Anarchism,national identity,Refusal,State

Macedonicity as an art of not being governed

by Akis Gavriilidis

Having lived in Thessaloniki around 1990, I personally witnessed the «our-name-is-our-soul» frenzy that emerged out of the blue in that city and its surroundings and became the starting point for the series of tragicomic events we all know. As most people, I was surprised by this eruption of heated interest for history, geopolitics, ethnology, and a number of other disciplines, for which I was totally unprepared. Listening to all these people who, with the nerve and the conviction of a specialist, repeated incessantly a set of newly discovered «scientific truths», I felt uneasy, but also puzzled, because these «truths» concerned a period and a topic I had no deep knowledge about. Instinctively, I felt there was something wrong with these discourses, but was not quite sure what a valid counter-argument would be.

At that time of confusion, when Greek newspapers were sweepingly stormed by a repetitive wave of “experts” providing “evidence” that “the name Macedonia was never used to describe a language and a people before 1944, this use is arbitrary and artificial,” one day, in a small leftist newspaper, Epokhì, an article appeared which contained some other type of evidence. It was an excerpt from the 1924 novel I zôì en tàfô [The life in the grave] by Stratìs Myrivìlis. The book was probably written some years earlier, as it recounts the story of the 1st World War seen through the lens of a Greek soldier as a narrator/ protagonist. The narration is based largely on Myrivìlis’s own personal experience.

At one point, the narrator is positioned at a small village near Monastiri/ Bitola, and he describes his interaction with its inhabitants in the following words:

These villagers, whose language is perfectly understood by the Bulgarians and the Serbs, dislike the former because they took their children for the Army. They hate the latter because they abuse them as being Bulgarians. And look with a sympathetic curiosity us Greeks [in the original: Romioì] because we are the genuine spiritual subjects of the Patrik, that is “the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople”. (…) Nevertheless, they don’t want to be neither “Bulgàr”, nor “Srrp”, nor “Grrch”, only “Makedòn ortodòx” [in the original, the words as pronounced by the villagers are approximatively written in Greek scribe].

This article was for me a beam of light, a great encouragement and a helpful hint which lead me to further searching and reading. In the years that followed I often admired retrospectively the courage and honesty of its author, the philologist Mìmis Souliôtis, who served as a director of the public library at Lerin/ Flôrina and was not of Macedonian ethnic origin as far as I know.

But this is not my main point here. Apart from the role these lines played at the time, I think they can be helpful for us also in 2016, in a new way.

Reading again this description after so many years, I think in it we can find a perfect definition of nationless.

Macedonicity is here presented as a belonging/ non belonging, as a name chosen primarily to denote a willingness not to be part of any of the existing at the time national projects (with a particular mention to the willingness not to be part of the army).

Nevertheless, it is a very clear means of denoting a shared subjectivity. What Myrivìlis is talking about here is not an “archaic survival,” a “pre-modern residue” or an “Ottoman nostalgia;” nor is it an “atomization of isolated consumers brought about by modern capitalism.” It is a positive being in common –while at the same time keeping states at a distance.

Ιn this light, I think we could reinterpret today this description and find in it an additional layer of meaning, a new value beyond its use for contradicting the hate speech of Greek nationalists. Indeed, it could even shed new light to this hate speech itself, especially if combined with a reading of the book where the formulation “keeping the state at a distance” –and the title of this presentation- was inspired from: James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.[1]

Let us take as a first example the following passage.

Stateless peoples are typically stigmatized by neighboring cultures as “peoples without history,” as lacking the fundamental characteristic of civilization, namely historicity. The charges are wrong on two counts. First, the stigmatization presupposes that only written history counts as a narrative of identity and a common past. Second, and more important, how much history a people have, far from indicating their low stage of evolution, is always an active choice, one that positions them vis-à-vis their powerful text-based neighbors (p. 237).

To these “two counts” we could add a third one: that “history” is not something that belongs to “peoples” as its owners. Unless we follow a naïve, Eurocentric 19th-century conception of history as the development of national essences, as the solitary course of each Volk towards the accomplishment of its destiny. More generally, history is not a thing possessed by anybody, be it a “people” or any other human community. History is a relationship, and is frequently produced in between, when people with diverse origins and identity meet, exchange, interact, even in a conflictual way, beyond the enclosures of national borders and of private property.

This can be illustrated in the case of the former Ottoman Empire as much as anywhere else, as the excerpt from the novel reminds us. Human subjectivities are also informed by, and manifested through, deviating from the course towards the formation of a nation-state –as much as in pursuing it. They are not defined solely by the exclusive inclusion in, and identification with, a predetermined community separated from other national communities by walls; but also by lesser or greater degrees of commonality or separateness, ranging from «sympathetic curiosity» to hostility and distributed unequally to groups or persons belonging both to one’s «own» and to «foreign» populations.

Αlthough I am not a specialist in history, as I already noted, I have the impression that the Macedonian nation presents this characteristic probably in a higher degree than any other in the Balkans. In both its attempts to achieve an independent existence, the failed one in the beginning of the 20th century and the (more or less) successful one towards its end, this dimension was present: Macedonians tried to constitute themselves as a standalone state only after they had realized that it was impossible for them to continue living within a broader structure where they belonged up to then, because everybody else around them were pursuing their respective projects of state building –and, occasionally, trying to absorb also Macedonians in these projects.

Especially the Ilinden uprising, (which is never taught at schools and hardly ever written about in the public space in Greece, unless in order to say that “it was a trick devised by the Bulgarians who wanted to penetrate into Greek Macedonia”), was marked by a non-ethnic definition of the nation it aspired to found, even by proto-socialist and anarchist ideas, however simplistic or confused one would be tempted to consider them, more than any other national movement in the former Ottoman space.

Of course, this creates a paradox, or at least poses complex and difficult challenges, especially if such a move towards nation building succeeds. This paradox could be –paradoxically- paralleled to what Scott, speaking about Southeast Asia (and more precisely about the zone that he, following others, calls «Zomia»), describes as “antistate nationalism.”

Ethnic and ’tribal’ identity, in the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, has been associated with nationalism and the aspiration, often thwarted, to statehood. And today, the utter institutional hegemony of the nation-state as a political unit has encouraged many ethnic groups in Zomia to aspire to their own nation-statehood. But what is novel and noteworthy for most of this long history in the hills is that ethnic and tribal identities have been put to the service not merely of autonomy but of statelessness. The paradox of ’antistate nationalism,’ if it might be called that, is typically overlooked. But it must have been a very common, perhaps the most common, basis for identity until, say, the nineteenth century, when, for the first time, a life outside the state came to seem hopelessly utopian. E. J. Hobsbawm, in his perceptive study of nationalism, took note of these important exceptions: ‘One might even argue that the peoples with the most powerful and lasting sense of what might be called ‘tribal’ ethnicity not merely resisted the imposition of the modern state, national or otherwise, but very commonly any state: as witness the Pushtun-speakers in and around Afghanistan, the pre-1745 Scots highlanders, the Atlas Berbers, and others who will come readily to mind’ (Scott 2009:244).

Among these unnamed “others,” I think it would be theoretically and politically tempting to examine if we can enlist certain tribes and ethnic groups in Southeast Europe as well, not only Asia.

In spite of these aporias, which sometimes can end up to awkward, if not plainly ridiculous solutions (such as the “antiquisation” urbanistic project for the city of Skopje), I think that the tension between the adjective and the noun, between the tendency for desertion, for non-identity, for escaping the state, and the centripetal tendency towards more state and a hard ethno-national identity, could, and should, be maintained, indeed used as a source of inspiration for us today. And also, as a reminder that, pace Scott, in the 21st century it is still possible to invent, maybe not a life outside the state, but at least lines of flight from it, even when its grasp seems total and absorbing, or rendering “hopelessly utopian” any such aspiration.

The Ilinden slogan “Macedonia to the Macedonians” can be read in (at least) two ways: one essentialist, according to which “Macedonicity” is a pre-existing essence pertaining to an already given set of people as opposed to others; whoever possesses it, is accepted as a legitimate owner and participant in the national project. But it can also be read in another way, probably more conform to the meaning the revolutionaries themselves were conceiving it: these “Macedonians” are an open assemblage of persons who happen to live in a given geographical space and are willing to live according to a set of declared and commonly adhered to principles. Greek nationalists sought in the past for signs of the first kind of belonging, and, as they were unable –also unwilling, of course- to find any, declared that “no Macedonian nation exists or has ever existed.” But the second idea is clearly present in the Ilinden texts, where we find a recognition of multiplicity. Indeed, “Macedonians” there can be read as the name of a lack, a residue. Greek nationalists –or possibly even Macedonian, or any other kind of nationalists- may see that as a weakness; but we can see it as a positive value.

But in the light of Scott’s analysis, I think we can also revisit these very accusations formulated by Greek nationalists against the “Skopjean [pseudo]nation.” Indeed, all of these “accusations” are to be found in the list of techniques for not being governed in Scott’s book. Mainstream «science» in Greece, whether in its scholarly or its lay form, rejects the idea of the existence of a Macedonian people on the basis that we cannot find a «hard core» or even a forerunner of such a people in archives, in Ottoman censuses, in written sources relaying a millenary existence and a worldwide mission for it, or epics recounting heroic accomplishments and genealogies, as opposed to Greeks (formerly known as Rum/ Romioì).

In a previous attempt,[2] I had put forward an interpretation of these accusations as being a projection, through which the Greek society tries to get rid of unpleasant memories from its own past. I think this interpretation still stands, but now we can add a complement to it, which indeed was already implied in the first part: we only need to remember the well-known psychoanalytic principle, according to which we cannot stand in the other what we hate in ourselves, but we also cannot stand the other in so far as we imagine s/he is stealing our enjoyment. Greek intolerance about the idea of a Macedonian people can convey two tendencies at the same time: contempt/ rejection, but also admiration/ envy. If the premise of this intolerant discourse could be formulated as:

you are not a real nation, you have no history and no built or written monuments,

its conclusion, its latent content could be restituted and translated in both of the following ways:

– while we do have, so we are superior to you, that’s why we are entitled to be a real state and proud about it, but you aren’t.

But also,

– while we do have, so we are condemned to become (or to pretend we have become) a ’normal’ nation-state, which we are not particularly happy about.

Indeed: from many different and convergent indices the past years, I have been convinced that the construction of the modern Greek nation state on the basis of the «glorious culture and history» of antiquity constitutes, at times, an unbearable burden to its citizens. In everyday conversations about the most varied topics (never in connection to the Macedonian issue, though), members of the Greek society end up exclaiming: «Oh well, let’s give up; ours is not a proper state and it will never become one.» This phrase is second only to «What a nice weather today» in producing universal consensus. I am not certain if all of the participants would agree to this too, but I am convinced that an implied meaning/ follow-up to this exclamation is: «But who cares? Fortunately so! Who wants to be a proper state anyway?»

I don’t know if this makes things simpler or it complicates them, but it seems that the constantly reiterated performance of hate speech against the Macedonian nation is fueled from two different, indeed antithetical, sources: from a feeling of superiority against nationless peoples as much as from jealousy for them.

If this is so, I think it shows that the nationless idea is not a utopia for the future, but, as Marx used to say about communism, a material tendency already present in the existing order of things. Furthermore, it makes one think that it would be interesting, theoretically and politically, to try and work on this subtext, bring it to the fore and remove the shame and self-censorship which accompanies it. Macedonians may be a nation/ non nation, but that is true about everybody else among us; let us admit, assume and enjoy it.

[1] The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press, New Haven & London 2009.

[2] «Name Trouble: the «so-called people» and the communism of language». This text had been published, with a slightly different form (and title), in: Mircela Dzuvalekovska Casule (ed), The name issue revisited, Macedonian Information Centre, Skopje 2014, pp. 313-343.


Τhis  paper was presented at a meeting of «Nationless», a collaborative initiative involving artists and scholars from Skopje, Belgrade and Thessaloniki. The other the interventions can be found at the site of the whole project


8 σκέψεις σχετικά με το “Macedonicity as an art of not being governed

  1. I find problematic your text especially because you call upon historicity and the interrelation with other historical events such as Ilinden and etc. So what is your claim, Macedonian nation exists? 21st century we still talk about national and ethnic identities it is intelectuals like you should shift the discourse. And by the way I was main editor of the volume no Dzuvalekovska. Regards

  2. Ο/Η Justinian λέει:

    No, Macedonicity is an art of not being assimilated by the «Borg», as in neighbouring «Megali-ideas»! Re-read Myrivìlis’ book and the words «Nevertheless, they don’t want to be neither “Bulgàr”, nor “Srrp”, nor “Grrch”, only “Makedòn ortodòx…” and you just might understand what the Balkan Wars were all about. Not to even mention the Greek state’s total lack of basic respect for the rights of national minorities even today, like in the case of EFA Rainbow, which in spite of several verdicts of ECHR, is still not allowed to register as a political party of the Macedonian minority in Greece. Where is your «XXI century progressivism» here?

    The author makes a good first attempt, but then gets trapped in comparing XIX century’s terminology with one belonging to the XXI century. In the early 1800s at first there were no Greeks, only Rum/Romei as the author himself claims, i.e. christian subjects of the former Byzanthine Empire. You only «became» Greek when your Brittish/German overlords made you a «sovereign» state, liberating the territory you today call Greece from the Ottomans only to become your new, albeit soft, masters and tyrants.

    In the case of «the name dispute» between Greece and Macedonia, one needs not going to the XIX century to detect the root of the problem. Suffice to say that Greece didn’t have any problem with Macedonia’s name between 1944 and 1989. On the contrary, in this same timeframe the word «Macedonia» was strictly forbidden to be used in public in Greece. Then, when it became clear that your Brittish/German overlords were about to break up Yugoslavia, poked by state and church propaganda Greeks «suddenly» rediscovered their latent macedonian genes within. I hope you understand how laughable that is.

    To the normal intelligent world out there Greeks act like spoiled brats who want to have the exclusive right to determine who may and who may not play on «their» public playground, based entirely on subjective grounds (i.e. whether you like the «other’s» name and self-identity). If this behavious is not borderline-nazi or outright chauvinist, then please tell me what we should call it…

  3. Ο/Η Α.Γ. λέει:

    Dear Mr. Justinian.
    Your comment is unjustifiably aggressive, and on top of that it is not particularly clear against whom or what exactly it is aggressive. For its most part, I can’t find in it any particular relevance to anything I have written. Are you 100% sure that this comment was meant for this article and not for some other discussion? I have the impression that you are just prolonging here quarrels you had with Greek nationalists elsewhere on the Internet.

    • Ο/Η Justinian λέει:

      Dear mr. Author, my comment is not meant to be aggressive, only educational and corrective in a provocative manner. I find it quite funny how you reach your romantic conclusion that all anarchists (people not willing to be governed) are somehow Macedonians, whereas the term «Macedonian» is stripped of the XXI-century’s ethno-nationalistic characteristics. In comparison, how is your deduction not similar to, shall we say, using the generic term «Greek» for all debt-laden people in the world today?

      Though, at the same time you quote books from the 1920s where a Greek author claims the same that Macedonian people are claiming to this very day – we are neither Greek, Serbian, nor Bulgarian. So, the point isn’t (like you conclude) that Macedonians are barbarians who oppose all sorts of governance, but that Macedonians want to live in a society of their own making, where they can unrestrictedly enjoy all the rights (and obligations) of a full-fledged citizen.

      Finally, I find your «romantic» claims to be a headfake aimed at distracting people from the real topic, namely the ethno-chauvinism of the Greek state and its brainwashed constituents.

      Have a good day!

      • Ο/Η Α.Γ. λέει:

        Dear Mr commentator,
        your «education» and «corrections» are rejected with honors. It is paternalistic to «educate» adults whom you don’t know and who did not ask for any education.
        Your attributing to me the conclusion that … «all anarchists are somehow Macedonians» (!) is totally unfounded.
        Even more so is arbitrarily ascribing to me the word «barbarians», which I never used.
        If you took the pain to read my article, you ought to have noticed that, for me, opposing all sorts of governance is not at all an act of babarism, but on the contrary is an honorable reaction and an absolutely positive feature, which may constitute a source of inspiration for us today. Not at all something comparable to being debt-laden; on the contrary, something that can relieve one from exploitation.
        When I presented this idea at the meeting at Skopje, my Macedonian (and Albanian) friends were delighted and we had long and fruitful discussions over it. Nobody thought it was distracting anybody «from the real topic».
        Maybe this was because they know me and they know I have been one of the most fierce detractors of Greek nationalism for the past 25 years, the same way as they have been opposing Macedonian nationalism and «antiquisation». So no, thanks, we don’t need lessons from anybody.

      • Ο/Η Justinian λέει:

        Dear А.Г., you are a walking contradiction, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone since you Greek people are known to be the champions of cognitive dissonance «doublethink».

        You and your sleazy arrogant hubris may reject all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are taking historical occurences out of their original context and quaintly misplacing them in constructions of your own making, just to make it fit the «narrative».

        Judging by your description, your friends in Skopje should be the equally sleazy Sorosoid «colorful revolutionaries» and we all know how much they (you?) are worth. So, if you don’t want others, outside of your own clique of libtard faggots, to object to your apparent historical ignorance and philosophical idiocy, then you shouldn’t sport an open comment section.

  4. Ο/Η Α.Γ. λέει:

    Look here, Mr. «Justinian».
    This blog has indeed an open space for comments.
    This openness, however, does not mean a license to any racism, sexism, and hate speech.
    We did you a favor, for the first and last time, to approve your comment, although it presents all the above features -not to mention failure to comply with elementary codes of internet behavior, and civilized interaction altogether.
    We have nothing against faggots. Since you have, you are not welcome here any more.
    I only want to make something clear to everybody -at least, to anybody who was not intelligent enough to figure it out by him/herself: I am not a spokesperson for the «Greek people». The Greek people are a wide variety of individuals, not all of which think the same way. What I sign with my name expresses my views, not anybody else’s.


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