The Movement and the “Movement” of Syntagma Square

The late 1990s and early 2000s was the era of so-called "Strong Greece," or as another governmental slogan put it, the period of "Modernization." Under this banner, a project of neoliberal urban re-development prevailed for a decade or so. This was a period of economic growth powered by the emerging European Monetary Union and the linked neoliberal adjustments, including a rapidly increasing economy of credit and an abundance of inexpensive labor. This labor was mainly offered by migrants [1] who came from collapsing former socialist states, especially Albania [2], but also by underemployed youth [3].

During this period, metropolitan spatialities were “(re)generated” through the continuous (re)development of the greater Athens cityscape. This involved the building of Olympic facilities, a new airport, new highways, a subway system, tram network along with new shopping malls, to mention but a few of the new urban materialities. This materialization of the “utopia of unlimited exploitation” [4]  was accompanied by an inflated sense of collective optimism and national pride, linked to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the international success of Greek athletes. This optimism was linked also to the material “newness” of the spectacular construction projects and the promises of new lifestyles that were radiated from the TV screens of a re-emerging “society of the spectacle”.The large-scale and continuous reconfiguration of spatial materialities is at the heart of neoliberal urban development [5]. Periods of construction are, however, usually a time of restricted physical access to spaces and de-socialization. After the renovations are completed, it takes time, often years, for people to resocialize, to physically interact and become (un)familiar with the new material-spatial configurations. Usually this process takes place under circumstances of new limitations since a key element of neoliberal spatial practice is the creation of controlled and disciplining spaces, e.g. through fencing or other strategies of "enclosure" of formerly more open spaces [6].

In central Athens, Syntagma square is a typical example of such transformations. According to Athens municipality Syntagma was regenerated in its totality in 1896 [7], and it was next redeveloped in its totality in 1990. Between 1990 and 2004, it was completely redeveloped three times, being transformed into a construction site every few years. Syntagma was advertised as the “square-display of the capital city” and was glorified by authorities of the “Strong Greece” period, hosting supposedly the biggest Christmas tree in Europe and the city's New Year fiesta. Syntagma indeed was transformed into a neoliberal public space proper, where few people would sit or stand if they were not consuming something in the coffee shops of the square or participating in carefully orchestrated and controlled events. The square was also transformed into an increasingly regimented site of control. For example, until the late 1990s on-road pedestrian crossings were the major passages to/from the square. Since the building of the Syntagma Metro station in the square, the underground complex of the station and its passages—owned by Attica Metro SA—have become the main routes to/from the square, watched over by Closed Circuit Television, private security guards, and the police. This "under-groundization" went along with the opening up of Amalias Avenue and King George Street to almost uninterrupted car traffic. Other socio-spatial changes to the Syntagma area included the "pedestrianization" of the neighboring Ermou Street and its further elevation as one of the main commercial streets of the capital city. Moreover, around Syntagma took place the construction of tramlines and tram-stops, but also the continuous relocation of bus stops. The square area gradually was enduring an even heavier policing of the parliament and the government ministries as well as the security measures for the bank branches and luxury hotels located there. This is more or less how Syntagma square became merely a space of transit for most people, just a corridor. Arguably the most usual flow was from the metro station to the shops of Ermou and Stadiou Streets. During the current crisis and recession, the latter seems like a post-apocalyptic urban desert with many, once thriving stores, now closed for good, and the remaining merchants feeling threatened by the strong likelihood of going out of business soon.

The so-called movement of Syntagma Square in Athens followed quickly on the heels of the movements in Egypt and Spain. In May 2011 tents were erected and daily rallies of thousands started taking place in Syntagma. General Strikes on June 15 and June 28-29 were the high points of this social movement, with thousands concentrated at the square and clashing with the police in their effort to protest against the new austerity measures introduced during those days by the parliament, located on Syntagma (see Hotspots issue “Beyond the Greek Crisis”).

The Syntagma movement emerged from a complex process that deserves more extensive discussion that would shed light on tactics for future actions, as well as the crisis itself. In this limited context, however, it is worth observing a series of more specific linguistic and historical peculiarities regarding that movement. In the USA and the UK the term “occupy” or “occupy movement” were used to describe the analogous long-term occupations of open-air public spaces. Indeed, many drew direct links between all of these movements. Nevertheless, the Syntagma occupation, rallies, assemblies and clashes of spring/summer 2011 were not named “Occupy Athens”—since the “Occupy Movement” came later. The term used was directly translated from Greek as “movement of the (Syntagma) square” (το κίνημα της πλατείας [Συντάγματος]). The direct references at the time were still the movement of Tahrir in Cairo and the movement of Puerta del Sol in Madrid. In Greek, in contrast to English, we use different words for movement as in social movements (κίνημα) and movement as in the movement between places (κίνηση, μετακίνηση). Nevertheless—paradoxically—the double meaning of the English term better captures what is happening in Athens. Of course, Syntagma Square did not physically move to a new location. Rather, the social movement that took place there signified a mass movement with respect to the meanings of the square's physical materiality, but most importantly it signified a wider movement of established socio-political configurations. Just as Syntagma—from 1990s to late 2000s—came to represent, incorporate, and provide an emblematic materiality of the urban neoliberalization project, the (social) movement of summer 2011 constituted a movement away from these kind of perceptions of the square and their underlying socio-political implications. This was a movement to the “shores of politics” [8]  for a great part of the society. However, with the increasing social instability produced by the capitalist crisis and the rapid deregulation of the established socio-political configurations of post-dictatorial Greece (1974-), as well as the deregulation of violence, in fact it is unknown which direction this movement leads.

Notes

[1] For an ethnographic account of that period see: Lawrence, C. M. 2007. Blood and Oranges: Immigrant Labor and European Markets in Rural Greece. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

[2] For ethnographic accounts of that migration see: Dalakoglou, D. (2010a) The Road. American Ethnologist, vol.37(1): 132-149, and Dalakoglou, D. (2010b) Migrating-Remitting-“Building”-Dwelling. JRAI, vol. 16(4): 761-777.

[3] Sokou, K. Christofi, K. & Papantoniou, V. (2000). Youth unemployment and social exclusion in Greece. In T. Kieselbach (Ed.) in collaboration with K. van Heeringen, M. La Rosa, L. Lemkow, K. Sokou & B. Starrin, Youth Unemployment and Social Exclusion: A Comparison of Six European Countries. Psychology of Social Inequality, vol.10. YUSEDER publication, no.2 (pp. 175-204). Opladen: Leske&Budrich

[4] Bourdieu, P. (1998) Acts of Resistance. New York: New Press:94-105.

[5] Brenner, N. & N. Theodore (2002) Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism”.Antipode vol. 34(3): 349-379.

[6] Caldeira, T. (1996): Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation. In Public Culture, vol. 8: 303–328

[7] http://news.in.gr/greece/article/?aid=51089

3[8] See Rancière, J. (1995) On the Shores of Politics. London: Verso.

Dimitris Dalakoglou is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Sussex University. Since 2012 he works on the ESRC/Future Research Leaders-funded project The City at the Time of Crisis: Transformations in Public Spaces in Athens. He is the co-editor of the book Revolt and Crisis in Greece (2011, AK Press) and he was an associate and advisory editor in the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (2009, Wiley-Blackwell).