On the paths of the anger the space-time of a revolt (Athens

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On the paths of the anger the space-time of a revolt (Athens

Congrès Marx International VI, septembre 2010, Plenum, Kotronaki Loukia et Seferiades


    Along the pathways of rage: the space-time of a revolt (Athens, December, 2008)

    by Loukia Kotronaki, Seraphim Seferiades

    Considering the events that broke out in Greece in the aftermath of the assassination of a 15-year-old school-student by a riot policeman at the centre of ' Athens to be a significant expression of Contentious Politics, the goal of this paper is to assess and theorise them. A

    major task is, thus, conceptual. Events such as these are usually are typically portrayed as instances of an undifferentiated violent repertoire. But is such an interpretation exhaustive or even theoretically rigorous? Is it legitimate to remain trapped in descriptive language instead of seeking to understand protest forms emerging in the era of the global crisis?

    The ‘Greek December’ was not siply a riot, but a particular –and hitherto poorly

    examinedprotest form we dub Insurrectionary Collective Action. In our view, the critical differentiating factor consists in the diffusion of riotous activity to a socio-geographic scale much bigger than the site of their original inception. To study this diffusion process, we focus on three hitherto under-examined dimensions of contentious politics, the spatial, the emotional and the temporal.

Defining ‘riots’ debunking insurrections

    Preliminarily defining (but not without previously re-constructing existing accounts of) ‘riots’ as

    temporally condensed, collective, public and transgressive expressions of an historic relationship of embedded violence between distinct social strata and the official agents of subordination (the coercive apparatus), we are now setting out first of all to unpack the

    content of this specific contentious repertoire.

    One common property of all riots is the unexpected, convulsive nature of their outburst.

    Even though the dynamic of their incubation is (historically) quite long, riots appear as the culmination of a largely invisible trajectory ’without memory’ and, often, without a ‘day after’.

    A second feature characterising riotous action is that they break out in interaction with the police and, more precisely, after the incidence of an extra-ordinary, non-normalised event of

    coercive violence an event uninscribed to the social imaginary and incompatible with the existing ‘coercive repertoire’. Such coercive events function as catalysts of ‘cognitive liberation’,

    a key process that amplifies contentiousness.

    A third defining property of riots is rage without hope. According to McAdam and Aminzade,

    such rage ‘is not likely to produce organised collective action …’ In this light it comes as no

    surprise that the forms of coordination characterising riots are eminently spontaneous

    whereby collective action is set in motion as a result of the encounter between ad hoc collectives and established organisations temporally relaxing (if not liquidating) their identity boundaries in order to serve as fomenters of the spontaneous.

    A fourth element is that the events comprising the active temporality of riots are expressed

    through symbolically violent forms of action, effecting a rupture with dominant cultural norms (consumerism, profiteering etc) as well as the social representatives of the moral status quo.

    But even though the Greek December combines all those characteristics, the combination of

    ; the geographic and social diffusion of riotous practice, both nationally and


    ; the involvement of erstwhile inactive social strata in tandem with the activation of

    latent contentious cells;

    ; the polarisation with institutional, élite politics (including the politics of the Left);

Congrès Marx International VI, septembre 2010, Plenum, Kotronaki Loukia et Seferiades


    bestows upon us the task of conceptualising a novel form of contentious collective action, Insurrectionary Collective Action. We argue that the new form cannot be analysed adequately

    unless we take in serious account the three aforementioned largely neglected dimensions

    of contentious politics, the spatial, the emotional and the temporal.

    Highlighting the importance of these dimensions, it is of course crucial also to consider their limits: the fact that in order to gain a full grasp of the diffusion process we also need to take into account a broad array of additional explanatory —most of them ‘structural’— factors, including

    the morbid crisis of the economic and political system, generalised corruption, precarious work, etc. In this spirit we begin analysis with the spatial dimension.

The Spatial prerequisites of the explosion

    A ubiquitous and formative dimension of political tendencies, space constitutes a critical resource for transgressive mobilisation.

    ; it facilitates the construction of political milieux, permitting the strategic ‘concentration of

    forces’ and fomenting the collective effervescence required for the undertaking of militant


    ; it favours communication between individuals and groups

    ; it creates conditions for the emergence of a spatially determined protest cultures.

    Nearly all of those features are applicable in the case of Exarcheia, the area in the centre of Athens spearheading the uprising. Historically politicised and adjacent to four historic university buildings and the administrative centre, it is home to a large number of anarchist, libertarian and far left groups as well as unconventional artistic creation and life styles). However, a prerequisite for space to function as an insurrectionary resource is that networks of actors endow it with certain meanings: that they wrest and appropriate it through confrontations with conventional stereotypes.

    But, even if the quarter of Exarcheia is loaded with protest memories, it became a place of battle of signification regarding its identity and a territory ‘under police occupation’. From this

    point of view, the assassination of the student was only the apex of a long history of proactive suppression.

    But the Exarcheia contentious culture does not emerge only negatively, as a reaction to police brutality. The (co-)existence of such a large number of leftist political groups and activist networks creates a spatial socio-political élan that keeps alive the vision of instigating radical political projects as well as alternative ways of organising day-to-day life. It was this spatial collective identity which erupted in the night of the shooting, to form a robust political and moral front of rage, dispersing the message on a very large scale..

     The strength of the signal, however, becomes critical only to the extent that the receiving end is receptive which leads us to the examination of the urban makeup of

    metropolitan Athens.

    Without resembling the inner city model, the centre of Athens is, nevertheless, devoid of upper middle-class residential areas. Parts of it are inhabited by new immigrant populations, in conditions of utter destitution in sharp contrast to the adjacent commercial and administrative

    centre. The political message broadcasted from Exarchia, then, found ideal conditions to diffuse.

    Of course, the December eruption was not a purely an event of the Athenian centre, whilst other riotous convulsions provoked by police brutality in the past did not lead to Insurrectionary Collective Action. A decisive element for understanding this critical process requires the simultaneous examination also of the emotional effects engendered by the occurrence of a

Congrès Marx International VI, septembre 2010, Plenum, Kotronaki Loukia et Seferiades


    non-normalised coercive event as well as the cognitive dynamic of the contentious performances it provoked.

The Contentiousness of Emotions

    The news of the shooting spread fast, both through the Media, as well through alternative networks within Exarchia. The decisive process for the instigation of action, emanating from an attribution of a significant of threat relied more on ‘the symbolic and identity resources’ of a

    specific political anthropo-geography than of their organizational resources.

    The identity of the fomenters of the spontaneous is indicative: libertarian networks of the

    far left, anarchist groups, student co-ordinating committees, second generation immigrants, organisations of the non-parliamentary Left.

    The Communist Party, on the other hand a political apparatus with an abundance of

    organisational resources not only abstained from the original insurrectionary mobilisations, but, even after they had become socio-spatial diffuse, argued that that ‘the uprising [was] the

    work of agents provocateurs manipulated by obscure powers’.

    Beyond the available interpretative schemata, however, it is important to stress, the existence of solidarity bonds connecting the contentious actors. In their absence, the news of the shooting might have easily led, instead of the outburst of insurrectionary action, to paralysis.

    Equally important, however, have been links between such Exarcheia-based actors and forces of the parliamentary Left (in particular, the SYRIZA coalition of the Radical Left) which acted as a dynamic, albeit conjunctural, transmission belt of information and the categorical imperative to undertake militant action. This initial certification of the public expression of rage by a force of the parliamentary Left served as a catalyst if not for the diffusion, then certainly for the supra-local legitimation of insurrectionary action. Solidarity bonds built in the course of previous mobilisation cycles (anti-globalisation movement and the student movement) also help explain the crucial process of co-ordination. The co-ordinating committees of the occupied Law

    School, the Polytechnic and the Scholl of Economics as well as impromptu deliberative bodies became themselves parallel contentious sites, setting in motion a dynamic process of devising new contentious events.

    But solidarity bonds and parallel contentious trajectories do not suffice to explain the socio-geographic breadth of the insurrectionary propensity unless we take into account two further factors emotional par excellence: (a) the moral shock caused by the shooting; and (b) the emotional and communicative role that contentious performances played in enhancing identities.

    The unexpected, non-normalised character of the shooting was immediately perceived as supreme offence. The dramatis personae of the incident are here critical. To start with, a Greek

    school-student shot dead without rhyme or reason by a riot policeman, was someone with whom both members of the same socio-demographic category (students and parents) as well as sections of the population systematically suffering the consequences of generalised injustice in the form of state coercion (especially immigrants and the ‘usual contentious subjects’) could readily identify. Equally important was that the emergent injustice frame did not concern some abstract category (e.g. neoliberalism) but a specific moral and physical perpetrator (riot policeman Korkoneas), which served as a lever for the mobilisation of rage, at least at the early stages of the eruption.

    It is in this sense that the moral imperative to engage in contentious action gained ground. That the shooting took place in an environment of grim prospects for the future; in an historical and institutional conjuncture of crisis and de-legitimation of core political personnel (involved in an endless stream of scandals), and political authoritarianism, ironically favoured the articulation of scattered dissatisfaction into an alternative model of conducting politics: Insurrectionary Collective Action.

Congrès Marx International VI, septembre 2010, Plenum, Kotronaki Loukia et Seferiades


    Of course, the diffusion of this belief did not happen automatically. The trajectory and dynamic of contentiousness would have been different had the emotional action sustaining it taken on different forms. Approaching contentious performances as means for the

    dramatisation of an extant injustice, we claim that, in the circumstances, they:

    ; brought to the fore and intensified the clash with official agents dictating the terms of

    the ‘social contract’ (the banking system, the police, political elites, bureaucratised

    trade unionism);

    ; attracted the attention of a mass Media accustomed to conventional protest routines;

    ; introduced new ways for conducting contentious collective action especially among

    those lacking resources; and

    ; enhanced the identity rift ‘we vs. them’.

    These dimensions allow us to understand how and why, two short days after the shooting, school-students all over Greece without any previous contentious experience, began throwing rocks at police stations, the Media alerting that the whole of Greece had been turned in to a huge domain of riotous Exarcheia ‘balaclava bearers’.

    But the character, the rhythm and the dynamic of contentious phenomena are also a function of their timing.

The temporal dimension

    Things would have developed differently had their temporal concatenation differed. In this context the concept of a critical event becomes particularly relevant. Transformative events ‘come to be interpreted as significantly disrupting, altering, or violating the taken-for-granted assumptions governing routine political and social relations. In that sense they help insurgents

    (or potential insurgents) attribute opportunities to otherwise opaque environmental situations by distilling and expressing ‘the potential for insurgent action inherent in a particular environment’.

    We approach the Greek uprising from two complementary angles. The first is an effort to reconstruct insurrectionary diffusion’s path dependency during the first critical hours and days after the shooting and secondarily point out the factors that led to its eventual implosion.

    The second angle is more macroscopic wondering whether or not December can function as

    a transformative event in the flow of Greek contentious politics.

The Critical Events

    Regarding our first interpretative angle, and for the first couple of days after the shooting we single out first of all the extreme rapidity of the reaction, when only hours after the event there were demonstrations clashes with the police, occupations of public buildings. Things would not have developed the way they did had the response to the shooting not been so automatic.

    Other critical moments supportive of insurrectionary diffusion we detect include

    ; the contradictory conduct of the police discreet at first, it ends up with

    acts of intimidation, including the use of firearms. By betraying strategic

    bewilderment, this stance is perceived by the insurgents as a peculiar

    political opportunity;

    nd; the participation of 2 generation immigrants constitutes another event of

    momentous symbolic significance manifesting the contentious potential of

    this enraged human reservoir;

    ; Finally, the simultaneous eruption of contentious collective action in a

    large number of Greek cities and, notably, the entry of school-students.

    The massive character and ethical charge of their participation concretises

    the feeling of rage giving to it the hue of a categorical imperative;

Congrès Marx International VI, septembre 2010, Plenum, Kotronaki Loukia et Seferiades


    th; The apex of the eruption is the massive afternoon march of Monday the 8

    of December, when rage explodes.

    But these expressions intermix with three critical events marking the contentious dynamic.

    ; The first makes clear the inability of the Left to intervene in the events in a significant

    manner transforming rage into hope

    ; The second consists in the hardening of police conduct, followed by the appearance of

    the first ‘counter-movements’ (composed of groups of the extreme Right).

    ; The third was the strategy of the General Confederation of Labour which cancels its

    ‘traditional’ march to the parliament on occasion of the budget ratification, also

    pronouncing its attachment to the always peaceful and legal conduct of the forces of

    labour. This conduct may have not affected the insurrectionary subjects, but it

    obviously cast a heavy shadow on all by-standing labouring strata.

    Progressively, the insurrectionary flow will come to a standstill. We claim that this was due to the exhaustion of rage as a sufficient motive for the intensification of conflict. It also leads to the reversal of diffusion and the setting in of the opposite process of implosion.

    This leads us to our second angle, examining the uprising’s legacy.

December: Critical and transformative event?

    Is it possible that December may function as a transformative catalyst of contentious politics in Greece? It seems to us that we are justified to wonder about the prerequisites of such a possibility.

    In this context we stress the emergence of a new contentious élan in the wake (but also during) the insurrection. A case in point is the emergence of a new militant unionism especially amongst the casually employed. Whether or not actions such as these will turn out to be a harbinger of things to come is a function of the way in which December’s memory is going

    to be ‘constructed’ in the collective imaginary —and here the role of deliberate political

    interpretation will obviously play a pivotal role.

     Once again, this will be a battle of significations with protagonists the State, ‘politically

    correct’ intelligentsia, the Media and institutional political agents on the one hand and contentious networks and political groups on the other. If the balance of forces is so obviously in favour of the former, let us not forget that the political message of the militant networks may come to play a role disproportionately larger than their size, especially during times of crisis. However, we must also not exclude the possibility that the strategy of the official yet deficient

    and disdained political system to demonise December may turn out to be Insurrectionary Collective Action’s biggest source of legitimation. The timing of revolts remains unforeseeable.

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