by Andreas Chatzidakis, Royal Holloway, University of London
A Consumer City in the Making
I grew up in Athens throughout the 80s and 90s, in the midst of a transition period that brought dramatic changes to the Athenian cityscape. In many ways, the “ancient city” was in a fully-blown and ferocious transformation into a “consumer city”. For despite the ubiquitous view of the Acropolis and other ancient sites, Athens began to look more like any other European “future-oriented” city: introducing some of the biggest shopping malls in Southeast Europe, iconic buildings by celebrity architects, bigger and wider motorways for ever-so-bigger and wider cars, new museums, urban lofts, retail parks, theme parks, and various new cafés, artspaces and multi-purpose buildings for an emerging and increasingly confident “creative class” (Florida, 2002). By 2004, the year of hosting Olympics, Athens was keen to erase its more recent memories and eager to fetishise antiquity in its rebranding as a world-class destination. Major facelifts and investments in urban infrastructure had turned the city itself into an alluring object of consumption: contemporary yet rich in history, sophisticated, even as “chic” as Parisi and as “creative” as Berlinii, and above all full of opportunities for consumption catering to all cosmopolitan tastes and sensibilities.
But the transition of Athens into a city of consumption was far more pronounced not in the physical surroundings but in the everyday logics and practices of its residents. In the neighbourhood I grew up, and which in many ways epitomised the Greek model of urban gentrification, the formation of new subjectivities akin to the neoliberal consumer-citizen began to manifest in all spheres of daily life. At least for some time, nearly everyone seemed blessed with the freedom of experimentation and identity differentiation through the acquisition of an ever-expanding list of consumption objects. Soon it became not only about what people were consuming but also where, marking the formation of neighbourhoods with distinct class identities. Popular songs and TV series, for instance, narrated stories of people from different districts of Athens (middle versus working class) that were to fall in love and strive a life together despite different class-related tastes and sensibilities. For a city that never underwent a process of heavy industrialisation and class-stratification, as for example Paris or London, this was a remarkable cultural shift. Concurrently, some academic studies began to take note of Greece’s transition from a “collectivist” to an “individualist” culture (e.g. Pouliasi and Verkuyten, 2011).
A Contested Consumer City
The years of the Athenian spectacle ended violently and abruptly in December 2008, uncovering various underlying tensions and contradictions, not least in the consumption-led model of urban development (see Vradis and Dalakoglou, 2012). Capitalist “cracks” (Holloway, 2010) and “societies within societies” (Papi, 2003) began to appear in various parts of Athens and beyond. One of the most striking examples, for instance, was what is now known as “Navarinou park” or “the park”, a former parking lot that was turned into an open squat by Exarcheia-based residents (and other enthusiastic supporters) who, in the aftermath of the 2008 riots: “….united to squat on the space and demand the obvious, that the parking turns into a park! They broke the asphalt with drills and cutters, they brought trucks carrying soil, planted flowers and trees and in the end they celebrated it”iii. Operating on the basis of self-management, anti-hierarchical structuring and anti-commercialisation, the park aspired to be:
… a space for creativity, emancipation and resistance, open to various initiatives, such as political, cultural and anti-consumerist ones. At the same time, it aspires to be a neighbourhood garden which accommodates part of the social life of its residents, is beyond any profit or ownership-driven logics and functions as a place for playing and walking, meeting and communicating, sports, creativity and critical thinking. The park defies constraints relating to different ages, origins, educational level, social and economic positioningiv.
Consumerist society and atomised logics and practices were at the heart of critique in various other “here and now” experimentations with doing things differently. There was a collective, for instance, that directly traded with Zapatistas and various other alternative trading networks that brought together politically like-minded producers and consumers without intermediaries. There were also various no-ticket cinema screenings, collective cooking events, time banks, gifting bazaars and “anti-consumerist” spaces where people could come and give, take, or give and take goods without any norms of reciprocity. For a consumer researcher, post-2008 Athens seemed to be an ultimate laboratory where alternative tactics of consumer resistance and modes of consumer-oriented activism were constantly tried out.
A Failed Consumer City
Fast forward five years, however, theories and critiques of consumerist society and possessive individualism (Graeber, 2011) have to a certain extent been made redundant. As Skoros, an anti-consumerist collective put it:
“When we started Skoros... everything was easier. It was much easier to propose anti-consumerism, re-use, recycling and sharing practices. Later however the economic crisis arrived―of course the social and cultural crises pre-existed―and made us feel awkward. How can one speak of anti-consumerism when people’s spending power has shrunk considerably? How can one propose a critique of consumerist needs when people struggle to meet their basic needs?...” (leaflet by Skoros, Dec 2011).
Indeed, Athens is now by and large inhabited by people who can no longer fully express themselves on the basis of what they consume and where. Their city is no longer a “world-class” city for consumption (Miles, 2010) and cannot pretend to be so either. After all, it is the capital and by far most populous city of the first developed country to be downgraded to “emerging” market statusv. By 2014, the average Greek salary was reduced by 40%vi. In many ways, the consequences are far more pronounced in Athens than anywhere else. The once well-to-do Athenian middle-classes now parallel the world’s so-called “emerging middle-classes” in reverse, experiencing everyday precariousness and the fears of “falling from the middle” (Kravets and Sandikci, 2014)―and straight onto the poverty zone―in an unprecedented magnitude and scale. Increasingly, Athenians approximate Europe’s “defective” and “disqualified” consumers (Bauman, 2011, 2007), unable to fully define themselves neither in terms of what they consume nor what they produce: with unemployment rates hitting a record 27% across the entire population and over 50% among the youthvii.
Present-day Athens is the world’s “failed” consumer city par excellence: comprising “zombie” retailscapes for increasingly disempowered consumers who still mourn the dramatic decline of their spending power and unfulfilled consumer desires that seem all the more unreachable. I have seen, for instance, various individuals visiting gifting bazaars and desperately trying to revive consumer fantasies and a “customer ethos” remnant of a not-so-distant past where much of their leisure time was spent around department stores. I have heard of others that walk into stores and pay a small deposit to reserve items, pretending they don’t know that they know it is no longer possible to return to buy them. In a (European) society of consumers, “a world that evaluates anyone and anything by their commodity value” (Bauman, 2007, p. 124), both Athens and its residents have comparatively little, if any, status.
To the untrained eye―and a remaining Athenian elite that still lives within secluded walls of excess and affluence―it may be difficult to fully grasp the depth and the breadth of such failure. After all it is still possible to consume Athens subject to (carefully) guided tours and the (fragile) success of various “re-thinking” and “rebranding” projectsviii,ix. According to the New York Times, for instance, the city is “surging back”, a testament to that “vibrancy and innovation can even bloom in hard times”x. Potential visitors are rest assured that various neighbourhoods have witnessed a “resurgence”, are “quickly gentrifying” and getting a “cultural lift”xi. Indeed, some streets of Athens are still buzzing and there are various new “entertainment zones” where opportunities for hedonistic pursuits and “experiential consumption” (e.g. Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982) abide. But the proliferation of new cafés and budget eateries is also understood in the context of the heroic Athenian entrepreneur who, facing dire prospects, invests in small businesses with low start-up cost and (at least) some potential of reasonable profit margins. More profoundly perhaps, they can be understood in the context of the (failing) Athenian consumer, who having lost their ability to assert themselves through more traditional performances of conspicuous consumption, invest in “low-involvement” yet symbolic daily expenditures instead. Put differently, these new sites of consumption represent a very last but much-needed resort for consumption-mediated expressions of identity positioning and differentiation.
Athens is Calling: From Solidarity Across Difference and Distance to “In-Group” Solidarity
“….How can we insist that ‘we are not a charity’ when poverty is next to us, around and above us and it is growing massively? How to counterpropose solidarity and community when the crisis isolates individuals and makes them turn against each other?...” (leaflet by Skoros, Dec 2011)
Against such dystopian present, solidarity was bound to surface as a keyword. But it is hardly a new word in the streets of Athens. In my first systematic photographic recordings of graffiti, posters and various flyers around the city (back in 2008), “solidarity” was already everywhere: from calls in support of comrades facing juridical charges to supporting under-paid (and non-paid) workers; from Athens to Mexico and into Palestine; from race to age and into gender. Soon after the crisis, however, discourses of solidarity diversified and multiplied. Various social actors began counter-proposing their own solidarity logics and practices. The notion itself became a symbolic battlefield where even the most accountable for peoples’ misfortunes claimed part of the pile. The government, for instance, soon introduced its own version of additional “solidarity taxes”. It was now as if all other taxes did not have to do with solidarity. Meanwhile, in collaboration with various marketplace and religious actors, Sky TV―a pro-establishment broadcaster―launched a relatively successful campaign titled “Oloi Mazi Mporoume” (United We Can), comprising “actions for the collection of food, medication and clothes for those who need them as well as scholarships for those children that want to further their education but cannot due to financial difficulties”xii. Any willingness left to extend solidarity across difference and distance was therefore displaced into firmly depoliticised acts of pitifulness, supporting an implicit ontological understanding of the crisis as accidental rather than systemic (Harvey, 2010), a temporary rather than prolonged state of being (Agamben, 2004). Thanks to Sky TV’s campaign Greece’s youth could still further their education had theywanted to; and presumably enjoy a life of linear chronological progress (i.e. from education to full-time employment) once the painful years of crisis are over.
Concurrently the strengthening of ingroup-outgroup categorisations and practices of othering undermined universal solidarity. For instance, Golden Dawn, a political party with explicit links to Nazi ideology and which won 7% of the vote in the last national elections (July 2012), performed solidarity through the creation of migrant-free zones (Vradis and Dalakoglou, 2010). Among others, proudly Greek citizens concerned with the rise of migrant-led crime could now enjoy benefits such as guarded walks to ATMs. A kind of walk that for psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein could be read as the projection of paranoid-schizoid mechanisms into the other: including migrants, antifascists and homosexuals. Soon Golden Dawn also introduced soup kitchens and solidarity trading initiatives ‘from-Greeks-for-Greeks-only’. As I have illustrated elsewhere (Chatzidakis, 2013) the struggle was no longer only about urban space but also the phantasmic realm of commodities. From Zapatistas coffee to so-called “fascist rice” (rice circulated in solidarity trading networks by right-wing producers) and “blood strawberries” (named after the racist shooting and injuring of migrant strawberry pickers by their bosses) the Athenian’s shopping basket was full of street-level politics.
For most Athenians, solidarity therefore failed to channel itself into more politically progressive realms. If anything, it was the family institution and the notion of intergenerational family solidarity that took centre-stage to firefight the gaps left by the dramatic cuts in standards of living and the demise of the welfare state. Moving back with the parents and grandparents, having extended family meals, sharing salaries and consumption objects and trying to get rid of these that once a sign of freedom had now become burdens (e.g. expensive cars) became part of daily life. In Athens and beyond, an increasing number of people had no choice but to rediscover the pleasures and the perils of (extended) family living.
Athens in the Here and Now
“…We are not sorry at all, quite the contrary, that the current socio-economic system is in a deep crisis and we try, being part of the society, to put human lives above profits. In a capitalist system that is reaching its end, we are not going to feel nostalgic about the illusions of happiness offered by consumerist lifestyles but we are going instead to seek for novelty. We pose questions around degrowth, issues of scale and balance, and we deny the hegemony of financial profits. We propose small, “self-managed” communities and not gigantic multinational enterprises. We believe in solidarity, social support and collaboration and not in charitable giving. We are part of society, not its rescuers. Our suggestion is simple. We produce and share goods, services, knowledge. We become independent of the old structures and develop new ones. These new structures will cultivate an environment that will allow a way out of the current economic, social and cultural crisis. A way out on the basis of equality and justice…” (leaflet by Skoros, December 2011).
For those with an alternative vision of public and community life, one less mediated by consumption, the crisis represented a threat but also a welcomed opportunity for the cultivation of new ways of doing and thinking politics. An increasingly popular movement of “de-growth” (Latouche, 2009), for instance, called for redefining urban (and national) wealth not in economic terms but quality of life, social relations, equality and justice. But present-day Athens is far from having entered such “virtuous circle of quiet contraction” (Latouche, 2009). Consumers of the spectacular Olympics and super-sized shopping malls were forced to embrace less materialistic lifestyles but not on the basis of voluntary downshifting or some kind of “alternative hedonism” (Soper et al. 2009). Their way of living changed drastically but their political (consumer) subjectivities proved to be rather less versatile.
Concurrently, new politics of time and space stretched the Athenian antagonist movement to its limits. The utopian “here and now”, which largely inspired the formation of various “societies within societies” (Papi, 2003) and experimentations with doing things differently, was soon confronted by the “here and now” of the crisis: a different kind of spatio-temporal logics focused less on ideological imperatives and more on here and now pragmatism, an urge to attend to people’s immediate needs. In their attempt to firefight the various gaps left by the welfare state and to respond to multiple calls for solidarity beyond traditional territories, some social movements went on “automatic pilot” (emic term). Ideological principles had to be bracketed off, paying emphasis on “urgency”. For example, although alternative and solidarity-based economies continued to proliferate the imperative for “fair” and “transparent” rather than “low” prices became somewhat redundant. For most people participation in alternative trading networks simply made sense in their quest for lower prices. It was hard to blame them for doing so whilst watching them nearing (and falling below) the poverty line. Likewise, Skoros, the anti-consumerist collective who took a conscious decision to provide solidarity for all, soon turned into a space of “over-consumption”, catering to an increasing population of failed consumers who kept coming back to acquire more stuff they did not really need but could no longer purchase in the conventional marketplace.
There is currently widespread fatigue, anxiety, and an “overwhelming sense of futility” (Ross, 2014)xiii in the streets of Athens. But some find it hard to stop thinking and dreaming rather more dangerously. After all, the history of their city reminds that there will always be potential turning points and critical junctures that can trigger radical upheavals.
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