Saturday. 6th June. Afternoon. Exarchia.
The lofty wide walls of Exarchia Square’s squatted social centre K*VOX stretch out displaying many different posters for many different anarchist and anti-prison causes around Greece and Europe. Two thick, giant pieces of cloth make up a particularly beautiful red and black flag on the ceiling, and above the toilets there is a huge banner for ‘NO TAV’ – the popular Italian movement against high speed railways. This building, occupied in 2012, has weekly self-organised health clinics, an open air cinema, and is a gathering place for various radical groups. The ‘Greek Foundation for social insurance’ own it, but they have been in absentia for some time. The collective have weathered various eviction attempts by the police, particularly in April of 2012 in which following a police raid, thousands of locals provided night after night of resistance, soon tearing off all the street walls around the building, and reclaiming it for public use. It has been threatened from other arenas also. In an ongoing power struggle between anarchists and drug dealers in the area, bullets were fired through the windows in 2014. Though none was hurt, many were incredibly shocked by this, and the widespread exuberant solidarity responses became a show of strength, attesting to the deeply entrenched position of K*VOX at the centre of the anarchist movement. The building is now, to all intents and purposes, secure.
Today I’m meeting with Tasos Sagri from Void Network who, founded in 1990, are one of the oldest active anarchist groups in Greece. Tasos has been active from the beginning. Today he takes an interest in a variety of activities, but perhaps most famously he was an editor for the 2010 collection a interviews, essays, and fragments about the 2008 revolts We Are An Image From The Future, a book I cannot recommend highly enough for it’s raw and innovative portrayal of a mass revolt from the bottom up. His black hair is developing charming wisps of grey, and is tied back in a ponytail that bewrays a streak of his past – “I used to be a hippy,” he told me in a conversation about the politics of everyday life “but now there’s less of that. I’d say, the spiritual sisters of Void Network are Tiqqun and Crimethink”. He spoke fervently in a husky, occasionally wheezy, boom. Jumping from topic to topic, frequently laughing, and making me laugh. He veered between a wry but child-like teasing, and an optimistic visionary antagonism. Void are known for their focus on culture and music, and particularly for their Reclaim The Streets style parties. A couple of days ago a friend who I asked about Void Network said: “they’re a little lifestylist for me, but really, everybody loves them! Because even if you don’t like their politics, their parties are so good. For example, I went to one in a forest. They had this crazy psychedelic rave music, and two giant projectors showing ‘riot porn’” (meaning: archive footage of street conflicts, intended to stimulate the desire for more) “and everyone, activist or otherwise, became so excited by it all that afterwards they spent a the whole night trashing police cars and stations.”
He’s quite interested in knowing about the current situation in the U.K. Somewhat uncertainly, I give him my thumbnail sketch impressions: after the 2010 election we had around 18 months of quite intense antagonism, leading to the formation of many loose networks of friends, lots of radicalisation, many occupations, squats, demos, texts written, things like that. Then, after the August 2011 riots, the state repression was extreme. More extreme, I think, than many people realised at the time – 5000 arrests after the riots, the psychological terrorism of friends or family in extremely distressing, protracted court cases, the Queen’s jubilee, the royal wedding, the Olympics, all of which meant ‘regeneration’, evictions, and the rest of it (“fucking Olympics!” Tasos echoes, clutching his brow) – all of which felt like a failure of the left somehow, partly because to a degree it was failure to come up with a response, but partly also because it’s difficult to connect all of these things without retrospect, these oppressions. Regardless, after the burst of activity, things became a little more dissipated, more sober and reflective, and when there wasn’t in fighting, or fault lines between groups become clear, there was (I think, I hope) the slow building of groundwork, with fewer spectacular events. Now, after the very bleak election results, it seems there will be what the Daily Mail called an “anarchist summer of Thuggery”. I imagine we will see more of a counter-movement. They cannot keep having Olympic Games. He asks what groups are doing interesting things at the moment, which confuses me. There are many more formal ‘groups’ in Greece than Britain, but still, the question is a good one. Off the top of my head, I think of a pleasingly odd selection of what might answer his question: Plan C, E15 Mothers, Novara Media, Anti-Raids Network, Black Dissidents, The Free University of London, Class War, International Times, Green and Black Cross…
After quizzing me about this (in part, I imagine, to scope out who I was) we had a very interesting discussion on the history of Greek anarchism, and the aspects of it that could or could not be an inspiration for British activists: “Look, where we’re sitting now, K*VOX, you could not open something like this in the U.K. The repression there is too much. But a movement really needs space. It is so important. Let me tell you about Nosotros over there, on the other side of the square, that could be an inspiration. In 2004, the collective that opened it – I was a little involved – they broke some taboos in the anarchist scene, in that, it was rented. They have since run classes of various different types, Greek lessons for immigrants, political discussions, meeting space for groups. Things like that. It was not a free school exactly, but an anti-authoritarian social space, a political centre. You go to work, you go home, you change, you go to the anarcho-communist social centre. The red and black flag at the door lets people know – ‘this is an anarcho-communist space’. The place was marked as political. The aim was to open communication with society, and to help in some way.”
“This illustrates very well the social anarchist approach of trying to spread anarchist ideas throughout society. It funds itself by selling coffee or drinks, but they can charge basically nothing for the coffee but the cafeteria was so successful. They have concerts, schools, talks. It was big because so many of the other spaces were closed, closed ideologically. You had to shared the ideology of the people there just to be there. Now, a range of different tendencies can come together. And then, when something like this is popular and it survives, it becomes a model for others, an inspiration rather. Now there are 250 buildings like this around Greece! Before ’04, there were very few. The ones all existing now differ hugely of course. They are extremely diverse, a variety of approaches. But the basic project of renting a building, no work, the free distribution of ideas and experiences, dedication to an anarcho-communist process, starting from a position of contributing in your free time – these are the fundamentals which are widespread now. Like I say, K*VOX is not a model for the U.K. But with things like Nosotros…” Tasos raises his voice in comic indignation “Look! I don’t care how a space is opened. I care about the context it is opened in, and the content inside it. You can find some cracks in the law, you can get tax breaks, become an NGO even! It’s about how you build relations. You give your time, when you can-“
I don’t quite know how to phrase my interruption, and splutter: “How do you get around the problem of…well… in the U.K. I think people would find the idea of giving your labour for free politically flawed. People obviously do it all the time. But in theory they don’t want to. There is a fear, I believe, of ‘self-exploitation’ and unpaid work”
“For me,” Tasos replies, holding his palms to the sky, “you start from the position of free time. There are some collective organisations, they make money and share it. But when they try to come to Nosotros, I think, people have given so much time for free, and now you’re coming and trying to make money! I am actually very proud that things can happen for free. It also needs to happen like this in Greece. But obviously, there is some aspect of money that needs to happen too. For example, for a long time Nostros opened at 6pm, and then they wanted to see about opening it in the daytime. But who will open it in the day? Many people have work, and nobody likes to get up early. So for a really extraordinary activity like this – running it in the day – then they can get paid. They can take some money out, but only if they get consensus. And it’s a good thing for the unemployed people. The group can investigate various different ways for the money. The basic premises is that noone takes money. But for extraordinary things like, say, running a kitchen, there is some given. Some special work. The important thing is you have to be an anarchist. You need consensus. If they cannot find consensus on something, okay, they leave it, and discuss informally, and then come back for a meeting later on. Maybe six months later, after talking about it, then people can agree. These issues have created some splits. For example, there was a split in Mikropolis in Thessloniki, another famous anarcho-communist social centre. These splits happen. But for me it’s best to start from free time. Like I said, I used to be a hippy, inspired by the Spanish movement. Over there it’s much more divided – you have the squatters and the rest people. You squat to sustain the squat. You steal food to live. Stuff like that. I like that, but here’s it is a bit different. Let’s move again.”
Three times, as the day spent on, we had to move tables to escape the sun. Throughout our conversation, Tasos would nod or wave to passing friends, rather impressively without the slightest pause in his flow. I filled many pages in my notebook scribbling down the drift of what he was saying. The fervent chat was only really punctuated by trips to the bar to get more bottles of Greek beer. On one such break, I sat there imagining what something like Nostros in the U.K. would look like. What are the comparable projects historically? Why does is not happen now? When he returns I suggest to Tasos “I think one of the main obstacles to something like this taking off in London at least, is that there’s a deep suspicion of affirmative political action. All projects are considered flawed from the get go, frequently written off under the catch-all ‘problematic’. Inane bloggers, twitter groups, and what I call ‘anarcho-cynicalists’ adopt the sort of disingenuously self-righteousness, parochial, pseudo-critical stances of a false puritan. How do you get round a culture of ‘critique’ like this?”
“Well this is more of a problem in the U.K for sure,” he says “but we have it also. I think you have to think about how you divide your organising. You have to organise properly with people you know. Put it this way, you have cells and you have spheres. In Greece, we get things done by having many political groups, little ones of about 3-15. Those are cells. There are 1000s of these kind of groups around Greece. They will have a name, meet regularly, making pamphlets and posters to affirm their existence, and plan actions together – maybe you have a writing session, a strike, migrant solidarity actions, campaigns of hatred against specific bosses, give out food, attack a bank, organise a film night, things like that. You form these when, in the traditional Spanish way, the time comes when you must turn your friends into comrades. You choose some people you really know. They’re not police, not liberals, things like that, and you form trust networks. This offers a mechanism of consistency in the group. Some groups are open. Some goods are closed. Sometimes you need to kick people out if they do not share your view, if you do not trust them. This is not a bad thing, just a fundamental of organising. Then, many groups all come together sometimes and have assemblies of various kinds. These are more like spheres, which also include social centres like Nostros, or neighbourhood groups of various kinds, marches – bigger, open things. Broader things. Here we have about 12,000 anarchists in Greece, of many diverse traditions – insurrectionist, ex-insurrectionist, social anarchist, nihilist, more Bookchin style groups. There have been efforts to produce an anarchist federation of various groups from around the country. Originally there were about 40 groups involved now it is more like 15. Disagreements about voting, things like that, have made some groups leave the process. That’s okay. If it works, then maybe more will join again.”
For the rest of the night, we had an interesting chat about the history of Greek anarchism, the philosophy or organising, eventually trailing off into fun, drunk absurdity. In some ways, these tactics appear a little vanguardist. If you tried them out in Britain you’d be accused of that, and of being cliquey or nepotistic. Perhaps even culty. From what I can see, however, having a groundwork of many small affinity groups provides the Greeks with many great advantages for building a culture of resistance. Perhaps you can’t change a whole culture, and these sorts of things just would not work in Britain. We comparing possibilities in Britain and Greece, talk about Void Network, and making plans to go swimming at the occupied beach for the next few drinks. Tasos is clearly an events man, an organiser, and is anxious to go and flier for Void Network’s upcoming festival, their 25th Indie Free Festival. He finds small, often non-political young new bands, and pays nothing expect for alcohol and travel. In return they get 10,000s of radical fliers promoting their band, and a packed crowd for their show. We head down to Omonia Square – a central but poor area of Athens – and hand them out for awhile, which I enjoy very much. Later, Tasos takes me to the beautiful occupied theatre Embros, a little ‘colony of exarchia’ in the consumerist district of Psyrri. I don’t get to spend much time inside, but we climb around the rickety fire escape back and onto the roof, looking out behind sign for the theatre, with a beautiful view of Athens nightlife from above. The city is so busy. We sit there with some more friends chatting until Tasos gets a call. He suddenly gives me a call, and says he must go immediately! He gives me a hug, and departs.