Austerity and Democracy in Athens: Crisis and Community in Exarchia

Austerity and Democracy in Athens: Crisis and Community in Exarchia


Reviewed by Georgia Alexandri

First Published:

20 Aug 2018, 5:02 am


Austerity and Democracy in Athens: Crisis and Community in Exarchia

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018; 219 pp.: 978-3-319-64127-0, £72.00 (hbk)


I would never in my life have imagined that a book about the neighbourhood in which I was born and raised would be published in English by an Italian anthropologist who would capture local struggles just the way they are: absolutely rational, just and humane. This book directly depicts the multiple and multi-dimensional symbolisms the place of Exarchia has for emancipatory politics, grievances and small-scale victories that actually crack neoliberalism.

The book oscillates between contrasting ideas: despair as expressed by crisis, violent austerity, neoliberal restructuring and death, versus hope as represented by direct democracy, solidarity, community and Eros. The canvas of this research is the broader political, economic and social dynamics in post-crisis Athens, filtered through the spatial reality of Exarchia: a neighbourhood in the heart of the city, an emblem of freedom and antagonisms, prefigurative politics and urban resistance. The main research objectives are to identify the nature of consolidating reciprocal communitarian bonds and the construction of resistance identities through the sense of belonging. By employing the ‘method of crack’ – that is, by approaching the field from the perspective of its crisis, contradictions and weaknesses – the research draws on ethnography consisting of participant observation, media documentation and more than 40 in-depth interviews, videos and photos by the author during her long-term stays in Athens.

The book consists of 11 easy-to-read and coherent chapters that take the reader through the political reality of Athens since 2010, that is, after the signature of the first Memorandum Treaty with the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the movement of Syntagma Square in 2011 and the incited bottom-up reactions in the neighbourhood of Exarchia. Chapter 1 starts with some theoretical reflections on the processes of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ that underpin austerity, interrogating their relation to democracy, urban space and social conflicts. It offers a rich chronicle of the chief political events of the debt crisis in Greece and the related popular discontent in Athens. Chapter 2 places the reader in the neighbourhood of Exarchia, offering some important information about the demography, geography and history of place. Chapter 3 visits the historic building of the National Technical University of Athens (Polytechneio) – a landmark of resistance to authoritarianism and important reference point for students’ and other social movements.

Chapter 4 provides an interpretation of the geometry of the central square, before describing in detail the social centres located in close proximity. Rich quotes – for example, from the interview with Yiannis Felekis, a local activist and prominent political figure of communitarian thought – underpin the connection of Exarchia to international groups of radical thought. Since the 1950s, Exarchia has evolved as a space of free thinking, in direct dialogue with anarchists, communists and Situationists, while direct action has developed jointly through reflecting specific cultures of place: discussions and actions beyond political party offices are organised spontaneously in kafeneia,1 rebetadika2 and in the public space. Nowadays, kafeneia are replaced by western-type cafeterias, rebetadika are commercialised and the public spaces of Exarchia deal with delinquent behaviours related to drug trafficking and cigarette smuggling. Nonetheless, political discussions evolve in social centres, and activisms that reclaim public space from commercialisation and delinquency are explained in detail in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 5 focuses on the Migrants’ Social Centre, which is dedicated to supporting migrants and refugees in legal, practical and personal terms. Greek language classes become a key mode for the author to explore relations and bonds with the non-Greek population and identify firsthand the traumas caused to migrants by the rise of xenophobic discourses following the ascendance of the neo-Nazi party of the Golden Dawn. Dr Cappuccini graphically depicts the anxieties of people trapped in Greece, their fears of fascist attacks in Athens’ public spaces, their dreams of joining family members in the big cities of Western Europe and the warmth that Exarchia and its activists offer within this hostile reality.

Chapter 6 considers the solidarity initiatives that have developed in Exarchia since the outbreak of the economic crisis. Dialogues with activists make the reader feel part of the discussion with the Residents’ Initiative, a group formed to deal with the neighbourhood’s problems in horizontal and bottom-up ways; the Time Bank, a project transferred to Exarchia from Syntagma Square, promising non-monetary exchange of services with time; the Social Solidarity Network that reconnects electric power to households in arrears with the electricity company; the Exarchia Choir, a residents’ initiative for singing collectively; the Food Collectors (trofosyllektes) collecting and redistributing food and primary goods to neighbours in extreme poverty; the Navarinou Park and the little garden (kipaki), two grassroots initiatives that have transformed a car park and an abandoned space into urban gardens. All of these initiatives underline the way that solidarity has been captured and transformed into practice, challenging austerity and promoting alternative modes of living, thinking and acting collectively.

Chapter 7 examines solidarity through the lens of the football club of Asteras Exarchion, where responsibilities are equally distributed, sponsors are rejected and financial support is generated through a participatory system. Ascending and descending the division are vividly celebrated in the square of Exarchia, signing slogans that underly the alternative vision of the club, reflecting simultaneously a healthier – non-commercial – version of football. Chapter 8 explores the walls of Exarchia and the recent history of graffiti artists in Athens, while Chapter 9 moves on to the use of fire during demonstrations in Athens and its uses in the neighbourhood of Exarchia. This chapter connects the outrage since 2008 when a student (Alexis Grigoropoulos) was murdered by a police officer, to the continuous rage expressed in anti-austerity demonstrations.

In Chapter 10, the author bridges her research to broader conceptual and academic analysis of the city as biopolitical machine, a tool of control that can simultaneously be conceptualised as a threshold towards a larger disruption marked by the condition of the crisis. According to Dr Cappuccini, this disruption is primarily expressed as joie de vivre by social movements that create new spatial contracts. She coins the term ‘auste-city’ to express this dualism between austerity as biopolitical power testing debt politics on urban space, and democracy as the joie de vivre voiced by anti-austerity mobilisations and subversive actions. Chapter 11 reflects the author’s interpretation of resistance identities and the method of the crack to identify contradictory dualisms that shape dynamics in crisis-hit Athens: privatisation and securisation, austerity and democracy, Eros (in love) and Thanatos (death).

One limitation of this work is the emphasis on description and narration. The links between existing and suggested interpretations of space analysis are also not very apparent, while the rapid elaboration of broader theoretical conceptualisations impedes theoretical innovation. From the same standpoint, I believe that the term ‘auste-city’ is not developed in depth, and hence fails to capture the essence of the relationship between austerity and democracy. Then again, this relationship may not be that contradictory, but a necessary condition for the post-crisis entwining of neoliberalism. I would moreover challenge the characterisation of Exarchia as an ‘extra-ordinary’ place: there is nothing exceptional in people’s struggles for a better quality of life. Amidst a world ruled by neoliberal rules of individualism and self-improvisation, collective action that evolves around concepts of solidarity, equality and freedom, creating contrasting alternatives to destructive self-centred aspirations, is a necessary condition of survival. Exarchia is then just as ordinary and compassionate as a place should be.

At the same time, the details offered and the scrutiny of political, economic and social conditions and of the mainstream discourse make this book essential reading to those who want to research the debt crisis, the rise of nationalism and grassroots alternatives. What also makes this book a must-read is the author’s methodology. Some academics, ironically labelled by local activists as ‘Exarchiologists’, after short research stays and rapid visits rush back to their offices, often located in famed European universities, to offer their place-based social movements’ analysis in papers and conferences, ignoring completely any need to communicate findings to local communities. Monia Cappuccini is a true urban anthropologist. Her in-depth anthropological insights and her extended and expanded visits to Athens made her learn, think and feel in the place of Exarchia. This book is her gift back to the people of Exarchia with whom she connected so well; it is also her gesture of sharing the knowledge she has gained with the rest of the academic world.


1. Traditional (private) commercial spaces echoing Eastern cultures of entertainment, with coffee, tea, low cost alcoholic drinks and meze, and low music levels to allow talking.

2. Nightlife entertainment uses where rebetiko music is performed live.



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Authors’ work published in Urban Studies:

Reading between the lines: Gentrification tendencies and issues of urban fear in the midst of Athens’ crisis by Georgia Alexandri (2018)