise it, just like the torture images from Guantanamo were publicized to assure American patriots that their army was doing its job.

"Concentration camps for immigrants" have became a flag notion in the dominant fascist rhetoric of the government. They are the symbolic place where the "unnecessary ones", people without rights (an expanding concept) are being discarded. They are a black hole of a simple dialectics of management - fear and hate: Fear of being dumped there, hate for those who are already in there. In the style of a generalized military camp, the "troops of sovereignty", whether the legal state security forces or the fascist "assault squads", are being trained on the naked bodies of those stripped of every human quality. Large-scale police operations are being conducted as military clearing operations. Hate spreads. Mixed with despair, it creates the kind of citizen that capitalism, the Party of Death, prefers to govern.

 

 

 

15
Apr2014

We are very pleased to confirm the full details of the end-of-project conference of crisis-scape.net. The conference poster will follow suit, along with more of interventions by the participants, which we have been gathering at the conference page.

May 9&10. Athens Polytechnic (NTUA), Averof Building, Patission Campus (google map)

The conference is in English. It is free and open to all, with no registration required.

 

Conference book | conference poster

 

Friday, May 9

 

Panel 1, 14:00-16:00

Flows, infrastructures and networks

Leonidas Economou (Panteion University, Athens)

Dimitra Gefou-Madianou (Panteion University, Athens)

Yannis Kallianos (Manchester University, Manchester)

Giorgos Aggelopoulos (University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki)

Andreas Chatzidakis (Royal Holloway, London)

Discussant: Dimitris Dalakoglou

 

Panel 2, 16:30-18:30

Mapping spaces of racist violence

Dimitris Christopoulos (Panteion University, Athens, Hellenic League of Human Rights)

Klara Jaya Brekke (crisis-scape)

Lia Yoka (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki) and Sonia Vlachou (University of Hamburg)

Sarah Green (University of Helsinki, Helsinki)

Discussant: Hara Kouki

 

Screening, 19:00-20:00

Future Suspended a 35' documentary by crisis-scape.net 

 

Saturday, May 10

 

Panel 3, 12:00-14:00

Between invisibility and precarity

Akis Gavriilidis (Author, Indepedent Scholar)

Athena Athanasiou (Panteion University, Athens)

Giorgos Tsimouris (Panteion University, Athens)

Rania Astrinaki (Panteion University, Athens)

Dina Vaiou (NTUA, Athens)

Discussant: Jane Cowan

 

Panel 4, 15:00-17:00

The right to the city in crisis

Lila Leontidou (Hellenic Open University, Athens)

Christy Petropoulou (University of the Aegean, Mytilene)

Tom Slater (University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh)

Hyun Bang Shin (London School of Economics, London)

Andy Merrifield (Cambridge University, Cambridge)

Discussant: Antonis Vradis

 

Panel 5, 17:30-19:30

Devaluing labour, depreciating land

Costis Hadjimichalis (Charokopeio University, Athens)

Bob Catterall, CITY Journal (city-analysis.net)

Elena Madison (Project for Public Spaces, NYC)

Filippo Osella (Sussex University, Brighton)

David Harvey (City University of New York, NYC)

Discussant: Dimitris Dalakoglou

11
Apr2014

 by Tom Slater, University of Edinburgh

 

“[I]t was suggested that revitalization was rarely an appropriate term for gentrification, but we can see now that in one sense it is appropriate. Gentrification is part of a larger redevelopment process dedicated to the revitalization of the profit rate. In the process, many downtowns are being converted into bourgeois playgrounds replete with quaint markets, restored townhouses, boutique rows, yachting marinas, and Hyatt Regencies. These very visual alterations to the urban landscape are not at all an accidental side-effect of temporary economic disequilibrium but are as rooted in the structure of capitalist society as was the advent of suburbanization.”

Neil Smith, 1982 [1], p.151-2.

The architect and urban planner Andres Duany is widely seen as the father or guru of ‘New Urbanism’, an American urban-design-can-save-us-all cult that has gone global. New Urbanists are vehemently anti-sprawl and anti-modernist, and typically demonstrate near-evangelical belief in the construction of high density mixed-use, mixed tenure settlements with a neotraditional vernacular, well served by public transport, and ‘pedestrian-friendly’ (integrated by a network of accessible streets, sidewalks, cycle paths and public spaces). All of these features, if you can afford to buy into them, are supposed to nurture a profound ‘sense of community’ that will lead to harmonious, liveable and sustainable ‘urban villages’. There has been a substantial critical backlash, but New Urbanism, now twinned with the fatuous rhetoric of “Smart Growth” (another anti-sprawl movement at which Duany has positioned himself at the centre), shows few signs of dissipating (in Scotland, where I live and work, Duany was central to the formation of the SNP Government’s Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative in 2010, and his dubious methods of ‘consensus building’ among local residents have been widely adopted by aristocratic landowners [2] and design consultants).

In 2001, Duany wrote an essay for American Enterprise Magazine, which is published by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank. The essay was entitled “Three Cheers for Gentrification”. An obnoxious and declamatory rant directed at “the squawking of old neighborhood bosses who can’t bear the self-reliance of the incoming middle-class, and can’t accept the dilution of their political base”, it contains caricatures, trivialisations and myths that are too numerous to dissect in full here. Yet one passage in particular serves as a useful point of departure for this essay:

“‘Affordable’ housing isn’t always what cities need more of. Some do, but many need just the opposite. For every San Francisco or Manhattan where real estate has become uniformly too expensive, there are many more cities like Detroit, Trenton, Syracuse, Milwaukee, Houston, and Philadelphia that could use all the gentrification they can get. The last thing these places ought to be pursuing is more cheap housing. Gentrification is usually good news, for there is nothing more unhealthy for a city than a monoculture of poverty. ….Gentrification rebalances a concentration of poverty by providing the tax base, rub-off work ethic, and political effectiveness of a middle class, and in the process improves the quality of life for all of a community’s residents. It is the rising tide that lifts all boats.”

If we cast aside the provocative tone of these sentences, and the patronising trickle-down logic, we see a perspective that is actually very common among many observers of gentrification across the political spectrum (whether journalists, policy officials, planners, architects, or less thoughtful social scientists). In a little piece of mischief back in 2006 [3] I called this perspective the false choice between gentrification (a form of reinvestment) and a ‘concentration of poverty’ (disinvestment), drawing on these words in an excellent book by James DeFilippis:

“Since the emergence of gentrification, it has become untenable to argue that reinvestment is a desirable end in-and-of-itself for low-income people and residents of disinvested areas. Instead, rightfully conceived, reinvestment needs to be understood through the lends of questions such as: What kind of investment? For whom? Controlled by whom? These processes have left residents of low-income neighbourhoods in a situation where, since they exert little control over either investment capital or their homes, they are facing the ‘choices’ of either continued disinvestment and decline in the quality of the homes they live in, or reinvestment that results in their displacement. The importance of gentrification, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates that low-income people, and the neighbourhoods they live in, suffer not from a lack of capital but from a lack of power and control over even the most basic components of life – that is, the places called home.  [4]

These words lead us to the question of how low-income people can gain power and control over their homes, one which DeFilippis addresses via a riveting analysis of collective ownership initiatives such as community land trusts, mutual housing associations and limited-equity housing cooperatives in the United States. Yet since DeFilippis’ book was published a decade ago, the false choice perspective has been tabled time and time again; indeed, I have lost count of the amount of high-profile statements on gentrification in the last few years and months that have succumbed to a tired formula: weigh up the supposed pros and cons of gentrification amidst attempts at levity (“Doesn’t that new cupcake store have a funny name?!”), throw in a few half-baked worries about threats to ‘diversity’ and housing affordability, and conclude that gentrification is actually ‘good’ on balance because it represents investment which stops neighbourhoods from ‘dying’ during a financial crisis. Take, for example, a piece in New York Magazine in February this year entitled (predictably) “Is Gentrification All Bad? [5] After opening up with the ambiguous remark that, “A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right” (what makes a neighbourhood ‘nice’, of course, is inherently a class question), the author presents a brief history of the neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, once an emblem of disinvestment and racial segregation but now an arena for outlandish real estate prices, and remarks that “gentrification happens not because a few developers or politicians foist it on an unwilling city but because it’s a medicine most people want to take. The trick is to minimize the harmful side effects.” The piece concludes with the following:

“an ideological split [in the 1960s] divided those who wrote cities off as unlivable relics from those who believed they must be saved. Today a similar gulf separates those who fear an excess of prosperity from those who worry about the return of blight. Economic flows can be reversed with stunning speed: gentrification can nudge a neighborhood up the slope; decline can roll it off a cliff. Somewhere along that trajectory of change is a sweet spot, a mixed and humming street that is not quite settled or sanitized, where Old Guard and new arrivals coexist in equilibrium. The game is to make it last.”

“Mixed and humming” hides what is a desperately fatalistic conclusion, but one very common in writing that reduces gentrification to a moral question (good versus bad) rather than a political question [6]. In sum, the New York Magazine article argues that gentrification is here to stay, we have to live with it, but it just needs some policy fine-tuning to stabilise or ‘manage’ it and soften the blows it inflicts, and the urbanist’s holy grail is the middle ground between “up the slope” and “decline”.

In order to situate gentrification in a more helpful political and analytical register, we must blast open this tenacious and constrictive dualism of “prosperity” (gentrification) or “blight” (disinvestment) by showing how the two are fundamentally intertwined in a wider process of capitalist urbanisation and uneven development that creates profit and class privilege for some whilst stripping many of the human need of shelter. No viable alternatives to class segregation and poverty will be found unless we ask why there are neighbourhoods of astounding affluence and of grinding poverty, why there are “new arrivals” and an “Old Guard”, why there are renovations and evictions; in short, why there is inequality. Despite many attempts to sugarcoat it and celebrate it, gentrification, both as term and process, has always been about class struggle. When we jettison the ludicrous journalistic embrace of “hipsters [7], reject the political purchase of the enormous literature on the gamut of individual preferences and lifestyles of middle-class gentrifiers, and consider instead the agency of developers, bankers and state officials, then questions such as for whom, against whom and who decides come to the forefront - and we can begin to see false choice urbanism as both red herring and preposterous sham. Then, we can start thinking about the agency of activists, and strategies of revolt.

After a visit to inner Detroit, to east Glasgow, to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or to the so-called ‘shrinking cities’ of eastern Europe, it is easy to understand why purveyors of false choice urbanism are so numerous. But they are left politically stranded when a theory of uneven geographical development is brought to bear on their “gentrification is better than the alternative” discourse. Arguably the greatest legacy to urban studies left by Neil Smith was the “ingenious simplicity” (as David Ley, one of his main interlocutors, once put it [8]) of the rent gap as part of a broader attempt to trace the circulation of interest-bearing capital in urban land markets, and to elaborate the role of the state in lubricating that circulation. But rather than focus on the classic 1979 paper where the rent gap concept first appeared, it is instructive to revisit a less-discussed Neil Smith paper which situated the rent gap within a broader articulation of uneven development at the urban scale, entitled “Gentrification and Uneven Development”, published in 1982 in Economic Geography. There, three aspects of uneven development were articulated by Smith, and gentrification was located within each aspect:

  1. Tendencies toward equalization and differentiation: with the transformation of the earth into a universal means of production via the wage-labour relation, capital drives to overcome all spatial barriers to expansion (equalization), yet a series of differentiating tendencies (division of labour, wage rates, class differences etc) operate in opposition to that equalization. At the urban scale, the contradiction between equalization and differentiation is manifest in the phenomenon of ground rent (simply the charge that landowners can demand, via private property rights, for use of their land), which translates into a geographical differentiation (central city versus suburbs, with higher ground rent in the latter). Recognising this contradiction, it becomes possible to see Homer Hoyt’s famous “land value valley” of the late 1920s in inner Chicago not as representative of some sort of residential “filtering” process, but rather indicative of capital depreciation, creating a “ground rent level quite at variance with the assumptions implied in the earlier neoclassical bid-rent models” (p.146).

  2. The valorization and devalorization of built environment capital: valorization of capital in cities (its investment in search of surplus value or profit) is necessarily matched by its devalorization (as the investor receives returns on the investment only by piecemeal when capital is ‘fixed’ in the landscape). However, new development must proceed if accumulation is to occur – so the steady devalorization of capital creates longer term possibilities for a new phase of valorization. Here we are talking about speculative landed developer interests that David Harvey has since identified as “a singular principle power that has yet to be accorded its proper place in our understanding of not only the historical geography of capitalism but also the general evolution of capitalist class power. [9] Why do rentier capitalists buy up – or grab - parcels of central city land and real estate and ‘sit’ on them for years, doing nothing? The answer is simple: devalorization of capital invested in the central city leads to a situation where the ground rent capitalized under current land uses is substantially lower than the ground rent that could potentially be capitalized if the land uses were to change. This is a rent gap in the circulatory patterns of capital in urban space. When redevelopment and rehabilitation become profitable prospects, capital begins to flow back into the central city – and then substantial fortunes can be made.

  3. Reinvestment and the rhythm of unevenness: under capitalism there is a strong tendency for societies to undergo periodic but relatively rapid and systematic shifts in the location and quantity of capital invested in cities. These geographical and/or locational ‘switches’ are closely correlated with the timing of crises in the broader economy (i.e. when the ‘growth’ much beloved of mainstream economists and politicians does not occur). Crises occur when the capitalist necessity to accumulate leads to a falling rate of profit and an overproduction of commodities (in recent years, these commodities are the various financial products that have emerged vis-à-vis the buying and selling of debt). The logic of uneven development is that the development of one area creates barriers to further development, thus leading to underdevelopment, and that the underdevelopment of that area creates opportunities for a new phase of development. In spatial terms, Smith called this a “locational seesaw”, or “the successive development, underdevelopment, and redevelopment of given areas as capital jumps from one place to another, then back again, both creating and destroying its own opportunities for development.” (p.151).

Smith’s work was of course subjected to considerable critique over the years, sometimes usefully (for example, the work of Damaris Rose on the “uneven development of Marxist urban theory [10]), other times obstructively (most absurd was the argument that the rent gap should be abandoned as it is hard to verify empirically, closely followed by the daft bourgeois cry that the rent gap doesn’t tell us anything about the gentrifiers, when it was never designed to). In relation to false choice urbanism, the critically important point to grasp via an analytic absorption of these three aspects of uneven development is that investment and disinvestment do not represent some sort of moral conundrum, with the former somehow, on balance, ‘better’ than the latter. Nor does investment represent some sort of magical remedy for those who have lived through and endured decades of disinvestment. Gentrification and ‘decline’; embourgoisement and ‘concentrated poverty’; regeneration and decay - these are not opposites, alternatives or choices, but rather tensions and contradictions in the overall system of capital circulation, amplified and aggravated by the current crisis. Rent gaps do not just appear out of nowhere [11] – they represent certain social (class) interests, where the quest for profit takes precedence over the quest for shelter. Rent gaps are actively produced (and they are certainly being produced now under a crisis that has set capitalised ground rent on a downward spiral) through the actions of specific social actors ranging from landlords to bankers to urban property speculators, and the role of the state in regards to these actors is far from laissez-faire but rather one of active facilitator both politically and economically (it is notable that Smith’s undergraduate dissertation [12], the empirical study that led to the rent gap concept, carried the subtitle, “State Involvement in Society Hill, Philadelphia”).

This leads to the question of political action and social movements. In light of the current conditions of crisis and disinvestment, I was asked, “What advice, if any, could be useful for the people of Exarcheia from anti-gentrification struggles elsewhere?” This is a demanding question and it would take several days to summarise the varied struggles that have taken place in the past ten years from Edinburgh to Gothenburg to Toronto to Mexico City to Melbourne, and to dissect the links between those struggles, the lessons learned, the gains made. When I was writing the final chapter of Gentrification [13], I was struck by how little scholarship there was on resistance to gentrification. Whilst the Right to the City movement has since drawn considerable attention, it still saddens me that, at least in the UK, research funding has gone (and continues to go) to people who want to study the motives and desires of the middle-classes, or to those uncritically embracing the language of regeneration. So my immediate response, when I read the question asked of me, was “What can academics learn from the anti-gentrification struggles in Exarcheia and elsewhere?!”

Immediate strategies, ones that are making gains in cities like Madrid, include squatting that goes beyond the standard occupation of empty buildings (usually a strategy of highlighting the problems of housing commodification) to make a squat a collective provider of welfare and neighbourhood services (e.g. daycare, healthcare, adult education) that are being denied to people under the violence of austerity. Community land buy-outs are gaining traction in the UK now, especially in Scotland, but the barriers are immense, not least because of deeply ingrained landownership structures that will take a generation to dislodge. In 2001 I spent some time with an organization in Brooklyn that declared an entire neighbourhood where widespread displacement was occurring a “displacement free zone”, and this involved a ‘pro-community’ awareness campaign, whereby the absolute necessity of informal support networks to vulnerable local people struggling to make rent was highlighted in every possible forum, in conjunction with organised pickets and protests outside landlords’ homes, and the public naming and shaming of any landlord who slapped a rent increase on a tenant. Evictions dropped by 40% in a 3 year period.

I am very suspicious of the view that gains can be made at the level of “informing policy”, as many British academics proudly trumpet. Under relentless urban growth machine pressures, the leap of perspective required for a policy elite to see the world as displaced person is significant. Insofar as states adopt gentrification as a housing policy – which they have done all over the world – they have little interest in research evidence on the extent and experience of displacement; such evidence would be tantamount to exposing the failure of these policies. Given that all major political parties in so many nations dance to the same neoliberal anthem on housing, it is naïve to expect, or perhaps even to lobby for, a policy programme of mass social housing construction or rent controls (indeed, the Coalition government in the UK appears actively committed to making people homeless via its infamous ‘bedroom tax’). Far more effective in contexts where gentrification is occurring has been campaigns for policy action beyond the scale of the urban, such as living wage campaigns. The scandalously high cost of housing in so many nations is consigning the poor to financial ruin, so the work of living wage activists is absolutely crucial to the right to housing. Policy interventions and even some social movements are too often “area-based”, when the differences that could be made at the level of the welfare state and labour market are substantial. Unfortunately, attacks on welfare states are happening all over Europe because these remnants of a Keynesian-Fordist political economy are viewed by the political class (and by the oligarchs they serve) as dangerous “impediments to the advancement of financialisation [14]. To continue the relentless pace of expanding global accumulation, it is necessary to monitor and monetize more and more of those human needs that have not been commodified in previous rounds of financialization. Pensions, healthcare, education, and especially housing have been more aggressively appropriated, colonized and financialised. Anti-gentrification struggles should be -- and usually are -- unified with broader struggles to protect the legacies of the welfare state against the predatory attacks by this generation’s vulture capitalists.

To the extent that we are dealing with a systemic, structural problem, it would seem to be a critically important challenge for social movements to identify precisely where developers, capital investors, and policy elites are stalking potential ground rent [15]; to expose the ways in which profitable returns are justified among those constituents and to the wider public; to highlight the circumstances and fate of those not seen to be putting urban land to its ‘highest and best use’; to point to the darkly troubling downsides of reinvestment in the name of ‘economic growth’ and ‘job creation’; to reinstate the use values (actual or potential) of the land, streets, buildings, homes, parks and centres that constitute an urban community. Another crucial tactic is to expose planning hypocrisy at any opportunity: when planners speak of their desires to create “mixed-income communities” in poor areas (almost always cover for a gentrification strategy), there is much to be learned from a coalition of public housing tenants in New Orleans that marched through the most affluent part of that city in 2006 holding a huge banner that said “Make THIS Neighbourhood Mixed-Income!”. Another area of concern is to think carefully about how to challenge stigmatisation of people and places. Whilst such stigmatisation is central to the creation of rent gaps, it is also central to their closure, for discourses of disgust and social abjection can pave the way for a revanchist class transformation of space (e.g. “We need to clean that area up, it’s full of scumbags,” etc.). Unfortunately, even grassroots efforts to advance a different narrative of a place can end up backfiring, as an artificial edginess becomes appealing to real estate professionals and their “urban pioneer” clients suffering from what Spike Lee recently called “motherfucking Christopher Columbus syndrome [16] The Columbian encounter was uneven development by genocide and false treaty: accumulation by colonial dispossession. Today it’s the world urban system of cities competing for investors and creative-class gentry on the new urban frontier. It has always been in the “border areas that a killing could be made, so to speak, with so little risk of simultaneously being scalped. [17]

False choice urbanism, more than anything else, is a pure exemplar of what Paul Gilroy has called the “poverty of the imagination [18]. It thrives on the idea that more and more economic growth (represented by the mirage of ‘reinvestment’) is the answer to a crisis created by such greed, and thus it deflects attention away from the systemic failures and policy blunders that create, widen and reinforce urban inequalities. A mindless commitment to reinvestment and growth is the kind of ‘thinking’ that produced the largest global credit bubble ever seen, and then crashed in what even Ben Bernanke, the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve bank, called the most severe financial crisis in the history of capitalism. Disinvestment and reinvestment are both at the heart of today’s unequal urbanization of capital. Reinvestment represents a second-order derivative of the first round of the appropriation of monopoly rents. In the 20th anniversary edition of Urban Fortunes, John Logan and Harvey Molotch offer some refreshing insights that might help arrest this poverty of the imagination:

 “For people in whatever type of place, even those at the lowest level of the earth’s place hierarchy, the appropriate stance should be critical. Alas, there is least choice for those at the bottom levels, and sometimes resistance risks violent reprisal from authorities. But where it is humanly feasible, ‘no growth’ is a good political strategy. The status quo should always be treated as possibly better than the growth alternative. (“Don’t just do something, stand there,” is a slogan we have heard.) [19]

Whilst the status quo is of course unacceptable, “stand there” not only calls into question growth-is-great arguments, but strikes a chord with highly effective anti-gentrification slogans of the past, such as “We Won’t Move!” from Yerba Buena, San Francisco, in the 1970s [20]. Moreover, these words offer useful guidance for ‘right to stay put’ movements that seek to unravel false choice urbanism and expose gentrification not as Andres Duany’s “rising tide that lifts all boats”, but as a tsunami that wrecks most ships. As important as it is to explain the dirty process of gentrification, supported by accounts of destroyed lives, evictions, homelessness, loss of jobs, loss of community, loss of place, and so on, it’s just as important to understand and fight the system that makes gentrification possible [21].

 

 Endnotes

1 “Gentrification and uneven development”, Economic Geography 58 (2): 139-155.

2 See Gordon MacLeod (2013) “New urbanism/smart growth in the Scottish Highlands: mobile policies and post-politics in local development planning”, Urban Studies 50 (11): 2196-2221.

3 Tom Slater (2006) “The eviction of critical perspectives from gentrification research”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30 (4): 737-757.

4 James DeFilippis (2004) Unmaking Goliath: Community Control in the Face of Global Capital (New York: Routledge). Quotation from p.89

5 Justin Davidson (2014) “Is Gentrification All Bad?” New York Magazine, 2nd February: http://nymag.com/news/features/gentrification-2014-2/

6 Thank you to Mathieu van Criekingen for this excellent point.

7 Neil Smith nailed this: “A predictably populist symbolism underlies the hoopla and boosterism with which gentrification is marketed. It focuses on ‘making cities liveable,’ meaning liveable for the middle class. In fact, of necessity, they have always been ‘liveable’ for the working class. The so-called renaissance is advertised and sold as bringing benefits to everyone regardless of class, but available evidence suggests otherwise.” (Smith, 1982, p.152).

8 David Ley (1996) The New Middle Class and the Remaking of the Central City (Oxford: OUP). Quotation from p.42

9 David Harvey (2010 The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (London: Profile Books) Quotation from p.180.

10 Damaris Rose (1984) “Rethinking gentrification: beyond the uneven development of Marxist urban theory”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2: 47-74.

11 Thanks to Stuart Hodkinson for these words.

13 Loretta Lees, Tom Slater & Elvin Wyly (2008) Gentrification (New York: Routledge).

14 For a brilliant analysis, see Observatorio Metropolitano (2013) Crisis and Revolution in Europe: People of Europe, Rise Up! (Madrid: Traficantes de Suenos). Quotation from p.20.

15 For a remarkable recent study of the structural violence visited upon the working poor via the creation of rent gaps, see Melissa Wright (2014) “Gentrification, assassination and forgetting in Mexico: a feminist Marxist tale” Gender, Place and Culture 21 (1): 1-16.

17 Neil Smith (1996) The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge) Quotation from p.209.

19 John R. Logan and Harvey Molotch (2007) Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (20th Anniversary Edition) (Berkeley: University of California Press). Quotation from p.xxii.

20 Chester Hartman (1974) Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco, Glide Publications).

21 My sincere thanks to Elvin Wyly for helping me to sharpen these closing paragraphs.

08
Apr2014

by Akis Gavriilidis

In December 2008, Athens became world news for the first time in recent years, for a reason that was soon overshadowed by the financial and debt crisis that came immediately after. I think it would be useful to revisit this event now, when it is not so loaded any more in terms of public attention and affect.

This reason was a totally unpredicted, contingent event: the pointless murder of a youngster by a policeman, which sparked a wave of massive and angry protests for several days in Athens –including in neighbourhoods where no demonstrations had ever taken place in living memory- as well as in all major Greek cities, and several minor ones. These consisted in mass rallies, mainly by equally young people with no previous experience in social protest, occupation of public buildings, “sieges” of police stations, but also considerable damage on private property and some looting of shops by the demonstrators and/ or others. The difficulty to tell a demonstrator from an “other” was precisely an important part of the whole picture, as no political or other body or organisation had made any official call for these protests. But this does not mean they were “spontaneous” in the usually pejorative sense that this term has in the left-wing tradition; many of these actions displayed a high degree of efficiency, accurate coordination, and organisational skills. But they were prepared, and performed, by a subject-non subject; a subject that did not pre-exist, it came to being through this very action, only to dissipate and vanish afterwards. This dissipation was not the mark of a lack or a failure, but rather formed a constitutive part of the mobilisations from their inception. This punctual and circumstantial existence was their only possible form of existence.

What I would like to focus on, though, is a specific aspect concerning the response –or lack of it- by the Greek state to these events.

In the beginning, the state-controlled (or -affiliated) mass media tried to conceal, or misrepresent/ downplay, the event. Soon, as this became impossible due to the circulation of the news through the social media, government officials, including the Public Order minister and then the Prime Minister Karamanlis, tried to appease protests by showing their “understanding” and promising that the perpetrators would be arrested and justice would be administered. (Which, incidentally, was indeed the case eventually: the killer was condemned to life imprisonment, two years later). Almost most importantly, the Chairman of the Piraeus Chamber of Commerce, when asked by a journalist what he was thinking about the lootings and whether these would have a catastrophic impact on the market, replied that “human life is more important than commercial goods”.

Of course, what contributed to such magnanimous stance was possibly the tactics that the Karamanlis government opted for: they instructed the police not to use excessive force or try to totally clampdown the protests, or even prevent lootings, and they subsequently compensated shop holders with state budget funds for all the damages they had suffered.

This is a typical liberal tactics. Possibly, it is a liberal-Western “reading” of a typical Eastern and, more particularly, Chinese idea. It is useful to remember here that François Quesnay, the leading figure of the Physiocrats, was also called “the Confucius of Europe” in his time.

“Laissez-faire” [Let people do], in the first place, was not specifically a motto in favour of free market or private entrepreneurship as opposed to the state’s economic activity, but concerned in general the way the state should react to crises in order to ensure security.

In this respect, we could refer to some remarks on this notion by Giorgio Agamben (who explicitly invokes Foucault’s analyses on the birth of liberalism).

if we take the concept of security, which is so much talked about today and which is almost the slogan of Western governments, this is a term derived from the concept of state of exception: security is "public salvation". But here, Michel Foucault showed very nice which is the origin of this concept: he showed in his lectures that security as a technique of governance was introduced by the physiocrats on the eve of the French Revolution. What was the problem of the time? It was famines; how to avoid the occurrence of famine. Until then, people had never thought in this way; they collected cereal beforehand, etc. The physiocrats had this perhaps ingenious idea: we will no longer seek to avoid famines. We will let them happen, but then we will be ready to govern them, to orient, to ensure they go towards a right direction.

The basic idea [of Western governments] is rather "we will let disasters, riots, happen,or even we will help them happen, because this will allow us to intervene and govern them towards the right direction". For example, American politics for twenty years is clearly this: it never prevents the appearance of disorder, destruction, instead it helps to produce them, but afterwards tries to benefit from them in order to direct them towards"security".

We need to bear this in mind: governments today do not aim at maintaining order, but at managing disorder.

(Giorgio Agamben, interview –in French- to the Greek TV channel ET3; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lpRltPG2AY . my translation)

In this sense, the Greek state reacted to this contingent and unpredictable crisis by first letting people do, and subsequently trying to turn their doing in its favour, to capitalise on the movement and the exodus of people.

I think it would be useful to ask oneself whether this is a general pattern of the action of states during the last decades, and even earlier, and, if this is the case, to what extent this leads us to reconsider the relationship between the political and the economic.

According to a conventional view, shared or used even by some of its proponents, neoliberalism consists in “less state” (it being usually understood mainly as “less state intervention in the economy”). This, in turn, gave rise to a whole series of criticisms that try to reveal the hypocrisy of neoliberalism, in so far as it limits itself to the “economy” and does not extend this “reduction” of the state to the police and the repressive apparatuses as well.

The example of the Greek December 2008 does not seem to confirm this simplistic dichotomy. The tactics of the Greek state as regards shop lootings, described above, does not exactly consist in “less state”. The state is not a substance, whose presence can be increased or decreased at will. It is a relationship, an action upon actions. Which means it can occasionally consist in a withdrawal, and/ or a redeployment of these forces; a de-territorialisation and reterritorialisation. But, in this example, both the “political” and the “economic” are present in each of the two spaces (the one from which state forces withdrew from, and the one they moved to). Karamanlis did not abandon an “economic” space in order to move to a “repressive” one (or vice versa); he undertook certain actions in view of a specific assemblage, a situation combining elements of both “politics” and “economy” –and, of course, language, communication, and affect, which are elements crucial for both of these domains. He did not only make a decision settling a private debt, but also a gesture admitting the existence of a public one. By compensating merchants for damages that it did not (directly/ visibly) induced, the Greek state was making an oblique statement that it recognized its responsibility for the murder of Grigoropoulos, giving a “coded message” to appease protesters, and, at the same time, with the same move, was trying to use the force and the action of the protesters, and the fear it could create to the “forces of the market”, in order to “re-launch the economy”, to reassure the small-and-medium enterprise holders that it cares about them and won’t let them down.

In addition to the above, it would be also useful to reflect on the action –or lack of it- from the part of the people themselves on the basis of this example. In the leftwing-antiauthoritarian tradition, (and in Greece even more so), the fact that power is able to manage the people’s affect, communication, movement, and exodus, was always a source of embarrassment, deep concern, even despair; and then, at a second level, a source of mutual accusations and contests between radical political groups on who is the most radical. Any capture of a popular mobilisation by capital and state is universally read as evidence that this mobilisation was “not the real thing”; it was insufficient, not well prepared, with a low level of revolutionary theory or organisation, its leaders were petty-bourgeois, if not outright traitors who sold off, so we have to draw our lessons and next time try to do better.

This is the horror of “co-optation”, for which in Greek anti-establishment parlance we use the much abhorred term “ενσωμάτωση”, (literally “incorporation”), which marks the irrevocable defeat and extinction of any contestation and any anti-systemicity, using the metaphor of recipients where bodies are enclosed successfully in their totality without any traces, without rests.

Such accusations were indeed voiced by certain groups from the left, but even from conservative mainstream journalists and commentators, against the December protests, and were repeated even more strongly for the case of the “Aganaktismenoi” [The Indignant Ones] protesting at Syndagma square a couple of years later, and also for the Occupy movement, the Arab springs, etc. Either with disappointment or with malignant irony, modernists were very eloquent in enumerating the lacks of such primitive, naïve and irrational manifestations of the multitude which had no clear political goals and no hierarchy of priorities or set of concrete demands.

The point I want to suggest is that this apparently anecdotal, fragmentary, non-strategic character of the movements of the multitude is not an accidental lack or an imperfection that could or should be “corrected”. It is here to stay; it probably was always here. There will always be something lacking, and there will never be a perfectly organised, comprehensive action of the masses that will take hold of the state and definitely redress all its wrongdoings.

Approaching the movement of people as de-territorialisation could be a useful antidote to the paralysing despair and low self-esteem caused by the fear of "ensomàtosi". Precisely this perceived lack is at the same time the reason why “incorporation” is never perfect: in the same way, there is always something left out of the recipient, something exceeding, or missing, or both; and this discrepancy is what makes new actions possible.

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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...