City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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by Christy (Chryssanthi) Petropouloui, University of the Aegean.


Global shifts, neoliberalism and right to the city movements in Mexico and Greece

Mexico and Greece comprise typical cases of the so-called semi-periphery where neoliberal policies have been applied (Mouzelis, 1986) but also where social movements tried to resist the implementation of the policies in question. During the 1960s and the 1970s these movements grew first in the build-up to, and then again following the rise to power of totalitarian governments (Mexico) and dictatorial regimes (Greece). Yet recent history and the movements that flourish within it are characterised by glocal processes (Koèhler & Wissen, 2003). Mexico was faced with severe economic crisis in 1982 and then again in 1994 that intensified after the WTO orderii, and despite the veneer of development given to the country in the early nineties, at the prospect of it joining NAFTAiii (1994). The intervention, under special conditions, of NAFTA and the IMFiv, increased the country’s debt and its reliance upon those mechanisms―and the so-called “consensus of Washington” in particular. In the years that followed and up until the present date, these policies would accelerate, in the name of some swift economic development, the privatisation of public goods―most of which would take place under intransparent, oft-times scandalous conditions. They contributed to the increase of social inequalities while at the same time fuelling policies of surveillance and control, as well as para-statist organisations (Toussaint, 2006). Mexico has a long tradition of resistance: revolutions, great revolts and guerilla movements, student and worker mobilisations, urban and peripheral movements, artistic movements, and so on. From 1994 onward in particular, this tradition was articulated through movements that would not only contest, but also put their claims into practice: most telling in this regard are the Zapatistas movement in Chiapas, the network of movements of the Other Campaign and many other social movements, among others. These movements managed to surpass bureaucratic trade unions and party organisations alike.

During the same time period and following the World Trade Organization (WTO) order (1994), Greece appeared to be in a direction of development, yet a type of development that was strongly dependent upon neoliberal decision-making centres and international organisations that were pushing for the privatisation of public corporations. The country’s entering in the Euro currency after 2002 initially covered up but then made very evident the crisis in 2010, opening the discussion about the structural crisis that had been haunting its economy from 1982 already and prior even. The intervention of the so-called troika (ECB, EU Commission, IMF) led to painful financial measures and the privatisation of public goods comparable, and perhaps more demanding even than those imposed by the IMF in Mexico. This situation lead to a sharp decrease in the standard of living and provisions in health, education and public services; an increase in social inequalities and the emergence of neo-fascist groups. From 2008 onward in particular, a multiform movement started to emerge with major mobilisations (Douzinas, 2013) that far surpassed bureaucratic trade unions or party organisationsv.

From the 1950s onward, Athens and Mexico City saw some intense urbanisation with serious consequences for the environment and socio-spatial segregation, while at the same time maintaining a level of social mix in their centres (Hiernaux, 1997, Ward, 1991, Leontidou, 1994). After the 1980s, and despite the maintenance of such social mixing in central neighbourhoods, these divisions become more intense in the peri-urban space, while their centres started to become gentrified. During this time, many Right to the City movements (Lefebvre, 1968 and Vradis, 2013) start to emerge, focused particularly on the right to habitat―in Mexico City in particular. Yet from the 1990s on, the most important RttC movements concerned the claims to public space and common goods, while at the same time opposing privatisations (Petropoulou, 2011).

Contemporary attempts to impose a Northern-Atlantic way of configuring space and the relationships between people through the command of the IMF and its local overseers builds on from the attempt to create capitalist nation-states under the global watchful eye of the representatives of major capital and its local political-economic allies (Graeber, 2011/2013). Perhaps, it then comprises the eventual culmination of the destruction and subsequent transformation of nation-states into more totalitarian neoliberal repressive regimesvi of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2006). And so, capitalism’s great restructuring shifts have played and continue to play an important role in the changes that took place and still do so in cities and in the development of movements within them―in turn influencing a number of housing or environmental policies. Yet this relationship is not linear (cause/effect)vii and it holds, in addition, some glocal (local-global) characteristicsviii.

So far, the response above appears to have carefully omitted any reference to the idea of the spontaneous. This idea, it would appear, is something widely accepted as fairly hazy and not of particular importance in the neighbourhoods of popular self-construction and in the revolts of the cities of the so-called “semi-periphery”. In the following pages, I will attempt to tackle and overturn this approach.


The notion of spontaneity and its variations in the city and in the right to the city movements

As Holloway (2010: thesis 13) says, “the abstraction of doing into labour is a historical process of transformation that created the social synthesis of capitalism: primitive accumulation”. This period of primitive accumulation gave birth to capitalist relationships, and immediately followed the colonial era (Wallerstein, 2004). It was during this period that the new social relationships were established, primarily defined by economic relationships (Polanyi, 1944/2001). During this time, the body was the first machine to be invented―even prior (Federici, 2004) or simultaneously with the watch or the steam engine.

The people participating in acts characterised as “spontaneous” (We build a house in a way of solidarity, we participate in a revolt in a way of solidarity, practising participatory democracy) without rules enforced by any superior authorities, simply refuse to define their bodies as machines. They also refuse to put their thought to the service of political choices and relationships that do not concern them. This fundamental difference makes many thinkers from the Western (or otherwise Northern-Atlantic) tradition to see them as non-compliant to the rules and to name them as spontaneousix, stigmatising them as marginal (in order not to say the terrible word “masterless”).

The limits between the spontaneous and the organised are fairly blurry, hence referring to the social construction of differencex (Bourdieu, 1979) and being related to habitus (Bourdieu,1986). Nothing is entirely spontaneous in the world’s so-called spontaneous neighbourhoods (as the UN would define them in 1976) and in the so-called spontaneous uprisings: they are merely other forms of organising, which may set off as spontaneous manifestations, yet they are constituted through acts that are very much organised: it is for this reason that I name these neighbourhoods as spontaneously-born neighbourhoods. And it was proven that informal economy both played and continues to play an important role in the economic development of cities and of those spaces, resulting in the dropping of the term “spontaneous” by many official documents, too. As I have shown in another text (Petropoulou, 2007) the neighbourhoods of popular self-construction may have often-times been born in a spontaneous way, yet they developed in many and different ways, depending on the role of those actingxi within and beyond these―and they were defined by various writers in different ways, depending on the socially pre-constructed approach they had for the landscape of these neighborhoods.

I therefore claim that the notion of the spontaneous way of expression is not an outcome of pressure, nor of the politico-economic crisis―but that it comprises instead an outcome of the years-long process partially related to the tradition of rebellion (Damianakos, 2003) that many people around the world share; between the many collectives or occasional encounters of residents of neighbourhoods of popular self-construction (particularly in the areas where RttC movements developed) and later on, of youth who participated in the recent uprisings of December 2008 in Greece and in the recent movement “Yo Soy 132” in Mexico, in 2012.

That it is more related to the notion of prattein (of creation, of non-alienating “labour”) and the culture of resistance that opposes repressive, alienating labour; not with some stigmatised “marginal spontaneity” that offers nothing and that is supposed to gradually diminish from contemporary society, just like writers of the 1950s had claimed when talking about the culture of poverty as well.

That it is more related to people inclined to create relationships of solidarity in order to respond to living needs, forming cracks in the compulsory relationships of exploitation and of their overall understanding as machines, as imposed to them from the outset of the birth of capitalism.

That it is related even more to dynamic minorities of the “human economies”, which can still feed “nowtopias” (Carlsson & Manning, 2010) and comprise possible cracks in capitalism. I explain this further on.


The relationship between the spontaneous and human economy in the city

As noted by Graeber (2011/2013:290-296) the biggest pitfall of the 20th century has been so: on the one hand, we have the logic of the market, where we think that we are individuals who owe nothing to one another―and on the other hand, we have the logic of the state, to which we are all indebted without ever being able to pay this debt off. Yet in reality, the two are not antithetical to one another: “states create markets and the markets presuppose states” (Graeber, 2011/2013: 295). If we were to apply this schema to cities, we would see that in the first case we have the private, purchased or rented residencies and individuals―all of which must act only out of individual interest, in any mobilisation. In the second case, we have the debt toward the state, which offers the so-called “social housing” and to the legal trade unions, which are there to defend our rights.

Contrary to the above schema lie the so-called “human economics”, which were only expunged with violence and constant surveillance from substantial portions of the planet. Human economics are economies in which what is considered important about people is the fact that each of them comprises an unprecedented link with the others and that non of these individuals can be the exact equivalent with anyone else (Graeber, 2011/2013: 296). The preservation of such relationships in societies like that of Greece or Mexico (bazar, non-precise demarcation of private and public space, solidarity economies at the level of family or friends, refusal of unjust debts’ payment, neighbourhoods of popular building self-construction thanks to urban movements, open solidarity occupations, grassroots unions of open assemblies―and so on) has to do with the fact that there is still a tradition of human economics deeply rooted in relationships that concern the land and the body: a relationship that, despite all major attempts to regulate and to succumb them, was never fully enforced on peoples’ everyday lives. In these, the highest goods are relationships and quality of life; not the accumulation of money and power through it. Cracks are left over, in other words, that may at points create revolts and overthrowsxii.

On the other hand, the development of a flavour of capitalism lacking any clear political or economic adjustment in these countries has led to an entire network of clientilist political relationships that reproduce the space and often-times obstruct the formation of social movements. Relationships of this type are not related to relationships formed on the basis of the spontaneous and of solidarity; instead, they are based on the logic of the state―or its political representative, to which we are all supposedly indebted. But how was this debt created in the first place? Through this particular way of development of capitalism: since the state could not safeguard public goods and peoples’ basic rights, this role was taken on by some politicians, for their protégées alone. In times of crisis, when they could no longer play this role, their role and relationship was revealed to the private sector and the state, through scandals that do nothing else than to confirm that “states create markets and markets presuppose the states” (Graeber, 2011/2013: 295). Through this process, and despite the fact that certain social segments may be turning toward new protectors (sometimes even to fascist organisations), there are moments when forces are released, directed toward claims over life; it is then that human economics are unveiled and flourish, once again―and the so-called tradition of rebellion (Damianakos, 2003) once again comes to the fore.

Typical examples of such are the recent RttC movements which commenced from mere claims of space and turned into wider political movements―such as the movement against the construction of an airport and large Mall-like complexes in Atenco, Mexico; the movement against the privatisation of the ex-airport of Elliniko in Athens and its adjacent beach; and the movements against gold extraction in Chalkidiki in Greece and in many parts of Mexico as well.

These movements are concerned with claims toward life and toward common public spaces; they oppose large-scale works that take place in the midst of crisis, during which a policy is heightened, holding as its central characteristic the selling-off of public and community lands and the creation of large projects without environmental studies and without the study of their potential social consequences.


Social movements and spontaneity in the so-called semi-periphery

Regarding the relationship that politicised, anti-systemic actors may hold to these movements that were originally spontaneous, but consequently very much organised-from-below, and the discussion that has recently opened up (Leontidou, 2012, Dalakoglou, 2012). I will agree more with the approach of Zibechi (2010) who extracts his knowledge from the movements of Latin America. These approaches would be particularly useful for the comprehension of contemporary movements that have taken place in the Mediterranean in recent years. According to Zibechi then, the main characteristics of the contemporary movements of Latin America are as follows:


  • Territorialisation (grounding) of the movements in spaces they have already occupied or retrieved (in this way, the de-territorialisation of labour does not affect negatively, as before).
  • Claim of autonomy from the state and from parties.
  • Re-estimation of the culture and defence of the identity of the popular strata (against the notion of the citizen, which would systematically exclude them).
  • Creation of their own intellectuals, of their own education.
  • New, decisive role of women in the everyday action of the movements.
  • Interest in a more meaningful relationship to the natural environment.
  • Non-Taylorist relationships―networks of self-organised groups (non- division between mind and body labour). Face-to-face relationships. Avoidance of large, faceless structures. Use of various social networks.
  • Production of their own life, involvement with the everyday, with matters of shelter, food and the production of industrial goods―but also with matters of culture, education, health, entertainment...

At the time when this article was written, creative resistances that practice social economy have been on the rise (Wallerstein, 2008; Tsilibounidi, 2012; Petropoulou, 2013). The important thing is for us to follow their action by helping in their interaction, the exchange of experiences and actions―and not with some violent politicisation that may lead to their breakup or to their premature dismantling. The act of these collectives, which sometimes form social movements, resembles the movement of the so-called Zumbayllu: “the whirligig that transforms fear and poverty into light and hope, according to the myths of the indigenous people of Peru. The Zumbayllu means to invest toward the empowering of the movement of the flow against the logic of the representation that sacrifices everything in the name of order”. As Zibechi says: the whirligig of social change keeps on revolving... The temptation for us to push it, in order to accelerate its tempo, may stop it dead on its tracks… (Zibechi, 2010: 337).


Conclusions, thoughts and directions for a most comprehensive research

As shown above, major structural politico-economic changes and tendencies led the international organisations have played a key role in local change, and vice-versa. Yet the relationship of this interaction to the spontaneous is considerably complicated and related to what, by whom and why would be included in the discursive category of the “spontaneity”.

In order to respond to the question more fully, a type of a treatise would be required that would pose the following questions:

1. How was human economy persecuted in Greece and in Mexico, and how were the so-called debtsxiii and the so-called politics of clientèlist relationshipsxiv formed?In order to respond to a question of this type we would go back to studies on the drawing of the first debt, which marked the birth of nation-states in many Mediterranean and Latin American countries (Mouzelis, 1986; Svoronos, 1972; Beloyiannis 1952/2010), and in the processes which followed the first social revolution of the world, in 1910 Mexico (Gilly, 1995). The repression of the structures of human economy and community structures of participatory democracy which were formed during the periods of national-liberation revolutions, and the social revolution of Mexico in particular, happened in many and various ways exactly following the respective revolutions. And so, these revolutions never fulfilled their key demands (among which were matters concerning land, labour, housing and real democracy) which were instead skewed by the status quo and turned into an instrument of control of the everyday lives of the people. This, of course, has happened in most countries around the world.

2. How anything that would not abide to the dominant new order was named “spontaneous” in an derogatory way and was identified with remnants of the past that had to be either eliminated, or civilized/modernized. This is where we can initially re-read the descriptions of the travellers in Greece and in Mexico, who spoke of indigenous populations in a very derogatory manner, considering them to be “uncivilised”―and systematically tried play down their possible relationship to the ruins of the grand material civilisations they were there to record. And so for many years, the labyrinthine (organic) tissue of the city, the popular market, the popular feast, the popular art were accused of being a remnant of the past―after they were first meticulously separated from the scholarly one, which served the Western European-leaning status-quo instead. Naturally in Mexico this whole process was much more intense, since anything popular would be related to the long history of the indigenous peoples (Maya, Mexica, Zapotec, Huichol etc.) which had to be shown to be inferior to their conquerors, by any means possible (Villoro, 1950).

3. How the revolts of 1968 re-opened the matter in another way, speaking in different terms about the spontaneity in Europe. Inspired by the libertarian traditions of people of the world, these revolts commenced from the areas of Western Europe and the USA where the most severe repression of the spontaneous had become socially accepted. During this same period the critics of Leninist thesis about spontaneity (Lenin, 1902; Luxemburg, 1918) by existentialists (Sartre, 1970 and others) and many libertarian authors (Debord, 1968 and others) are intensified. The question is how the conversation about spontaneity was transferred to the countries of the so-called semi-periphery amidst great repression (Mexico 1968) and the dictatorship (Greece 1967), and how it was used for an analysis of the everyday life (Lefebvre, 1968 a, b; Gramsci, 1971). This discussion has since influenced research that focused on the cultural characteristics of Athens (Leontidou, 1994; Damianakos, 2003) and of Mexico City (Núñez,1990; Canclini, 1995) showing interest for the so-called “marginal actors”, the “neighbourhoods of popular self-construction” and the hybrid-comparative forms of culture. These analyses showed that there never was an actual separating line between the spontaneous and the organised―but that this border was, instead, a social construction aiming at downgrading anything that was culturally different and threatened the status-quo.

4. How the discussion about the subjection of the spontaneous returnedthrough the crisis of the global biopolitical capitalism (Castoriadis, 1999; Fumagalli, 2011) and through the interventions of the IMF and other global organisations in the social, financial, political, cultural and environmental situation of the countries of the so-called semi-periphery―while at the same time the notion of the spontaneous returns even in the primary research projects of financial corporations, which aim to embed it through the internet and behaviour prediction averting, in this way, the unexpected occurrence, the studies of the emergency, The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Taleb, 2007), etc.

5. How, on the other hand, the so-called spontaneous resistances became, or may become, under certain conditions, dangerous cracks (Holloway, 2010; Villoro,2007). In this case, we would have to talk about the examples of contemporary revolts which were presented as spontaneous, since they were not related to parties nor syndicates―yet they were organised over a long period of time (e.g. the movement of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico) or other, more spontaneously organised revolts from below, which were then turned into an organised social movement (Oaxaca and Atenco in Mexico; Chalkidiki in Greece), or still echo in the minds of the youth (December 2008 and the Squares Movement in Greece; Yo soy 132 in Mexico). The common elements between all these revolts is that they make decisions through open assemblies that do not have permanent representatives toward the outside (something that destabilizes the normal certainties of the status-quo and its politicians), that they have global characteristics, while at the same time being rooted in places of resistance where women play a determinant role in the organisation of everyday life, and that they continue their activity through new, multiform collectives. All of the above call for some further and more thorough investigation.




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i I would like to thank Antonis Vradis for his contribution to the English presentation of this text.

ii The World Trade Organization (WTO) replacing (1994) the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

iii The North American Free Trade Agreement.

iv The International Monetary Fund.

v Yet no contemporary social guerilla movements developed, as happened in Mexico, which had this kind of tradition.

vi On this matter see: Naomi Klein, 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster Capitalism.

vii See the critique by Massey (1994) on the classic linear approach of history, which ignores space and leads to wrong views on the level of development of each country or each place.

viii A discussion on the previous one takes place in the volume by Petropoulou, 2011. This research argues that the big cities of the Mediterranean and Latin America present comparable processes of urban development imprinted in their urban landscapes. The concept of the urban eco-landscape enables the analysis and comparison of both cities landscapes at different spatial and temporal scales.

ix A typical example is the interpretation of the spontaneous as “indigenous” (between other interpretations) in an English dictionary.

x On the construction of difference of the popular as an anti―Kantian aesthetic, see Bourdieu, 1986:42.

xi During the period between 1968-1988 the right to the city movements in Latin American spread and organised in a Latin-America wide, strong coordination network that would strongly fight back against mass repression. The decision by the "Habitat" secretary of the ONU “for the right to habitation” in 1976, which called for governments to aid, with infrastructures and loans, the residents of these areas, and not to go ahead with destructing them, arguably comprises the most important international u-turn on the matter.

xii The fordist model never fully reigned over the lives of people; further back even, when capitalism was being born, not all “witches” were burnt... Some escaped them, and many turned into guerrillas...

xiii In this case I accept Graeber's analysis of debt.

xiv Also see Petropoulou, 2011 :38-50, 175-314.


We are very pleased to confirm the full details of the end-of-project conference of The conference poster will follow suit, along with more of interventions by the participants, which we have been gathering at the conference page.

May 9&10. Athens Polytechnic (NTUA), Averof Building, Patission Campus (google map)

The conference is in English. It is free and open to all, with no registration required.


Conference book | conference poster


Friday, May 9


Panel 1, 14:00-16:00

Flows, infrastructures and networks

Leonidas Economou (Panteion University, Athens)

Dimitra Gefou-Madianou (Panteion University, Athens)

Yannis Kallianos (Manchester University, Manchester)

Giorgos Aggelopoulos (University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki)

Andreas Chatzidakis (Royal Holloway, London)

Discussant: Dimitris Dalakoglou


Panel 2, 16:30-18:30

Mapping spaces of racist violence

Dimitris Christopoulos (Panteion University, Athens, Hellenic League of Human Rights)

Klara Jaya Brekke (crisis-scape)

Lia Yoka (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki) and Sonia Vlachou (University of Hamburg)

Sarah Green (University of Helsinki, Helsinki)

Discussant: Hara Kouki


Screening, 19:00-20:00

Future Suspended a 35' documentary by 


Saturday, May 10


Panel 3, 12:00-14:00

Between invisibility and precarity

Akis Gavriilidis (Author, Indepedent Scholar)

Athena Athanasiou (Panteion University, Athens)

Giorgos Tsimouris (Panteion University, Athens)

Rania Astrinaki (Panteion University, Athens)

Dina Vaiou (NTUA, Athens)

Discussant: Jane Cowan


Panel 4, 15:00-17:00

The right to the city in crisis

Lila Leontidou (Hellenic Open University, Athens)

Christy Petropoulou (University of the Aegean, Mytilene)

Tom Slater (University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh)

Hyun Bang Shin (London School of Economics, London)

Andy Merrifield (Cambridge University, Cambridge)

Discussant: Antonis Vradis


Panel 5, 17:30-19:30

Devaluing labour, depreciating land

Costis Hadjimichalis (Charokopeio University, Athens)

Bob Catterall, CITY Journal (

Elena Madison (Project for Public Spaces, NYC)

Filippo Osella (Sussex University, Brighton)

David Harvey (City University of New York, NYC)

Discussant: Dimitris Dalakoglou

 by Tom Slater, University of Edinburgh


“[I]t was suggested that revitalization was rarely an appropriate term for gentrification, but we can see now that in one sense it is appropriate. Gentrification is part of a larger redevelopment process dedicated to the revitalization of the profit rate. In the process, many downtowns are being converted into bourgeois playgrounds replete with quaint markets, restored townhouses, boutique rows, yachting marinas, and Hyatt Regencies. These very visual alterations to the urban landscape are not at all an accidental side-effect of temporary economic disequilibrium but are as rooted in the structure of capitalist society as was the advent of suburbanization.”

Neil Smith, 1982 [1], p.151-2.

The architect and urban planner Andres Duany is widely seen as the father or guru of ‘New Urbanism’, an American urban-design-can-save-us-all cult that has gone global. New Urbanists are vehemently anti-sprawl and anti-modernist, and typically demonstrate near-evangelical belief in the construction of high density mixed-use, mixed tenure settlements with a neotraditional vernacular, well served by public transport, and ‘pedestrian-friendly’ (integrated by a network of accessible streets, sidewalks, cycle paths and public spaces). All of these features, if you can afford to buy into them, are supposed to nurture a profound ‘sense of community’ that will lead to harmonious, liveable and sustainable ‘urban villages’. There has been a substantial critical backlash, but New Urbanism, now twinned with the fatuous rhetoric of “Smart Growth” (another anti-sprawl movement at which Duany has positioned himself at the centre), shows few signs of dissipating (in Scotland, where I live and work, Duany was central to the formation of the SNP Government’s Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative in 2010, and his dubious methods of ‘consensus building’ among local residents have been widely adopted by aristocratic landowners [2] and design consultants).

In 2001, Duany wrote an essay for American Enterprise Magazine, which is published by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank. The essay was entitled “Three Cheers for Gentrification”. An obnoxious and declamatory rant directed at “the squawking of old neighborhood bosses who can’t bear the self-reliance of the incoming middle-class, and can’t accept the dilution of their political base”, it contains caricatures, trivialisations and myths that are too numerous to dissect in full here. Yet one passage in particular serves as a useful point of departure for this essay:

“‘Affordable’ housing isn’t always what cities need more of. Some do, but many need just the opposite. For every San Francisco or Manhattan where real estate has become uniformly too expensive, there are many more cities like Detroit, Trenton, Syracuse, Milwaukee, Houston, and Philadelphia that could use all the gentrification they can get. The last thing these places ought to be pursuing is more cheap housing. Gentrification is usually good news, for there is nothing more unhealthy for a city than a monoculture of poverty. ….Gentrification rebalances a concentration of poverty by providing the tax base, rub-off work ethic, and political effectiveness of a middle class, and in the process improves the quality of life for all of a community’s residents. It is the rising tide that lifts all boats.”

If we cast aside the provocative tone of these sentences, and the patronising trickle-down logic, we see a perspective that is actually very common among many observers of gentrification across the political spectrum (whether journalists, policy officials, planners, architects, or less thoughtful social scientists). In a little piece of mischief back in 2006 [3] I called this perspective the false choice between gentrification (a form of reinvestment) and a ‘concentration of poverty’ (disinvestment), drawing on these words in an excellent book by James DeFilippis:

“Since the emergence of gentrification, it has become untenable to argue that reinvestment is a desirable end in-and-of-itself for low-income people and residents of disinvested areas. Instead, rightfully conceived, reinvestment needs to be understood through the lends of questions such as: What kind of investment? For whom? Controlled by whom? These processes have left residents of low-income neighbourhoods in a situation where, since they exert little control over either investment capital or their homes, they are facing the ‘choices’ of either continued disinvestment and decline in the quality of the homes they live in, or reinvestment that results in their displacement. The importance of gentrification, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates that low-income people, and the neighbourhoods they live in, suffer not from a lack of capital but from a lack of power and control over even the most basic components of life – that is, the places called home.  [4]

These words lead us to the question of how low-income people can gain power and control over their homes, one which DeFilippis addresses via a riveting analysis of collective ownership initiatives such as community land trusts, mutual housing associations and limited-equity housing cooperatives in the United States. Yet since DeFilippis’ book was published a decade ago, the false choice perspective has been tabled time and time again; indeed, I have lost count of the amount of high-profile statements on gentrification in the last few years and months that have succumbed to a tired formula: weigh up the supposed pros and cons of gentrification amidst attempts at levity (“Doesn’t that new cupcake store have a funny name?!”), throw in a few half-baked worries about threats to ‘diversity’ and housing affordability, and conclude that gentrification is actually ‘good’ on balance because it represents investment which stops neighbourhoods from ‘dying’ during a financial crisis. Take, for example, a piece in New York Magazine in February this year entitled (predictably) “Is Gentrification All Bad? [5] After opening up with the ambiguous remark that, “A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right” (what makes a neighbourhood ‘nice’, of course, is inherently a class question), the author presents a brief history of the neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, once an emblem of disinvestment and racial segregation but now an arena for outlandish real estate prices, and remarks that “gentrification happens not because a few developers or politicians foist it on an unwilling city but because it’s a medicine most people want to take. The trick is to minimize the harmful side effects.” The piece concludes with the following:

“an ideological split [in the 1960s] divided those who wrote cities off as unlivable relics from those who believed they must be saved. Today a similar gulf separates those who fear an excess of prosperity from those who worry about the return of blight. Economic flows can be reversed with stunning speed: gentrification can nudge a neighborhood up the slope; decline can roll it off a cliff. Somewhere along that trajectory of change is a sweet spot, a mixed and humming street that is not quite settled or sanitized, where Old Guard and new arrivals coexist in equilibrium. The game is to make it last.”

“Mixed and humming” hides what is a desperately fatalistic conclusion, but one very common in writing that reduces gentrification to a moral question (good versus bad) rather than a political question [6]. In sum, the New York Magazine article argues that gentrification is here to stay, we have to live with it, but it just needs some policy fine-tuning to stabilise or ‘manage’ it and soften the blows it inflicts, and the urbanist’s holy grail is the middle ground between “up the slope” and “decline”.

In order to situate gentrification in a more helpful political and analytical register, we must blast open this tenacious and constrictive dualism of “prosperity” (gentrification) or “blight” (disinvestment) by showing how the two are fundamentally intertwined in a wider process of capitalist urbanisation and uneven development that creates profit and class privilege for some whilst stripping many of the human need of shelter. No viable alternatives to class segregation and poverty will be found unless we ask why there are neighbourhoods of astounding affluence and of grinding poverty, why there are “new arrivals” and an “Old Guard”, why there are renovations and evictions; in short, why there is inequality. Despite many attempts to sugarcoat it and celebrate it, gentrification, both as term and process, has always been about class struggle. When we jettison the ludicrous journalistic embrace of “hipsters [7], reject the political purchase of the enormous literature on the gamut of individual preferences and lifestyles of middle-class gentrifiers, and consider instead the agency of developers, bankers and state officials, then questions such as for whom, against whom and who decides come to the forefront - and we can begin to see false choice urbanism as both red herring and preposterous sham. Then, we can start thinking about the agency of activists, and strategies of revolt.

After a visit to inner Detroit, to east Glasgow, to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or to the so-called ‘shrinking cities’ of eastern Europe, it is easy to understand why purveyors of false choice urbanism are so numerous. But they are left politically stranded when a theory of uneven geographical development is brought to bear on their “gentrification is better than the alternative” discourse. Arguably the greatest legacy to urban studies left by Neil Smith was the “ingenious simplicity” (as David Ley, one of his main interlocutors, once put it [8]) of the rent gap as part of a broader attempt to trace the circulation of interest-bearing capital in urban land markets, and to elaborate the role of the state in lubricating that circulation. But rather than focus on the classic 1979 paper where the rent gap concept first appeared, it is instructive to revisit a less-discussed Neil Smith paper which situated the rent gap within a broader articulation of uneven development at the urban scale, entitled “Gentrification and Uneven Development”, published in 1982 in Economic Geography. There, three aspects of uneven development were articulated by Smith, and gentrification was located within each aspect:

  1. Tendencies toward equalization and differentiation: with the transformation of the earth into a universal means of production via the wage-labour relation, capital drives to overcome all spatial barriers to expansion (equalization), yet a series of differentiating tendencies (division of labour, wage rates, class differences etc) operate in opposition to that equalization. At the urban scale, the contradiction between equalization and differentiation is manifest in the phenomenon of ground rent (simply the charge that landowners can demand, via private property rights, for use of their land), which translates into a geographical differentiation (central city versus suburbs, with higher ground rent in the latter). Recognising this contradiction, it becomes possible to see Homer Hoyt’s famous “land value valley” of the late 1920s in inner Chicago not as representative of some sort of residential “filtering” process, but rather indicative of capital depreciation, creating a “ground rent level quite at variance with the assumptions implied in the earlier neoclassical bid-rent models” (p.146).

  2. The valorization and devalorization of built environment capital: valorization of capital in cities (its investment in search of surplus value or profit) is necessarily matched by its devalorization (as the investor receives returns on the investment only by piecemeal when capital is ‘fixed’ in the landscape). However, new development must proceed if accumulation is to occur – so the steady devalorization of capital creates longer term possibilities for a new phase of valorization. Here we are talking about speculative landed developer interests that David Harvey has since identified as “a singular principle power that has yet to be accorded its proper place in our understanding of not only the historical geography of capitalism but also the general evolution of capitalist class power. [9] Why do rentier capitalists buy up – or grab - parcels of central city land and real estate and ‘sit’ on them for years, doing nothing? The answer is simple: devalorization of capital invested in the central city leads to a situation where the ground rent capitalized under current land uses is substantially lower than the ground rent that could potentially be capitalized if the land uses were to change. This is a rent gap in the circulatory patterns of capital in urban space. When redevelopment and rehabilitation become profitable prospects, capital begins to flow back into the central city – and then substantial fortunes can be made.

  3. Reinvestment and the rhythm of unevenness: under capitalism there is a strong tendency for societies to undergo periodic but relatively rapid and systematic shifts in the location and quantity of capital invested in cities. These geographical and/or locational ‘switches’ are closely correlated with the timing of crises in the broader economy (i.e. when the ‘growth’ much beloved of mainstream economists and politicians does not occur). Crises occur when the capitalist necessity to accumulate leads to a falling rate of profit and an overproduction of commodities (in recent years, these commodities are the various financial products that have emerged vis-à-vis the buying and selling of debt). The logic of uneven development is that the development of one area creates barriers to further development, thus leading to underdevelopment, and that the underdevelopment of that area creates opportunities for a new phase of development. In spatial terms, Smith called this a “locational seesaw”, or “the successive development, underdevelopment, and redevelopment of given areas as capital jumps from one place to another, then back again, both creating and destroying its own opportunities for development.” (p.151).

Smith’s work was of course subjected to considerable critique over the years, sometimes usefully (for example, the work of Damaris Rose on the “uneven development of Marxist urban theory [10]), other times obstructively (most absurd was the argument that the rent gap should be abandoned as it is hard to verify empirically, closely followed by the daft bourgeois cry that the rent gap doesn’t tell us anything about the gentrifiers, when it was never designed to). In relation to false choice urbanism, the critically important point to grasp via an analytic absorption of these three aspects of uneven development is that investment and disinvestment do not represent some sort of moral conundrum, with the former somehow, on balance, ‘better’ than the latter. Nor does investment represent some sort of magical remedy for those who have lived through and endured decades of disinvestment. Gentrification and ‘decline’; embourgoisement and ‘concentrated poverty’; regeneration and decay - these are not opposites, alternatives or choices, but rather tensions and contradictions in the overall system of capital circulation, amplified and aggravated by the current crisis. Rent gaps do not just appear out of nowhere [11] – they represent certain social (class) interests, where the quest for profit takes precedence over the quest for shelter. Rent gaps are actively produced (and they are certainly being produced now under a crisis that has set capitalised ground rent on a downward spiral) through the actions of specific social actors ranging from landlords to bankers to urban property speculators, and the role of the state in regards to these actors is far from laissez-faire but rather one of active facilitator both politically and economically (it is notable that Smith’s undergraduate dissertation [12], the empirical study that led to the rent gap concept, carried the subtitle, “State Involvement in Society Hill, Philadelphia”).

This leads to the question of political action and social movements. In light of the current conditions of crisis and disinvestment, I was asked, “What advice, if any, could be useful for the people of Exarcheia from anti-gentrification struggles elsewhere?” This is a demanding question and it would take several days to summarise the varied struggles that have taken place in the past ten years from Edinburgh to Gothenburg to Toronto to Mexico City to Melbourne, and to dissect the links between those struggles, the lessons learned, the gains made. When I was writing the final chapter of Gentrification [13], I was struck by how little scholarship there was on resistance to gentrification. Whilst the Right to the City movement has since drawn considerable attention, it still saddens me that, at least in the UK, research funding has gone (and continues to go) to people who want to study the motives and desires of the middle-classes, or to those uncritically embracing the language of regeneration. So my immediate response, when I read the question asked of me, was “What can academics learn from the anti-gentrification struggles in Exarcheia and elsewhere?!”

Immediate strategies, ones that are making gains in cities like Madrid, include squatting that goes beyond the standard occupation of empty buildings (usually a strategy of highlighting the problems of housing commodification) to make a squat a collective provider of welfare and neighbourhood services (e.g. daycare, healthcare, adult education) that are being denied to people under the violence of austerity. Community land buy-outs are gaining traction in the UK now, especially in Scotland, but the barriers are immense, not least because of deeply ingrained landownership structures that will take a generation to dislodge. In 2001 I spent some time with an organization in Brooklyn that declared an entire neighbourhood where widespread displacement was occurring a “displacement free zone”, and this involved a ‘pro-community’ awareness campaign, whereby the absolute necessity of informal support networks to vulnerable local people struggling to make rent was highlighted in every possible forum, in conjunction with organised pickets and protests outside landlords’ homes, and the public naming and shaming of any landlord who slapped a rent increase on a tenant. Evictions dropped by 40% in a 3 year period.

I am very suspicious of the view that gains can be made at the level of “informing policy”, as many British academics proudly trumpet. Under relentless urban growth machine pressures, the leap of perspective required for a policy elite to see the world as displaced person is significant. Insofar as states adopt gentrification as a housing policy – which they have done all over the world – they have little interest in research evidence on the extent and experience of displacement; such evidence would be tantamount to exposing the failure of these policies. Given that all major political parties in so many nations dance to the same neoliberal anthem on housing, it is naïve to expect, or perhaps even to lobby for, a policy programme of mass social housing construction or rent controls (indeed, the Coalition government in the UK appears actively committed to making people homeless via its infamous ‘bedroom tax’). Far more effective in contexts where gentrification is occurring has been campaigns for policy action beyond the scale of the urban, such as living wage campaigns. The scandalously high cost of housing in so many nations is consigning the poor to financial ruin, so the work of living wage activists is absolutely crucial to the right to housing. Policy interventions and even some social movements are too often “area-based”, when the differences that could be made at the level of the welfare state and labour market are substantial. Unfortunately, attacks on welfare states are happening all over Europe because these remnants of a Keynesian-Fordist political economy are viewed by the political class (and by the oligarchs they serve) as dangerous “impediments to the advancement of financialisation [14]. To continue the relentless pace of expanding global accumulation, it is necessary to monitor and monetize more and more of those human needs that have not been commodified in previous rounds of financialization. Pensions, healthcare, education, and especially housing have been more aggressively appropriated, colonized and financialised. Anti-gentrification struggles should be -- and usually are -- unified with broader struggles to protect the legacies of the welfare state against the predatory attacks by this generation’s vulture capitalists.

To the extent that we are dealing with a systemic, structural problem, it would seem to be a critically important challenge for social movements to identify precisely where developers, capital investors, and policy elites are stalking potential ground rent [15]; to expose the ways in which profitable returns are justified among those constituents and to the wider public; to highlight the circumstances and fate of those not seen to be putting urban land to its ‘highest and best use’; to point to the darkly troubling downsides of reinvestment in the name of ‘economic growth’ and ‘job creation’; to reinstate the use values (actual or potential) of the land, streets, buildings, homes, parks and centres that constitute an urban community. Another crucial tactic is to expose planning hypocrisy at any opportunity: when planners speak of their desires to create “mixed-income communities” in poor areas (almost always cover for a gentrification strategy), there is much to be learned from a coalition of public housing tenants in New Orleans that marched through the most affluent part of that city in 2006 holding a huge banner that said “Make THIS Neighbourhood Mixed-Income!”. Another area of concern is to think carefully about how to challenge stigmatisation of people and places. Whilst such stigmatisation is central to the creation of rent gaps, it is also central to their closure, for discourses of disgust and social abjection can pave the way for a revanchist class transformation of space (e.g. “We need to clean that area up, it’s full of scumbags,” etc.). Unfortunately, even grassroots efforts to advance a different narrative of a place can end up backfiring, as an artificial edginess becomes appealing to real estate professionals and their “urban pioneer” clients suffering from what Spike Lee recently called “motherfucking Christopher Columbus syndrome [16] The Columbian encounter was uneven development by genocide and false treaty: accumulation by colonial dispossession. Today it’s the world urban system of cities competing for investors and creative-class gentry on the new urban frontier. It has always been in the “border areas that a killing could be made, so to speak, with so little risk of simultaneously being scalped. [17]

False choice urbanism, more than anything else, is a pure exemplar of what Paul Gilroy has called the “poverty of the imagination [18]. It thrives on the idea that more and more economic growth (represented by the mirage of ‘reinvestment’) is the answer to a crisis created by such greed, and thus it deflects attention away from the systemic failures and policy blunders that create, widen and reinforce urban inequalities. A mindless commitment to reinvestment and growth is the kind of ‘thinking’ that produced the largest global credit bubble ever seen, and then crashed in what even Ben Bernanke, the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve bank, called the most severe financial crisis in the history of capitalism. Disinvestment and reinvestment are both at the heart of today’s unequal urbanization of capital. Reinvestment represents a second-order derivative of the first round of the appropriation of monopoly rents. In the 20th anniversary edition of Urban Fortunes, John Logan and Harvey Molotch offer some refreshing insights that might help arrest this poverty of the imagination:

 “For people in whatever type of place, even those at the lowest level of the earth’s place hierarchy, the appropriate stance should be critical. Alas, there is least choice for those at the bottom levels, and sometimes resistance risks violent reprisal from authorities. But where it is humanly feasible, ‘no growth’ is a good political strategy. The status quo should always be treated as possibly better than the growth alternative. (“Don’t just do something, stand there,” is a slogan we have heard.) [19]

Whilst the status quo is of course unacceptable, “stand there” not only calls into question growth-is-great arguments, but strikes a chord with highly effective anti-gentrification slogans of the past, such as “We Won’t Move!” from Yerba Buena, San Francisco, in the 1970s [20]. Moreover, these words offer useful guidance for ‘right to stay put’ movements that seek to unravel false choice urbanism and expose gentrification not as Andres Duany’s “rising tide that lifts all boats”, but as a tsunami that wrecks most ships. As important as it is to explain the dirty process of gentrification, supported by accounts of destroyed lives, evictions, homelessness, loss of jobs, loss of community, loss of place, and so on, it’s just as important to understand and fight the system that makes gentrification possible [21].



1 “Gentrification and uneven development”, Economic Geography 58 (2): 139-155.

2 See Gordon MacLeod (2013) “New urbanism/smart growth in the Scottish Highlands: mobile policies and post-politics in local development planning”, Urban Studies 50 (11): 2196-2221.

3 Tom Slater (2006) “The eviction of critical perspectives from gentrification research”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30 (4): 737-757.

4 James DeFilippis (2004) Unmaking Goliath: Community Control in the Face of Global Capital (New York: Routledge). Quotation from p.89

5 Justin Davidson (2014) “Is Gentrification All Bad?” New York Magazine, 2nd February:

6 Thank you to Mathieu van Criekingen for this excellent point.

7 Neil Smith nailed this: “A predictably populist symbolism underlies the hoopla and boosterism with which gentrification is marketed. It focuses on ‘making cities liveable,’ meaning liveable for the middle class. In fact, of necessity, they have always been ‘liveable’ for the working class. The so-called renaissance is advertised and sold as bringing benefits to everyone regardless of class, but available evidence suggests otherwise.” (Smith, 1982, p.152).

8 David Ley (1996) The New Middle Class and the Remaking of the Central City (Oxford: OUP). Quotation from p.42

9 David Harvey (2010 The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (London: Profile Books) Quotation from p.180.

10 Damaris Rose (1984) “Rethinking gentrification: beyond the uneven development of Marxist urban theory”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2: 47-74.

11 Thanks to Stuart Hodkinson for these words.

13 Loretta Lees, Tom Slater & Elvin Wyly (2008) Gentrification (New York: Routledge).

14 For a brilliant analysis, see Observatorio Metropolitano (2013) Crisis and Revolution in Europe: People of Europe, Rise Up! (Madrid: Traficantes de Suenos). Quotation from p.20.

15 For a remarkable recent study of the structural violence visited upon the working poor via the creation of rent gaps, see Melissa Wright (2014) “Gentrification, assassination and forgetting in Mexico: a feminist Marxist tale” Gender, Place and Culture 21 (1): 1-16.

17 Neil Smith (1996) The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge) Quotation from p.209.

19 John R. Logan and Harvey Molotch (2007) Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (20th Anniversary Edition) (Berkeley: University of California Press). Quotation from p.xxii.

20 Chester Hartman (1974) Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco, Glide Publications).

21 My sincere thanks to Elvin Wyly for helping me to sharpen these closing paragraphs.

by Sarah Green, University of Manchester

Athens, 1963. A vibrant city, cosmopolitan city, a city full of tensions, rumblings of revolution, or at least a sense that people were beginning to have enough of the right-wing rulers who had been pushed into government by the powers that be in the 1950s – by the USA mostly, which was following the Truman Doctrine, trying to ensure strong, conservative government to prevent the communists getting in.1 But it was not only the Americans; others had an interest in Greece, whether that interest was based on romantic ideals, cold war ideologies, or realpolitik. It was an edgy space in 1963, one that had been built, in its modernist guise, on a tangle of partly contradictory, and thoroughly cosmopolitan, aims and ambitions. Bastéa2 says the core architecture of Athens built during the 19th century reflects a mixture of transnational and nationalist ideals of what Greece and the Greeks should be, and it would be interesting to ask, today, in the 21st century in the midst of crisis, whether those ideals were ever realised in any meaningful sense. Yalouri, who closely studied the variety of uses to which the Acropolis has been put, both symbolically and otherwise, also noted the strongly transnational influence on Athens, from the moment of Greek independence right up to the present day.3 Many others have said the same about the whole country. Athens is a transnational city par excellence - which is to say that transnational political interests have had exceptional levels of involvement in the way the Greek state has developed over the decades. That holds today as well, but the way in which that involvement, or interference some might say, has manifested itself, is rather different now. But I am getting ahead of myself.


I arrived in Athens in 1963 at the age of two, with my English family: father, mother and two older brothers. There were many foreigners like us there at the time: people who somehow felt a little uncomfortable in their own country, whether for social, political, economic or legal reasons. Such people often found their way to Athens. It was not an easy city, but it was easy enough to exist there as a foreigner without too many questions being asked. Athenians were used to foreigners, transients who came and went, and who lived mysterious lives doing who knows what. Nobody much cared, really. Certainly not the police or any government types.


Even during the military regime of 1967-74, there was not much interest in these transient migrants, the people passing through, or even settling in, for a time. That included the poor migrants as well as the more wealthy and highly educated political refugees and ex-patriots (note that wealthier migrants are usually called ex-patriots). The Greek authorities owed nothing to these foreigners, who knew better than to expect anything from the Greek state in any case; the foreigners in those days were really a matter of indifference in all senses of the word. So long as they were not committing crimes, and in particular, selling drugs or getting up to any other kind of behaviour defined as troublesome by the Greek police, foreigners were allowed to just exist in Athens, and do what they liked. That is not what the law said, of course; it is not what the bureaucratic system required, either; but it’s how people lived. It was even relatively easy to live without the right visas and other paperwork. So long as you did not get in the way of anybody powerful, life went on.


My family first stayed in Piraeus in 1963, for a few months before we moved to the island of Lesvos for several years. Piraeus, as Renée Hirschon richly reported in her ethnography, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe - a book title that may well be needed again for another population of Greeks in the coming years of the 21st century - was one amongst many areas in and around Athens that had experienced a huge influx of refugees from the Asia Minor crisis in the 1920s.4 Prosfiges. That was the period when the Greek word for ‘refugees’ began to carry particular weight and significance in the country. As Hirschon records on the first page of her ethnography, land was put aside for these refugees in the outskirts of Athens and in Piraeus. These people were officially defined as ‘coming home,’ in a sense: Greek Orthodox peoples sent to Greece when the Ottoman empire, their former home, ceased to exist, as a place. But as Hirschon also records, Greece felt foreign to the newcomers, and they confronted significant levels of prejudice. This was not for the first time, of course: Bastéa reminds us,5 as do both James Faubion and Michael Herzfeld in different ways,6 that in the early period of the Greek state in the 19th century, there were heated disagreements about who counted as a Greek and who did not, which was based as much on how recently people had migrated to Greece, and what part they played in the war of Independence, as it did on any concepts of blood or soil. The 1920s arrivals were something of a repetition, then, of migrants who are, to a greater or lesser degree, Greeks.


That 1920s period marked two things about the relation between Athens and migrants. The first is that it established a material, embodied link between the city and other parts of the world, as well as between the city and transnational organizations such as the League of Nations, which oversaw the compulsory movement of populations between Turkey and Greece.7 And second, it established a social context in which strangers arrived in the city in very large numbers, all at once. The sheer quantity of people was a major characteristic of the migration during that period. Much the same is also true today: a perception of the sheer numbers of the new arrivals to Athens, particularly of people who have no safe place to go, has taken many people’s breath away.


Of course, a crucial difference between the 1920s mass migration and the current period is that in the 1920s, the influx of population was carried out by transnational agencies as an official policy agreed within the Lausanne Convention of 1923, which had the explicit aim of exchanging large portions of Orthodox and Muslim populations between the new Greek and Turkish territories. In the current period, there are no coordinated transnational policies that are intended to move populations from one place to another. Rather, there is a post-Bretton Woods chaotic scramble for resources and power, an ongoing battle, just about everywhere in the world. Some people call that chaos the outcome and clear logic of neoliberalism (and in anthropology, Chris Gregory and David Graeber are two of the better known ones who call it that).8 This neoliberal, no holds barred, scramble for resources has created multiple regions in the world where life has become so harsh, either because of ongoing violent conflicts or because of extreme lack of resources or opportunities, that people are driven out to look for something else, some way to survive. Many of them head for Europe. And as an outcome of a range of border control programs deployed in recent years around the outer edges of the European Union, the vast majority of undocumented people trying to enter the EU from these troubled places have been trying to enter through Greece over the last five or six years. The majority of those people end up in Athens, one way or another, at least for a time. As in the 1920s, the sheer numbers of migrants has made it feel like a crisis, piled up on top of the financial crisis. And the media helps to encourage that sense, reporting it as a crisis within a crisis. The European Union has made the migration crisis worse in Greece, many say, through its Dublin II Agreement, which requires undocumented migrants to be returned to the country of first entry into the EU.


Unsurprisingly then, the majority of the Greek border police have been deployed in Athens in recent years, for that is where the migrants are. It is not really possible to fully patrol the borders at the edges of the territory, neither in the Evros region in the northern mainland, nor the multiple areas of access to Greek territory by the sea. Even with the additional work of Frontex, that EU-commissioned border security organization which carries out various operations at the edges of the EU’s territories, huge numbers of undocumented travelers still make it onto Greek territory. In truth, most of them do not think of it as Greek territory, but as EU territory. That does not matter to the people in the Greek population who regard the issue as an ‘invasion’ of foreigners on their national land, but it does matter in understanding what kind of border work is being done in trying to manage this influx of people: it involves the management of a transnational border (an EU border) that has had pressure put upon it by peoples driven out of their own places by the chaos created by a political economy that has little respect for borders of any kind - political, social, environmental, economic. In any case, both for political and pragmatic reasons, the border police have to be in Athens, and have to look like they are doing something.


It was different in Athens a few years ago, in 2008, just before the financial crisis changed things dramatically. In Sintagma Square in August 2008, the police were the ones who dealt with the undocumented migrants. They were dressed like police as well, rather than dressing like armed military, and there were not very many of them. The illegal traders would put out their stalls to sell their goods - handbags, umbrellas, children’s toys, cigarette lighters, household crockery and cutlery, all kinds of things. And the Athenians would browse these stalls, looking to see if there was anything interesting in amongst all these things that were made in China and arrived into the hands of the migrants, who were not from China, by mysterious routes. Then the police would arrive, the traders would pack up within 20 seconds and run away at high speed. When the police were gone, the traders would come back, and the whole thing would be repeated again in a little while when the police patrol returned.


That’s how it was just five years ago. It’s hard to remember Sintagma Square in that way now. Omonia was a little harsher, there were already quite a few tensions developing there, and in Exarheia too. But the harshness with which the border police now deal with the issue is something else again: an order of magnitude different from the earlier period to such a degree that it has become a different kind of phenomenon. The cat and mouse game of 2008 allowed a mutual recognition that everyone involved had a job to do. The dynamic in more recent years seems to be based on no recognition at all: the perceived sheer scale of the problem has made it impossible, it seems, to see any of the people involved in it as people. They are migrants or they are border guards, and neither category appears to recognize the other one as anything other than a category.


Everyone knows it is not only the borders guards who are confronting the more recent migrants. Members of Golden Dawn are out on patrol regularly, wearing their uniforms that echo and borrow from the military style of past dictatorships. They go out in order to defend Greece and the Greeks, they say; they go out in order to ‘sort out’ the migrants, as an act of patriotism. Except for their tendency to valorize violence, they remind me of Harel Shapira’s account of the Minutemen of Arizona, in his book, Waiting for José.9 The Minutemen (named after the men who needed to be ready in a minute to defend America in the earlier period of that country’s history)are patrolling the US-Mexican border on behalf of their country, they say. The Minutemen (some of whom are actually women) are unpaid, unofficial, and their aim is to stop migrants from crossing into the United States. Shapira points out in his ethnography that many of the Minutemen are much like the rest of the population in their political and social views; the difference is not nearly as sharp as some of us would like to believe. A similar point was made by Douglas Holmes about the growth of the far right in Europe, in his book, Integral Europe.10 The reasons that the police, border guards and general population end up being harshly prejudiced against people who have left deeply troubled parts of the world and come to Europe in search of something better, is not a straightforward matter. It is full of moral, social, economic, and political knots and tangles that makes it actually quite difficult to disentangle from ourselves, to keep ourselves separate from it. Edward Said suggested a long time ago (in Orientalism)11 that many ideologies have a tendency to avoid confronting the negative, dark, side of ourselves by ascribing those characteristics to others, to the ones we can legitimately condemn for being in some way lacking - usually morally, but perhaps in other ways as well - for example, having some deficiencies in modernity or education. Of course, the ignorance of prejudice and bigotry must be challenged whenever and wherever possible; but there is an equal responsibility to examine whether elements of that ignorance and prejudice reappear in the way that the bigotry is challenged. It’s a knotty issue.


Besides the battles going on in the streets and in the ‘no-go’ areas of Athens, the areas that ‘decent people’ would never go, there are also other places where the migrants can be found, behind closed doors and away from the gaze of the heavily armed border guards. For example, there are care workers of all kinds working in the homes of the people who possess more money than time. Those migrants are protected by their patrons, some say; others say they are something between prisoners and slaves, having replaced their own family and home for somebody else’s, in the hopes of sending money back and making things better for the next generation. Those people might get out on a Sunday afternoon, to breath a little in the park, but not always. They are an invisible small army, keeping things going in Athens, despite everything else falling to pieces. In focusing on what happens in the streets between border guards and migrants, the less eye-catching aspects should not be forgotten.


Concluding remarks


There are three main points about this situation with migrants in Athens that this short intervention is trying to make.


First: it is not the first time there has been the sudden arrival of large numbers of people from elsewhere in this city. Deeper historical comparisons would be worth making. Both in the past and in the present, particular forms of relations and separations with other parts of the world are as important in understand what is going on with migration in Athens as studying the events in Athens itself.


Second: one distinctive aspect of the migration on this occasion is that it is part of a particular form of political economy, which some call neoliberalism, that is nowhere near as focused or organized in its movement of populations from one place to another as previous political and economic interventions have been.


Third: the scale of the arrival of migrants in Athens is a key element of the current perception of it as a ‘crisis’ . This has also changed the nature of the border guards’ response, as well as increasing its scale.


Finally: the implication of all of this is that the borders being both crossed and policed in this situation are different in quality from the 20th century model of state borders for quite some time. In particular, it is one example of how different parts of the world are entangled with one another (knotted, meshed) rather than being separate entities that are interrelated.



Bastea, Eleni. 2000. The creation of modern Athens: planning the myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clogg, Richard. 1986. A short history of modern Greece. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Faubion, James D. 1993. Modern Greek lessons: a primer in historical constructivism. Princeton, N.J.; Chichester: Princeton University Press.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: the first 5,000 years. New York: Melville House.

Gregory, C. A. 1997. Savage money: the anthropology and politics of commodity exchange. Amsterdam; London: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Herzfeld, Michael. 1986. Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece. New York: Pella Publishing Inc.

Hirschon, Renée. 1989. Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

—. 2003. 'Unmixing peoples' in the Aegean region. In Crossing the Aegean: an appraisal of the 1923 compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey (ed.) Renée Hirschon. New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp. 3-12.

Holmes, Douglas, R. 2000. Integral Europe: fast-capitalism, multiculturalism, neofascism. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Said, Edward W. 1991. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Shapira, Harel. 2013. Waiting for José: the Minutemen's pursuit of America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yalouri, Eleana. 2001. The Acropolis: global fame, local claim. Oxford ; New York: Berg.




by Athena Athanasiou

States of crisis
The state of crisis as a mode of neoliberal governmentality raises difficult questions about the links between precariousness and action, shame and solidarity, dispossession and intimacy. More specifically, it compels a consideration of how precariousness might shape political action, how a sense of shame might (or might not) trigger practices of solidarity, and how dispossession might (or might not) become the occasion for re-imagined and re-activated intimacies. Current regimes of neoliberal governing through crisis management bring forth the (economized, but also gendered, sexed, and racialized) subject as a performative political arena of vulnerability and precariousness. They also bring forth the ways in which subjects are interpellated into crisis politics as subjects of vulnerability and precariousness.

In this context of crisis discourse, new configurations of crisis and critique are emerging with reference to questions of what counts as crisis and how critical responses are articulated. In other words, the question of thinking critically in times of crisis emerges and persists. This question(ing) involves also taking into consideration that critique is always already in crisis, as it pertains to interrogating the terms which determine what counts as an ontological claim. Thus, critique is about provoking crisis to established truth claims, including the truth claims of crisis.

In this sense, I suggest that we consider Judith Butler’s engagement with Michel Foucault’s well-known essay “What is critique?” They both pose the question of critique with reference to forces of subjectivation, self-formation, and de-subjugation. Foucault writes: “Critique will be the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability. Critique would essentially ensure the desubjugation [désassujettissement] of the subject in the context of what we would call, in a word, the politics of truth.” [1] And Judith Butler responds thus: “But if that selfforming is done in disobedience to the principles by which one is formed, then virtue becomes the practice by which the self forms itself in desubjugation, which is to say that it risks its deformation as a subject, occupying that ontologically insecure position which poses the question anew: who will be a subject here, and what will count as a life, a moment of ethical questioning which requires that we break the habits of judgment in favor of a riskier practice that seeks to yield artistry from constraint.” [2] To echo Butler’s formulation, I would like to argue that what is at stake in current regimes of crisis is precisely a contested domain where subjects “risk their deformation as subjects”, “occupy ontologically insecure positions”, and, at the same time, “yield artistry from constraint”. In this text, I propose to explore current neoliberal governmentality as a distinct assemblage of power, knowledge, and subjectivity.

Biopolitics and governmentality of crisis
The current regimes of crisis provide the grounds for a critical re-engagement with, and a critical re-imagining of, who counts as part of the public; how the political is performed; how and where it “takes place”; what qualifies as political subjectivity, and how it is gendered, racialized, and classed; how are bodies subjugated and de-subjugated in these times of neoliberal governmentality and precarization?

In light of this questioning, I argue that neoliberalism is not just a mode of capitalist financialization in the strict sense, but rather a more encompassing regime of truth and a more diffuse matrix of social intelligibility, which includes particular modalities of power, subjectivation, governance, self-governance, and self-formation. Such modalities take the interwoven forms of biopolitical (self-)management, self-interested and competitive individualization, securitization, responsibilization, a reconfigured relation between public and private, and a particular logic of economy and the market.

As “crisis” becomes a complex assemblage of power relations which both manage life and expose to death, the “state of exception”, which is usually deployed to signify the element of emergency at the heart of the normative administrative discourses of crisis, proves to be not exceptional but rather ordinary, systematic, canonical, and foundational. The normative terms of subjectivity emerging from such configuration are defined by exclusionary norms of gender, capital, and nation. It is through such (un)exceptional forces of power and subjectivation that crisis becomes the production of life and death as economic and political currency, as an economic and political ontology of life-and-death itself.

In the analytics of biopower developed by Michel Foucault, if sovereignty seeks to rule on death, biopolitics is about administering “life” through managing surplus populations. In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault suggests that liberalism is the paradigmatic mode of governmentality for the exercise of biopolitics. Liberal forms of governing, contrary to the police-like political doctrines of Raison d’État, entail a limiting of the power of the state. The role of the state and state institutions is to ensure and safeguard the pervasive functions of the market. As Foucault writes: “One must govern for the market, not because of the market” (Birth of Biopolitics, p. 121).

In this context, one must account for and critically engage the significant trajectories in Foucault’s method from the introduction of the concept as an aspect of his engagement with the problem of sexuality in The History of Sexuality (1976) and, especially, from a more totalizing treatment of biopolitics as a modern configuration of power in Society Must Be Defended (1976) to the lectures of 1978 (Security, Territory, Population) and 1979 (Birth of Biopolitics), where different co-present modes, structures, and techniques of power (i.e., the disciplinary, the juridical, security, population) are presented in their hierarchical correlations, re-articulations and transformations. In Security, Territory, Population, biopolitics is interrelated with questions of governmentality (the linking of governing [“gouverner”] and modes of thought [“mentalité”] and what Foucault calls “apparatuses of security”; in fact, biopolitics tends to be analytically displaced by the idea of “governing” and the organized practices (mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) through which subjects are governed. In this text, Foucault addresses the “pre-eminence over all other types of power –sovereignty, discipline, and so on- of the type of power that we can call ‘government’” (STP, p. 108). In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault seems to deploy governmentality to signify power relations in general. In this text, he continues to pursue the theme of a governmental rationality which seeks maximum effectiveness (in mastering life) by governing less, and focuses on a detailed analysis of the forms of this liberal governmentality, including the role of neoliberalism in twentieth century politics.

So in order to deal with the multiplicity of directions in Foucault’s work on biopolitics and his closely connected discussions of governmentality, it is important to account for the ways in which biopolitics, in the form of a crisis-oriented normalization, gives the ground for today’s re-articulation and re-configuration of governmentality. This perspective runs counter to a teleological conceptualization of governmentality as a form of rule which gradually displaces those technologies of power, namely sovereignty and discipline, that are considered archaic, more “repressive”, “authoritarian”, “irrational, and “uneconomic” than governmental technologies. In this light, neoliberal rationalities and techniques of power involve an articulation between “productive” and “destructive” aspects of power, discipline and freedom, choice and competition, authoritarianism and self-determination, subjectivation and subjection.

Neoliberal governmentality denotes an authoritative apparatus of producing dispensable and disposable populations, and, at the same time, producing and demarcating the normative codes of the human by regulating the (economic) vitality, affectivity, potentiality, embodiment, vulnerability and livability of subjects. Within the purview of this governmentality, the biopolitical imaginary and administration of life and death is reinvented, revitalized, and reconfigured, as resources and vulnerability are differently and unevenly distributed among different bodies – differently economized, racialized, and gendered bodies.

Thus, in the Greek neoliberal context of plurality of power technologies, steep economic disparities and deprivation, the normalization of poverty and the widespread condition of precarity are combined with, and supplemented by, various forms of securitization, such as tightened migration policies, the abjection of undocumented immigrants, as well as an intensified politics of racism, sexism and homophobia. Economic hardship and austerity measures required under the bailout, loss of jobs, pay cuts, disposable labour, unemployment, pension reductions, poverty, evictions, loss of dignity, and the dissolution of the public healthcare system are attended by an overall authoritarianism: emergency legislation is deployed to curtail rights; a citizenship law repeals citizenship rights for second-generation migrants and increases the number of years of residence and schooling that the children of immigrants need to prove before they are eligible to apply for citizenship; governmental invocation of an emergency law and the “threat of civil disorder” forces strikers back to work; the Health Minister targets HIV-positive women as a “public health bomb”; and the police detains trans people in order to “clean and beautify the city”.

Emergency politics, emergent politics
As crisis management turns into a crucial mode of neoliberal governance through a political and moral economy of life itself, at the same time, new radical movements are emerging in different parts of the world as well as different topologies where these movements are being performed. As people are forcefully relegated by the market logic to subjugated subjects and disposable bodies with no rights, new modes of agonistic embodied citizenship have been emerging, through which challenges to neoliberal policies have been posed.

Crisis becomes an arena in which different forms of publicness are enacted and negotiated. As emergent subjectivities, affective communities, and spaces of non-compliance take shape in various multilayered city-scapes of crisis, different forms of civic protest address a range of concerns including austerity, the privatization and corporatization of public space, poverty, precarity, social injustice, and state authoritarianism.

In this sense, as present neoliberal regimes increasingly expose to death, through differential exposure to the injuries of poverty, demoralization, and racism, a performative politics of protest emerges, one which mobilizes the radical potentiality of transforming such injurious interpellations. Assembled bodies in the street, but also in various collectivities and alternative networks of solidarity (often organized in ways alternative to the archetype of the heroic activist), reclaim the unconditionality of public space, demanding a democracy with demos, and enacting a demos with differences.

The tension between, on the one side, the differential distribution and regulation of the terms of precariousness as an instrument of neoliberal governmentality and, on the other side, the struggle to reclaim the terms of a livable life without erasing vulnerability is precisely what I would like to call “precarious intensity”. Precarious intensity implies an agonistic (instead of antagonistic) way of attending to vulnerability; an agonistic engagement which often takes place within a contested public space, or within a contested realm of embodying public space.

The state of crisis, where people are (differentially) faced with economic dispossession, the political violence of authoritarianism, and a state of deadly living, has inspired a philosophical critique of neoliberalism based on a theoretical reconsideration of Foucault’s conception of biopolitics, especially its emphasis on making live and letting die. But how might we rethink biopolitics as a performative resource for agonistic political engagement and contestation? How might we think together a politics of emergency and a politics of emergence? [3] And, to further complicate this line of inquiry, how should we reconsider this question taking into consideration that “emergence” is also one of the administrative, managerial, and affective modes deployed by neoliberal governance?

The figure of the emergent resonates with Jacques Derrida’s notion of arrivant, as a disposition to the other, and an openness to what lies outside of oneself. In this regard, it indicates the moment of the possibility of an impossibility: a radical transformation of the social and political (rather than merely economic) ontologies upon which neoliberal governmentality is founded. Taking up such line of investigation would help make us attentive to the manifold, plural, and contradictory ways in which “emergence” might signify and complicate the unexpected, the dissonant, and the subversive; how it could be reclaimed by an aporetic ethics and poetics and thus be activated as a trans-formative critique of the fixed totality and propriety inherent in states of emergency that structure and regulate our present governmentality.


[1] Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) (1997): 41-82 (p. 47).

[2] Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” (Transversal, 2001).

[3] Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.



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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...