Return to normality, chapter one

by Nikos Vrantsis

A normal State

After the eruption of the greek financial crisis, the structural reforms introduced by the memoranda — agreed between the greek governments and the Troika (European Commission, ECB, IMF) — struggled to win popular acceptance, by utilising a discourse around the greek ‘exception’. The crisis was presented as an illness, a social pathology to be cured by the administration of a bitter treatment. The financial collapse was attributed to a peculiar greek immaturity. The country needed guidance and discipline in order return into the family of ‘normal’ states. Stigmatisation and shock were accompanied by the vision of remedy, projecting the bright future of a once again ‘normal country’ at the end of the treatment.

The management of the crisis, resulted in a wider intensification of social inequalities that deepened popular disappointment for both the dominant parties ruling Greece for decades (Pasok and New Democracy), and the European Institutions and generated distrust towards mainstream media of the country and worldwide. Street protests erupted, that eventually led to the emergence of the radical left party of SYRIZA as the main opposition expressing resistance to austerity.

SYRIZA was portrayed as a deviation from ‘common sense’ and was denounced as a ‘populist party’, the buzz name carelessly used to conceal the difficulty of a failing technocratic regime to understand the manifestation of popular unrest. The popular rage that fuelled Syriza’s electoral rise and final victory in the 2015 elections, was followed by a re-negotiation process of the memoranda. Since, the Troika would not accept any backslide, the negotiation process ended with Syriza’s compromise. Following a brief period of hope for ‘change’, the representative terrain was perceived once again as a staged game among parties that do not substantially differ and cannot anymore articulate a vision that goes beyond market dictations for balanced budgets, structural reforms and perpetual austerity. The chain of social demands, unified under the empty signifier of ‘hope’ that surfaced with Syriza, was broken.

The recent greek elections of July 2019, took place in the shadow of a dispute around the Prespa Treaty signed between Greece and North Macedonia to end a decades long disagreement on the name of the neighbouring country. Street protests spurred against the Treaty. The demonstrations were galvanised with a discursive phantasy portraying protesters as ‘true Greeks patriots’ struggling against political ‘traitors’, ‘ethno-nihilists’ and ‘anarchists”, all ‘trojan horses’ to the sacred greek cultural and national heritage. During the protests a number of squats were set on fire, collectives and individuals were lynched, bars labelled as hangouts of ‘traitors’ were destroyed.

The ‘populist moment’ of 2015 gave way to a ‘nationalist moment’, re-ascribing to New Democracy’s confrontational discourse against the Treaty a hegemonic appeal. Despite its de-facto acceptance of the Treaty after its electoral victory, New Democracy is still considered the main institutional representation of the recent national demonstrations with a mandate to defend ‘greekness’ and protect national identity.  The discourse plea for a ‘return to normality’ was resurfaced as a discursive tool to articulate demands that would at the same time be celebrating the exodus of core state authorities from the national regulation and their transfer either to supranational institutions (EU, ECB, IMF, Frontex) or private corporations, while preserving the nationalistic reflexes mobilised during the protests.

The current rise of authoritarian neoliberalism enforced by a State that is stripped in its core military and police functions, can be understood, albeit tentatively, as a governmental project that uses its reduced social, political and economic means to produce targeted and systematic divisions, insecurity and abandonment resting, inter alia, on a renewed national and ethnicized demographic renewal and anti‐immigrant sentiments.

A ‘normal’ neighbourhood

Exarchia was the motherland of prominent figures of the Greek left; the nodal spot for the student rebellion of 1973 against the censorship and oppression of the greek Junta; a land of faith in a certain lifestyle that was not that of the majority. But it was also a focal point for incidents of police brutality; in November 1985, a police officer shot the 15-year-old Michalis Kaltezas, dead, causing extensive explosions of youth rage; in December 2008, another 15-year-old, Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot dead from a police officer on Mesologgiou Street. Beneath its symbols and mythology lies a cluster of squats and collectives trying to articulate an alternative to official, institutional politics and especially the institutional responses to the refuge crisis (camps and detention centres).

The stigmatisation of Exarchia, as a land of ‘abnormality’ was not a surprise. Exarchia’s long history of dissent towards institutional politics, its cluster of squats that claim people’s right to the city beyond State and Market forces, their clashes with fractions of the ‘patriots’ during the demonstrations against the Prespa Treaty, its proportionately large migrant population, as well as the journalistic framing of the neighbourhood as a land of perpetual uprising and criminality — that are indeed present in the Exarchia— were the main reasons for the neighbourhood to be labelled as the necessary ‘Other’ to be disciplined.  Exarchia, due to its historic gravity and anarchist tradition provides an ideal terrain for the new government to stage a symbolic fight to sustain its conservative electorate united under the discursive regeneration of ‘normality’ and its connection with the triptych of safety, economic growth, investments.

New Democracy’s ‘new normal’, willingly accepts the need for the continuation of structural reforms and the punishment of those who question its political goals. An example of the demands that are brought under the constructed category of ‘normality’ can be found in a response of Notis Papadopoulos — journalist of the respected center-right newspaper Kathimerini — to the opposition ’s claim that the ‘return to normality’ poses a threat for democracy. In his article entitled Looking for Common Sense the journalist writes:

‘SYRIZA apparently has not yet understood the reasons that led him to the great defeat of July’s elections. Citizens are primarily concerned with the safety of their families and their property, then with the education of their children, while also calling on the government to improve their standard of living with less taxation, better working conditions, a cleaner environment’ (Papadopoulos, 2019). The problem therefore is not anymore considered the result of rampant injustices or of a fatal flow inscribed in the system but are blamed on an ‘abnormal’ phenomenon causing insecurity, the resolution for which resides in the system itself.

Political and journalistic discourses

The journalistic framing of Exarchia as a host of “abnormality” and a “no-go zone” to be uprooted can be traced back to 1984, when a then young journalist reported on the neighborhood: ‘after drugs and anarchists, now came the punks with their heads shaved, with their hair looking like brushes often painted in different colours; begging, scaring old people, leaving beer cans everywhere, urinating in public.’ A few months later, in 1985, police forces deployed the so-called ‘Operation Virtue’ to uproot the anarchists and Punks from the famous Exarchia square and restore order. The current discourse on ‘normality’ follows a similar pattern.

The political focus on Exarchia began with a series of pre-electoral videos of political candidates promising to make Exarchia a ‘normal’ neighbourhood. In one such grotesque video that spiralled a series of ironic comments, Thanos Pleuris, a far-right political candidate and current MP of New Democracy, released a video from Exarchia, in an early morning, hours before the elections, whispering the following promise in a wary manner: In the 8th of July we will deliver the square back to its people. We will end lawlessness and sanctuaries. With New Democracy, Exarchia square will become a normal square, once again’.

Another political candidate, Constantinos Bogdanos, uploaded a picture in front of the Police Station of Exarchia, twitting: ‘Yesterday night, I visited the Police Department of Exarchia. A state of abandonment and siege. But the Exarchian no-go zone and sanctuary is about to fall. The first decisive step will be taken on the 7th of July.’ The discourse is formulated in a rather conflictual vocabulary with warlike analogies. Exarchia is a ‘sanctuary’ of ‘abnormality’; a police department is ‘under the siege’; the ‘occupied’ zone of Exarchia needs to be liberated and delivered back to the citizens.

The ‘return to normality’ is not exclusively focused on Exarchia, but is connected with a set of political goals, as a broader ‘normalising’ plan to be applied on individuals, physical spaces, relations, institutions etc, exhibiting remarkable fluidity. ‘Normality’ acquires an economic meaning indicating, for example, investment friendly policies, in an investment-friendly country, city and neighbourhood, and the creation of a safe environment that is connected with more businesses, less taxes, more security. ‘Normality’ is also connected with the suppression of alternative forms of political actions and notions of citizenship that defy the State’s political monopoly. Finally ‘normality’ is connected with social and individual ‘pathologies’ that account for the anti-social behaviour located particularly in the neighbourhood of Exarchia. This is how the liquid concept of normality is solidified, spatialised and localised in a neighbourhood.

It is worth referring in some detail to an indicative example. In an article published in ‘Proto Thema’ — the newspaper with the largest readership nationwide —, a few days after the victory of New Democracy, journalists Makis Pollatos and Grigoris Giovaras, sketched the five hot priorities that the newly elected government had to deal with in order to ‘restore normality’. Among the proposed legislative reforms, the divestment of public assets and the restructuring of the national energy supply company, the reader finds the task of restoring order in Exarchia to be a priority:

‘Dealing with widespread lawlessness in the country has been a top priority for Mitsotakis’ government and Minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrysochoidis. They have cultivated high expectations. The abolition of the ‘Exarchian sanctuary’ is a de facto, urgent necessity for the message of change in anti-criminal policy that will from now on be applied, to be sent.’

Moving to an economic connotation of ‘normality’, in his inaugural speech for the new year, Prime Minister Mitsotakis, characteristically stated: ‘…a long cycle of demoralization, insecurity and demagogy ended. The July 7th elections paved the way for less taxes, better jobs and more security. Greece no longer has capital controls. Loans are provided on the most favourable terms ever. And new investments are creating jobs. Mitsotakis continues: ‘Citizens are now paying lower property taxes, lower taxes in general, while universities are gradually returning to students and teachers. And neighbourhoods are returning to their citizens. But we are still at the beginning of a difficult road to regenerate our homeland… Normality can easily turn into a mess unless it is characterized by speed and dynamism.

When officials are called to describe in more detail what ‘normality’ involves, its connection with an overall restructuring of the State and society along market lines is clearly revealed. In September 2019, for example, in response to a question about the increased police presence in Athens and Exarchia, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, replied:

The main issue of Exarchia is not repression…Yes, if there is a public offence, the police must intervene. That is what ‘return to normality’ means, for the city and for the country. It is true that there is an increased police presence. This is for a good purpose; for the security of the citizens. Security is a precondition for freedom and economic growth’.

‘Normality’ is constructed as an objective that all ‘normal’ citizens (should) embrace and adopt. Here governmental and mainstream journalistic discourse seem to be in line, fuelling each other and providing mutual support. In a response to claims that the cornerstone of the ‘new normal’ is an authoritarian, police-State, the Minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrisohoidis, declared: ‘It is clear that citizens demand the right conditions to rebuild their life plans (…). Today there are 5-6 police officers in every neighbourhood, patrolling every day. You (Syriza) were absent. This effort will continue. We understand the need for poor citizens who demand security.’

Crucially, in order to acquire political effectivity in the face of oppositional discourses, the ‘new normal’ seems to have relied on the production and demonization of its ‘Other’. If previously the ‘Other’ was ‘populism’, now that the compromises of Syriza render it unavailable to be that ‘Other’, the vacuum is refilled with another ‘pathology’. Exarchia seems to be directly implicated in this function; it emerges as a condensation of everything pathological and evil: irresponsibility, criminality, immorality, corruption, destruction, irrationalism. It is not anymore a diverse and resourceful neighbourhood, but a negativity that by its mere existence, proves the value of the positive empty signifier of ‘normality’; not only is it to blame for the spatial crisis, but it is also the main cause that obstructs the implementation of the required rational solutions (police patrols, economic growth, investments).

The use of force during evictions, the criminalisation of anarchists and refugees,  the controversial repeal of the academic sanctuary law, comes with an intensification of ‘broom operations’ and mass police paper checks based on racial profiling. Those who deny the reality produced by the new impetus are labelled as radicals, not anymore to be found in a ‘populist’ party but in a neighbourhood. The ‘abnormals’ put themselves outside social order; they are dangerous individuals to be disciplined, chastised, incarcerated.

When asked about the police interventions and evictions of squats that sheltered refugees,  Stavros Balaskas, the former vice President of the Panhellenic Federation of Police, responded:Today a silent new technology started working; a vacuum cleaner; I mean the police, which will slowly suck out all the garbage from Exarchia… Of course I do not mean those people who are a simple, annoying but insignificant dust. As garbage I label the real garbage-people that are still staying in the rest of the squats that are occupied by criminals, extremists leftists and radical anarchists, special people.’

Refugees, leftists, anarchists, criminals, squats are all falling under the category of ‘abnormality’. The existence of criminality and extensive drug dealing in the neighbourhood is arbitrarily connected with squatters and refugees. In recent statement, Chrisohoidis, described squatting as an ‘epidemic’ and a ‘sticky disease’: Destruction becomes a habit. It becomes lifestyle. And the longer you stay unpunished, the more you get discouraged….very soon Exarchia will be completely cleaned. It will return to normality. You will be able to walk there without fear or terror, as you do in the rest of the neighbourhoods. It’s a matter of time.’ A medical, therapeutic repertoire is here utilized, and anarchism linked to criminality, is described as a serious illness, the result of a virulent pathology, calling for the administration of a precautionary treatment.

The denouncement of the ‘abnormality’ of individuals and collectives performs its political role more effectively when invested with an anthropological value. Hence, we often see the current ‘abnormality’ of Exarchia being opposed to ‘rationality’ and ‘common sense’: the universal features of the human species. Tasoula Karaiskaki, a journalist of Kathimerini, writes in a recent article:Exarchia is definitely a neighbourhood in constant warfare between guerrillas and MAT (Police forces), with virtual walls built by molotov cocktails, squats and graffities.’ And she continues to comment on the individual anti-social behaviours of the phenotype of squatters: ‘It is difficult to cure their derogation from the normality of the majority(…). They remain alive, successors of social deregulation, the visible end in a long chain of anti-social behaviours.’

The discourse established upon the ‘pathological’, individual behaviour, is met in a series of articles. In an article, entitled ‘Normality and Mihalis Chrisohoidis’, journalist Dimitris Gousetis writes:I cannot but express my relief for his (Chrisohoidis) consistency and effectiveness in cleaning this manure. Along with Niki Kerameos, they are the two ministers who fought the most against the organized hooligans that support drug dealers, the destroyers who dream of revolutions, the marginalized that seek revenge against a society in which they cannot exist.’ The manure conflates drug dealers, criminals, anarchists, revolutionaries, the unsocial marginalised and util

The strength of narratives is immense. The effects of words and intentions pronounced have a big impact on space and on the urban fabric. Overall, the empty signifier of normalisation is connected with a call to make Greece a ‘normal country’ and Exarchia a ‘normal neighbourhood’; that requires the internal normalisation of its urban spaces, neighbourhoods and individuals in order to proceed in its political goal.

However, the law and order political project that is currently developed is simply the first chapter in an upcoming wider project of structural reforms and deeper austerity. Giannis Palaiologos, a journalist in Kathimerini connects the law and order dogma as a first step to be followed by structural reforms, considered necessary for the country to get on the right direction:

On the ‘security’ front, despite the demonstration of excessive zeal from the side of police forces in some cases, the operation for the re-occupation of public-spaces, whether in Exarchia or in the University, are supported by public opinion. (…)Government policy is in the right direction, but current measures are largely embraced by the public, at no political cost. Necessary restructures and austerity measures in insurance, Justice, the public services, and the public administration have been postponed or diluted, possibly in fear of screams about ‘neoliberal’ politics and ‘class bias’.’

Last December, the government introduced its plan to sell thirty billion worth of non-performing loans to funds, at a fraction of the nominal price. The buyers will be entitled to demand full repayment. ‘Hercules’ the name of this plan, inaugurates a second chapter in this ‘normalisation’ process, one that will probably lead to mass evictions and foreclosures; one, that Palaiologos deems crucial. One that will probably expand the reach of ‘abnormality’ including people that are considered ‘normal’, for now.

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