December 2008 Revolt,Multitude,Performativity

Greek December 2008 riots: the performative emergence of the multitude

by Akis Gavriilidis

The first error we must avoid when trying to make sense of the riots that shook Greece in December 2008, is to read them as “blind violence” or as an “emotional outburst of the youth” without political implications.

This movement, although it certainly had an affective side, (or precisely because of that), is already directly and eminently political, in a much deeper and larger sense than the usual one. It is true that the movement did not submit any specific “demands” (to somebody else for approval); but it enacted politics itself in a performative way. The movement was not an instrument used by a pre-existing subject in order to draw the attention of another subject (“the authorities”, “those in charge”) to its problems; it was the constitution of a new subject, through the creation of an adequate language for this subject to articulate its losses, to make the mourning for them accepted as a legitimate public discourse and, through this, to position itself within the framework of existing power relationships and transform them. Without it, the death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos would have been ignored, as so many other cases of “police guns ricocheting” and killing Albanian or Pakistani migrants or Roma, which are classified as «unhappy incidents» unworthy of any further public attention.

After this constitution, nothing will be the same in Greece and, arguably, elsewhere too.

On the other hand, this new subject is at the same time a “non-subject”; it is not a sovereign, homogeneous entity with a unitary will and conscience, but it is unstable, variable, multiple. It is the multitude.

The multitude is not –and never will become- another political party beside other parties in the parliamentary system, it is not a new social class or set of people, but it is a horizontal network of singularities. It is not a spontaneous movement of the “masses” awaiting for an “avant garde” to represent it or “give it conscience of itself», but it is a logic of articulation of struggles. What appeared on the scene uninvited is not yet another antagonist among others, but it is antagonism itself. It was the oasis of the Real in a desert of mortified symbolic representations.

The politics of life itself

The subject of this revolt is multiple in terms of its composition: it is neither “the youth”, nor the “working” or the “middle class”, nor even the “precariat”. To be sure, many of the rioters do work (often in precarious conditions), or are looking for work, or study –or alternate between these situations. But neither of these statuses is an essentialist and exclusive identity invoked by them as the “ultimate reason” of their revolt. They do not mobilize to demand higher salaries, or better education, or national independence and sovereignty. The object, and at the same time the tool, of their struggle, is life itself.

This is the case first of all in a literal, biological sense: as is known, the riots were sparked by the murder of a 15 year old boy by a policeman. So, obviously, this revolt is, as we could say in Agamben’s terms, a revolt of bare life against the state of exception of policemen from criminal law. And one reason why this revolt is not “blind” is because it is a very eloquent form of communication. Provided, of course, we do not construe communication in a naïve, superficial Habermasian sense, based on the dialectics and the rituals of recognition between constituted subjects, and we consider that the most important and fruitful exchanges take place “in absentia”, indirectly, obliquely, between people who don’t necessarily address each other.

Accordingly, these events constituted a comprehensible communication of the following messages:

1)      The state declared that it considers as its vested right to kill any one of its citizens at any given time, with no reason, and without giving account for its actions to anybody.

2)      Some of these citizens declared that they find this unacceptable; they did so, not by approving a resolution demanding from the state to impose sanctions, but by imposing these sanctions themselves. The riots were an alternative way of fighting criminality, a very peaceful, commensurate and mature way for the civil society to demand –and to take, by the same act- this account refused by the state[1]. In this sense, the rioters were performing a highly responsible democratic function: they were safeguarding the rule of law, which provides that the organs of the state are accountable before the law for their acts –especially those performed not in the framework of an important public service, but in a sentimental outburst of arbitrary private violence.

But life was present in these protests also in a broader sense. Mainstream commentators spoke of the frustrations felt by a generation realising that their standards of life will not meet those of their parents, or those advertised all around them as the definition of “a good life”. But this explanation fails to see the radical ambivalence of their (of our) desire, its “flip side”, and the fact that both of these sides contributed to the mobilisation. In it, we do not (only) find people who are afraid they won’t get a job, but also people who are afraid they will get a job[2]. Most often, these two fears coexist within the same person. In other words, the aversion vis a vis the perspective of sacrificing one’s life in order to obtain a prestigious university degree, get a good job, buy a nice apartment, create a family and watch TV were as much a reason for unrest as the desire for these values. People in Greece (as well as elsewhere) do not desire to “work”; they desire to live, to communicate, to commonly produce sense in their lives –which also means, to commonly produce their lives, and to produce the common. They go to work only when in prey of the capitalist blackmail, only when work is the only means available to them in order to live –or to survive. But this movement shows us that people, if they have the chance, prefer to just get rid of waged labour rather than negotiate better conditions for it –or, at least, that people are more radically mobilised by the former rather than the latter aim.

A new politics of language

Another impressive characteristic of this movement was its linguistic-communicative dimension. This was a movement with an enormous capacity for invention and creativity, starting from the purely verbal level and going up to the operational-organisational one.

In these few days, the demonstrators produced an infinite number of rhymes, slogans, puns, graffitis, paintings on walls, stickers, newspapers, practical and theoretical texts, as well as methods of storming and occupying public buildings, TV and radio stations, theatres, and bureaucratic trade unions offices. Most importantly, they displayed a remarkable queerness in the way they responded to the ideological attack of the state and establishment parties. The latter, including the Communist party, launched against them the traditional accusation of being “koukouloforoi” (hood bearers), a practice supposedly contrary to the principles of transparency, honesty and public political action. The very term is very heavily loaded in negative connotations, as it was used in the 40s to denote collaborators who denounced resistance fighters to the Nazis. In the past, every time we had riots, the minister in charge would ritualistically attribute these to “not more than ten hood bearers”. This time, demonstrators playfully reclaimed this initially pejorative term and transformed it into a source of collective pride, by chanting in hundreds, or maybe thousands: Eimaste oi deka koukouloforoi (=“we are the ten hood bearers”). In this way accepting verbally, but by this same act inverting and obliterating the meaning of this accusation. Because, as a statement by the “Network for social and civil rights” highlighted, “when one thousand people put on a hood, then they do have a face”. Or, as the most famous hood bearer of the world, subcomandante Marcos, remarked, sometimes one has to hide one’s face in order to be seen.

So this emerging subject obtained an identity by assuming the lack of it, through the refusal/ subversion of the traditional notion of a fixed identity. Its hiding was not linked to a clandestine conspiratory activity, but to the creation of a public secret. Through it, the multitude was able to assume the constitutive ambivalence and ambiguity of every human action and transform it into a useful tool for action, into a positive affirmation of a common potential, rather than getting paralyzed by it or repressing it.


Won in translation

The activity of this movement could usefully be described also as a work of translation, consisting in (but not limited to) the literal translation of leaflets and brochures into Albanian, Bulgarian, and other languages spoken by migrants in Greece. This was a new element too, because until now we had had rallies or events in favour of migrants or against racism, but is was the first time migrants participated in the same terms as “native” Greeks to a shared movement.

This queering/ heterolingual dimension of the movement is also related, in turn, to its translatability, its ability to communicate with many other experiences in several different countries: nothing that ever happened in Greece had such an immediate impact and transnational appeal.

An epistemological break

The movement was also performative in terms of its relation to knowledge. The rioters did not demand (from the state) “a better education”, the way a client demands a product from a shop, but they became this education themselves, or they just manifested now a considerable array of cognitive skills they had jointly accumulated all these years. The texts produced by the revolt are far more intelligent, articulate, and even bibliographically up to date –even if they, queerly, do not name their sources in footnotes- than the discourse of the Greek state, and of its official intellectuals –including from the traditional left- who reject the movement in a condescending and moralising way.

The movement used communication technologies as a tool, in a way that outwitted by far the state’s repressive mechanisms. The coordination of high school students when they simultaneously attacked about 45 police stations in almost all major Greek cities without any central leading body, was a masterful display of organisational skills desperately lacking from the action of most state agencies.

But the question is not just technical. This movement constituted a massive import of innovative methods of struggle (e.g. actions based on the ad hoc general assembly rather than on permanent organisations) in a landscape up to now dominated by a very traditional version of the left. And this is linked to an interesting political-philosophical problematic: sometimes, the new arises where the old is weakest; sometimes where it is strongest and most developed. This was an example the latter case. Greece is the country with the strongest Communist party in Europe (although in fact it is, paradoxically, a party of the far right: in theory it is still Stalinist, and in practice it is extremely conservative socially and culturally, nationalist, traditionalist and homophobic); on top of that, there is a second, equally large left party, roughly corresponding to the Eurocommunist current, as well as a whole constellation of Trotskyite, Maoist and other groupings stemming from the Bolshevik paradigm. Up to now, many people, including me, considered that this already heavily occupied terrain would hardly leave any space for other flowers to blossom. Fortunately, I was proven wrong: this limit that seemed to be a hindrance blocking the way, was proven to be a productive condition.

Where do we go from here?

This revolt was fuelled by a conjuncture particular to Greece. Admittedly, the Greek police constitute a strange combination of modernity and archaism: it is a body comprising former (or even actual) fascists, pimps and drug dealers, with a semi-feudal, clientelistic organization, expensive equipment and a de facto recognition of impunity. Indeed, this corruption goes even upper and deeper within the Greek state apparatus. This gave the movement an invincible feeling of indignation, contempt and ethical superiority. The cops were legally and technically able to arrest, teargas or beat people, but this can inspire at best fear, not respect, legitimation and esteem.

In Northern Europe, police forces are organised in a more “objective” and “rational” way, but similarities are not totally missing, especially so given the harmonisation in the European Union framework.

But apart from these specificities, these few days were a lesson of broader importance: inspired, original, non centralised action by thousands of self confident, intelligent, networked individualities, is able to challenge, transform, and de-legitimise institutional assemblages which one day before seemed unshakeable, established, obvious, almost natural.

Let me close with an anecdote, which perhaps is not that much of an anecdote. Some days ago, in Thessaloniki, I met a friend of mine, not at all a youngster, a 60-year old filmmaker. I asked him, “George, what do you make out of these events?” He said: “Look, in the evening of December the 8th, if we had another 5 thousand people on the streets, we could have taken over the state”. Then, after some seconds of silence, he added:

“The question is, would there be any point in doing so?”

[1] This is why it takes a great amount of effort to turn oneself so blind as to declare that these riots are attributed to “the weakness of civil society in our country”, as the LSE professor Nikos Mouzelis claimed in an article in the daily “To Vima”, 21/12/2008.

[2] See more on this point in the article “Athens: the revenge of life” by Ilias Ziogas

A slightly different version of this article was published in the English journal «Red Pepper», February 2009



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