Soudias, Dimitris. Paradoxes of Emancipation: Radical Imagination and Space in Neoliberal Greece. Syracuse (NY): Syracuse University Press, 2023.
“If you have not lived it, you cannot understand it” was one amongst many arcane ways in which participants of the 2010/11 Greek anti-austerity movement would describe their experience of occupying Syntagma Square at the heart of Athens. Beginning in May 2011 and lasting more than two months, the occupation signified a liminal, spatially manifested expression of contestation against the status quo of austerity neoliberalism, and for something radically different. Describing the occupation as a “magical space”, many of my interlocutors claim this experience had “changed” them and made them more “politically mature”.
Though I did not participate in the Syntagma Square occupation myself, I could relate to my interlocutors’ difficulty to fully verbalise their experience. Months before this occupation began, I was in Cairo, conducting fieldwork on policing strategies and protest repertoires in Egypt, when suddenly a massive uprising took the country by storm. On January 25 2011, proclaimed by protesters as the “Day of Wrath”, I remember the “affective atmosphere” (Anderson 2009) in one of the demonstrations: marching decidedly from the popular neighbourhood of Shubra all the way into Tahrir Square, continuously breaking through police barriers due to the sheer number and determination of those participating. As protesters poured in, Tahrir Square turned into what Aristide Zolberg (1972, 186) refers to as a “moment of madness”: a situation of “immense joy, when daily cares are transcended, when emotions are freely expressed” and where, quite literally, “the carefully erected walls which compartmentalize society collapse”. What followed was a fully-fledged, self-organised protest encampment, proclaimed by some as the People’s Republic of Tahrir, that withstood vicious attacks by police and plainclothes thugs. Lasting more than two weeks, the uprising eventually led to the toppling of then-president Hosni Mubarak. In the many conversations I have had with participants of the occupation at the time, they, curiously, described their experience similar to their Athenian counterparts: as magical, as one that they could not fully put into words, but that politicised or radicalised them.
In my book, Paradoxes of Emancipation: Radical Imagination and Space in Neoliberal Greece, I want to understand why that is, by following the meaning-making practices of participants of the Syntagma Square occupation over a span of four years. Why do participants of square occupations point to the transformative character of their experience there? What do they aspire to and what do they demarcate themselves from? And what remains with regard to (political) subjectivity many years later?
Initially, this project was conceived of as a comparative study between Syntagma and Tahrir Square. But during a fieldwork phase in 2014-15 – first in Athens, then in Cairo – there was a discrepancy between the political realities of both cities that became harder and harder to bridge. While in Greece we witnessed the rise of nominally left-wing forces, particularly SYRIZA, as well as the proliferation of grassroots solidarity initiatives, neighbourhood assemblies, and the squatting of abandoned buildings to support refugees’ housing needs; Egypt fell victim to a military coup that led to the instalment of army officer Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the head of state. The initial opening up of self-organised political spaces in Egypt – from political prisoner support groups to democratic neighbourhood experiments – were shut down violently by the (new) regime. Not only did it become increasingly difficult to do fieldwork, but as the country took a totalitarian turn, there was a sense of sobering disillusionment in the discussions I have had with my Cairene friends and interlocutors. Gone was the excitement and hope of 2011: the focus of narrating their experiences in the Tahrir Square occupation, and the Egyptian uprising en large, had shifted to address the naiveté and supposed mistakes that were made by the movement. At a certain point, it felt romantic and somewhat cynical to address the radical potentialities of protest encampments. For these and other reasons, I decided to focus my project solely on Greece.
What these decisions, differing trajectories, and significations of the Syntagma and Tahrir Square occupations indicate is that, firstly, experiences are situated, rather than hard-wired. Talking about experiences tells us a lot more about how we view ourselves as subjects in the moment of speaking than about how things “really” were in the past. As Zygmunt Bauman (2008, 8) remarks, “the stories told of lives interfere with the lives lived before the lives have been lived to be told”. Secondly, subjectivity is not the basis of (political) practices. Instead, the formation of (political) subjectivity ought to be traced in these practices. The reiterative enunciations of identifying or disidentifying with particular events, experiences, discourses etc. signify a practice of subjectivity. Importantly, this is true not only for my interlocutors’ experiences in protest encampments, but also for how I, as an intersectionally positioned researcher, narrate their experiences. Thirdly, in turn, the issue of tracing practices of (political) subject formation points to a methodological challenge: how can I investigate transformative experience in a way that does justice precisely to the quasi-epiphanic quality of my interlocutors’ narrations? To address this issue, I found inspiration in the pragmatist philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1931), particularly his notion of abduction. This logic of inquiry tweaks and reconfigures deductive and inductive forms of reasoning to question what is taken for granted, so as to be able to discover surprising findings alongside my interlocutors’ accounts. Here, I build on the pragmatist assumption that meaning occurs in tracing the conceivable consequences of practices. In this sense, Paradoxes of Emancipation is best understood as a “nonrepresentational” story, in Nigel Thrift’s (2008) sense, of my interlocutors’ emancipatory voyage and their conflicts therein.
The chapters of my book attend to how my interlocutors narrate their selves as (political) subjects before, during, and after their participation of Syntagma Square. My interlocutors’ journey of political subjectivation begins with the period of “modernisation” in Greece’s early 2000s. Curiously, despite the fact that all of my interlocutors were financially considerably better-off at that time than after the beginning of the financial crisis, they signify this period as “empty”, “rotten”, or “without spirit”; and they narrate their selves almost exclusively in negative terms. The second chapter theorizes from my interlocutors’ metaphorical signification of the crisis in Greece as a moment of “waking up”. Here, I attend to the spatialisation of political subjectivity, in order to think more carefully about the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the radical imagination. Chapters three and four explore the alter-political and anti-political qualities of the radical imagination of Syntagma Square: anti-politics signifies a reaction against, or rejection of, the practices and discourses associated with the politics of power. On the other hand, alter-politics aims at providing alternatives to that order. Chapter five explores what remains of my interlocutors’ occupation experience many years onward: as political subjects, what have they done since? A central finding of my book is that radical politics in neoliberalism not only defy but, paradoxically, also strengthen the very principles against which they stand. I shed light on the curious ways in which my interlocutors’ emancipatory ambitions build on knowledges and epistemological positions that partly stabilise neoliberal rationalities. The last chapter, importantly, suggests a set of dimensions that arguably helps transgress this “paradox of emancipation” through what we may call an “alter-neoliberal critique”: one which curtails the opaque ways in which critique reproduces neoliberalism and, on this basis, conceives of radically alternative practices and relations that are incommensurable and incomprehensible to neoliberal ways of knowing.
A final caveat on the temporality of researching, writing, and publishing. The book first took shape in the early 2010s, in the mushrooming landscape of social movements. It reads and acts differently today, after yet another victory of conservative New Democracy, the election of multiple right wing extremist parties, and the decimation of the party-political Left. This points to the situatedness of experience outlined earlier: the hope associated with the emancipatory politics of the “movement of the piazzas” (Leontidou 2012) may appear to be but a distant memory. On the other hand, perhaps this is precisely why the optimism that my interlocutors transport in this book is so important today.
Anderson, Ben. 2009. “Affective atmospheres”. Emotion, Space and Society 2 (2): 77-81.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2008. The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity.
Leontidou, Lila. 2012. “Athens in the Mediterranean ‘movement of the piazzas’ Spontaneity in material and virtual public spaces”. City 16 (3): 299-312.
Peirce, Charles S. 1931. The Collected Papers Vol. I.: Principles of Philosophy. https://www.textlog.de/peirce_principles.html
Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-Representational Theory. Space, Politics, Affect. London: Routledge.
Zolberg, Aristide R. 1972. “Moments of Madness”. Politics and Society 2: 183-207.
Dimitris Soudias is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Research Centre for the Study of Democratic Cultures and Politics, University of Groningen. His current research builds on political sociology and cultural economy approaches to study such issues as creativity, happiness, social innovation, and entrepreneurship in neoliberalism. Prior to joining the University of Groningen, Dimitris held research positions and fellowships at the London School of Economics, the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study, Philipps-Universität Marburg, and Freie Universität Berlin. He is the author of Negotiating Space: The Evolution of the Egyptian Street, 2000–2011 (American University in Cairo Press, 2014). His most recent article is ‘Transmuting Solidarity: Hybrid-Economic Practices in the Social Economy in Greece” (Journal of Cultural Economy).