Terminating the spatial contract: A commentary on Greece

3 July 2012

By  originally published at Critical Legal Thinking 

A very unusual thing happened on Feb­ru­ary 12thin Athens: the Greek cap­ital city went up in flames. Now, even the cas­ual fol­lower of events in the coun­try might spot some­thing pecu­liar in this sen­tence — not with the event described, but with the state­ment. Is that any news? Haven’t smoke and flames risen enough times to ques­tion that “Athens is burn­ing” is really that unusual? For the cas­ual fol­lower of Greek events the array of images of destruc­tion have become a series of near-unimportant blips. Ever so often, “Athens is burn­ing”. Some­where. But on that night, Athens was burn­ing. Everywhere.

And yet, in the years that pre­ceded the arrival of the IMF/EU/ECB troika in the coun­try, through­out the entire so-called Greek Meta­politefsi (the post-dictatorial era[1]), Athens wasn’t burn­ing just any­where — let alone, of course, every­where. Quite to the con­trary. The city saw pro­longed peri­ods (span­ning over at least three dec­ades) of remark­able con­cen­tra­tion of its world-renown skir­mishes between youth and police. These would often cul­min­ate in larger-scale unrest; riots or urban revolts — but one thing would almost never change: nearly without excep­tion, every single one of such instances in Greece’s post-dictatorial era took place in the cent­ral Athens neigh­bour­hood of Exarcheia.

“You are not in Exarcheia any­more”: Mem­bers of Delta, the rapid response motor­cycle police unit that was formed fol­low­ing, and in dir­ect response to the revolt of Decem­ber 2008.

This com­ment­ary attempts to explain how this con­cen­tra­tion of col­lect­ive viol­ence emerged and how this “viol­ence equi­lib­rium” that it cre­ated was inter­laced with the post-dictatorial régime as a whole. It explains the import­ance of the revolt of Decem­ber 2008 as a lim­inal event[2] — one that was sparked within Exarcheia but quickly exceeded its con­fines. Both a pre­de­cessor and an open­ing act to the cur­rent eco­nomic crisis, December’s revolt gave way to a period of viol­ence that was dif­fused across much of the Athenian entity — so far cul­min­at­ing with the wide­spread viol­ence of Feb­ru­ary 12th. The events of that night illu­min­ated an already sim­mer­ing dif­fu­sion of viol­ence, a long-time-coming ter­min­a­tion of the “spa­tial con­tract”: this impli­cit yet rigid agree­ment upon which a cer­tain level of social upheaval and unrest had become pos­sible within the lim­its of Exarcheia, under a mutual but muted under­stand­ing that such unrest would rarely, if at all, spill over to other parts of the city.

Exarcheia bound

Exarcheia, this small cent­ral Athenian neigh­bour­hood, is sur­roun­ded by uni­ver­sit­ies and much influ­enced by them: in both ways, it is defined by their pres­ence. The Law School of Athens Uni­ver­sity is adja­cent to it and the old Chem­istry School build­ing is here, too. But the cam­pus that has single-handedly marked the neigh­bour­hood belongs to the National Tech­nical Uni­ver­sity (NTUA, or Athens Poly­tech­nic: the Poly­tech­neio). It was right here, on the night of Novem­ber 17th, 1973, that an anti-dictatorial uni­ver­sity stu­dent upris­ing would be quelled by forces of the mil­it­ary junta (1967−1974) soon before the régime would reach its own end. The struggle of the stu­dents inside the Poly­tech­neio became a sym­bol of res­ist­ance against the old régime. By exten­sion, to be part of the Poly­tech­neio gen­er­a­tion became a source of legit­im­isa­tion within the post-dictatorial régime and by double exten­sion, a source of legit­im­isa­tion for the régime as a whole. In the post-dictatorial state the anniversary of the upris­ing became a school-celebrated National Day.

From the dawn of the demo­cratic era then, Exarcheia found itself hold­ing some­thing of an excep­tional status. In the years and dec­ades that fol­lowed the small Athenian neigh­bour­hood would play host to unrest of all dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes: commemorative/ritualistic riots on anniversar­ies of the upris­ing; at times weekly (per­haps even more reg­u­lar) skir­mishes between youth and the police that came hand-in hand with the grow­ing of a counter-culture also partly tra­cing back to the 1973 upris­ing. Last but not least, the revolt of Decem­ber 2008 would break out from the heart of the neighbourhood.

The ety­mo­logy of the word Exarcheia could plaus­ibly be of [ex] (bey­ond) + [archė] (author­ity). Never let the facts get in the way of a great ety­mo­lo­gical definition![3] Had this been true, it would quite lit­er­ally denote Exarcheia as a space of excep­tion — which it is, nev­er­the­less. The cru­cial dif­fer­en­ti­ation of the neigh­bour­hood is that instead of “con­firm­ing the rule” (as in the clas­sic defin­i­tion of Schmitt, 1985, also used in Agam­ben, 2005), Exarcheia defies the rule and by doing so, it legit­im­ises it. Para­dox­ical? The short answer is, quite! A more com­plete answer requires delving into this exact paradox.

Three c’s: con­tracts, con­sent, continuities

When accept­ing the power trans­fer from the Junta Gen­er­als in 1974, the Demo­cratic author­it­ies must have been fully aware of how dif­fer­ent their régime would be from its coun­ter­parts flour­ish­ing in the European core. To begin with it, was evid­ently poorer. A state that was there­fore for its largest part unpre­pared and unable to enter into a wide­spread social con­tract, this impli­cit agree­ment guar­an­tee­ing the con­tinu­ity of a régime and the sim­ul­tan­eous social repro­duc­tion of its sub­jects. Con­sent would not have been reached through wel­fare; the state was not rich enough to achieve this. And yet, there is one thing this part of the world has always been rich in, and that is the vivid spa­tial artic­u­la­tion of its polit­ics. The Ant­artes (Par­tis­ans) res­ist­ing the Axis Occu­pa­tion (1941−1944) and fight­ing the suc­ceed­ing Civil War (last­ing until 1949) βγήκαν στο βουνό (“went out to the moun­tain”) as the say­ing would have it, to join the struggle[4]. The pun­ish­ment of the dis­sid­ents of the Junta was also an inher­ently spa­tial one. Those fight­ing the régime — or sus­pec­ted of doing so — would find them­selves out­side the lim­its (in exile, εξ’ορία — lit. “bey­ond lim­its”) of soci­ety yet clearly at the very centre of the régime’s jur­is­dic­tion, its zone of control.

Both these events stemmed from actions that were far from vol­un­tary. The Par­tis­ans were forced to take to the moun­tains; the dis­sid­ents of the dic­tat­orial régime had the decision of exile made for them. But in the case of the demo­cratic régime suc­ceed­ing the Junta, the decision to place one­self in the ex-oria of Ex-archeia was largely vol­un­tary and recip­rocal: those find­ing them­selves at the mar­gins of Demo­cracy used Exarcheia to ground their mar­gin­al­ity. At the same time the demo­cratic régime allowed Exarcheia to become this site of ant­ag­on­ism, of dis­tan­cing from its rule, an inver­ted space of exception.

Why? Why would sov­er­eignty, how­ever impli­citly or par­tially, lift its rule from any seg­ment of its ter­rit­ory? There has recently been a grow­ing dis­cus­sion on a dis­junc­ture (or, in any case, a rear­tic­u­la­tion of the rela­tion­ship) between ter­rit­ory and sov­er­eignty. Agnew (2009) shows how the pro­cess of glob­al­isa­tion acts inde­pend­ently from state sov­er­eignty, fur­ther com­plic­at­ing (rather than weak­en­ing) its rela­tion­ship to ter­rit­ory. Elden (2009) explains how the rela­tion­ship between the two is recon­figured, par­tic­u­larly in face of the ‘war on terror’.

But the case of Exarcheia might be point­ing at another way in which this dis­junc­ture is artic­u­lated: as a space of excep­tion, of excep­tional unrest, Exarcheia out­lines the lim­its of the Demo­cratic régime, there­fore prov­ing it does, indeed, have a limit. Gone were the days of the dic­tat­or­ship, this total­it­arian régime, the days of the total. The new régime knew how to show restraint and Exarcheia was its tan­gible proof. And fur­ther: for the demo­cratic régime, the tol­er­ance of Exarcheia and the sub­sequent growth of a move­ment of res­ist­ance there sym­bol­ic­ally allowed it to claim a con­tinu­ity with the dis­sid­ents of the dic­tat­or­ship. By exten­sion, the wide­spread social legit­im­isa­tion of post-dictatorial Greek demo­cracy was built on this exact claim of con­tinu­ity with the anti-dictatorial struggle. This is key, not least because the trans­ition from dic­tat­or­ship to demo­cracy was exactly so: a trans­ition — more of the old régime hand­ing over power, less of the new one lay­ing claim upon and affirm­ing it through any kind of rup­ture. Yet still, a line of con­tinu­ity in social ima­gin­ary traced demo­cracy to the dis­sid­ents of the Junta. Thanks to the excep­tional site of Exarcheia, it became pos­sible for the con­tinu­it­ies between the dic­tat­orial and demo­cratic régime to appear closer to schisms.

The need for a régime to dis­tin­guish itself from its pre­de­cessor goes a long way back, it would seem. There is a clas­sic example (no pun inten­ded, eve if it is from clas­sical Greece) where régime rup­ture was artic­u­lated, once again, through a dif­fer­ence in the spa­tial exclu­sion of dis­sid­ents. For Sara Fors­dyke, ostra­cism (a tem­por­ary, demo­crat­ic­ally decided exile of an indi­vidual in archaic Athens) was “more than ‘a demo­cratic form of an elite prac­tice’”; it was pre­cisely an attempt by Atheni­ans to dis­tin­guish “demo­cratic rule from the forms of elite rule that had pre­ceded it” (2005: 2).

This slightly older Athenian example once again con­cerns the spa­tial exclu­sion of dis­sid­ents and the demarc­a­tion of con­tinu­ity between regimes through it. The sim­il­ar­ity is remark­able. The polit­ics of exile (per­man­ent; mass; undemo­cratic) versus ostra­cism (tem­por­ary; indi­vidual; demo­cratic) in archaic Greece. The polit­ics of no excep­tion (total­it­ari­an­ism) of an undemo­cratic régime versus the polit­ics of excep­tion (in the sense that they allow, that is, for excep­tions) of demo­cracy. Here lies the essence of the spa­tial con­tract. It goes far bey­ond an excep­tional site: it encom­passes sov­er­eignty, its sub­jects and the way in which they artic­u­late and reg­u­late their rela­tion­ship in pub­lic urban space. This, in turn, spans bey­ond the ques­tion of coex­ist­ence. Provid­ing and allow­ing for a spa­tial artic­u­la­tion of dis­sent, in the case of Exarcheia, replaced and dis­coun­ted for an inab­il­ity to reach social con­sent through wel­fare. Put simply, a social con­tract was unat­tain­able and the spa­tial con­tract came to the res­cue. Just like the social con­tract this con­tract, too, was unwrit­ten. And just the same, it was — ostens­ibly — recip­rocal but largely uneven. Although it was centred around Exarcheia it con­cerned a “viol­ence equi­lib­rium” that spanned (pre­cisely through the neighbourhood’s unrest con­cen­tra­tion) across the entire coun­try. A tur­bu­lent Exarcheia trans­lated into a largely peace­ful Greece. And what an achieve­ment this was, with much of the country’s tur­bu­lent imme­di­ate past being subdued.

Another three c’s: when fin­an­cial rat­ing down­grad­ing hits the streets

In the morn­ing of May 6th, 2010 Greece made global head­lines, once again. For the first time ever, a Euro­zone member-country turned to inter­na­tional fund­ing bodies[5] for a fin­an­cial loan[6] in face of the severe effect of the global fin­an­cial crisis upon its national eco­nomy. Not too long ago, the coun­try had once again been in the global spot­light (a never-ending occur­rence, it seems). The revolt of Decem­ber 2008 was sparked by the shoot­ing of a 15-year old boy, Alex­an­dros Grig­oro­poulos, by police in the heart of Exarcheia. How could the country’s two moments of fame relate to one another? Some were quick to brand the unpre­ced­en­ted urban revolt that fol­lowed the shoot­ing of Grig­oro­poulos as the first revolt of the global fin­an­cial crisis. Was it so? Decem­ber was a lim­inal event and — as with all lim­inal events — it is dif­fi­cult to trace whether it marked a begin­ning or an end. With its spread across Athens first, then Greece and par­tially even fur­ther bey­ond, the 2008 upris­ing may have been a pre­lude to the mass, wide­spread unrest that suc­ceeded it, marked and amp­li­fied by the arrival of the troika in the coun­try. This is most cer­tainly plaus­ible. But before it turned itself into this pre­lude, Decem­ber caused a severe dis­rup­tion to the exist­ing viol­ence equi­lib­rium: the spa­tial con­tract was ser­i­ously put into question.

The ques­tion of ter­rit­ori­al­ity of unrest is import­ant. The “spa­tial con­tract”, or the “viol­ence equi­lib­rium” does not denote a mere clus­ter­ing of unrest. It is not simply about pin­ning riots close to one another in a map; far from so. The ter­rit­ori­al­ity of unrest defines its social qual­it­ies and polit­ical value. Proof? For one, through­out Greece’s post-dictatorial era, the viol­ence equi­lib­rium did not just see a con­cen­tra­tion of viol­ence in Exarcheia. It saw a level and type of viol­ence that was both con­ceiv­able and man­age­able by the régime it was faced against: com­mem­or­ative riots essen­tially acted — for many — as a rite of pas­sage, as an intro­duc­tion to a tur­bu­lent national polit­ical life. The act­ors of the riot, and this is related, were pre­dom­in­antly homo­gen­eous in their com­pos­i­tion. Think young, male, white, and Greek; just like Grig­oro­poulos in 2008. Until the split-second of his shoot­ing the event fit per­fectly into the exist­ing viol­ence equi­lib­rium. But from the very next split second, it exceeded and unbal­anced it. This is pre­cisely how it was lim­inal. It exceeded the viol­ence equi­lib­rium not only by break­ing through the con­fines of the neigh­bour­hood; it was also a limin­al­ity inscribed in the act­ors of the revolt, unpre­ced­en­ted as they were in the mix­ture of their social and class com­pos­i­tion: migrants and school chil­dren, act­iv­ists and sports hoo­ligans, usual and very, very unusual suspects.

Fast for­ward now to the events of the night of Feb­ru­ary 12th. Inter­na­tional news cam­eras rolled, as build­ing after build­ing was engulfed in fire. For the dis­tant observer, the spec­tacle may have been hardly cap­tiv­at­ing; per­haps it would even bring some yawn­ing. But what happened on that night was not just unusual. It was — lit­er­ally — ground-breaking, shak­ing the found­a­tion of the spa­tial artic­u­la­tion in dis­sent in Greece; ter­min­at­ing its spa­tial con­tract. The act­ors in the freshest of urban revolts, too, have gone long past the limin­al­it­ies of Decem­ber 2008. School chil­dren, migrants, anarch­ists and Left­ists (in short, the usual sus­pects) found them­selves lost in a sea of new­comers to the streets. With the spa­tial con­tract out-of-the-way, the new ques­tions ahead are not merely about where but who and for what reason. With neo-Nazi sup­port­ers of the Golden Dawn affirm­ing their pres­ence in the streets (instances of racially-motivated viol­ence are daily). A “city-jungle” as per Fil­ip­pidis (2011), where “war reigns and the social con­tract is bur­ied”. Con­sent is bur­ied and ant­ag­on­isms beam naked in the urban ter­rain. An end of an era, an open­ing of another one. As always, his­tory is unwrit­ten and what hap­pens next is quite impossible to pre­dict. Yet in whatever fol­lows, spa­tially demarc­ated ant­ag­on­isms and con­sen­sual polit­ics are bound to be absent. All options are fully, truly and wide open.

From Soci­ety and Space: Envir­on­ment and Plan­ning D


Agam­ben, Gior­gio (2005) State of Excep­tion, Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press

Agnew, John (2009) Glob­al­isa­tion and Sov­er­eignty, Lan­ham: Row­man & Littlefield

Dalako­glou, D. (2011) “The Xeno­phobic City: Anti-migratory Viol­ence in Athensand the Exten­sion of the Bor­der in the Met­ro­polis”, Xeno­pho­bia and Philox­enia Con­fer­ence at the Neth­er­lands Insti­tute of Athens

Elden, Stu­art (2009) Ter­ror and Ter­rit­ory: The Spa­tial Extent of Sov­er­eignty, Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press

Fil­ip­pidis, C. (2011) “The polis-jungle, magical dens­it­ies and the sur­vival guide of the enemy within”, in Ant­onis Vradis and Dimitris Dalako­glou (eds) Revolt and Crisis in Greece, Oak­land, Edin­burgh and Athens: AK Press

Fors­dyke, Sara (2005) Exile, Ostra­cism, and Demo­cracy, Prin­ceton: Prin­ceton Uni­ver­sity Press

Schmitt, Carl (1985) [1922] Polit­ical Theo­logy: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sov­er­eignty, Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press

Stav­rides, Stav­ros (2010) Towards the City of Thresholds,Torino: Pro­fes­sional Dreamers


My warmest thanks to Dimitris Dalako­glou, Klara Jaya Brekke, Andreas Chatzida­kis and Hara Kouki for their feed­back and com­ments on the ori­ginal text.

Pho­to­graphs by Ross Domoney, used with per­mis­sion. See his web­site for more examples of his work.


1 Meta­politefsi lit­er­ally denotes the post-[dictatorial] régime; yet the term has been used col­lo­qui­ally to denote the Third Greek Demo­cracy (1974-present) in its entirety.

2 Limin­al­ity, from the Latin word limen, threshold — see Stav­rides, 2010. For a rich dis­cus­sion on the rela­tion­ship between the anthro­po­lo­gical rite of pas­sage and lim­inal state as a state of excep­tion, see Dalako­glou, 2011.

3 Warmest thanks to Demi Kazasi for shar­ing this idea. We already knew when dis­cuss­ing it that it was too good to be true! The neigh­bour­hood was named after Exarchos, a prom­in­ent local mer­chant who worked there at the end of the 19th century.

4 For a detailed descrip­tion of the inher­ent spa­ti­al­ity of con­tem­por­ary Greek polit­ics see Kali­anos, unpub­lished PhD Thesis,University of St Andrews,UK.

5 The IMF, EU and ECB — the so-called “troika”

6 A record €110 bn at the time, soon to be bloated to approx twice the amount.

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