Intervention – 'Crammed Contested Strip: Democracy in the New Republic' by Andy Merrifield

Andy Merrifield Andy Merrifield, Fellow, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge

I was in Athens not long ago, at a conference called “Crisis-Scapes”, organized by a talented anarchist collective who a few years back had put together the poetically inspired and politically charged collection Revolt and Crisis in Greece (Vradis and Dalakoglou 2011). Staged at Athens’s Polytechneio, the epicenter of anti-junta revolt in 1973, in the heart of grungy far-left neighborhood Exarcheia, “Crisis-Scapes” set the dramatic tone for debate about a polis in meltdown: Eurozone meltdown; debt crisis meltdown; austerity-driven meltdown. Meanwhile, political fallout from this meltdown was ripping the polis apart. At the May 2014 Euro elections, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn bagged almost 10% of the vote, third behind the radical left party Syriza, who topped the poll with 26.6%. If there’s any “consensus” in Athens these days, it’s a resounding thumbs-down to Troika banker-bureaucrats, and to Greece’s handmaiden parliamentary elites.

I’d been invited to talk about radical urbanism, about what to do amid this crisis. But the truth was I hardly knew anything about Greece, aside from what I’d read in the press. So I really came to learn, and a lot I did learn, getting inspired along the way by this learning, by what I saw and heard. Still, I knew enough about the ancient Greeks to know they still had plenty to tell contemporary Greeks. I knew enough Homer, Thucydides and Plato to know that crises, wars and laws have been a part of Greek culture since the very beginning of Greek culture. Remember Homer in The Iliad, telling us about antagonists “locked in a common field … fight[ing] it out on the crammed contested strip”. Somehow that crammed contested strip describes Athens today, an Athens still very much a “common field” for democracy battling it out with anti-democracy.

One of the first celebrations of Greek democracy was Pericles’ (495-429 BC)–Athens’ charismatic elder statesman, its “first citizen”. Pericles’ famous “Funeral Oration”, commemorating the city’s Spartan War dead, delivered in 431 BC (and narrated by Thucydides in The Peloponnesian Wars), remains the greatest ever paean to Athens’ democratic openness, to its lack of walls, to its inclusive public spaces, the nemesis to Sparta’s militarism–and to the Golden Dawn’s: “We throw open our city to the world,” said Pericles, “and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in the system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens”. Half a century on, Plato put the boot into such Athenian “liberality”, criticising the native spirit of its citizens. Athens, said Plato, was at once too liberal and too tyrannical; the latter, for Plato, derived naturally from the former, since “the most extreme form of liberty” opens the floodgates to tyranny, “to an excess of slavery”. Plato said Athens’s laxity and openness actually brought about its own downfall against the highly disciplined and ordered Spartans. Though, in 404 BC, when the Spartans installed “Thirty Tyrants” to rule Athens, Plato was equally depressed by the reign of terror that ensued. After “democracy” was restored, Plato’s disdain for Athenian governance turned into vicious hatred in 399 BC, when his mentor and friend, Socrates, was condemned to drink hemlock at a show trial that resembled Kafka’s The Trial.

In The Apology, Plato tells of Socrates’ refusal to make an apology; instead, a prescient warning was issued: “I tell you my executioners,” Socrates said, “that as soon as I am dead, vengeance shall fall upon you”. “You will have more critics … and being younger they will be harsher to you and cause you more annoyance. If you expect to stop denunciation of your wrong way of life by putting people to death, there is something amiss with your reasoning”. Plato never forgot Socrates’ belief that wise philosopher-guardians would best govern Athens, would best govern anywhere; they wouldn’t so much apply political dogma as govern according to virtuous philosophical principles. Get rid of untutored people from controlling government, Plato said, replace them with smart oligarchs–“perfect guardians,” he called them–who’d then direct things through calm philosophical judgment. Ordinary citizens shouldn’t meddle in the administration of justice, Plato said, neither should poets. The latter arouse all kinds of bad feelings and mad passions, incite all sorts of destabilizing emotions that rock the boat, that disrupt the strict ordering of things. Feelings of anger and desire, of pain and pleasure, should be summarily purged, Plato said, “withered” with “the waters that make them grow”. Thus poets should be expelled from the city, along with the poetry they pen.

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The anarchist-poet organizers of “Crisis-Scapes”, I joked in my talk, wouldn’t have stood a chance in Plato’s Athens: he’d have never let you in! The city gates would be firmly locked for you rebel-rousers. You’d have never been invited to any Platonic feast, nor to any Platonic symposium. But Plato’s Athens isn’t here yet, so there’s still room for hope. On the other hand, one of Plato’s biggest fears is that playing on people’s visceral emotions, on people’s knee-jerk reactions, peddling a discourse that arouses these passions–thoughtless passions–is a discourse that’s on the way to jackboots and flag-waving, to lashing out, to racist and xenophobic lashing out. In fraught meltdown times, stupid dogma, forcefully proclaimed, often falls gladly on fraught, desperate ears.

So a bit of critical moderation and temperate thinking isn’t so bad, I say. But here, too, there are dangers, perhaps even greater dangers; not of jackboots but of pandering to a “cool” ideological interpellation: “hey you there; you think there’s an alternative to austerity…?”. Appealing to moderation and consensus, means appealing to the business-as-usual status quo. We’ve heard these refrains voiced from Greece’s power elites; we’ve heard them voiced from Brussels, from European Central Bankers; we’ve heard them voiced by the whole European business community, irrespective of culture or nationality; we’ve heard these refrains from everybody intent of propping up the Euro currency, at every cost–including human costs. We’ve heard it firmly yet calmly from all Europe’s ruling classes.

And we’ve heard it proclaimed as the Voice of Reason, heard it to quell protest, to quell extremist protest–no matter what kind. The Voice of Reason is sober, moderate and centrist. It is for European integration, for globalization, for growth, for austerity. It has a commonly identified program: reduce debt and prune budgets; strip down and sell off public infrastructure; do anything and everything to improve flagging competitiveness. Do it at all costs because market confidence must be restored and bond markets assuaged, economic fear-factors diminished. The “center” must prevail. Without a center, the centrists say, everything falls apart: Europe falls apart; monetary union falls apart; the entire continent falls apart, splinters into tribal extremism, into extremist tribalism, into political instability, into nobody ever agreeing about anything; the harmony and stability of Plato’s New Republic is thereby thwarted.

It’s hard for the Left to engage with such a “sensible” logic because our “extremism” gets tainted with the same brush as the Right’s. But the question remains: who are the extremists? Is it those guardians that Plato, two-and-half thousand years ago, suggested should govern us? Lately, those guardians have transformed themselves into anti-philosophy-espousing pragmatists, conditioned not so much by deep concerns of morality and equity as shallow dictates of profitability and market vitality. And they’ve become custodians not of people’s consciences but of business confidences, converting guardianship into directorship, and state governance into accountancy dominance. And nobody at their symposia wears robes anymore, but instead don elegant suits and convene in corporate boardrooms and official chambers far away from any public agora. Extremism here is the extent to which they abhor democracy, fear democracy. Extremism here is the utter failure to implement representative democracy, to even pretend to implement representative democracy. Little wonder participatory democracy comes knocking at the door; or, because participants seldom know which door to knock on, comes ranting in the streets.

In this context, we might recall Plato’s The Laws, written after his more famous The Republic. The idea of “laws” sounds pretty draconian, and indeed the book is pretty draconian. After all, control, for Plato, comes directly from the top, and brooks no dissent. But Plato also insists on a few checks and balances, things that now seem woefully overlooked, or purposefully forgotten, by folks in power. Plato said the guardians had to be elected by the whole citizen body; citizens had to feel they had some stake in the system, that they weren’t disenfranchised; every official had to be accountable for their conduct, had to be made accountable to the people. Crucial for Plato was a suggestive body of “Scrutineers”, overseers of oligarchic power, overseers who ensure that this power isn’t abused. Imagine, Plato says, a government scenario, an all-too-familiar government scenario: “what if one politician proves so inadequate to the dignity and weight of his office that he gets ‘out of true’ and does something crooked?”. “It is desperately difficult”, Plato says, “to find someone of high moral standards to exercise authority over the authorities, so to speak, but try we must”.

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The switch from guardianship to directorship, to public servants serving private interests, has been abrupt and subtle over the past thirty-odd years. In the 1970s, state guardianship was firmly in the hands of elected public representatives. At the municipal level, councilors and administrators undertook guardianship roles; “urban managers” helped dole out public services to people. The English sociologist Ray Pahl became fascinated by the functioning of these urban managers, coining a new school of sociological thought after them: urban managerialism. By urban managers, Pahl meant planners, councilors, social workers, housing officers and other public sector bureaucrats who affected the whole urban allocative process around public goods and services–notably housing provision. These officials, Pahl said, were “social gatekeepers” determining peoples’ “life-chances”.

However flawed this system was, at least, Pahl said, it functioned through some equity principle, through some vague notion of redistributive justice. Urban managers were public servants and should always be kept on their toes, should always practice fair and just decision-making, which was the whole political purpose of urban managerialism in the first place: to keep tabs, to scrutinize public servants, to keep them public, to keep them publicly-minded, to keep politics public. Communication channels had to stay open. Concerned citizens, Pahl said, “need to know not only the rates of access to scarce resources and facilities for given populations but also the determinants of the moral and political values of those who control these rates. We need to know how the basic decisions affecting life-chances in urban areas are made … The controllers of the urban system seem to control more completely than the controllers of the industrial system”.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, guardians of this urban system assumed other managerial roles, other controlling roles more market-driven, more fiscally prudent. They started to recede from public view, dabbled with privatization, with contracting-out service delivery, doing it at minimum cost. After a while, this dabbling with the public budget became downright babbling: entrepreneurial managers turned into managerial entrepreneurs, and soon into middle-management technocrats, each with their own private hegemony of meaning. Before long, a new nobility assumed the mantle of political and authoritative power, a para-state of accountants and administrators, of middle-managers and think-tank “intellectuals”, of consultants and confidants who reside over our privatized public sector, filing the paperwork and pocketing the rents and fees, together with the interest-payments and bonuses, in our ever-emergent rentier and creditor society.

And nobody seems bothered to keep tabs anymore. These managers fulfill public duties and undertake public roles yet do so within a more expansive and invasive private sector. Now, we have a whole array of accountancy firms administering the privatizations and sell-offs, calling the economic shots as they draft the private contracts in which the public sector is destined always to lose. Now, we have a hybrid species of public-private sector bureaucrats, of Troika bureaucrats and Euro technocrats, of international fonctionnaires, for-profit public sector venture capitalists who determine the life-chances of the Europe’s crisis-scapes zone. Now, we have the managers and accountants presiding over Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s, who affect the fortunes of whole cities and regions everywhere, giving “specialist” financial opinions that condition the credit-worthiness of entire metropolises, holding the latter hostage to global bond markets.

The task beholden to us, the people, to us, the shadow citizenry, I suggest to the “Crisis-Scapes” audience, is to cast our critical investigative eye over the doings of these managers and guardians. Let’s try to name names, try to make them accountable to us; let’s scrutinize their behind-closed-doors machinations, expose their hidden ideological leanings, contest their austerity plans. Let’s do what Ray Pahl did, only do it on a much more enlarged public-private terrain, one in which state and civil society have basically melded into one giant privatized zone of free-market orthodoxy and rich-persons plutocracy. The project before us is two-fold, waged on two fronts. On the one hand, we, on the outside, have to get at them on the inside, force this private inside to be answerable to our public outside. We need to access the inside, enter inside their HQs, inside their centers of technocratic and financial power, get transparency around what goes on in this inside, ascertain information from their disinformation. And, if necessary, we need to evict these insiders as trespassers on public land, prosecute them as illegal squatters, as expropriators of public property. On the other hand, shadow citizens need to do this at the same time as we battle the “common field” of the outside, fighting it out with the jackboots and the flag-wavers on the outside (and a few on the inside), battle them everywhere neoliberalism stakes out its boundary stones.

To get in on the inside, we need to muster up enough energy to break though those boundary stones, to break on through to the inside. We need to appoint some of Plato’s trusty Scrutineers, delegates from the shadow citizens’ outside who might establish a sort of “Nocturnal Council”. The Nocturnal Council is an idea Plato brands in The Laws. But we can rejig it here, make it sound less autocratic and more democratic, more popular, more popular in a way that safeguards against popularism, that safeguards against power abuses both on the inside and the outside. The Nocturnal Council might consist of elected Scrutineers, salt of the earth shadow citizens, men and women who, according to Plato, “are better than the officials they scrutinize, and display irreproachable integrity”. Didn’t Marx once speak of the need to “educate the educators”? Here we’re talking about regulating the regulators, regulating regulators who’ve serially refused to regulate big business, who’ve kowtowed to big business, who’ve come from big business.

What we need are Scrutineers who oversee the overseers, those inept and dishonest overseers, Scrutineers who might replace those inept and dishonest overseers, ensuring that democracy is restored, that citizens participate in representative democracy. The Nocturnal Council would uphold what’s best from a philosophical awareness: the spirit of fairness and equity around matters of state and society. The Nocturnal Council might immediately convene to discuss the billions drained from the public finances because of corporate tax avoidance. You don’t have to be Socrates to get it: governments insist on belt-tightening austerity policies across Europe, run down collective consumption provision, but do so while they turn a blind eye to tax dodging corporations and super-rich individuals, do so as they clamp down hard on weaker players, on easier targets, auditing and monitoring the little guys, the smaller enterprises, the independents and freelancers, the poor, people who don’t have accountants at their beck and call, who’re squeezed for tax revenue, for the peanuts they apparently owe.

Such a system of taxation needs a complete overhaul, a thorough reconstitution on a new democratic basis, reloaded on equity and progressive principles. Equity here means applying the same progressive logic to capital as to work, taxing the huge gainers from global capital transactions, from currency and stock markets, from property speculation, from predatory rental extraction. Meantime, the Nocturnal Council might try to execute the necessary planned shrinkage of the financial sector, of the bloated and unproductive financial sector everywhere, waging war on its monetary blood-sucking in the same vein as ruling classes waged war on supposedly bloated and unproductive public services during the 1970s and 1980s. Plato may have been damning of poets in the polis; but he hated spendthrifts and idle embezzlers there as well, the parasites who “disturb the social constitution”, he said, “just as phlegm and bile disturb the body”. Any wise-lawgiver, said Plato, “must take careful precautions against them; first for not letting them get into the city; second, if frustrated in the first care, cutting them and their cells out as speedily as possible”.

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Maybe the profoundest thing we can glean from the ancients is thinking big about human value systems, thinking big on a vast philosophical plane. Not on the plane of solitary contemplation, of dealing with rarefied, abstract and abstruse phenomena, but fiercely engaged with politics, fiercely engaged with concerns of democracy. We can recapture lost terrain by changing the rules of this contested terrain, by shifting the ontological ground away from anti-intellectual pragmatism and visceral reactionaryism toward a philosophy of combat, of fighting for the values one believes in, for more meaningful and virtuous values, for critical and positive values, ones that can help us develop another ideal of the Good Life, another measure of value, beyond wealth, beyond price.

In the 1970s, urban theorists like Ray Pahl and Manual Castells thought the polis served a vital reproductive function. It was a “spatial unit of collective consumption”, they said, an agglomeration of goods and services provided by the state, necessary for supporting growth, necessary for the survival of capitalism, yet in themselves unprofitable for private capitalism. Thus public capitalism needed to step in to fund and manage these items, needed to anoint the wheels of motion for private capitalism. Forty years down the road, these theorists have been proven right for reasoning that turned out to be wrong: yes, public goods and services remain vital for capitalism; but do so only insofar as they can be valorized and capitalized, do so only insofar as they can be productively plundered, used to actively generate capital, used (and abused) in evermore exploitative and extractive rounds of primitive accumulation.

So the notion that the polis is a unit of “collective consumption” continues to instruct. But here again not as Pahl and Castells initially imagined: “collective consumption” isn’t so much an analytical category as an inspiring normative construct, an ideal of what the polis ought to be. The polis ought to be an arena characterized by collectively consumed use-values, by public goods and services consumed in common, consumed by a public, by citizens who’ve stepped out of the shadows, who’re expressing themselves in the public light of day, even as they convene as a Nocturnal Council. The polis ought to be a form of human sociability, a collectivity, beyond the logic of profit, beyond speculative exchange-values; the polis ought to be a site for social reproduction, a space in which a different, non-marketized definition of value prevails. Over the past few decades, we’ve had lots speculators and rentiers, lots of administrators and middle-mangers, lots of accountants and guardians who seem to know the price of everything, who obsessively and cynically tot up the wealth of public culture; yet they sneer at the real value of things. We, on the Left, need to affirm another value yardstick, another definition of collective consumption, free from the cynics’ speculative grip.

In a curious way, I’d already glimpsed this new value system, seen it operative in Athens, happening almost behind the backs of Athens’ shadow citizens, happening as they struggled in the crisis and meltdown, happening precisely because they struggled in the crisis and meltdown. When all is gone, is seemingly lost, one has nothing left but each other; and out of this nothingness something beautiful can be created, is getting created, something full. I’d glimpsed this fullness in its natural state at the conference, with the heartfelt solidarity and warmth expressed by the participants and organizers, with the wonderful hospitality and great dinners we had after each day’s sessions. I’d also glimpsed and felt it the Sunday evening the day after the conference, when I’d met a cohort of young Greek women activist-researchers, who, since 2010, have called themselves Encounter Athens. I found the label intriguing, not least because of my book, The Politics of Encounter (Merrifield 2013). Now, somebody was showing me what I really meant, doing it much better than I could ever say.

Encounter Athens have been vocal trying to resurrect the “public” discourse for central Athens, organizing and speaking out at workshops and demos about mainstream media’s inciting of a politics of fear, about rising xenophobic and racist violence, about the lack of affordable housing in the city. They’ve also been active mobilizing people against the auctioning-off of Greek cultural and economic heritage, as engineered by the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (TAIPED). A purported fiscal strategy, TAIPED is really a jumped-up privatization scam, imposed by the Troika and rubber-stamped by Greece’s center-right government in July 2011. It isn’t so much a public entity as a lucrative private resource, a “limited liability company” with the explicit goal of using state-owned assets–land, infrastructure, public companies, airports (e.g. Hellinikon airport), coastal fronts, and even whole islands–to repay the nation’s debt. Yet once sold-off these assets can’t be transferred back to the state: they remain firmly in private hands, guarded by private law. TIAPED grants “investment incentives” that blithely ignore statutory land-use and environmental regulation. TIAPED is a “vehicle for a massive land dispossession and land-grabbing process in Greece”, Encounter Athens say, “that sells-off state-owned property … of vital importance for both the present and future of the whole Greek society”. And this “to contribute to the repayment of a commonly acknowledged non-sustainable debt”.[1] So a massive bargain basement asset clearance program is in motion, exchanging Greece’s long-range future for immediate liquidity, for fast cash, to satisfy the whims of the Troika’s fiscal targets.

I’d met Encounter Athens in one of Exarcheia’s many bars, sitting outside in the balmy May night air, a stone’s throw away from Navarinou Park, which for years had languished as a makeshift parking lot. But in 2009, local anarchist activists reclaimed it, and put in considerable sweat equity to transform the once drab concrete into an exotic green oasis, into an experimental community garden; fruit and veg are grown and local residents reconnect to the land; kids now play free of cars. The park acts as an ad hoc cultural space, too, a hanging-out and lingering space; movies get projected there, and, like this evening, musicians groove. I’d passed by to check things out earlier, and from the bar we can hear revelers partying, commemorating the park’s fifth anniversary, the feting of micro-militancy as non-monetized urban sustainability.

Despite the nearby joy, the Encounter Athens women are subdued tonight, depressed even, at the personal and political state of affairs. They’re hanging on, but only just; they’re tired and tiring, feeling they’re fighting a losing battle. “What should we do?”, they ask me. “Keep going, keep battling”, I say, lamely, somewhat embarrassingly, because this sounds banal, sounds so facile coming from somebody so relatively privileged. I’d love to give them a straight, easy answer, an absolute practical answer, a What Is To Be Done? answer, but there is none; I know it, they know it. I tell them a little of what I’ve said hitherto here. They listen. I listen. Our conversations are deeply political, deeply engaged and engaging. They tell me they have no money anymore, they’re writing up their PhDs but know that afterwards there’ll be no jobs, certainly no academic jobs, not in their professional lifetimes; they can’t afford to buy new clothes, or new shoes. Some of the group have been forced to move back with their parents, who themselves hustle to live off dwindling pensions and benefits.

As we exit in the wee hours, everywhere is deserted. In the darkness, it suddenly struck me that inside all this negativity, within it, lay an amazing positivity, a wonderful source of inspiration about how to live differently. Needless to say, I don’t want to romanticize hardship; but I’d glimpsed nonetheless a mode of living here that had somehow dispensed with representation: with money as a representation of value, with mass media as a representation of truth, with representation as a vehicle for democracy. All that had been stripped away, and a bare, unaccommodated life remained, a directly lived life without mediation. The women from Encounter Athens had other concerns than the stuff young men and women elsewhere interest themselves in, like fashion and conventional ambition, like making money and owning property (and being mortgaged up to the hilt), like doing a job (usually a not very interesting job) and slavishly following a canned capitalist image of success. The billboards around Athens stand empty: there’s no point advertising to a populace without money, to people whose life is no longer defined by conspicuous consumption. There’s something else at stake now, something else worth fighting for: a life with common assets, a shared public life. A new kind of collective consumption is emerging, a coming community, defined by young people feverishly discussing politics and reinventing the Greek agora. In this new agora, Greeks come of age as political animals, which, in the end, is all Plato meant about natural human existence.


[1] – Antonis Vradis describes this process as “gentrination”, a form of national-level gentrification. The economic and political fabric of the whole nation-state is devalued via depreciation and austerity disinvestment; then, as a profit gap akin to gentrification’s rent gap ensues, the national territory witnesses an influx of private capital and the complete overhaul of its key public foundations and structures, a jamboree for rich enterprises and elites, and for accountants and bankers (see Vradis 2014).


Merrifield A (2013) The Politics of the Encounter: Urban Theory and Protest Under Planetary Urbanization. Athens: University of Georgia Press

Vradis A (2014) From crisis to gentrination. Political Geography 40:A1-A2

Vradis A and Dalakoglou D (eds) (2011) Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come. Oakland: AK Press

Andy is the author of numerous books, including John Berger (Reaktion, 2012) and Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination (Pluto, 2011). His latest book, The New Urban Question, was published earlier this year by Pluto Press. You can read his excellent Antipode interventions here.