Surplus Citizens:

Struggle and Nationalism in the Greek Crisis

22 March 2021

Dimitra Kotouza

Dimitra Kotouza 
Surplus Citizens: Struggle and Nationalism in the Greek Crisis. London: Pluto Press, 2019.


In October 2011, as I was tracing the aftermath of the movement of the squares for the project that became Surplus Citizens, Dimitris Papanikolaou was observing a cultural tendency he called the ‘disturbed archive’. Emerging in response to the experience of the sovereign debt crisis and its socially traumatic ramifications, this cultural tendency performed a radical questioning that started from the current state of precariousness, in order to critique the reading of the past and ask: Who has been doing this reading on our behalf, in what ways and to what effect? As the cultural logics of continuity and traditional modes of thinking about political agency and blame were being undermined, responsibility was now becoming a genealogical question, or rather a genealogical imperative.[1]

Papanikolaou continued to map practices of the ‘disturbed archive’ in the following years, and I recognise in his (2016) ’Twenty Two Theses on Archive Trouble’ many of my motivations in researching and writing Surplus Citizens.[2] The project involved a politically-motivated ‘digging’ into the past and its supposedly established realities in order to give voice to what has been silenced, to throw into a different relief the social and personal anxieties associated with crisis, and to reinterpret popular scenarios for overcoming it, holding back from giving any easy answers.

Similarly to Papanikolaou, I had observed that the impulse to question the past, to re-narrativise authorised history, was present in every political and social space where the ‘Greek Crisis’[3] and what to do about it was being discussed. The stories offered by governments, whether those of Greece or its creditor states, had to be questioned, before it was possible to occupy Syntagma Square in Spring 2011. There, the questioning continued. But those revisions were multiple, troubling, opposed to one another, and while all of them provided their authors with a sense of emancipation, they certainly were not all emancipatory for everyone.

I was not a neutral observer documenting it all. My own agenda developed against what I called, from a more academic perspective, ‘the war discourse of the restructuring’: a proliferation, in a variety of fora, platforms and media—from the parliament and academia to national news media, to online blogs and social media—of historically revisionist discourses under the guise of ‘memory’ as a weapon in political conflict, which took archives of war as its material. This included, preferentially, the Second World War and the Civil War, but also the Greek War of Independence, the aftermath of the 1922 defeat in Asia Minor and the hanging of the ‘traitors’ that followed, as well as other historical moments of heightened political conflict, each time retold with a different inflection and highlighting a different episode depending on one’s side in the political struggle. After three decades of a mainstream political sphere dominated by what might be called a centrist common sense or political ‘apathy’, the polarisation between the left and right had returned explosively. Yet, the stakes of the clash were familiar and common to both sides. Each strove to prove that their political tradition had been the most loyal to the Greek nation and its people, while the other had betrayed them.

Meanwhile, the left-wing discourse on the crisis in Greece that reached the most prominent platforms of UK media, even when not engaged in this ideological war, still reflected the dominance of white male voices in the Greek radical left and anti-authoritarian milieux, leaving little space for other perspectives. Soon, the electoral victories of Brexit and Trump would even reawaken, among some British Marxists, the condemnation of ‘identity politics’ for supposedly provoking a far-right backlash.

Given this ideological context, it seemed impossible to propose another view of the present without first tearing down the ‘icons’ of (right and left) nationalist rhetoric. Much of this work of disruption had already been done over the past three to four decades, challenging commonplace notions of what nation, race and their interrelation with class and gender has meant in the context of Greece. However, the material was dispersed in a variety of Greek and Anglophone journals, books and self-published outlets that did not all speak to one another. Efi Avdela, Eleni Fournaraki, Effi Gazi, Penelope Papailias, Dina Vaiou, Athina Athanasiou, Stathis Gourgouris, Peter Bratsis were some of the academic authors whose work informed my incomplete ‘counter-archive’, alongside a North-Western critical literature that, inevitably, reflects its own geopolitical and cultural location. They came into dialogue with what formed the most crucial part of the book: the intellectual production and discourse in movements (the squares, assemblies, mutual support initiatives, labour actions, migrants’ mobilisations, environmental movements, anti-fascism) and radical collectivities across the left spectrum including anarchists, feminists, queer and antifa groups, sourced through public and individual discussions, political accounts and analyses, news blogs and magazines. Their dialogue revealed the (often damaging) material consequences and emancipatory traces of attempts to resist intersecting forms of oppression/exploitation before and after the crisis. It signalled that ‘Greeks’ —either as an idealised subject of struggle resisting austerity or as a scorned ‘people’ luxuriating in decadence and corruption—have never been a unified subject.

The range of historical, theoretical and contemporary ethnographic and documentary material collected for the book was used to ask the same question ad nauseam: who does the imaginary of each unity (Europe, the European citizen, Greece, the Greek citizen, the Greek ‘race’, Greek working and bourgeois classes, the Greek economy and industry, the ‘we’ of past and present social movements) oppress or leave out? What part of our material experience and identity does each attempt at unification force us to deny? For example, when and how did the labour movement in this region stop being multiethnic, stop being accused of Jewishness and ‘foreign infiltration’, and come to speak of itself as ‘Greek’? How has patriarchy been reproduced in the concept and practice of citizenship, as well as through the labour movement and the histories and imaginaries of the now ‘Greek’ left? And most important of all, when and how has this been challenged?

Back in the present, the book argued that the situation in Greece should also not be seen through the lens of a developmental Eurocentric philosophy of history, or through the oppositions between national production and international finance. Overcoming ‘crisis’ through ‘economic development’—‘creating jobs’ for superfluous, exploitable citizens—disregards the environmental and human costs of what has counted as ‘development', in both its capitalist or socialist guises. The movement against—and inter-communal strife over—the mine in Skouries amply demonstrates the lived contradictions around this issue, which have long replicated in mining regions worldwide. But the question is far from simply economic. It is invested with anxieties around race and ethnic identity, as well as gender. The embedding of racist (crypto-)colonial imaginaries in the historical construction of Greek national identity is linked to the desire for a culturally, racially and institutionally purified, truly ‘European’ Greece, free from supposedly ‘backward’ ‘oriental’ cultural elements (‘corruption’). Conversely, resistance to supranational hegemony, variously described as imperialist, German, European or Western, is often located in fetishised cultural elements (e.g. the supposed Greek insubordination towards laws and bosses) that mask existing relations of power. Discourses around the policing of and solidarity towards migrants from the Middle East and Africa crossing Greece’s borders are both inflected by these narratives, as are anxieties over securing the domestic, understood, explicitly or tacitly, as nation and as the familial, patriarchal household. This is a politics of anxiety, yearning for a kind of safety that endangers and silences those who do not fit in its hetero/cis-normative, patriarchal and racialised ideals. These and many more threads are drawn out in Surplus Citizens, alongside an attempt to re-theorise how power relations and identities fuel internal questioning within political movements whose aim is to universalise.

Although the book is now published, its project is on-going and its ‘archive’ could never be complete. I am thankful that the Rethinking Modern Greek Studies Network is beginning to make it much easier for similar lines of critical interdisciplinary and intersectional enquiry to speak to each other. Particularly exciting is its aim to exceed a ‘peninsular’ frame, and I look forward to the illumination of more cultural continuities, separations and tensions at regional and global levels.



[1] Dimitris Papanikolaou, ‘Archive Trouble: Cultural Responses to the Greek Crisis’, in Penelope Papailias (ed.), Beyond the Greek Crisis: Histories, Rhetorics, Politics; Web Hotspot published by the journal Cultural Anthropology, October 2011, n.p.

[2] Dimitris Papanikolaou, «Εικοσιδύο θέσεις για την αναταραχή αρχείου» [Twenty two points on Archive Trouble], in Χάρις Κανελλοπούλου (ed.), Σύγχρονη τέχνη και αρχείο: Αρχειακές συλλογές, καλλιτεχνικές πρακτικές, προβληματισμοί, special issue of Κριτική + Τέχνη v. 6, AICA, Αθήνα, 2016, 229-238.

[3] A term I painstakingly avoided in the book, but which ended up, uncomfortably and without scare quotes, in its title, for economy of language.

Dimitra Kotouza. Surplus Citizens: Struggle and Nationalism in the Greek Crisis. London: Pluto Press, 2019.


Dr Dimitra Kotouza is an early career researcher broadly concerned with the formation of social and political subjectivities in the conjuncture of the financial crisis and neoliberal restructuring. She is the author of Surplus Citizens (Pluto, 2019) and a contributor to Biopolitical Governance (Rowman & Littlefield 2018, ed. Hannah Richter) and Beyond Crisis (PM Press 2018, ed. John Holloway et al.). She has lectured in sociology and politics at universities in and around London and is currently lead researcher on the Wellcome Trust funded project, Mapping and Diagnosing Mental Health in/and the UK University Sector.