A rock or a hard place? The Greek plexus of power decides

The eviction of Athens’ occupation points at the dead-end authorities in Greece are hastily driving themselves in.

Greece Confronts Economic Downturn Within European Union
Greece is entering its fourth year of financial crisis, which shows little sign of abating [Getty]

In the early hours of December 20, a police unit drove down Acharnon, a busy thoroughfare in central Athens. Arriving at the imposing building lying at its junction with Cheyden St, they informed the occupants they would be conducting a “routine” check. Only a few hours later, the building was being emptied out, its occupants arrested. And so, in this most unexpectedly hushed of ways, Villa Amalias – Athens’ second longest-standing occupied social centre – was evicted.

The event received next to no attention from international media – even though the situation in the country makes endless spectacular headlines in recent years: From the moment the Greek government signed its first “memorandum of agreement” with the IMF/ECB/EU troika in May 2010, the events unfolding on the ground have acted first as a harbinger, then as a prime example of a ground-breaking change in financial governance across the European Union’s south – and further beyond.

Memorandum after memorandum has been met with a sea of headline-grabbing riots and demonstrations. This array of spectacular protests has been used to articulate the seismic changes underway in the Greek territory at present. Why would international media need to care about an evicted building? Because history has a peculiar way of playing itself out: There is no better way to describe the changes under-way in Greek society (and the often surprisingly hushed way in which they materialise) than to talk about the string of events that commenced at Acharnon and Cheyden Street that December morning.

‘Centres of lawlessness’

On January 9, approximately 100 hundred squatters reoccupied the Villa Amalias building, and were promptly arrested by the police. Meanwhile, another 40 who staged a sit-in at the headquarters of Democratic Left, a member in the coalition currently ruling Greece, were also detained.

By the time that Skaramanga, another central Athens occupied social centre was evicted the same day, the city had seen a record number of political activists arrested in a single day (148) in the past 15 years. According to Nikos Dendias, the coalition government’s minister of the police, the order to originally evict Villa Amalias was given by PM Samaras himself. It would appear peculiar for the Prime Minister of the eurozone’s primary debt-ridden country to be engaging himself with an occupied social centre, even if this is no less than Athens’ de facto subcultural and anarchist epicentre for the best part of the past quarter of the century.

Even more peculiar would be the release of a plan by the Greek police to imminently evict another 40 occupied social centres across the country. Most peculiar, finally, is the term Dendias used to describe these spaces: “centres of lawlessness”. The yet unnamed police operation follows on the heels of (the still ongoing) “Operation Zeus”, a nationwide operation to identify and detain an unprecedented number of undocumented migrants (with more than 65,000 stopped and searched so far).

Catching up with ‘memorandum of agreement’ 

What is going on? Why would the Greek plexus of power (its coalition government, along with the prime state-run and private media) choose to intensify social antagonism at the present moment, at a time when resistance to austerity measures appears to subdue? Simply enough, shortly entering the fourth year of a major crisis, there appears to be a realisation that a stabilisation of some kind is of essence – but the crisis at the financial level shows little sign of abating. Worse even: by now, it seems to have rapidly crossed into the political sphere.

With the so-called “Lagarde list scandal wide open, the future of the present government coalition between the conservative New Democracy and the social-democrat parties of PASOK and the Democratic Left is increasingly unstable. With the chances of a government of the Left rapidly dwindling, a government coalition across the entire spectrum of the right-wing seems more plausible than ever; and so, for many, the two strings of police operations are little more than a pleaser for the increasingly determinant far-right.

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And yet, a much deeper process of social change might be under way. It would seem that the present system of power is faced with what French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard termed the “agony of power”: As the power balance is geographically shifting up from the national level toward a hegemonic hold of global power, the consequences on the ground are unprecedented.

Moving away from the present system of domination (a two way relationship, which is required for the establishment of the now faltering social contract) we are headed toward a much wider and diffused system of hegemony.

Essentially, then, what unfolds at the Greek territory at this time is the social and political power balance catching up with a major tipping having already occurred in the financial power balance. At the moment, that is, the “memorandum of agreement” was signed between the Greek government at the time and the IMF/EU/ECB troika in May 2010. This is the essence of Dendias’ targeting of any spaces of “lawlessness”; it is a targeting of spaces that fall outside this emergent hegemonic system.

Whether it opts to reformulate itself on the political level, or whether it deepens its grip on the social instead, the Greek plexus of power is undergoing a rapid transformation. So rapid, in fact, that this becomes its greatest difficulty: With a pace of change at the financial, social and political levels far too fast for the population to digest, there is a very real risk for a rupture to open up between the populations’ material reality and their social and political comprehension – their recall of a reality they were used to only years ago. The eviction of Villa Amalias and the forthcoming police operation would therefore reveal what is an inescapable contradiction in the reformulation of power in the Greek territory: In its short-term quest for stability, it is accelerating long-term social and political change instead.

Antonis Vradis is a doctoral candidate at LSE Geography, member of the collective project The City at the Time of Crisis and of the Occupied London collective and Alternatives Editor of the journal CITY.