The biography of steel

Bourdieu defined habitus as ‘history transformed into nature through the amnesia of genesis’. The urban landscape, seemingly robust and immovable, in contradistinction to our temporary and precarious lives is imposed on us as given, natural and unchanging. Two basic materials stabilise it: concrete and steel, the two becoming a single flesh to make reinforced concrete, a weapon of mass construction.

If we follow the trucks as they rush to the construction sites to empty the concrete they carry in their bellies – the «cows» as the cement workers call them – they will lead us to the silos that feed them and the furnaces nested in those plants. These furnaces burn the clinker to bind the sand – mined from rivers and quarries around the city – with water and make the concrete that is carefully unloaded in liquified form onto the steel rods at the construction sites.

The biography of concrete is simple to trace compared to that of steel. Steel’s circulation is not easy to track. For steel’s biography to be written, it’s not the  of truckers we need to follow but the  scrap collectors.


Ramadan carries his heavy trailer on Giannitson Street, scanning Thessaloniki’s West side for leftover metal. The iron trailer he drags is sponsored by a blacksmith who now trades in scrap iron, yet the benefactor is not the selfless creature of the heavens. He assembled scattered iron bars from his scrapyard, welded them and made a masterpiece provided to Ramadan, priced at 100 euros – with an interest of a pound of flesh per day – to collect his harvest from the city’s garbage bins, to locate the dismantled space abandoned daily either on the sidewalks or inside the long abandoned carcasses of buildings left dead by debt. 

He has divided the surface of the trailer, placing large carton boxes to sort his harvest quickly, on the spot: a carton box for iron, one for copper, one for bronze, one for aluminium, one for items of potentially high value that Ramadan cannot value himself. After so much exposure to the hardships of this casual labor, he is trained to quickly calculate the weight of his harvest, translate it into the approximate money sum to estimate early on the day whether the sum will be enough to buy him the products to meet his daily needs. That is as far as his plans can reach.

The price of scrap

The scrapyard owners trust capped the prices. At best, iron fetches 17 cents/pound, aluminium 1 euro, bronze 3, and copper can go as high as 5. This is the highest the price can get, but there is no bottom. How low the price can drop depends on three fundamental factors: 

(i) the immediacy of the collectors’ need. If the collector is facing the need to eat immediately and if this is apprehended by the scrapper, he might be pushed to sell a day’s harvest for the price of a sandwich to be consumed on the spot to give him the calorie inputs necessary to keep him going; something I saw repeating time and again.. If the collector needs to get rid of a stolen object the room for negotiation is thin as the the scrapper’s refusal increases the chances of his arrest.

(ii) ethnicity and affiliations. If the collector’s ethnicity is related to that of the merchant or not, determines whether their bond is stronger than a simple transaction and is regulated by custom that prohibits the extreme exploitation over the collector.  

(iii) But mostly it depends on how vast the surplus population is. If the collectors are numerous, they are easily replaced, but if they are not, their redundancy costs the scrapper an indispensable worker.

At its peak, the Greek debt crisis provided surplus people in abundance, recruited from unexpected places. It was no longer the refugees and the Roma who had to slave off to the scrappers, but also the new poor, the ‘guys next door’ who suddenly lost their secure jobs, their houses, the ground under their feet, and started selling property to pay debts or get food. 

The value chain of scrap was also hit hard. The crisis sacked those scrappers who were exposed to debt and rent, but strengthened those who owned unencumbered land and had enough money to withstand the pressure. They could buy whatever the old and new poor handed over to them for a scruple of its value, stored it and waited until the price went up to sell dear. Now!


Kathimerini’s frontpage is the daily prayer of the Greek liberals, yet the prayer of November 3rd included an extract from a speech smothered with hate. The scribbler of a piece entitled ’the vulnerable social groups’ writes: ’I don’t disagree that members of vulnerable social groups do hard and unhealthy jobs. It is not easy to grab copper, railway or telecommunication cables. The state has provided them with housing so they don’t have to live in nomadic camps, yet they continued to live the way they lived in the camps.»

The text points to the Roma and its author is a columnist who belongs to that category of scribblers who has taken up the defence of the ‘normal, ordinary, average Greek householder’, the mythical figure encapsulating the ‘normal’, which, according to its defenders, has been under constant threat, ever since the Greek political economy of bribery and clientelism imploded, about fifteen years ago. In defence of this mythical householder and in his name, a number of social groups are being branded by the preachers as the sources of our ordeal. At the beginning of the crisis the ‘others’ were the over-indebted citizens who rightly lost their homes, then it was the subsidy receivers who were siphoning off the state coffers, then the refugees who are criminals and now the Roma who are grabbing copper.

The libel has found its audience and its results are tangible. At every news item about metal theft the eager public points the finger at the Roma and so does the long arm of the law, which has become much heavier, incriminating the ‘thieves’. And the police steps in to respond to a clear message: ‘Fight poverty, kill a Roma!’ On 22 October 2021, during a car chase, 18-year-old Roma, Nikos Sambanis, was shot dead in Perama (Athens) for not responding to a police sign to stop. On 5 December 2022, 16-year-old Kostas Fragoulis, from the ghetto of Diavata (Thessaloniki), was shot dead because he left a petrol station without paying 20 euros of gas. In November 2023, another 17-year-old Roma from Aliarto (Boeotia) was shot dead for ignoring a police signal.

If habitus is to turn history into nature through the amnesia of genesis, racism is to turn history into biology, to turn socio-economic differences into differences of substance, to stipulate that these differences are enduring and unchanging in the past, present and future. Racism is to homogenize, to portray all members of a social group as fundamentally similar with enduring qualities in order to justify treating its members differently. And the racist prayer of Kathimerini provides all that is needed to naturalize, essentialize, homogenize.

But there are also things Kathimerini’s scribbler deliberately does not provide. It doesn’t provide us the fact that there is  no generalisation of the phenomenon of theft, but a vigilante police reaction and media reports about it. It does not provide us that thefts associated with the Roma population are a thin fraction of the total number of thefts, an adjunct to a regime of entrenched precariousness. It doesn’t provide us the most important information: the scrap’s cheap price is a precondition for the continued profitability of the steel industry: this scrap ends up in the furnaces of the industrialists who build the new city for the wealthy. The spaces of the surplus, the ghettos of the Roma, the dismantled neighborhoods in the western districts exist not against the new spaces of wealth, but as a precondition of those.


The crisis wiped out the Greek steelworks – six plants in total -. Angelopoulos’ Steel industry was drowned in debts and Manesis’ industry was crippled when, in order to reduce its debts, sold its major plant to HIG Capital, turning it into a logistics centre. The furnaces left alive, are the cheaper and flexible electric arc furnaces that do not process raw iron ore but feed on secondary material – scrap. 

Two things go into an electric arc furnace: scrap and the electrodes that melt it with a current. But electricity has gotten very expensive lately, the rentiers controlling electricity production and distribution suck both the household’s incomes and the industrialists’ profits. And as the price of electricity rises, so must the price of scrap become cheaper to postpone the industrialists’ extinction. The remaining steel mills rely on cheap labour and the low cost of scrap guaranteed by the daily police hunt, and indirectly, the receptacle of acceptance moulded by the Kathimerini’sdaily prayer.

Policing the crisis

Stuart Hall was writing about the policing of the crisis in Thatcher’s Britain, about the doctrine of law and order activated by the police and the criminal justice system to alleviate the moral panic created by the media around mugging. Yet the current doctrine of law and order not only favours a political system that invests in the rhetoric of security and punishment but also ensures the devaluing of casual work that is criminalised. The greater the penalty for misdemeanours, the more dangerous the theft, the more hasty the sale of raw materials, the greater the profit margins for those in powerful positions in the scrap chain, with the furnaces of the big industries crowning the top.

On the construction sites erected in our cities – to accommodate the ghettos of the rich, the hotels stacking tourists, the shopping malls and the logistics centers filled with goods that we cannot buy – the urban space is dressed with the billboards of the industries involved in its making. 

The «low carbon steel» where concrete is poured in liquid form, however stable it may seem, is product of a generalized instability, mass precarity, of the dismantling of the impoverished space that melts in the furnaces to provide raw materials to build the cities of the rich. Cheap raw materials for the making of a space that displaces the poor and as it does so outsources responsibility and blame at its scapegoats to justify their premature deaths.

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