The Squared Constitution of Dissent

On May 11, 2011 a massive strike in Greece brought together for the first time in decades all of the workers’ unions, the youth, middle class civil servants, small shop owners, professionals, and the masses of the unemployed and underemployed resisting the solutions to the crisis that were being presented by the government and the troika of lenders (IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Union) as both singular and inevitable. On May 14, 2011 the Prime Minister of Greece unwittingly put his finger on the wound that has been Greece when he declared that the country would not offer any antiquities or islands as collateral for the initial 110bn euro bailout package received from the “troika.” What had been both recognized as shameful and celebrated as an asset, namely that Greece exists in the European imaginary as a placeholder for antiquities and summer vacation, was now being brought into the open by the Prime Minister himself. Fiscal liberal leftists had been lamenting the fact that Greece, since joining the Economic Union in 1981, had been financially marginal and culturally almost non-existent for Europe, while fiscal conservatives, detecting openings for private economic gain, had celebrated this same position.  By May 25th, eleven days later, the Greek movement of the indignados could not be brushed aside any longer. In the midst of the Arab Spring and the developments in Wisconsin, and on the historical trajectory of the movement of the banlieues in 2005, the December 2008 Events in Greece, and the reverberations of the 2008 global economic collapse, thousands of people occupied Constitution Square in Athens. At first people who had not participated in political action before started appearing and staying. Their voice grew larger calling the elected politicians (all 300 of them, from every political party) “thieves.” Within days loudspeakers were installed that played music, a station for signing petitions for a plebiscite was set up, and more people poured into the area, first quietly, just milling about. But the verbal and body gestures grew in intensity as the days went by showing slowly the unmistakable signs of the soccerification of political life and, eventually, the hooliganization of public discourse.

Quietly the Square claimed its own topography and topology: directly across from the Parliament the Upper Square contained a disparate magma of people—people who didn’t know politics beyond partisan voting, people who didn’t want to know politics because the experience of the Civil War was still radioactive, people who saw the disappearance of their personal gains from the last twenty-five years. At the vortex of their rage sat the deepest contempt not simply for the actual political work happening within the walls of the parliament but, more importantly, for the idea of deliberation and dissensus that is the constitutive part of democracy. The rage was not addressed to the underlying causes of the crisis, but to the politicians who had admitted its existence and (to large measure) had actively or through acquiescence contributed to it. It was a rage against responsibility, against accountability.

As the cathodes of this magma started becoming more distinct the Lower Square appeared silently; tents to sleep in, an infirmary, a translation center, a radio station, a public broadcast system. It invited activists, academics, old and new politicians, to make presentations. The audience sat on the flagstones in neat rows, with corridors left for people to move. They listened to the analyses, spoke by lot, and seemed frightened by the acknowledged onslaught on the collective gains made over the last one hundred years. The question posited was the same from different angles: What happens if elections are called tomorrow, what is the democratic response to such a gesture? As pragmatic as this question appeared to be it was clear that it foiled the real question: Is self-governance possible and if it is, how so? Is self-authorization a pragmatic possibility and what political labor can produce it?

Young people who had never before bothered themselves with politics -- either in its ancient Greek sense of caring for commons (common spaces, common governance, common jurisdiction, common rights, common responsibilities) or in the modern sense of partisanship -- produced (again) the emergence of a polis. They set up councils in their neighborhoods, common vegetable gardens, literacy programs for the immigrants, an urban kula ring of exchange. As it became clearer that the objective of the lenders was not to save “Greece” (that real place of actual people who have engaged in and produced no more corruption, complicity of the government with industry, legal loopholes, or “easy money” than other places in the “West”) but rather to save the banks and destroy the social welfare state (the Social State) that has been gained over the past one hundred years and which is at the heart of Adam Smith’s and Keynes’s formulation of the capitalist state, these youths became engaged political subjects. Maintaining their December 2008 rage against the politico-economic machine that seeks to produce flexible workers, with no rights, no roots, and no loyalty (what Marx has called “the alienated worker”), they refused to participate in what they saw as the charade of accountability, as the performance of responsibility. They demanded that the country start anew. Suspicious of all political parties and formations they asked for direct democracy, found representation not only inadequate but deeply counter-democratic, and started demanding that humanism be placed in the center of action. Echoing Brecht, they rejected the moralism coming from the European Union; “bread first, morality later” they seemed to be saying. When the police struck twice beating, arresting, and destroying the tents, and August rolled in, dismantling the “Square,” it was easy to think that “the movement” (to kinima) was over, that it was just a folly of the young and a nostalgia of the old. But September proved everyone wrong. Along with Occupy Wall Street—written the same, performed differently—and new assaults on the social state, the voice of the young is deafening, demanding the obvious: a future that is not already mortgaged, a planet that will be livable for their children, the dignity of having a job that is equal to their qualifications, a justice that will be universal and not individual.

When I asked my teenage son what he thought of Occupy Wall Street during the second week of its movement he noted the absence of loudspeakers and the presence of the human microphone. Comparing it to the Lower Square in Athens he said, “Athens was so much more organized.” Curious, right? 

Neni Panourgiá is currently a Charles H. Revson Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, USHMM. Her latest book Dangerous Citizens. The Greek Left and the Terror of the State is an anthropological and ethnographic account of the history of civil disobedience in Greece.