Nihilism in the Greek Tragedy

The Crisis in Greece has now been going on five years, with no signs of abating.   The implosion of the financial markets in Autumn 2008, led to a spectacular explosion in Greece in December of that year.  The nihilism which had been building at the edges of the anarchist movement took centre stage and a radical demonstration of its power produced a spectacular result.   Over time, the spectacles lessened and anomie set in, the activists had become passified, sliding into the abyss  And now the trajectory of the Greek Nihilism has turned Foustian as pacts are made with the devil.

Its a familiar and well worn path: the resistance giving into despair and then the will to power siding with those who already have it.  Let Greece be a warning of the power and danger of nihilism – its danger is not in the burned banks and destroyed shop fronts, but in the the bonfire of values which leave people seeking refuge, safety and security in a world where external referents have gone, and the nakedness of survival leads to a dog eat dog existence.

The Active Nihilism of Resistance

I started taking an interest in Greece right at the start of the crisis.  A long time Marxist, who over the years has grown more sympathetic to anarchist ideals, I knew that the formal Marxist current was …staid, in Greece, and that the main challenge came from the anarchists.  The anarchism usually found in Scotland always appears to me to be a radical form of charity work – a rebuilding of the system from within the system with a few twists, and depressingly often becoming co-opted into it, or worse, taken over by it, leaving the political activists out in the cold.  While I was familiar with the insurrectionary anarchist tendancy and had some sympathies with it, when I chanced across the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, possibly one of the best known Greek anarchist movements, I was on unfamiliar ground.

The original Nihilists were a revolutionary tendancy in Tsarist Russia.  Anarchist influenced, the Catechism of the Revolutionary, by Nechayev – a one-time comrade of Bakunin (who later renounced him) was their bible.  They operated through secret societies, forged passports, illegalism and a committment to a materially asecetic lifestyle coupled with the hedonism of freedom from moral authority.

The Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire is an openly nihilistic anarchist tendency which started in January 2008, just prior to the formal start of the crisis, but also at the time when it was clear that it was in the post.   In the tradition of the insurrectionary anarchists they had no qualms about political violence, but rejected its fetishisation, suggesting instead that it was the tacit consent of the population which allowed the injustices of capitalism to rage, and that the role of the anarchist was to take action in solidarity with others to liberate.   Operating in small cells, linked but not accountable to one another, they fought the system.

For those who first challenged the system in the wake of Alexandros Grigoropoulos ‘s death, seeing the murder of child at the hands of a state which had wrecked their future, the old ways of the communists were constrictive; the socialists had sold out, and the traditional anarchist movement with its collectivism inadequate.  The youth had seen through the chimera of modern capitalism and it was ugly – the answer was to destroy.  From December 2008, until the deaths at the Marfin Bank in May 2010, where three employees had found themselves trapped, locked by their employers into a bank which was torched in the mayhem on the streets, the active nihilism of resistance eclipsed the union led strikes and pacificistic sit-ins, producing a dramatic spectacle of bombings and urban pseudo-warfare which flared intermittantly before receeding back to the shadows.

We make clear here that we are anarcho-individualists and nihilists and that we have no appreciation nor respect for the “poor people.” Even more, for law-abiding citizens who sit on the benches of jurors. These “poor” people, who are today humiliated and miserable, are the same who worship their bosses and have the same values with them​​, money and power. They are the people who always whimper but never revolt, questioning but always believing in young leaders/saviors, who always yell but never act. It is high time we break away from dusty revolutionary ideologies – no sheep was saved bleating. Against sheep and shepherds, we are wolves.

Conspiracy of Cells of Fire Statement, August 2013

The activism of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire and its fellow travellers – such as the Lovers of Lawlessness, Wild Freedom and Instigators of Social Explosion, Gangs of Consciousness, Lonely Wolf, the Untouchable Cell of Revenge  Untamed Desires who have carried out acts of resistance continues.  Last year there were  527 arson and bomb attacks in 2012 and 254 in the first six months of this year, but the public face is declining – the demonstrations becoming smaller and tamer, the activists getting older and the public sentiment less sympathetic. When Dimitris Christoulas publically shot himself in Syntagma Square calling on the youth to take up arms, the propaganda of his deed was stronger than his words, as the active nihilism of the Conspiracy gave way to the passive nihilism of the resigned.

The Passive Nihilism of Despair

The instensity of the reaction to Alexandros Grigoropoulo’s death was followed by three further years of active street resistance.  Molotovs flared and pieces of paving stones flew.  The marble which adorned Syntagma Square in front of the parliament provided ample ammunition for the fighters who smashed the facings and hurled them at the police, together with the marble from the expensive hotels that lined the area.

The steps of the expensive hotels are all now repaired, while the facings of Syntagma lie still ruined, covered over by cheaper material, which is more difficult to be weaponised.  In the meantime, one bailout was followed by another, followed by a third – debts grew, both private and public, the corrupt escaped justice and the poor especially the newly impoverished paid the price. While the dedicated revolutionaries continue, the core has solidified, while the fringe has vaporised.  Getting by in a system which has failed them, keeping their homes and food on the table preoccupying those who would have once been throwing rocks in Syntagma.  The meaninglessness which once saw them seek to destroy the old order, giving meaning to the void that was left in the crisis has evaporated.  Survival is the order of the day.

Some have escaped into narcotics, the ultimate consumption.  When economic growth is sluggish, and consumption weakened in its wake, what better a way to promote consumption than through dependency; what better way to keep people enslaved than through torture self-inflicted if they refuse to continue to consume.  The rise of heroin use, then the emergence of Sisa – a particularly horrible drug only found in Athens made of battery acid and sold for one euro per hit has captured some of those who have given up all hope of a positive future, seeking only to fend off pain and escape for a few hours the misery of reality.

For those who are still sober, the world is a sobering place.  The meanings that they have been fed and are being fed through a heavily controlled propagandistic media are time and time again shown to be not the way the world really works, as embezzlers escape and those who expose them arrested; as the police, the protectors of the civilian population, enact violence upon it; as bailouts which demonise the Greeks as greedy consumers of foreign productivity are siphoned off to capitalist parasites.  The truth that they live and the truth that they are told is in radical contradiction; escapism and madness result.

Once set in motion, the process of questioning could come to but one end, the erosion of conviction and certitude and collapse into despair.

Spectre of the Absurd, David Crosby

Speaking to a teacher after the Greek teaching union had withdrawn support for a general strike when the government issued a civil mobilisation order on all teachers which required that they attended to their employment or faced the prospect of a potential four years imprisonment, she expressed her frustration with the leadership of both the teachers union and of the wider left as it contracted.  She told me with a shrug that the main fightback is over now, people are just waiting.  When I asked what they were waiting for, she shrugged again.  “I don’t really know“, she said, “fascism, I guess.” – and then looked at me sharply,realising what she had just said – admitting publicly that fascism was coming and people were passive even as they heard the sound of jackboots approaching.

The Fascist Nihilism

A major influence of the 19th Century Russian nihilists and anarchists was Max Stirner, and his work is usually interpreted in that tradition.  He advocated a radical individualism, an absolute egotism in which one should only join with others in a “Union of Egotists” should it be beneficial for the individual.    There is no suggestion that Stiner himself was a fascist, or even right leaning, but his influence in anarchist circles, particularly nihilistic anarchism. coupled with his imperative to serve only the ego as a master has dangerous tendencies.

Stirner suggests that each individual is unique and undue emphasis must not be given to their attributes, such as nationality, race, class, social position etc – arguing against the kind of social solidarity which is more commonly found in social anarchist works, as this distorts individual will.  Instead s/he should find solidarity in the expression of the ego, banding with others where common cause can be found.  There is no “social obligation” to help those who are like me, but only a self-interest which can identify common cause with others.

Neitzche’s concept of the Ubermenche, the ideal of the post-nihilistic man was famously colonised by the Third Reich, who contrasted their vision of this brawny, ripped, sandy haired ideal with the Untermenche – who were only fit for concentration camps.  The nihilistic value-free new man had no compunction about imprisoning, experimenting upon or murdering the Untermenche, for values were to be imposed anew, and moral values became subservient to the value which could be extracted for the benefit of those who held power.  For this is the weakness of Stirner – although the state in its current conception may limit the freedom of man, to maximise freedom within an unfree system, banding with those who have power may be the Egoists best tactic.

Stirner’s “Union of Egoists” turns social solidarity on its head.  Rather than exploring the manner in which my will to power is constrained, the ego seeks outlets to express that will to power.  And those outlets are most usually banding with those who already have it. The will to power inherant in the Golden Dawn of Greece reflects that banding together with their egos on full display as they repeatedly assert their identification with those who hold power. Where there is no external referrent, no external value system – one might as well identify with those who hold the power that can facilitate individual will.  Oppositional conciousness is undermined as conformance becomes the highest form of freedom which can be attained in a restricted world – the ultimate paradox of nihilism.

The self-referential Ubermenche stares into the abyss, but rather than looking beyond, throws more and more into it, in hope that they may be spared.  The queues of people lining up to receive food from the Dawn have no particular affinity with them, but they are becoming all too well aware which side their bread is buttered on, at a time when bread is in short supply.

And so Nihilism comes full circle, from the destruction of all values, institutions and structures in the hope that a better world will arise from the ashes, to the clinging to known failed values in the full knowledge that they are corrupt in egotistical self interest and the minimisation of suffering, elevating power infused identities and subjugating the individual to them.   The phrase “I was only doing my job“, a testimony at once to the suppression of the individual to the structural power which acts upon them, a distancing of the individual from the act and a recognition that identification with that overarching power is the most effective form of their own individual power being facilitated.  When resistance seems futile and futility has proven irresistible, the question is which direction to take next.

I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible. . . .


Play with nihilism and you play with fire.  

You can torch the banks as money loses its meaning as an arbitrator of value; you can ignite the population to rage on the streets; you can inflame uncontrollable passions, but there is always the danger that you might get burnt as the flames of rage die down, and the embers of despair turn ugly.

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