Find it in Greek

The first error we must avoid when trying to make sense of the riots thatshook Greece in December 2008 is to explain them away as an ‘emotional outburst of the youth’, or as ‘blind violence with no political content’. Such views were expressed by many Greek analysts and politicians and not only from the mainstream. For example an article entitled ‘The Politics of Speechlessness’ appeared in Avgi on 1 March 2009.

In contrast, I maintain that [i]this movement was extremely eloquent and had everything to do with communication. Admittedly not in the Habermasian sense, but at least in two other senses. Firstly, rioters used modern technologies of communication, in ways that outwitted the state’s archaic mechanisms. The coordination of high school students, when they simultaneously attacked about 45 police stations all over Greece without any central leading body, was a masterful display of organisational skills desperately lacking from most state agencies. Secondly, the riots themselves constituted a statement (or several statements); this statement was a performative one, in so far as its subject did not pre-exist its formulation, but

was produced by the very act of enunciation.

At the same time, this subject is just as much a non-subject (if by ‘subject’ we understand a unified and accountable entity). It is a multiple subject: it is neither ‘the youth’, nor the ‘working’ or the ‘middle class’. To be sure, most of the rioters are in – or alternate between – one or more of these statuses. But they never invoked any of these as an essentialist and exclusive source, as the ‘ultimate reason’ of their revolt. Unlike the traditional leftist labour and/or anti-colonial movements of the 20th century (the century of Fordism and imperialism), these people did not mobilise to demand higher salaries, better education, or national independence and sovereignty. The object, as well as the tool, of their struggle was not just communication but life itself. As capital turns into sources of profit, the communicative, linguistic and affective skills of people, their very mobility, these same skills increasingly

become also tools of resistance[ii].

This subject is the multitude.

According to the traditional Marxian scheme of revolution, within human societies certain productive forces keep accumulating for some while, until a moment comes when these forces cannot be contained any more in the existing framework of production relationships which used to govern them until then. So revolution is the eruption of these forces who could not find expression in the old forms.

One could usefully try to construe this movement in terms of Marx’s concept, but with at least one differentiation: this eruption of the new forces onto the scene did not consist of taking control of state power, but only in subtracting oneself from its control. It was an exodus from established authority, both moral and intellectual, and a performance of this new subjectivity, an affirmation of its autonomous existence and dignity. The multitude did not come up with a new project alternatively to organise the social totality and replace the old framework; it only demonstrated, albeit temporarily, its superiority to it.

Accordingly, we could apply to it, and to the embarrassment it caused to established politicians and analysts, some words written by Giorgio Agamben in respect of the Tiananmen square sit-in:

‘What was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May was

the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands (…). In the

final instance the State can recognise any claim for identity –even that of a

State identity within the State (…). What the State cannot tolerate in any

way, however, is that the singularities form a community without affirming

an identity that humans co-belong without any representable condition of

belonging. For the State, therefore, what is important is never the singularity

as such, but only its inclusion in some identity, whatever identity (but the

possibility of the whatever itself being taken up without an identity is a threat

the State cannot come to terms with)’[iii].

A marker of this affirmation (and, at the same time, undermining) of identity, was the ‘social poetics’[iv] concerning the term koukouloforoi [‘the hooded ones’], as it was used – and re-contextualised – during the events. This poetics first of all reappropriated – through its parody – an already existing pejorative term and gave it a new, positive meaning, made of it a source of pride rather than shame – much in the same way as gays did with the term queer.

But then, also, this new object of identification is the lack of identity itself, the void, as the koukouloforos has no identifiable face – he is precisely ‘taking up the whatever as an identity’.

Furthermore, the Greek rioters did not limit themselves to camping on a square for several days, as the Chinese students did; rather, they staged a nomadic-itinerant Tiananmen. Protestors repeatedly stormed Syntagma square, then retreated, came back again, appeared in other neighbourhoods – and towns – where no demonstrations had ever taken place.

This element of mobility, which was a weapon for this movement, was also one of its reasons. Mobility, both in the physical and in the mental sense, contributed greatly to the accumulation of intellectual and affective capacities with the younger generation. As it did to their self-esteem, and to their subsequent refusal to be governed and told what to do by people they

wouldn’t accept as their superiors who know better – including journalists, university professors, and state and party leaders[v]. Indeed, due to their contact with diverse experiences (ranging from the Erasmus programme to the European Social Forum held in Athens in 2005), which went beyond the relative insulation under which Greek society had lived for many decades, this generation were able to break with the ‘cultural intimacy’ of their society.

One possible translation of ‘cultural intimacy’ is that ‘for certain things we don’t ask questions’. One of these things was the impunity of policemen, and the ungrievability of the deaths that they induce[vi]. Of this idea, the movement constituted the performative rejection.

But, more deeply, one of the things that went without saying, that the youth were expected to take for granted as a part of this tacit social contract, concerned life itself, not death. The definition of a good life, as implied in the framework of Greek cultural intimacy, consisted of the following scenario: live with your parents until you get a degree – get a good job – earn money – create a family – do consumption/shopping – have your kids live with you

until they get a degree, and over again.

With this movement, a large part of Greek – and also migrant – youth expressed an anxiety before the possibility not of missing this life style, but precisely of getting it: they declared that this is not what they perceive as a meaningful life, and that they are not willing to sacrifice all their vital energy in order just to achieve it.

This refusal of the ‘family secret’ can only be beneficial, as it introduces into the public domain the possibility of a discussion. Instead for the logic of a selfevident, tautological ‘one way’, it poses again the idea that several different answers are thinkable, even necessary, and that we need to reflect and politically decide which one to choose and how best to organise our common existence.

In short, it opens the way to antagonism, hence to democracy.


[ii] Paulo Virno 2004, A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life,

Semiotext(e), available at (March


[iii] The Coming Community, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2003, pp.


[iv] Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-state, New York – London:

Routledge, December, 2004 (2nd edition), p. 183 ff.

[v] In this sense, it is totally wrong to link these events to the ‘domination of parties’

[kommatikokratia] and the ‘weakness of the civil society’, as Nikos Mouzelis did (To Vima,

21 December 2008) – see also chapter 9 in this volume.

[vi] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, Verso, London – New

York 2006

“The Return of Street Politics? Essays on the December Riots in Greece” published by the Hellenic Observatory, LSE pp 15-20
Author: Akis Gavriilidis
by efes_dark
  1. This article was extremely interesting.

    • Indeed, it is a good perception of the riots. Unfortunately, we haven’t found more articles of his in English as most them are in Greek. We are planning to translate some of his work in english anyway
      take care

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