City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.


Crisis, Right to the City Movements and the Question of Spontaneity: Athens and Mexico City

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.


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