The Social Poltergeist. A Case Study of Maintenance Violence
by Angela Dimitrakaki
“The critique of violence is the philosophy of its history—the ‘philosophy’ of this history, because only the idea of its development makes possible a critical, discriminating, and decisive approach to its temporal data.”
—Walter Benjamin, The Critique of Violence, 1921
Flyer signed by anarchists, communists and autonomous, self-governing bodies from Greece, Albania and Turkey in solidarity with Konstantina Kouneva, 2008
Courtesy of Delfys Women’s Archive, Athens
Two Events in Context
December 2008. Athens, Greece.
A. On the sixth day of the month, in an incident ofrandom police brutality (meaning an incident in-volving a special guard aiming his loaded gun at a random person), the fifteen-year-old schoolboy Alexis Grigoropoulos is murdered in Exarcheia. Known as the ‘anarchist quarter’ of Athens, Exarcheia is a city-centre district where Athenians of every ethnic origin and age like to hang out.
Shot in the chest, Grigoropoulos dies in the arms of his horrified best friend, Nikos Romanos, also a teenager—it is his name day, of Saint Nicolas, and in Greece a name day is celebrated with friends. The two boys had met as students at the prestigious and expensive Moraitis School, which Romanos (a brilliant student) will leave for a state school soon after his friend’s murder. The slaughter of the unarmed Greek teenager who just happens to be standing somewhere with his friends when the officer decides to take aim will spark nationwide riots. Indeed, these will be known as the 2008 Greek Riots, as entered in Wikipedia, where it is further noted that ‘outside Greece, solidarity demonstrations, riots and in some cases clashes with local police also took place in more than 70 cities around the world.’
Two years later, in 2010, Greece is taken over by the IMF and related guardians of the neoliberal, extractive, global capitalist world order. In this context of social upheaval, the Grigoropoulos Generation becomes a legend, seen as somehow connected with the country’s rebellious stance against imposed practices of pauperisation and debt bondage. In December 2014, at the age of 21, Romanos comes to public attention. Now an anarchist and in jail for a bank robbery connected to his anti-state politics, he goes on a hunger strike, as the state denies him the right to attend lectures despite his having successfully passed his university entry exams. The young man’s hunger strike moves the nation in the country’s fourth winter of discontent. The right-wing government led by prime minister Antonis Samaras (always charging against the ‘illegal immigrants’) begs to look disgustingly cruel in addition to incompetent. Some of us start using the word ‘biopolitics’ even when writing for lifestyle magazines in Greece, such as in an article I wrote for Popaganda magazine in 2014. In January 2015, in what the left in Europe and beyond has looked upon with unprecedented hope, the Syriza party, seen then to represent a range of social movements (converging on anti-capitalist stance) and promising to act against the hated ‘memoranda’ of debt extraction, will win the national election by a small margin.
B. On the twenty-second day of that same month, a small group of men violently attack Konstantina Kouneva, the militant secretary of ΠΕΚΟΠ, the Union of Female Cleaners and Housekeepers of Attica. (Attica is the greater region encompassing Athens.) A Bulgarian immigrant with a university degree in history, Kouneva has been employed in Athens as a cleaner. This is not a case of ‘random’ brutality distributed by the police. Rather, it is an intentional attack perpetrated by thugs that, one might assume, ‘the bosses’ have hired illegally. Kouneva has received life-threatening calls on her phone, and the company she works for has refused to move her to a morning shift, despite her child’s serious health problems. The attack thus targets the leading voice of a union representing mostly working-class women, both Greek nationals and immigrants.
That the attackers also force acid down Kouneva’s throat is perhaps symbolic of private capital’s perceived right to silence any such militant voices, so as to minimise the risk of insurgent politics, to avoid the contagion spreading within the broader rur sector. The attack (a horrific torture, which results in Kouneva losing one eye, enduring devastating damage of vital organs, and being permanently scarred on her face) angers many, but does not lead to nationwide riots. You will not find this December date listed in the extremely detailed Wikipedia entry outlining the day-by-day unfolding of the ‘2008 Greek Riots’ all the way to January 2009. Kouneva will get her own Wikipedia entry, under her name, as an individual. The entry is much shorter than that for Event A. A handful of smaller-scale demonstrations supporting Kouneva does, however, take place, including those organised by the Feminist Centre of Athens and the newly formed Solidarity Assembly for Konstantina Kouneva. Needless to say the protesters clash with the police this time, too.1
Eight years later, in 2016, Kouneva, now a member of the European Parliament affiliated with Syriza, will face a concerted attempt to discredit her through the suggestion that her bank account holds funds from ‘suspect’ sources. Kouneva will respond to said claims publicly by saying that the funds come from solidarity donors who enable the continuation of her medical treatment.
Today, Kouneva carries on as an MP in the European Parliament, with her interventions focusing on labour and human-rights issues. Her own appeal to justice against her attackers remains unresolved. Notably, whereas the first court case (2013) had characterised the attack as a ‘work accident’. The second court case (2016) found no connection between ‘the bosses’ and ‘the attackers’ (who remain unknown). In 2017, Kouneva took her case to Areios Pagos, the country’s supreme court. As I write these lines, the supreme court’s verdict is pending. What is not pending is the fate of the country’s work force: Extortionist financial demands have led to the loss of workers’ rights, the loss of income and the loss of morale. The labour movement still exists, but the ‘crisis’ has become normalised and the spirit of insurgency that had gripped the world of labour just a few years back has now been subdued.
Riots in Athens following the murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the police in December 2008
Photo by Dimitris Parthimos
The year 2018 marks a decade since events A and B, and eight years since George Papandreou, then prime minister of Greece, announced on TV (with a cold sore on his lip and speaking from a distant border island near Turkey) that the country was effectively taken over by the IMF and ‘the creditors’. The above description of events A and B already suggests that they did not remain contained to December 6 and December 22 respectively. But to think in terms of their ‘aftermath’ would seem misplaced, as my aim is not to elucidate consequences. If the dictionary’s sample sentence on ‘aftermath’ is ‘food prices soared in the aftermath of the drought’, there is no political desire here to trace the ‘effects’ of these two events that would, in turn, erroneously frame them as ‘causes’.
Rather than persist with a logic of causality, I propose to engage a logic of articulation, one that gives pride of place to ‘the materialism of the encounter’ as once proposed by Louis Althusser: two events preceding a crisis and its discourse have encountered a crisis and its discourse. The two events were unaware, so to speak, that the crisis and its discourse would happen. Yet, the two events became woven into this crisis and its discourse. One might say that it was the crisis and its discourse that imbued the two events with duration, connecting them to the cultures of resistance that formed within the crisis and remain recorded in its discourse. The precise ways in which the two events were woven into the crisis and its discourse remain elusive, and I do not hope to trace them in this short essay. Rather, what interests me is how the two events can be introduced into a conjuncture, in the way that Louis Althusser thought of this term in his Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of Scientists and Other Essays, stressing its relevance to “the possibility of political action, detached at last from the false antinomies of ‘freedom’ and ‘necessity’ (the ‘play’ of the variations in dominance in the conjuncture), and of the real conditions of political practice […].”
This was a conjuncture in which social movements formed, reformed, intersected, allied, accelerated, gained and lost momentum, all the way to the eventual normalisation of the crisis—as its discourse notes. It was a conjuncture that included 2011, with protests and movements erupting in Greece and in many other parts of the world and a TIME magazine cover featuring ‘the protester’ as ‘person of the year’. Arguably, ‘the protester’ should have remained ‘person of the year’ until now—and yet there has been a broad silent or voiced acknowledgement of the fact that the revolutionary moment of the early twenty-first century has now evaporated. This feeling of loss permeates the immediate context of the two events (Greece) and the broader transnational space where the left is portrayed as always being cornered, the circumstances never quite maturing into a horizon of sustained advance. But can a revolutionary moment be ‘lost’? If not, in what sense can revolutionary moments be maintained?
What can be maintained is the actuality of the experience and the lessons the latter offers. But then the driving question becomes: What is it that connects the two events of December 2008 with what remains of these gains and losses, with the ‘partial freedom of human will’ (Althusser) limited here to the will to learn about how to preserve a lesson of history (a lesson of the encounter?) so that history as resistance, amid other delineations, can continue?
It is perhaps important at this point to throw in the mix the specific complexity of the conjuncture. Although there is no doubt that the autonomisation of the economy witnessed in contemporary, finance-driven capitalism is at the root of the social experience that engulfs the two events, the so-called ‘crisis’ proved not to be one. This is true for Greece as much as for elsewhere. When we read that in the United States today, the gains of civil rights struggles have been reversed, we need to think about the continuity of racial hatred but also about the discontinuity of the latter’s purpose. For if fashioning the black slave served the harvesting of free labour as part of production, fashioning the radicalised ‘other’ in a regime of job scarcity and the undoing of the welfare state may well be serving the justification of presenting to decent folk an abhorrent social abject, a burden that must be shed as ‘undeserving’. In Poland, critics of the far right’s spectacular ascent are having trouble explaining it through a straightforward link to the country’s (fast-growing) economy, stressing a ‘preservation’ principle.2 As for Greece, Golden Dawn blood donation supplies for ‘Greeks only’ during the crisis—also a refugee crisis—is another realisation of the conjuncture. The conjuncture is full of xenohatred—xenophobia being too moderate a word.
And yet the conjuncture is no longer thought of as exceptional. Greece itself is proving to be a long-term experiment in the resilience of extractive capitalism in its clash with opposing forces. My interest lies precisely in what the two events, which precede the ‘crisis’, tell us about the latter’s eventual normalisation—indeed, the enforcement of crisis as a long-term social reality. The issue at hand is not a normalisation of the mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ but rather the hypothesis that the principle element contributing to enforcing the abstraction of ‘no alternative’ as a concrete social reality has been present before the crisis and apparent in the two events with which I opened this essay. This element is violence. Violence is the conjuncture’s animating force, as affirmed time and again by an impossibly long line of theorists of the contemporary—Martin Jay, among them, who wrote back in 2003 in Refractions of Violence about the ‘keen awareness that we do indeed live in such a finite economy in which utter redemption from violence is as utopian as redemption through it.’
Redemption, utopia, finitude—these are words of existential weight; ontologies of a scale that is unlikely to be conjured in the dullness with which the everyday is executed and with which it, apparently, executes. ‘The everyday’ used to be a cheerful if critical term of modernity, associated with the pleasures and perils of consumer culture or of ‘ordinary dignity or the accidentally miraculous’ to the point that it was embraced by the likes of the Surrealists, the Situationists and the feminists.3 Yet the conjuncture in which the two events of my case study are located points to a different everyday modality, also laced into modernity, and also constituting a refraction: a change in direction, that is, of violence as it leaves the scale of the existential (redemption, utopia, finitude) and enters the plane of the mundane (captivity, struggle, generations). In that topography, violence becomes a condition for the reproduction of hegemony. But such reproduction is not limited to engineering sameness. It may, instead, encompass processes of testing the legitimacy of the status quo that appear as breaches of sameness, subversions of the everyday, social poltergeists. These are not safe procedures.
Riots in Athens following the murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the police in December 2008
Photo by Dimitris Parthimos
Two Expressions of Maintenance Violence
The two events of December 2008 in Greece are structured by discrete kinds of violence. On the one hand is the violence residing in ‘random’ police brutality, violence effectively authorised by the very existence of the police representing the state’s right to the monopoly on violence in civil society. This violence is formal and incipiently present even when not materialised. Irrespective of whatever measures the state and its judiciary system can take after the act of the special guard that shot an (unarmed) human being for being in a certain place at a certain time, what is important for the social body is the awareness that the potential of such violence exists. Parents should caution their children against hanging out in anarchist quarters, and basically everyone should be aware that authorised deadly violence cannot be excluded from the incidents or accidents that constitute the web of everyday life. There can be no protection from the potential of such violence, which spreads an invisible membrane across the spaces and times of everyday life. The membrane is a threat, the promise of a possible occurrence, a subtle yet persuasive reminder about where the power of reproduction, and the reproduction of power, lies. It lies in the status quo.
On the other hand, we have the nonrandom violence of thugs targeting a militant female union leader. This violence is not authorised formally. Much like the police shooting, it is also addressed by the judiciary system, and therefore the state—yet it is not, in principle, authorised in its potentiality by the state. The social body can only assume that capitalist patriarchy deployed this violence against Kouneva. It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove to whom this violence belongs. Capital or patriarchy will not rush to the stage to claim authorship of this violence (called at best a ‘work accident’). They don’t have to. The important thing for capital and patriarchy is that they have access to this violence and that the social body knows that such violence can be, ultimately, unleashed against anyone not knowing her place.
Seemingly unrelated, the two events of December 2008 constitute expressions of violence that are connected structurally. When considered together, the events are revealed as complementary and therefore purposeful—and this puts some pressure on the aleatory, or at least relocates it from the randomness of the two ‘occurrences’ (from the fact that they preceded the crisis) to their temporal proximity. Yet it is this proximity that compels one to grasp the two expressions of violence as co-articulated within a status quo that relies on a circuit of oppression, suppression, and repression: the oppression of youth and (feminized) workers; the suppression of moves towards enacting an alternative or acting in terms of a challenge to oppression; the repression, through the fear generated by the suppression, of the will to rise against oppression.
Significantly, these expressions of violence were not realised against a collective (a rioting multitude, a general strike), but were rather exercised against what civil society sees as an ‘individual’—that is, the sacred unit of capitalist democracy, precisely what the status quo vows to protect. The continuing hegemony of capitalist democracy, perceived to be based on consensus rather than coercion, persistently invokes the individual’s protection as the justification of the state’s biopolitical management. But here we observe a confrontation of the biopolitical with the necropolitical—and so, should this confrontation be seen as an unfortunate, undesirable coincidence (pun intended) or the manifestation of a necessary ‘knocking spirit’, that is, a social poltergeist intended to remind those within hearing range of the depths to which authority runs, but also how swiftly it can reach the surface?
Here, the threat of violence reached the social body, in whatever collective identity it might wish to assume (nation, workers, the country’s youth and so on), through the application of violence on the sacred nucleus of the status quo. We may want to enhance this dialectic between threat and application by mapping it onto the one connecting ideology and the material conditions in which life and death are managed by a sovereignty in the conjuncture. In suffusing threat by actualising violence, the status quo proved that the individual as latent singularity can be an easy target, that the individual may be activated as a target at any point, and ultimately that the promised protection is conditional and revocable. The question we are left with, nonetheless, is if such activation of the individual can bring forth a society.
It was Margaret Thatcher who in/famously said, back when people had to be convinced that the autonomisation of the economy was a good idea, “there’s no such thing as society” but “there are individual men and women”. What she had in mind was that worthy (hard-working) individuals would benefit from this autonomisation, as opposed to other individuals. There is an opportunity offered by the two events of December 2008 to correct her, not by insisting that society exists but by looking into how it comes into existence. Society is a complex term. If the word’s etymology points to individuals coming together in friendly association in sharing norms and understandings about how things work (or should), it has become clear that such etymology is inadequate to the present conjuncture where civil society threatens to dissolve into civil war—a threat that some fear but some would welcome.
A society did come forth in December 2008. Social antagonisms became manifest and unmissable. The two December events described at the outset already testify to this: a multitude was activated in the riots against police brutality, and even a generation was named; a concrete awareness was born around immigrant workers’ role in union struggles, as well as women’s leading role in the latter, and capital’s methods of silencing them. The social poltergeist was heard. And a response was elicited—that individuals enacted processes of sharing a struggle in common with other individuals. The dual maintenance violence applied was, in some sense, defeated at the point of its temporal randomness: it became possible to see that the status quo has no need for a state of emergency as a framework for demonstrating its authority, that the exercise of authority can, and must, take place within the everyday. And in the aleatory encounter of the two events with the crisis and its discourse, society found itself prepared for struggle—a struggle that unfolded in the voting booth (elections, a referendum) as much as in the streets and in the volume of speech-acts through which social movements declared their existence. All this happened. And yet, writing in hindsight, from the vantage point of 2018, things appear more complicated—which is why the perceived defeat of preventive violence has to be qualified as ‘in some sense’.
To begin with, and as also evident in the description of Events A and B, the enacted processes of December 2008 in Greece failed to integrate at the point of their emergence. The process of opposition enacted by police brutality remained parallel to (as in ‘separate from’) the outcry against the attack suffered by a union leader. The social experience remained short of witnessing a fusion of the two. A society did come forth, but it did not overcome the barrier of compartmentalisation, even if it refused atomisation. The status quo did not have to face a new consciousness of allied opposition then and there—and in 2018, we are left with speculating what might have happened to, and in, the conjuncture had the two events preceding the crisis and its discourse scaled up into one. This shortcoming is not new. In 1934, Arthur Rosenberg wrote:
In every country the capitalists rule only so long as decisive sectors of the population feel at one with their system, are ready to work for them, to vote for them, to shoot others on their behalf, all in the conviction that their own interests demand the preservation of the capitalist economic order.
—Rosenberg, ‘Fascism as a Mass-Movement’, 1934
The above excerpt outlines what I have called the status quo, sustained through the misguided ‘conviction’ of those who ‘work’, those who ‘vote’, those who ‘shoot’. Rosenberg connects all these with ‘preservation’—that of an ‘economic order’. Although in the two events of December 2008 some ‘sectors of the population’ lost the conviction that their interests aligned with those of the status quo, they did not identify the latter with an economic order. This is why the two events remained separate, and also why the support for Kouneva not only did not develop into nationwide riots but remained, to some extent, attached to the notion of personal misfortune. The riots against ‘those who shoot’ indicated the emergence of an ethical left, still hesitant in questioning the core demand of the status quo in the specific conjuncture. Secondly, to say that a society came forth in the positive, emancipation-oriented reading provided above entails a narrative partisanship, as it imbues the key term (society) with oppositional capacities valued by the left. But the discourses of ‘opposition’ and ‘social movement’ do not just belong to the left—both historically and at present. As regards the past, suffice to remind us of the fate of Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908): Written in support of the general strike, it ended up being useful to Benito Mussolini and other fascists.
As regards the present, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn refers to itself in terms of a ‘movement’—indeed, an oppositional one—across all its discursive platforms, from websites to public speeches; and this ‘movement’ of politicised misanthropy also grew within the conjuncture and claimed the everyday as the paradigmatic locus for claiming ‘change’. Golden Dawn also heard the ‘knocking spirit’—and it rightly recognised itself within both its prefigurative and actual aspects. That some of its members are on trial for the murder of antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas has not deterred the party’s thugs from carrying out violent attacks, one as recent as February 2018, in which eight people chanting “blood, honour, Golden Dawn” attacked the Favela Social Centre in Piraeus, the port of Athens. Golden Dawn had already emerged as third party in the national election of January 25, 2015, which brought the so-called ‘coalition of the radical left’ to power, as well as in the national election of September 20, 2015, which ended the illusion—or, if you will, the ‘parenthesis’—of the radical left in power. And, in both elections, the right-wing party of Νέα Δημοκρατία [New Democracy] was voted second. This is the party that was in government when Nikos Romanos went on hunger strike in his prison, six years after his best friend died in his arms by maintenance violence. Romanos seemed to have no illusions. His words that follow conclude a fact-packed paragraph about the dialectic of biopolitics and necropolitics in the specific conjuncture where the ‘radical left’ was voted to ‘power’ in Greece (and for many, by extension in Europe). They were made public before the Greek Referendum of July 12, 2015, as the calendar date marking the beginning of the end of the illusion:
In short, Syriza fully retains all those geopolitical, economic and military commitments of a state that belongs to the capitalist periphery, while at the same time, to throw dust in the eyes of leftist voters, it actively supports some moth-eaten bureaucratic officials who maintain a leftist rhetoric, and yet when the hour comes for the political mutation of Syriza, they will be thrown out.
—‘Interview with Anarchist Nikos Romanos (Greece)’, 325/no state, 2015
The hour when the political mutation appeared did, indeed, come. The winning NO of the Greek Referendum as an answer to the question ‘Should the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June 2015, and comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal, be accepted?’ was turned into a YES at the Brussels all-night summit on July 12 that year. Scores of disillusioned party members subscribing to what Romanos called ‘leftist rhetoric’ exited Syriza over the coming months, although the party was voted again to power in September, having itself become the doxa of ‘there is no alternative’. That was a political mutation of consequence. What remains of the society that came forth in December 2008 is currently a moot point.
As Konstantina Kouneva—the firebrand immigrant female worker punished by maintenance violence—continues to participate as a Syriza member of the European Parliament in the very democracy that Romanos was taught violently to reject, the question of how the social poltergeist relates to that elusive reality called ‘society’ looms disturbingly. A provisional answer might be that ‘society’ is not the shape of reality in a given conjuncture, but a periodically affirmed reality check on the balance between the biopolitics-necropolitics nexus and the forces that, in negating that nexus, make it apparent. This negation can be constituted consciously or by, and through, the materialism of a chance encounter. But the positions are unstable—and the precise content of the negation is as well. In the events of my case study, Kouneva embodied the conscious opposition and Grigoropoulos the rupture of the aleatory. But the conjuncture (like life) had other plans, as, ten years later, the Greek crisis has itself mutated into a multidimensional political defeat—a defeat punctuated by the regular attacks of a social poltergeist emboldened into being noisier and noisier.
—For Marielle Franco
1 Since 2003, Kouneva had worked for ΟΙΚΟΜΕΤ, a private firm contracted to provide—‘rent out’ is the popular phrasal verb here—cleaners to ΗΣΑΠ (Athens & Piraeus Railway Company). See ‘Protesters Clash with Riot Police over Acid Attack on Syndicalist Cleaner in Athens’, libcom.org blog, 29 December 2008, http://libcom.org/news/bosses-attack-militant-cleaners-syndicalist-vitriolic-acid-athens-protest-march-occupation. See also Sissy Vovou, ‘The Ugliest Face of Neoliberal Employers’, Transform! Europe, 20 May 2009, https://www.transform-network.net/en/publications/yearbook/overview/article/journal-042009/the-ugliest-face-of-neoliberal-employers/ Both accessed 22 February 2018.
2 Michal Kozlowski, ‘How to Live in a Hostile World: On the Polish Paradox’, books & ideas, 22 February 2018, http://www.booksandideas.net/How-to-Live-in-a-Hostile-World.html Accessed 1 March 2018.
3 Stephen Johnstone, ed, The Everyday, Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 2008. The phrase is quoted from the back cover.