The Right to the City in an Age of Austerity

In Greece, resistance to austerity comprises a mosaic of struggles for a right to the city, conceived as the collective self-determination of everyday life.

When talking about Greece and “the crisis,” it is easy to fall in the trap of “Greek exceptionalism.” After all, it is through essentializing orientalist narratives that austerity and structural adjustment have been justified: the Greeks are corrupt, lazy and crisis-prone, and they should be adapted and civilized for their own good. There is a flipside to the orientalist gaze, however, which ascribes extraordinary qualities to the other: the Greeks have a surplus of collectivism, revolutionary zeal or solidarity, which makes them more likely to organize and resist.

Both these narratives prevent us from seeing that the conditions that brought about the “Greek crisis” are prevalent in many parts of the world, that capital is moving towards policies of exclusion and dispossession even in the capitalist center, and that resistance is not the prerogative of southern peoples, but will soon be the only reasonable response even in the north. In fact, the “Greek crisis” is neither “Greek” — since it is only a symptom of the shift of global capitalism towards a new regime of accumulation based on shock and dispossession — nor is it a “crisis” in the sense of an extraordinary event. Instead, it represents a new normality that threatens to shake the very foundations of social coexistence. Nevertheless, Greece has been a privileged spot for observing how this global paradigm shift plays out within the boundaries of a single nation-state.

To understand the inner workings of the “accumulation by dispossession” regime, we would have to focus our analysis not only on macroeconomics, negotiations, elections, referendums, protests and other spectacular events, but also — and especially — on the micro-level of everyday life in the city. The urban space is always a crystallization of broader relations of power; it is constantly formed and reformed by political and economic powers to ensure the control of the populations inhabiting it, facilitate their exploitation or exclusion, and constrain their possibilities of empowerment. The urban space, however, can also become a place of coexistence — a place where social bonds and communities are formed, where commons emerge. Ultimately, it can become a place of resistance and self-determination, a place of inclusion; inclusion not only in the sense of formal rights granted by an instance of power, but in the sense of full participation of all different identities and subjects in political, economic and social life.

Land grabbing, useless infrastructure works, gentrification and urban renewal, commodification of basic human needs such as housing, food, water and healthcare, evictions and displacement, xenophobia, militarization and increased surveillance are central elements of the policies of dispossession, implemented within the urban space at the expense of the popular classes. Resistance to these policies comprise a mosaic of struggles for a “right to the city,” conceived not as a guarantee of individual resources or opportunities, but as an affirmation of the collective self-determination of everyday life.

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