Laissez faire, security, and liberalism: revisiting Greek December 2008

by Akis Gavriilidis

In December 2008, Athens became world news for the first time in recent years, for a reason that was soon overshadowed by the financial and debt crisis that came immediately after. I think it would be useful to revisit this event now, when it is not so loaded any more in terms of public attention and affect.

This reason was a totally unpredicted, contingent event: the pointless murder of a youngster by a policeman, which sparked a wave of massive and angry protests for several days in Athens –including in neighbourhoods where no demonstrations had ever taken place in living memory- as well as in all major Greek cities, and several minor ones. These consisted in mass rallies, mainly by equally young people with no previous experience in social protest, occupation of public buildings, “sieges” of police stations, but also considerable damage on private property and some looting of shops by the demonstrators and/ or others. The difficulty to tell a demonstrator from an “other” was precisely an important part of the whole picture, as no political or other body or organisation had made any official call for these protests. But this does not mean they were “spontaneous” in the usually pejorative sense that this term has in the left-wing tradition; many of these actions displayed a high degree of efficiency, accurate coordination, and organisational skills. But they were prepared, and performed, by a subject-non subject; a subject that did not pre-exist, it came to being through this very action, only to dissipate and vanish afterwards. This dissipation was not the mark of a lack or a failure, but rather formed a constitutive part of the mobilisations from their inception. This punctual and circumstantial existence was their only possible form of existence.

What I would like to focus on, though, is a specific aspect concerning the response –or lack of it- by the Greek state to these events.

In the beginning, the state-controlled (or -affiliated) mass media tried to conceal, or misrepresent/ downplay, the event. Soon, as this became impossible due to the circulation of the news through the social media, government officials, including the Public Order minister and then the Prime Minister Karamanlis, tried to appease protests by showing their “understanding” and promising that the perpetrators would be arrested and justice would be administered. (Which, incidentally, was indeed the case eventually: the killer was condemned to life imprisonment, two years later). Almost most importantly, the Chairman of the Pireaus Chamber of Commerce, when asked by a journalist what he was thinking about the lootings and whether these would have a catastrophic impact on the market, replied that “human life is more important than commercial goods”.

Of course, what contributed to such magnanimous stance was possibly the tactics that the Karamanlis government opted for: they instructed the police not to use excessive force or try to totally clampdown the protests, or even prevent lootings, and they subsequently compensated shop holders with state budget funds for all the damages they had suffered.

This is a typical liberal tactics. Possibly, it is a liberal-Western “reading” of a typical Eastern and, more particularly, Chinese idea. It is useful to remember here that François Quesnay, the leading figure of the Physiocrats, was also called “the Confucius of Europe” in his time.

“Laissez-faire” [Let people do], in the first place, was not specifically a motto in favour of free market or private entrepreneurship as opposed to the state’s economic activity, but concerned in general the way the state should react to crises in order to ensure security.

In this respect, we could refer to some remarks on this notion by Giorgio Agamben (who explicitly invokes Foucault’s analyses on the birth of liberalism).


if we take the concept of security, which is so much talked about today and which is almost the slogan of Western governments, this is a term derived from the concept of state of exception: security is «public salvation». But here, Michel Foucault showed very nicely which is the origin of this concept: he showed in his lectures that security as a technique of governance was introduced by the physiocrats on the eve of the French Revolution. What was the problem of the time?It was famines; how to avoid the occurrence of famine. Until then, people had never thought in this way; they collected cereal beforehand, etc. The physiocrats had this perhaps ingenious idea: we will no longer seek to avoid famines. We will let them happen, but then we will be ready to govern them, to orient, to ensure they go towards a right direction.

The basic idea [of Western governments] is rather «we will let disasters, riots, happen, or even we will help them happen, because this will allow us to intervene and govern them towards the right direction». For example, American politics for twenty years is clearly this: it never prevents the appearance of disorder, destruction, instead it helps to produce them, but afterwards tries to benefit from them in order to direct them towards «security».

We need to bear this in mind: governments today do not aim at maintaining order, but at managing disorder.

(Giorgio Agamben, interview –in French- to the Greek TV channel ET3; my translation)


In this sense, the Greek state reacted to this contingent and unpredictable crisis by first letting people do, and subsequently trying to turn their doing in its favour, to capitalise on the movement and the exodus of people.

I think it would be useful to ask oneself whether this is a general pattern of the action of states during the last decades, and even earlier, and, if this is the case, to what extent this leads us to reconsider the relationship between the political and the economic.

According to a conventional view, shared or used even by some of its proponents, neoliberalism consists in “less state” (it being usually understood mainly as “less state intervention in the economy”). This, in turn, gave rise to a whole series of criticisms that try to reveal the hypocrisy of neoliberalism, in so far as it limits itself to the “economy” and does not extend this “reduction” of the state to the police and the repressive apparatuses as well.

The example of the Greek December 2008 does not seem to confirm this simplistic dichotomy.

The tactics of the Greek state as regards shop lootings, described above, does not exactly consist in “less state”. The state is not a substance, whose presence can be increased or decreased at will. It is a relationship, an action upon actions. Which means it can occasionally consist in a withdrawal, and/ or a redeployment of these forces; a de-territorialisation and reterritorialisation. But, in this example, both the “political” and the “economic” are present in each of the two spaces (the one from which state forces withdrew from, and the one they moved to). Karamanlis did not abandon an “economic” space in order to move to a “repressive” one (or vice versa); he undertook certain actions in view of a specific assemblage, a situation combining elements of both “politics” and “economy” –and, of course, language, communication, and affect, which are elements crucial for both of these domains. He did not only make a decision settling a private debt, but also a gesture admitting the existence of a public one. By compensating merchants for damages that it did not (directly/ visibly) induced, the Greek state was making an oblique statement that it recognized its responsibility for the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, giving a “coded message” to appease protesters, and, at the same time, with the same move, was trying to use the force and the action of the protesters, and the fear it could create to the “forces of the market”, in order to “re-launch the economy”, to reassure the small-and-medium enterprise holders that it cares about them and won’t let them down.


In addition to the above, it would be also useful to reflect on the action –or lack of it- from the part of the people themselves on the basis of this example.

In the leftwing-antiauthoritarian tradition, (and in Greece even more so), the fact that power is able to manage the people’s affect, communication, movement, and exodus, was always a source of embarrassment, deep concern, even despair; and then, at a second level, a source of mutual accusations and contests between radical political groups on who is the most radical. Any capture of a popular mobilisation by capital and state is universally read as evidence that this mobilisation was “not the real thing”; it was insufficient, not well prepared, with a low level of revolutionary theory or organisation, its leaders were petty-bourgeois, if not outright traitors who sold off, so we have to draw our lessons and next time try to do better.

This is the horror of “co-optation”, for which in Greek anti-establishment parlance we use the much abhorred term “ενσωμάτωση”, (literally “incorporation”), which marks the irrevocable defeat and extinction of any contestation and any anti-systemicity, using the metaphor of recipients where bodies are enclosed successfully in their totality without any traces, without rests.

Such accusations were indeed voiced by certain groups from the left, but even from conservative mainstream journalists and commentators, against the December protests, and were repeated even more strongly for the case of the “Aganaktismenoi” [The Indignant Ones] protesting at Syndagma square a couple of years later, and also for the Occupy movement, the Arab springs, etc. Either with disappointment or with malignant irony, modernists were very eloquent in enumerating the lacks of such primitive, naïve and irrational manifestations of the multitude which had no clear political goals and no hierarchy of priorities or set of concrete demands.

The point I want to suggest is that this apparently anecdotal, fragmentary, non-strategic character of the movements of the multitude is not an accidental lack or an imperfection that could or should be “corrected”. It is here to stay; it probably was always here. There will always be something lacking, and there will never be a perfectly organised, comprehensive action of the masses that will take hold of the state and definitely redress all its wrongdoings.

Approaching the movement of people as de-territorialisation could be a useful antidote to the paralysing despair and low self-esteem caused by the fear of «ensomàtosi». Precisely this perceived lack is at the same time the reason why “incorporation” is never perfect: in the same way, there is always something left out of the recipient, something exceeding, or missing, or both; and this discrepancy is what makes new actions possible.


This text was initially written to serve as an introductory presentation to a conference to take place in Athens, May 2014, and was first published at the organisers’ site:

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