Twelve Points on a Hunger Strike and the Solidarity Movement
The following text, here translated into English for the first time, was first published exactly eight years ago, at the height of the hunger strike initiated by anarchist Nikos Romanos in the autumn of 2014. Romanos was arrested in February of 2013 along with three other people and charged with attempted armed robbery at the Agricultural Bank and TT Hellenic Postbank in Velvento, Kozani. All of those arrested were brutally beaten by the cops in custody. At a later point, Romanos would also be charged with possession and placement of explosive devices at the home of the former Minister of National Defense, Giannos Papantoniou. On November 10th, 2014, he initiated a month-long hunger strike over his right to take educational leave; as the strike entered its third week, the case attracted widespread attention from all political actors in Greece, including the parliamentary left. It was into this moment that the present text sought to intervene.
“Twelve Points” belongs to a critical tradition that has largely and unfortunately been eclipsed today, alongside forms of social antagonism which saw the ruthless criticism of our own struggles as one of their indispensable features. In a world where moralistic choices have replaced critical thought, the text raises some uncomfortable and yet unavoidable questions. And it did so at a moment so tense that its approach was openly received as traitorous.
The comrades who wrote the text, however, understood clearly that solidarity means, above all, the continuation of a struggle. It does not mean the suspension of critical thinking in order to immerse ourselves into the individualized framework that state repression produces.
Militants who adopt an individual attitude towards the state, and especially one portrayed as invariant, are bound to fail, regardless of whether their actions inspire moral support. That is not because their demands lie beyond the scope of legalism and accepted politics, but because they remain alone. A movement of solidarity towards a specific prisoner does not collectivize their struggle — it merely creates supporters of choices already made in a framework outside the struggle itself. It produces spectators.
Hunger strikes reduce all questions to that of life or death. As the text argues, they represent an ultimate form of struggle, typically undertaken when all other hope has been lost. But hunger strikes, as much as anything else, are not beyond critique. From the moment the question is posed in the clear-cut terms of life or death, a critique of the whole is preemptively abandoned. The focus instead becomes one of denouncing the scandalous inhumanity of the state, ignoring the fact that such a “scandal” is the logical consequence of a system conveniently placed outside the scope of critique. The outcome of such a struggle will only ever be to save or even modernize the whole.
It is not an accident that the result of this specific hunger strike was to facilitate the state’s introduction of more repressive measures. For the same reason that the state is not vengeful, it is also not humanist. Yet, in the context of life and death, the fact that the prisoner did not die remains a victory, but one that expresses concretely the moralistic trap generated by this hunger strike: to save one’s life, any compromise becomes preferable. The question posed here is how we arrive in such a situation.
The authors also make a crucial observation about the nature of the state apparatus: rather than a personalized vengeance machine, the state is here (correctly) identified as an impersonal bureaucratic apparatus whose functions are not geared towards punishing the “brave few,” but towards disciplining and integrating the whole into the logic of capitalist social relations.
Forcing the state and its police/judicial apparatus to accept specific demands that will be beneficial for all prisoners can only be the result of a sustained, massive and collective movement that successfully challenges the balance of forces, shifting the discussion away from legal interpretations of the existing framework. Detached from a wider and collective prisoners’ movement, a hunger strike imposes an individual focus and, therefore, an individual solution. As this specific case shows, the result could easily be destructive for prisoners as a whole — the emotional blackmail that forbade any critical discussions during the hunger strike facilitated this.
—Nik, December 6, 2022
Other languages: Ελληνικά
1. We would like to state right from the start that we are in solidarity with the struggle to recover “breaths of freedom” from the gloom of prison. Not only Nikos Romanos, but any prisoner claiming similar breaths has our full solidarity. From there on, however, we explicitly differentiate ourselves both from Romanos and from the solidarity movement with him.
2. The hunger strike to the death is a means of struggle with an important history. It is usually adopted as the ultimate means of struggle by prisoners who find themselves with their backs against the wall (and is usually supported in multiform ways by a prisoners’ movement), and only once all other means have failed. This is also due to the fact that a hunger strike, while aiming at recognition, respect, and human dignity, in its very nature debases human dignity since it deforms the striker and pushes him or her to their limits. A “hunger strike to the death” of one sole prisoner that lacks escalation (or which, in other words, does not have a prisoners’ movement to support it) is in our opinion a rushed choice. Moreover, any parallels drawn between N. Romanos and Bobby Sands of the IRA or Holger Meins of the RAF — besides being unsubstantiated — are also deeply historicist.
3. Either way, with its lack of escalation, Romanos’ “hunger strike to the death” blackmails the movement, particularly given that it coincides, in an obviously calculated way, with the days of December. Because when the issue of the life or death of a prisoner with a “history” like that of Romanos coincides with the days of December, an “emotional plague” takes hold of those in the struggle. Any critical political elaboration is immediately treated at best as a luxury or, in the worst case, as high treason. The same goes for the social body in general: what is political finds itself crushed beneath heaps of emotionalism, melodrama, and identification rooted in emotion and guilt associated with the prevalence of specific characteristics (relationship to A. Grigoropoulos, age, uncompromising position, heroic stance etc.). After all, it is not easy for such a struggle to open up other issues at the same time, or to create a link with other movements, both because this is a special case evolving around one individual and because the most important thing that determines everything else is the day-by-day health condition of the striker and the preservation of his life. Furthermore, there is an ethical question here concerning the relation between means and ends, in the sense that Romanos did not hesitate to exploit the imaginary of December, in order to attain his — legitimate — goal.
4. A part of the movement, particularly in times of decline and retreat like those of our present, is engaged in a desperate search for heroes (cf. the case of Maziotis) and insurrectionary pretexts. Every move it has made (especially the back-to-back occupations of the Polytechnic, the GSEE, and of city halls in the suburbs of Athens and in the rest of Greece) reveals that it appears to be in search of a new December, with an antagonistic subjectivity and a socio-political context that is, however, miles apart from December 2008. As good old Karl used to say, mocking the French revolutionaries of 1848 that attempted to ape the events of 1789, historical repetitions always turn out farcical. To anticipate the likely objections, we wish to say that we do not underestimate the movement’s mobility and capacity for direct action throughout nearly the entire territory, especially when viewed within the socio-political context of recent years. Our critique starts one step beyond this initial recognition. We are not, however, so politically short-sighted and arrogant as to fail to see that the final compromise was achieved not so much as a function of the movement but rather due to the mediation of the lawyer Ragousis, of Romanos’ parents and, of course, of SYRIZA and other “democratic forces.” If we look at the development realistically and based on the result, we could say that “Combative Anarchy,” by not maintaining the distance it should from the “ruling Left,” played the role of a vanguard for SYRIZA and its political aims and aspirations.
5. A significant part of the movement is deeply imbued with a culture of heroism and a cult of personality. The hero is a leading figure in the imaginary of Western civilization. After all, he maintains a deep affinity with some of its more peculiar aspects, such as the Messiah-martyr in Christianity. The hero is nearly God, and he is adored and remembered as such, since he has more “guts” (and usually “balls”) than the average person, has unlimited physical and mental strength, and is tireless, unrelenting, uncompromising and unrepentant, unlike ordinary mortals. He sacrifices himself in the name of the great Idea; in the name of all of us who ought to feel small in the face of his greatness. The hero always dies with a gun in his hand or at the height of his brave and unrelenting struggle. He is simultaneously the aggressor and the victim, a competent warrior climbing his own personal Golgotha.
6. A considerable part of our movement does nothing but reproduce the sociological and cultural constants of late capitalist society in the 20th and 21st century. There is no reflection and no (self)critique. What are these constants? “The shrinking of the self to its absolutely basic elements, its restriction to a state of continual readiness for war. And as in any war, survival becomes the first priority and to such a degree that it becomes an end in itself, overlooking the need to seek any other meaning beyond survival as such. The healthy existential relationship of man to his environment is disrupted as he is transformed into a warrior: insecure, aggressive and opportunist, prepared to do anything he believes will appease his insecurity, he forgets how deeply linked his fate is to the fate of other people and his wider environment.” This is the “minimal self” described by Christopher Lasch.
7. A part of the movement has an incurable lust for death. It praises and glorifies its dead (cf. the typical case of Fountas); however, it does not mourn them, and this fact is indicative of their instrumental, ideological, and polemical exploitation and use. This part of the movement believes that violence, destruction and death are the midwives of history. Dead fighters additionally serve as both an indictment of all those who “cower” before their “historical duty,” and as an indicator of moral superiority over those who “bow their heads,” as well as a basis for internal cohesion and homogeneity. If it didn’t have its dead, the movement (or at least its death-lusting part) would have to invent them, so necessary are they to the formation of its psychic structure.
8. Nearly the entire movement makes distinctions in regards to solidarity. Romanos is an “anarchist comrade,” an armed robber and a fraternal friend of Grigoropoulos. By contrast, “undocumented” immigrants, as well as the Syrian refugees of Syntagma square were swallowed into oblivion — with certain exceptions that only verified the rule — when they waged a hunger strike demanding obvious things, and during the same days, in fact, as Romanos’ strike. The same oblivion awaited the death on November 6 of a chronically ill immigrant prisoner at the Amigdaleza detention center due to non-existent health care, as well as the suicide on November 29 of one of the HIV-positive women that had been arrested and made into a public spectacle during the spring of 2012.
9. The Spectacle “had a ball” with the Romanos case. “The whole of Greece” was talking about Romanos in anything but political terms. But even when those terms either were or became political, they remained trapped within a framework already mined by the machinery of information, the machinery of the society of control. Everyone had a profound opinion: “progressive,” “democratic,” “humanitarian,” “conservative,” “authoritarian,” “legalistic” — the blender of the Spectacle had a bit of everything. Even the Communist Party issued a statement: Romanos, it said, had the “right to education.” The whole affair would have been laughable, were it not so crucial to the life and death of a hunger striker in prison. The greatest performance, of course, was put on by the government of “law and order” on the one hand, and the future government of “democratic rights” on the other, namely, SYRIZA, along with its organic intellectuals. An intentional form of communication, crafted to attain political goals, was initiated in order to manage a struggle that de facto risked slipping out of the control of the hunger striker and becoming a ping pong ball in the terrain of the Spectacle. However, when power speaks, the only effective way to disable its “reasoning” is not to reply to it — whether in words or deeds — but to surprise the opponent by changing the terms of the “game,” reconsidering and resignifying your practices in ways that alter the field in which the rigged debate is being conducted.
10. The accusation hurled against the “bad vengeful state” that refuses to grant unconditional educational leave “as is its legal obligation” to its unrepentant and sworn enemies, that it does not abide by the laws of parliament or that interprets them at will (as in this case, where it refuses to grant educational leave to someone already convicted because they are at the same time on trial for other offenses) smacks of moralism, democratism, legalism, and leftism. As an institution, the state’s “job” is to regulate our general subordination to a social-political-economic-cultural-anthropological condition in which the state and capital are the dominant social relationships, and of course to reinforce, reproduce, and perpetuate this condition in various ways. On the one hand, the state is a heteronomous and alienating social relationship which requires servility, regimentation, and the reduction of social multiplicity to the One (the Hobbesian Leviathan); on the other hand, it is an “apparatus,” a mechanism that seeks to perpetually absorb each and every social partiality into its closed totality and to govern them. One day, when we rid ourselves of the essentially liberal imaginary that treats the state as if it were absolutely distinct from society, a society that it “simply” represses wherever and whenever required, we will see clearly that to disable state regulation requires a quite different strategy, one that is much less coarse. Of course, this does not mean that on a tactical level we must not make claims upon or demands of the state, or that we must divest ourselves of our civil rights despite their abstract and leveling character (in regards to social heterogeneity and multiplicity). On the one hand, from a tactical point of view, such struggles are not only inevitable, but also necessary in order to maintain life and dignity in the societies that we live in; on the other hand, they afford us an opportunity to realize our collective strength, sharpen our alertness in struggle and cultivate self-confidence, especially when small victories are within reach. So it is in no way undignified or counter-revolutionary to make demands and invoke our civil rights. However, it is something entirely different when our political stance does not go beyond even a combative defense of individual and social rights and a legalistic appeal towards the authoritarian and “punitive” state. This would automatically equate us with liberals or social democrats. Tactics must always be in a dialectical relationship with the political strategy we have for social transformation.
11. The state does not take revenge on its armed enemies, as the advocates and supporters of the armed guerilla think. “But then why does it treat them in this way?”, some with good intentions, some non-dogmatic-fanatics, will hasten to ask. We do not believe that the state takes revenge. The state is an impersonal, bureaucratic, centralized mechanism that sustains the monopoly of violence. Revenge requires looser structures and relations that are in a position to personify contention and conflict. Discrimination against the armed fighters is part of a much broader spectacular and biopolitical management and regulation. What does the state say when it denies armed fighters equality before the law or lenience? Whom would its audience be? The armed fighters themselves? We argue that its addressee is the social body: it is speaking to its subjects strictly in its capacity as a shepherd and great guarantor, and what it is saying to them is, “we are here to ensure social peace, normality and stability, which are presently under threat and attacked on all sides; legality is not defined once and for all, rather it is fluid and adapts to suit circumstances and conjunctures; any deviation (and not only the armed one) from a continuously re-established normality has a strong chance of being dealt with in a strict and distinctive manner; but you have nothing to worry about because you are and will continue to be the ‘normal children’; the fatherland needs responsible citizens that understand the gravity of the situation and take an active position against the chaos brought on by dark forces.” State governance is interested in constructing a positive-productive subjectivity. Intimidation and repression never sufficed (on their own) for the reproduction of the existent.
12. The adoption of the Athanasiou amendment by parliament and the resulting termination of the hunger strike by Romanos does not seem like a victory in our eyes, apart from the sense (which is far from unimportant to us) that Romanos is still alive. That he is ALIVE is a VICTORY. However, in the terms that were put in place from the outset — and throughout — by the hunger striker himself, we think a victory would have been the granting of educational leaves without teleconferences and “bracelets.” But this had no chance of being accepted by the state, an obvious fact to anyone possessing even an elementary grasp of political reality and of social relations in recent years. As a consequence, given the way the hunger strike was carried out, there was no room for any other ending beyond that of compromise (in favor of the state, but also of the prisoner in an inverted way) or death. Just as the human brain starts to think differently when one gets close to doing irreversible damage to the body’s organs and death lurks nearby, Romanos, having all along recognized the hard line adopted by the state (in direct proportion to his own hard line, and something we all expected), was forced to accept the ultimate compromise, i.e., teleconferencing — which he had rejected some days earlier, having correctly criticized technology in the service of domination — and the “bracelet.” And rightly so: life, even with a “bracelet,” is still life. The manner in which the hunger strike ended thus already contained a trap laid by the striker himself. Romanos found himself locked into the same hard line he had set for himself from the start, and felt — wrongly, in our view — obliged to follow it through to the end; and the only escape from this deadlock was for him to accept the amendment which the cretins in parliament voted for with great joy, since they were given the opportunity to accelerate the implementation of teleconferencing and electronic tagging that they had been preparing for some time (cf. the Roupakiotis law). They were given the opportunity to spring into action “without a hitch,” “without anyone batting an eye.” Under different circumstances, we believe that prisoners (among others) would have reacted against such a measure, which also paves the way for the use of “bracelets” for those on furlough, on house arrest, as well as other categories of prisoners, and down the road, for those convicted for minor offenses. Thus do we arrive at the seemingly paradoxical culmination of Romanos’ hunger strike, which ends in an accelerated implementation of authoritarian measures, only in liberal style. What we are up against today is not the good old authoritarianism, but technologically liberal authoritarianism. It is not the panopticon that forms the new model for power, but the synopticon. The “prophet” of our era is not Orwell, but Huxley. The prisoner will be able to leave prison, to win a respite from the enclosure of prison and the watchful eye of the prison guard, on condition that their entire life outside the walls becomes a prison. Even if they are not continuously under surveillance, the prisoner with a “bracelet” will still internalize the gaze of power. Yet, at the same time, they will feel that they have some freedom of movement. The synopticon does not use coercion, does not exercise enforcement from above, but rather “liberates” the subject in a way that is productive for power. What does the synopticon say in the case of prisoners? You do not need to obey the orders of the prison guard; you can discipline yourself. You do not need someone to restrict you; you can restrict yourself. I do not need to continuously watch over you, pay wages for prison guards, pay for your food; the cost is passed on to you, the “free” prisoner. With the “bracelet,” power takes leave of the prison walls and diffuses itself everywhere, into every aspect of the prisoner’s life. The “bracelet” is the epitome of biopolitical regulation and of the society of control. Comrades: if this constitutes a political victory, then what, we wonder, is a defeat?
The comrades who discussed and wrote this text refuse to adapt to “movement normality” that leaves no space for critique, disagreement, reflection and freedom of thought. In protest, they also refuse to sign this text with some fanciful name.
First published as “12 Points on N. Romanos’ Hunger Strike and the Solidarity Movement” on athens.indymedia.org
Translated by the Wild Bunch, with revisions by Ill Will
Images: Beuford Smith