Unearthing the contentious notions of citizenship of the crisis-driven neoliberal restructuring: from aesthetized to dissensual practices of producing the common space in Thessaloniki, Greece | MARIA KARAGIANNI & MATINA KAPSALI

August 19, 2014


Greece, like many other countries of the European South, is experiencing a severe financial crisis which affects every aspect of the social, political and cultural life of the country’s inhabitants. It is centrally projected as a situation that requires sacrifices from everyone and becomes the legitimization base for a number of hegemonic exclusionary practices. In the midst of the crisis, the representations based on the individual responsibility form and legitimize the austerity discourse and create a culture of consensus both in the collective and individual level. Hence, this “more-than-financial” crisis gives birth to a series of new imaginaries, discourses, spatial configurations and subjectivities. Meanwhile, a numbers of riots, revolts and strikes challenge the neoliberal social and urban restructuring. From the December 2008 youth uprisings [1], to the Indignados movement and the occupation of Syntagma square, different groups of people attempt to create new collective forms of everyday life [2,3].

The central argument of this article is that active citizenship and participation in the production of the common space of the city should be re-evaluated and re-located in a political process of emancipation and equality. In doing so, it explores the emerging types of subjectivities within the context of the crisis-driven neoliberal urban restructuring. In particular, it investigates two paradigmatic examples of citizen-organised actions in Thessaloniki, Greece, namely the city’s “active” citizen group, Los Lampicos on the one hand, and the Occupy ERT movement on the other. Through this, it aims to challenge understandings of space and notions of citizenship as already formed and stable physical or conceptual entities and attempts to unearth the contentious urban space in the midst of the ongoing financial crisis in Thessaloniki.

Thessaloniki: Many Stories, One heart? // The conflictual urban space of Thessaloniki in the midst of the “more-than-financial” neoliberal crisis

After just a short walk in the city anyone can spot its chosen branding motto “Thessaloniki: Many Stories, One Heart” [4], written on nearly everything. From banners to garbage bins and garbage collection tracks, and from the municipality employees’ T-shirts to tourist leaflets, the city’s choice for advertisement is its long-gone (but still remembered) multiculturalism. Less than a century ago, the city was filled with Muslims and Jews but not anymore; yet, it is not that the city is not multicultural now. Immigrants from Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East create their own realities while performing everyday life. But this is not the glamorous multiculturalism that is used for city branding.

During the last decades, many scholars have examined ‘neoliberalism’sparticularities as a political project, its hybridities as an institutional matrix, andits mutations as an ideological construct’ [5, 6, 7, 8,9]. Here, neoliberalism is not understood as a pure or completed project but it is essentially understood as a dynamic and ongoing process [10] of social and spatial transformation. Highly contextual and deeply rooted in state power and its exercise, neoliberalism never ceases to evolve, reinventingitself, as Brenner and Theodore argue [11], in the process. Based on this historically and geographically contingent understanding, ‘neoliberalization is not the end of politics’, but a process of restructuring of the social relations and of re-definition of the power relations [12], which are undoubtedly materialized in space. In this continuous process, which is intensified in periods of crisis, there is a wide range of subjectivities that emerge and affect the production of urban space[13] in diverse forms, from (re-)producing processes of exclusion and enclosure, to producing the emancipatory common space of their everyday life.

Thessaloniki, having a population of approximately 878.000 people [14], is the second biggest Greek city and attains the role of the cultural and youth centre of the country since decades. During the period of its economic development (‘90s), it hosted and organized many cultural events, such as the European Cultural Capital. As we demonstrated above, even during the crisis, culture is projected at the hegemonic discourse as an important asset for the city’s “exit” from the crisis and its development. The city attempts to become a city-break destination and a number of urban regeneration and city branding strategies are employed. Yet, urban space is never totally completed but it is the battlefield where contested interests (in terms of class, gender, race and culture) are set. In other words, it ‘is in constant flux between those who seek to deprive it and those who seek to expand it’ [15]. In the following part, we seek to unearth the diversity of the actors and subjectivities that emerge and affect the production of urban space.


“Los Lampicos” group in Thessaloniki: Individualizing responsibility through vigilant citizenship

In the midst of the financial crisis, neoliberalization emerges as a process through which each of us should “manage” her/his own survival [16] and undertake the ethical and political responsibility of her/his everyday precarity. The exemplary citizen of this era recognizes that the state withdraws, takes different forms and shifts its political responsibility related to public education and health, collective contracts of employment, housing and so on. Through this biopolitical citizenship, the existing inequalities are exacerbated and new ones emerge. Those that do not fit in this process are recognized as strangers, are controlled and isolated [17]. As Judith Butler emphasizes the state of exception is a process for the management of the everyday life which produces subjects that count and subjects that are just counted [18]. So, through this process “life” relieves itself from the beaten and precarious elements and becomes safer and cleaner, without having the need of the direct exercise of state violence.

In the same line of argument, Newman [19]supports that during the last years there is a shift in the neoliberal urban governance, with the entry of new active actors in it. Privileged groups of citizens, organized in “grassroots” organizations are now undertaking the previously conceived as “public” responsibilities and celebrate their autonomy from state’s authority. Moreover, they employ practices and language that ‘valoriz[e] neoliberal notions of managerialism and entrepreneurialism’ [20] and consequently de-politicize the social and political conflict over space. Vigilant citizenship, as Newman[21] calls it, includes the individualization of urban subjectivities which are henceforth subjected to a neoliberal logic of accountability. So, the active citizens of the new socio-spatial order are responsible for the regularization of the marginalized or delinquent subjectivities of the city and their control and surveillance. From now on, the neoliberal enclosure is not only expressed spatially through fences and doors, but it is also expressed through the creation of different kinds of subjectivities and spaces.

One of the basic characteristics of vigilant citizenship, as described by Newman, is the “do-it-yourself surveillance” of urban space in order to re-appropriate the latter. “Do-it-yourself surveillance” requires that inhabitants take part in the reproduction of a spatial regime of control and assume responsibilities normally associated with the state, which in this case, includes helping define and delimit the proper public in a city park’ [22]The exemplary citizen does not claim anything from the state, but becomes “the businesswoman/man” of her/himself. She/he thinks individualistically, strategically, operationally and antagonistically [23], based, as Lemke [24] points out, on the paradox that ‘inequality is equal for all’.

In Thessaloniki, there is an ongoing discussion around the role of the citizens in the midst of the “more-than-financial” crisis. According to the dominant discourse, urban inhabitants should not stay at home in front of their TV’s and just criticize the situation,but assume responsibility over their neighbourhoods. Following this, a group of “indignant” citizens, called Los Lampicos(in Greek, ‘lampiko’ means ‘very clean’), was formed last December in order to keep the city clean. They first gathered on the occasion of the graffiti and tags made by ARIS’s (the city’s second biggest football team) fans in the recently regenerated waterfront during the celebration of the team’s 100th birthday. Since then, they started meeting every Wednesday to clean the city’s newly regenerated waterfront from what they judge as non-artistic graffiti (that is mostly text graffiti). Here, it is important to mention that the group obtains the needed equipment for the cleaning process through donations from private stakeholders (mainly cleaning supplies corporations) [25].


“Volunteerism is the utmost expression of democracy”, says the volunteers that participate at the Los Lampicos group.


In an interview [26] with Los Lampicos, two women that perform perfectly the role of the traditional Greek mother, present the work of the group. The first joke made by the journalist during their discussion, which was more than welcomed by the group’s members, was related to the group’s gender dynamics. He made a direct connection of Los Lampikos’ members with the traditional roles in couples, where the woman is the one who cleans and takes care of the house while the man is responsible for the household’s earnings. During the interview, group members state that in these hard financial moments of the crisis, it is important that every inhabitant should actively participate at the preservation of Thessaloniki’s commons. They continue by highlighting that the large amount of the “European money”, as they call the projects’ financing scheme, that was invested on the regeneration of the waterfront should not be forgotten.

Based on the fact that city’s space is our space and that the ugly image of the city could not provide a way out of the crisis and become a generator of economic growth, it is a matter of civilisation to keep it clean’.

Moreover, they make a direct statement about their individual responsibility of controlling the waterfront with bikes from the people who do not comply and continue littering the space [27]. Besides, as they argue, “volunteerism is the utmost expression of democracy” [28].

This comes to be added to the recent proposal of Yannis Boutaris, Thessaloniki’s mayor, for the active social role of the elderly in the protection of the squares and the playgrounds from delinquent or marginalized groups. Within the context of the pre-election period, the now re-elected as Mayor, Boutaris supported that there is the need to employ diverse solutions for the urban problems. That is because, according to him, the local government does not play a crucial role and the decisions are mainly taken from the central government. Moreover, as he states, the instable economic situation has played a crucial role, as it impeded the implementation of certain municipality ideas. Making a walk around a secured with high fences playground the mayor said

‘our idea is to utilize KAPI [Open Care Centres for the Elderly] members as volunteers for the guarding of the area. In pairs of two or three, they will walk around and tell to the addicts “take your things and leave; otherwise I’ll immediately call the police”. Of course, the volunteers should be active citizens. We did not want to get to this point but unfortunately the increased delinquency forces us to do so’ [29].

Both the aforementioned (existing or proposed) resident-operated practices seek to manage the urban space as a common, but result in reducing it to a technical and totally aestheticized issue,divorced from issues of power, class, race, gender, sex and cultural difference. This leads to the de-politicization of the urban inhabitant’s role and the individualization of responsibility. Yet, what exactly does this common purpose stand for? And how is common space produced?


Towards the emancipatory common space: the Occupy ERT movement in Thessaloniki

The city as the space of everyday encounters and conflicts is the terrain where struggles and resistance are staged. It is the site of commoning and the common itself. Most of the discourses around the commons during the last years revolve around the access and distribution of the commons and not their production [see for instance 30, 31, 32, 33], based on a notion of the commons as natural or at least given. Yet, the common is not always a pre-existing entity. On the counterpoint, ‘the common is dynamic and artificial, produced through a wide variety of social circuits and encounters’ [34] and so is the urban space. De Angelis [35] emphasizes that the everyday practices could incorporate the potential decommodification of urban life. In and through the emancipatory common space, subjects create their own time and place in the here and now, they ‘produce their own geographies, [to] think, [to] play, [to] seize the terrain that is allocated to the bourgeoisie’ [36]. ‘The subject appears in space and transforms both him-/herself and the socio-spatial configuration through performative practices of dissensual spatialization’ [37].

In the morning of the 11th of June 2013, Greece’s neoliberal government announced the Orwellian, complete and sudden shutting down of ERT (Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation) and the consequent dismissal of 2.700 employees. Of course, this is not an isolated gesture as, during the last years, there has been a series of privatizations of previously public organisations and companies, such as the –highly contested- selling of OPAP (Organization of Football Prognostics Inc), ‘the state gambling monopoly and the country’s biggest sports sponsor’ [38], to Dimitris Melissanidis, a Greek businessman and ship-owner, and the announcement of the privatization of the public water companies of Athens and Thessaloniki. However, this attack to the public character of basic goods and services did not go uncontested. At that time, all over the country different kinds of social movements of solidarity emerged or evolved. From the movement against the Goldmines in Chalkidiki and the SOSte to Nero (Save Water) campaign in Thessaloniki, to the Without Middlemen Bazaar movement, people were taking matters into their own hands. Nevertheless, ERT represents a unique case as it forms a direct attack to free speech and democracy. ERT broadcasted without interruption during the last 75 years and its interruption shocked the population. The interesting point here is the way that such a move was legitimized and presented by the government. According to Simos Kedikoglou, the government’s press representative:

‘at a time when the Greek people make sacrifices, there is no time for delays or hesitations. As there is no space for tolerating the “sacred cows” that remain intact when cuts are imposed everywhere. […] The Greek Radio and TV station (ERT) is a characteristic case of unique money waste. And this will end today […] The government has decided to close ERT. […] The ERT’s transmissions stop after the completion of tonight’s programme. And in ERT’s place, a modern, public –but not state- organization of broadcasting will be created’ [39]

Directly after this announcement, the ERT worker’s representative called the people to a massive demonstration ‘not only for ERT, not only for their jobs but for democracy as well […] for the current situation, for the blatant repression, for all these that we should defend and we didn’t’ [40]. Tens of thousands of people immediately reacted and gathered inside and outside the ERT’s station in Thessaloniki, standing in solidarity with the employeesand occupying the broadcasting stations. At the same time, demonstrations of not only national, but also international solidarity took place [41,42], while ERT workers occupied its headquarters in Thessaloniki and started broadcasting the first bottom-up, collectively organised and managed TV programme in the country’s history. That Thursday, a general strike was organized and the people occupied once again the city’s squares. ‘ERT should be open at the society, its contradictions, its problems, its anxieties, its ideas and its actions. ERT should be open at culture and its diverse tendencies and dynamics’ [43].


Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in front of the ERT’s building in Athens during the general strike on Thursday 13th June 2013.


Many researchers and activists [see among others 44, 45, 46] argued that the fight for ERT was a fight for democracy, society and culture. Of course, ERT’s occupation is not presented here as the ultimate paradigm of producing the emancipatory common space. On the counterpoint, it is examined as a moment, among others, of the creation of a common political purpose based on the search of emancipation. Its importance lies exactly on the time and the place, as emancipation is seen both as a socio-spatial practice and as a practice through which new subjectivities emerge. It ‘means perpetual contestation of the alienating effects of contemporary neoliberalization’ [47]. Besides, following Arampatzi and Nicholls [48] anti-neoliberal movements in Greece have strong urban roots, especially in the coutry’s biggest cities. The common space is produced as a space ephemeral and contingent which is never given a priori and it is not an ‘uncontaminated enclave of emancipation’ [49]. The subject appears in and through this space and is ‘constituting in the act of acting, not prior to it’ [50]. In other words, acting in the urban space is always surprising and unexpected and the diverse subjectivities that emerge always form themselves –who they are and what they do- in relation to others. When the routinized hegemonic ordering of things is disrupted and dissent is staged, urban space also entails the possibility of emancipation.

Actors of the urban space do not have pre-defined and given identities. ‘Freedom is realised in action, when acting with others and beginning something new; equality is taken as a given to be verified in actual instances of staging it’ [51]. Besides, as Jacques Rancière emphasizes ‘the art of emancipation is precisely to get out of this relationship between means and ends’ [52]. Emancipatory practices do not work as the creation of the conditions of a better future but move ‘beyond any meaning’ [53] and are continuously re-examined and re-produced, here and now, ‘where we are’ [54].


To summarize, we argued that neoliberal restructuring brings a new social and urban order through which urban inhabitants re-imagine and re-invent their role. Moreover, neoliberalization serves as a fruitful ground for the production of new subjectivities and spaces but also bases its evolvement on the very same thing. Here, we explored two paradigms of emerging subjectivities, without yet supporting a homogenising and generalising approach. Moreover, this exploration was not based on the understanding of identities as given and stable, but rather as something that never ceases to mutate and evolve. So, in Thessaloniki during the last years, two -very different- groups of citizens, among many others, affect the production of space. Namely we observe (i) the “active” citizens, that aim to re-appropriate urban space through initiatives that celebrate their independence from any state factor, but welcome the support of private capital; and (ii) others that move in and against the existing order and challenge the continuous deterioration of their lives based on the staging of dissent and the creation of new ways of everyday living.

In the first paradigm, that of the Los Lampikos, participation in the urban commons is a form of a-politicized charity action and not solidarity, which is based on divisions between you and Iand the reproduction of inequalities. Besides, as mentioned before, they have a reduced understanding of democracy that deifies volunteerism, while at the same time they are acting as the regulators of public space. Thus, their participation results in being a process of technicalities and consensus building without questioning the pre-existing power configurations [55]. On the antipode, the creation of the emancipatory space in ERT’s paradigm moves towards the staging of democratic politics. Democratic hope is always constructed within a specific place and time, it can continuously change by the participants and can never be institutionally guaranteed and protected [56]. Based on this analysis, we suggest a re-politicization of the discourse around participation in the commons of the city. According to this, active citizenship is formed from the complexities of people’s lives, their needs and desires, creating times and ‘spaces of collective lives’ [57] and resistance.


MARIA KARAGIANNI  is a PhD student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.Maria’s research interest is on urban green spaces, urban political ecology and the urban commons. She holds a bachelor and a masters degree in Architecture from AUTH, and a masters degree in Global Urban Development and Planning from the University of Manchester.


MATINA KAPSALI is currently a PhD student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and her research revolves around mobile cultural policies and the urban commons. She holds a bachelor and a masters degree in Architecture (AUTH), and a masters degree in MSc Global Urban Development and Planning (University of Manchester).



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