Violence is a Small River: To be with Society is an Ocean.
An Interview with Athens Anti-Authoritarian Movement Comrades
This August I interviewed three comrades from the Athens section of the Anti-Authoritarian Movement of Greece (Alpha Kappa/AK in the Greek acronym). The folks I interviewed live in Exarhia, a neighborhood with a massive anarchist population in central Athens where the December 2008 Greek Uprising began, around which 200 police maintain a permanent security perimeter.AK, the largest anarchist organization in the country, is based around only three points of unity. These minimum core values are:
The antiauthoritarian character of its scope and frame.
The direct democracy in the way of decision-making.
The denial of occupation of any form of power.
Vaggelis Nanos is in his early thirties. He helped found Nosotros, the first and largest social center in Exarhia. He also works on Babylonia, AK's monthly publication which is distributed in kiosks across the country. Sofia is also in her early thirties, and is a member of the AK working group for the creation of an anti-authoritarian economy. Epaminontas “Nontas” Skiftoulis joined the movement at its beginning,around the 1970s struggle against the Military Junta. He is quite influential for his ideas and articulateness. Police also accused him of being a member of an early anarchist guerrilla group.
What have anarchists in Greece done well that United States anarchists might learn from?
Vaggelis, as a proud founding member of Nosotros, insisted that Social Centers are an integral part of successful modern anarchist movements. His argument, which included tours of some spectacular spaces, was quite convincing. “In 2005,” Vaggelis began, “we started Nosotros. It was the first time we thought about social centers. What remains from the December 2008 uprising is that we have many social centers, which are some of the best things anarchists have made here. Some of these are occupied, some are rented. Some are for winter, some for summer, like the self-organized park Navarinou.” Nosotros, like the other social centers we saw, is a large building with classrooms, computer rooms, libraries, offices, child-care centers, film and music spaces, and invariably an indoor bar for winter and an outdoor bar for summer. Navarinou in Exarhia is a rare place: a park in the concrete landscape of Athens. Once a parking lot, the people of the neighborhood tore up the pavement, put in soil, built a playground, planted trees and bushes, built a stage and some seats for discussions, music and film screenings, and thus created an autonomous park in a city sorely lacking in parks.
Vaggelis described the essential part Greece's social centers play in the struggle: “Firstly, they are spaces for meetings. Secondly, the free spaces are run by assemblies. So it's an experiment to see if we can run spaces completely with no leaders. So far, it's working. At Nosotros, we have lessons for immigrants, students, lessons in instruments, and more. If you know something, here you can teach it to others. The social centers are also the point from which we start to organize resistance to everything. When there is a problem in the neighborhood, we go there.”
What mistakes have the Greek anarchist made that we in the US may learn from?
Sofia told of an act that happened as the Greek Parliament was voting for the IMF bail-out: “On the 5th of May, 2010, there was a huge manifestation. People said they hadn't seen one so big since the first years of the dictatorship. During the manifestation, some people burnt down a bank and three people trapped inside were killed. It hasn't been proven that those who torched the banks were anarchists, but most likely they call themselves anarchists. That morning, society welcomed the anarchist ideas. After, we had to apologize for an incident committed by about three people who we feel acted against all those who participated in the demo. Maybe somewhere it's written that anarchists should burn banks, but we have to think about what's good in a certain situation.”
“Similarly,” she continued, “after December 2008, still the movement was going on, but a guerrilla anarchist group shot at policemen in Exarhia. Three hundred police were hurt during December, and the people were fighting alongside us almost every day in the streets. But one shot against one cop turned the people against the movement again. We took a step backwards.”
“There are many big mistakes, so what?” Vaggelis said. “But the idea that we know the truth is our biggest mistake. Most anarchists believe we know the truth and the people don't, so the people must follow us. For example, there was a park called the Self-Organized Park of Cyprus and Paticion. The people occupied the park and self-organized. Anarchists went there and said, "this isn't anarchist enough. We can't sell beer. We can't have this concert because the singer isn't anarchist." So in two month's time, the only people who went there were anarchists. Many times we prefer pure anarchy than to have a relationship with society. This is a mistake. Like Marxism and Stalinism, if you believe completely in it and don't allow criticism, we are no better than them. We go straight to one closed system.”
When Void Network comrades, Tassos and Sissy, came through Boston touring to promote their book “We are an Image of the Future,” they explained that Greek anarchists had the power on the streets, that they “could go to parliament tomorrow and throw them out, but then what?” Can you speak to this?
“Yes, we are very good fighters,” Vaggelis said, “but we don't have the ways to run society. We have no structure to offer. The truth is, if we want to have these structures we must build them with society, which knows how to produce, how to distribute the things she needs. Together we must plan the society we all want. We can't isolate ourselves. After December, many of us can see this problem. Maybe lectures are something society needs, but how are we going to take the products of the countryside to the city? We haven't found out yet how things will be after the revolution. How will we decide what kind and how much energy to use—gas, sun, solar, nuclear?"
“The point is, we need to build more movements. If we have a big Eco movement, and another of people from neighborhoods, the two together can decide what energy to use. If we have a strong farmers' movement, we can build horizontal farms to produce and share with cities. Some of these farms exist, and sell to Nosotros and other social spaces, but we don't know how to do this on a larger scale. There are four million people in Athens, three million between the three other big cities, and only three million in the countryside. Only one thousand are farmers, and only one hundred are anarchist farmers. So how do we feed the cities?"
“We've thought of problems we'll have after the revolution, but we can't predict what will happen. Marx said Russia can't have a revolution, it's only farmers. He said only Germany can. Germany had the Nazis, and Russia had the revolution! How will we run schools, and technology? Do we need these or not? Revolution is full of problems. But from the other side, this is nice about revolution: together we figure this out."
“First, we need experiments. Alternative schools, farms that have direct relationships with the city. If these work, then more people will do it that way. One day the revolution will come, and we won't even notice it. We must get to the point where both sides have no other choice. We are far from this.”
Responding to my question about whether the solutions of classical anarchists have been useful, Vaggelis said, “Authority nowadays is more complicated than it used to be. We have to win many more fights, be equal with women, gays, the environment. In 1900, Kropotkin said 'the machines will save us.' Today we say, 'the machines will pollute too much,' so we can't just trust these dead guys. They're too old. I love them, but we can't trust them. For instance, nobody today says 'I'm a worker.' We have one hundred hobbies. We can't say, 'we'll go to a union and have a revolution.' We don't all care about our jobs. Work is important, we spend more than eight hours a day there, but there's more, too.”
How are Greek anarchists addressing these obstacles?
Sofia suggested, “Greek anarchists must overcome ideology, to learn to be with society and live within it, not outside it. That's what we've tried to do here in Exarhia. After December 2008, people, not only anarchists, occupied public spaces and tried to manage these places using direct democracy. Also, here there are many anarchists who are open minded and try to build structures, and there are others who are not. I can't speak of anarchists as a unified thing.”
As for Alpha Kappa, Sofia continued, “at the May conference we concluded that we want to work on a project of anti-authoritarian economy, exploring the values and the key issues and the applications it can have. That's why a new work group has been formed. It meets once per month. So far we've agreed on some main principles such an economical system should be based on (justice, autonomy, ecological harmony, diversity) and we study several alternative economical systems proposed by Albert, Fotopoulos, Latouche (degrowth) etc., in order to identify their proposals according to some main issues such as property, labour, and decision making inside such an economic system. We agreed to present every month the progress of the meeting in an article published in Babylonia and in an open discussion at Nosotros.” At AK's Festival of Direct Democracy, held in Thessaloniki in September, the entire second day, called “Exodus from Capitalism,” will focus on the anti-authoritarian economy. As Sofia said, the research process “will last at least one year and hopefully we will have some fruitful results.”
Vaggelis added, “I think now we are starting to try to build these structures, both in Alpha Kappa and in other organizations, but we are at the beginning. We have bookstores, bars, restaurants that work collectively, but too few. We must do this much more to see if this experiment will work.”
How can United States anarchists help the Greek anarchist movement?
Nontas, sitting outside one such anarchist bar, said, “You are helpful in many ways, but you don't know it yet. At this moment, in order for Greek society to operate again, we need an alternative solution. Because of the rotting state, which can't give society solutions, the economy doesn't work anymore. Society's institutions have been destroyed, like families, education, etc. We are living without meaning, living for ourselves and not a community.
“We need a solution that's not ideological, not theological, not messianic, but a direct, logical, rational solution ... That's why we study and invite to our festivals American intellectual radicals. For example, Michael Albert's book Parecon we have used in our analysis of farmers, small cooperatives, and buyers, to be against the middle man. Another example, we used (David) Graeber's opinion of substituting the language of anarchism with direct democracy when speaking with society. So when the prisoners revolt we don't impose our ideas about imprisonment, but instead hold assemblies and together discuss the demands such a movement can pose.
“You in the US can further help us with protests outside travel agencies and by sending us reports about solidarity actions. You can do a lot for Greece. Now is the right time because the Greek people are waiting to hear from other countries.”
As for the present, Vaggelis says, “what we can do for each other is to have actions. When in December you did actions for us we felt we are not alone, so we must go on! The same we can do for you. This is a nice thing.” Money from the resource-rich United States, Vaggelis said, is not necessary nor desired from Greek comrades. “When we had a little social center, we couldn't pay the rent. Then we said 'we'll rent this bigger building, $2000 Euros a month plus $1500 to fix it.' We found the money in one month, because we believed in that project. We don't need anything else. We don't want your bloody dollars,” he laughed.
How might Greek Anarchists help US Anarchists?
Vaggelis began by suggesting (jokingly?) that Greek anarchists pay for social centers in the United States. Then Vaggelis, who is by no means a pacifist, who frequently delighted in showing us Youtube videos of anarchists fighting police, said, “We only do bad things for anarchists elsewhere. People in the United States are starting to believe that fighting is more important than ideas and organizing. Fighting is important, but really the ideas are more important. To have the streets is important, but to do that you must glue the streets with posters, to give the people your papers, and to explain to them what you believe. The last step is fighting the cops. You need all of that—the ideas, the effort, the organizing—to win the streets, not just the stones. It's psychologically easy to fight the cops. You just throw stones, then run away. It's easy to be a macho guy, but you can beat the baby, or you can teach it."
“We must sometimes have violence, but our purpose is not just to have the fight. In '95, the Polytechnic school was occupied for three days, so we were fighting the cops. Five hundred people were arrested. After that it took many years to have a demonstration with a lot of people. Fights can do some things, but they can just as easily undo things. As we say, its like an umbrella: if it's raining, you take it. If not, you leave it at home!”
Nontas spoke similarly: “Here in Greece, the purity of action and activism, the romanticism of the action prevents the reflection and digestion of what we have done until now. Our youngest anarchists have already thrown one billion stones, built one hundred bombs, and fought the police. Today we have thirty anarchists in prison. There are thousands who have gone to prison. We don't only need people to throw stones, we need people to talk to society so they can understand and accept what we propose. We need to be specific about what we propose or else they say 'Bullshit!' to us. When you can relate to society, you have escaped the activism plague.
“Everything is starting with the thought. Violence is a small river, to be with society is an ocean. Anarchy is a great, open road. We can't close it, we must discover it little by little by working.”
Sofia concluded, “What we need to do is to use our imagination and overcome what is posed to us by the status quo and build structures that are based on principles other than those that are imposed on us. For instance, instead of capital being the major purpose, human dignity and nature should be taken into account.
“So whether we manage to build such structures or you do, it will help all the others because in doing so we will have discovered the path. So what we all have to do is to try to build the structures not only globally, but try to apply these principles locally like an experiment. I think these experiments can occur even now inside capitalism, and if they prove to be successful, then we can apply them on a larger scale.”