City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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23
Nov2012

Spaces of Othering: First comments on a hardly public space

What could a research project titled “The City at a Time of Crisis: Transformations of Public Spaces in Athens” possibly mean today? And why should it specifically ponder over public space? Today, Greece is going through a period of extreme transformations. These transformations are marked by the material and symbolic results of what one could roughly call the debt crisis. Their effects on a social level are more than catastrophic. The dissolution of the public health system, extreme cuts in wages and pensions, drastic increase in taxation, dismantling of the public education system, sky-rocketing of the unemployment indexes, a rapid decrease of the average consumer power, create a condition that violently dismantles all that was socially a given to date. It is by now evident that social balances are rapidly transformed and that along with them change the ways in which people had learned to communicate to date. Obviously, these changes do not leave the city untouched – both in terms of its shape and its function. And public space is at the heart of these changes. On its own, urbanity comprises a particular way of communication. It is a unique way in which to articulate and to record meanings. A way that drastically changes at the present moment.

The precarisation of an ever-increasingly large segment of the urban population is, perhaps, the most vivid articulation of the crisis in question today. Some crisis that was, however, already here for some. And it already did, long ago, dictate the coordinated devaluation of their lives, at a time when public discourse was monopolised by inexplicable prospects of development and unjustified (as it was proved soon thereafter) dreams of prosperity. The presence of migrant subjects in Greece holds a history in excess of three decades. And yet, the transformations that took place in certain places of the capitalist periphery in the past two decades made this presence even more visible, more public and, finally, more exploitable. It is precisely in these latest episodes of the migrant history in Greece that one should be able to identify those crucial points in which the macro-geographies of global migration inevitably meet urban micro-geographies.

We must keep in mind that the transformations taking place today in the body of metropolitan Athens do not take place independently of the transformations marking cities of the capitalist periphery. We ought, therefore, to conceive urban phenomena as an interweaving of multiform processes taking place much beyond our line of sight, much beyond the invisible walls of contemporary cities. We ought to look at the neighbourhoods around Victoria Square in Athens side-by-side to the neighbourhoods of Mogadishu. The neighbourhoods around Agios Panteleimonas next to those of Kabul. Not in the way dictated by far-right rhetoric – that is, as an adducing of examples aimed at comparison and ridicule, but as stops in routes acquiring meaning only when inserted in the historical thread woven by capitalist exploitation and the crises it both requires and leads into.

The geopolitical position of Greece in the map of global migratory flows makes it, during the last decade in particular, a key thoroughfare for sizable migrant populations from further East toward continental Europe. Special international treaties that effectively prevent the migrants’ exit from the country, as well as the intensification of the European border controls forcibly tie down large segments of these populations within the Greek state limits, with no prospect of employment or any legal status. In the bleak environment shaping up in the wake of the expansion of the financial crisis, migrants and refugees comprise, on the one hand, the class of those most devalued – and under ever-increasingly violent terms. On the other hand, acting as scapegoats, they receive the abuse not only from the side of the state but also from the side of large segments of Greek society which nowadays flirt with enforced proletarisation – and which prospered until very recently.

And so, along with the unwavering that the financial crisis in question brings to social infrastructures and everyday social reproduction, a dangerous environment of xenophobia and hatred of the Other is being rapidly produced, making the everyday reality of the most devalued social strata (that is, migrant populations) even more difficult. This environment, which hosts the everyday episodes of a so-called humanitarian crisis on an everyday level, grows vertically as much as horizontally – while these two axes of its growth occasionally cooperate rather effectively: on the one hand, the state anti-migratory policy organising large-scale, violent and revanchist operations for the identification and displacing of “paperless migrants”, with the eventual aim being their deportation back to their countries of origin. In this process, migrant subjects are given nearly no legal status, while the repression forces, under the influence of a policy criminalising the physical presence of the Other, effectively enforce a condition banning the Others’ public presence.

On the other hand, the development of a far-right/neo-fascist political front seeks out its own space in the crisis landscape, organising everyday attacks, pogroms and lootings in areas where migrant presence is particularly visible and established. Xenophobic rhetoric demands solutions for Greek citizens only and points at the national and religious Other as the archetypal cause of elementary aspects of the crisis, such as criminality and unemployment. Among these hostile policies, specific protocols for the use of public space are enforced, while a militarised management of urban affairs is favoured, one that holds the production of fear as a prerequisite and invests upon the resulting technologies of security. And it is precisely the enforcement of such a regime that questions the notion of public as the sphere aspiring to give space to everyday contacts with the Other. The Athenian public space, then, is in crisis. And the present research will attempt to examine, among others, the extent to which this crisis perhaps comprises a new paradigm (in its epistemological sense) of management of the city itself.

 

by Christos Filippidis

 

 

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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...