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Reinventing Politics Against its Brutalization

In Greece, the violence of anti-migration policies is compounded by that of economic adjustment measures. Christiane Vollaire and Philippe Bazin visited the people and places that are countering this violence with “an archipelago of solidarities.”

Reviewed: Christiane Vollaire and Philippe Bazin, Un archipel des solidarités. Grèce, 2017‑2020, Paris, Éditions Loco, 2020, 364 pp.

Magnificent [1] from every point of view, Christiane Vollaire and Philippe Bazin’s book presents the results of investigations carried out in Greece between 2017 and 2020. Its originality lies in the combination of two approaches: field philosophy and documentary photography, which are used to observe the reinvention of relationships of solidarity in the face of the destructive effects of structural adjustment measures and police brutality.

At the time of starting this work, each of the authors had just published a book with Éditions Créaphis; the titles sounded like manifestos: Pour une philosophie de terrain (“For a Philosophy of Groundwork”; Vollaire 2017) and Pour une photographie documentaire critique (“For Critical Documentary Photography”; Bazin 2017). Un archipel des solidarités represents the culmination of a dozen years of reflection and the maturing of their combined approach.

Archipelago: a dual perspective

The expression “archipelago of solidarities” is a conceptual tool that Christiane Vollaire constructs heuristically. An archipelago is a group of emerged islands, supported by a single submerged continental base. Michel Foucault used this geographical notion “to designate, and because of Solzhenitsyn, the prison archipelago, this dispersion and at the same time the universal coverage of a society by a type of punitive system” (Foucault 2001, p. 32).

Vollaire doubles down on this idea from the opposite perspective. The Aegean islands have been used by authoritarian regimes in the past as deportation sites; this punitive logic is now being reactivated by the European Union in its war on migrants (Migreurop 2007). Today, the Aegean archipelago is only a small part of a vast European archipelago of camps that continues to expand both within and outside European borders.

With a certain symmetry, attention is drawn to a multitude of local initiatives, scattered but emerging from a common base to confront “the violence of global governmentalities.” This common ground is the historical dynamic of social movements based on bonds of solidarity, in the sense that the term took on in the 19th century: “A relationship between people who are aware of a community of interests, which entails, for one member of the group, the moral obligation not to serve others and to assist them” (Rey 2005). The notion of solidarity is thus freed from the rhetorical use made of it by public authorities to institutionalize for their own benefit a “national solidarity” that veils social and political antagonisms. Émile Durkheim (1893) conceived of solidarity as a moral principle ensuring the overall cohesion of a society, which the liberal hegemony (dominant in the 19th century) was destroying, precipitating societies into anomie.

In Europe, Greece is the place where the brutality of the global system of domination, in its three articulated facets, is most keenly felt: the violence of economic structural adjustment measures, the violence of European anti-migration policies, and the violence of police repression. For the authors, it is “a laboratory for liberal authoritarianism.” This, in turn, enables them to understand forms of solidarity as a laboratory for experimenting with collective dynamics that oppose the processes of market hegemony. [2] “It is the question of the political us that we are led to ask, in all its polemical and dissensual dimensions, which can only define it on the basis of the violence it confronts and the refusals it necessitates” (p. 12).

Following two surveys of self-managed dispensaries in Thessaloniki and Athens, and of support movements for exiles on Lesbos, the authors have extended their investigation to a wide range of seemingly heterogeneous collectives, scattered across a dozen cities, regions and islands: a movement opposing a gold mine, a self-managed factory, a network of neighborhood associations, an alternative lifestyle on the island of Ikaria, or the emblematic “rebel” Exarchia neighborhood in Athens. The authors took the risk of dispersion. This proved heuristic, as it led them to consider the concept of an archipelago of solidarities. The approach is not typological: the aim is not to differentiate and classify, but to examine the common underpinnings of a multiplicity of social and political experiments. It is akin to an ethnological approach in the tradition of Georges Balandier’s dynamist anthropology (1955), which emphasized societies’ resumption of initiative in the context of the colonial situation.

The subjects’ point of view

The book consists of three long chapters written by Christiane Vollaire, interspersed with two photographic series by Philippe Bazin. The three sections of the text focus successively on each of these three modalities of violence - economic, xenophobic and repressive - starting from the way in which the actors subjectivize it in their efforts to counter its effects and/or oppose it.

The quality of the writing makes it easy to follow the author’s complex reflections. She traces the progress of the investigation, reporting on the places and conditions of encounters and interlocution with the subjects. She restores their words and draws out their philosophical significance, illuminating them with concepts that enable us to analyze the mobilizations observed in their precise context. These appear both as responses to the current situation and as the product of Greek political history. The historicity of situations permeates the entire book, and is examined more systematically in the final chapter.

The first photographic notebook is made up of “Interview Portraits” (Figure 1), those of thirty-four of the actors we met, taken during their conversations with Christiane Vollaire. The framing makes the scenery disappear to focus on the faces and shoulders that carry them, as if to underline their full stature as actors and political subjects. This choice reveals the expressiveness of the faces, the movements that emerge from the interlocution, the glances directed at the philosopher who, for her part, remains off-camera, like the photographer. Photography restores the presence of the subjects and their investment in the investigation. It gives them body... and soul, in the sense that these bodies are animated: by speech, energy, reflection, will, convictions, doubts, worries, anger, seriousness, and so on. What photography brings out in its own form is the point of view of its subjects.

Figure 1

Left: Biology teacher compulsorily retired; the pharmacy manager at Elliniko’s self-managed solidarity clinic (in 2017). Right: Electronics engineer, involved in the Starfish NGO in Molyvos coming to the aid of migrants arriving on the beaches of northern Lesbos (in 2018).

Philippe Bazin (Un archipel des solidarités, pp. 108 and 115).

From place to place, interlocutor to interlocutor, the interplay of text and image enables the reader to grasp how the survey itself is anchored, through dialogue, in the archipelago of solidarities whose existence it reveals. The text presents itself as an extension of the dialogue initiated during the interviews: the actors in the field acted as mediators between the authors and their world, and Christiane Vollaire’s writing style in turn makes her a mediator, organizing a constant dialogue between the subjects of the survey and philosophical works, between the singularity of situations and general reflection. The same is true of Philippe Bazin’s aesthetic approach. The reader feels less a spectator than a stakeholder in the communication on which the work is based.

Staying up

The first chapter, “Confronting destructive economic policies,” opens with the self-managed dispensaries in Thessaloniki and Athens, set up by health professionals in response to the effects of the structural adjustment measures imposed on Greece: dereliction of public health infrastructures and insurance systems (social security), widespread collapse of incomes (pensions, salaries, joblessness). The second chapter, “The migratory question,” is part of this context from the outset, as self-managed health clinics, for example, make up for the lack of care for the physical and psychological health of “migrants,” who often suffer as a result of their migratory journey; or support and welcome them, as during a hunger strike by 300 “migrants” in Crete.

In the health centers, as in the movement fighting against the opening of a gold mine in Skouries, in the collective of workers taking over their factory to prevent its closure, in the neighborhood associations seeking to restore sociality, or in Exarchia confronting police violence to safeguard its autonomy, the words of the actors often insist on the same concern: to stay on their feet, to stand up (which is reflected in the interview portraits). In this way, they express the will to face up, resist and fight, but also the difference between relationships of solidarity and relationships of assistance.

Figure 2. Parking lot of a nightclub that served as a temporary camp for exiles (south of Molyvos, February 2018)

© Philippe Bazin (Un archipel des solidarités, p. 114).

Exiles: police administration vs co-management

This same principle can be found among the “migrant” support movements that are the subject of the second chapter, as well as—and this is important to emphasize—in the views expressed by the exiles themselves. This section presents various initiatives in Thessaloniki, Patras and Athens, before focusing on the island of Lesbos, where exiles “disembark” from nearby Turkey. The Moria camp is a European Union “hot spot”: a place of confinement and a sorting center, placed under close police and administrative surveillance, with the aim of sending exiles back to Turkey. In contrast, the Pikpa site (Figure 2) is totally open and based on a system of co-management between the exiles who live there and the volunteer collective.

Figure 3. Pikpa refugee camp, co-managed by local activists and exiles (Lesbos, February 2018)

© Philippe Bazin (Un archipel des solidarités, p. 234).

From our examination of these situations emerges a critique of humanitarian action, which places “migrants” in a relationship of assistance and thus contributes to the policy of repression and refoulement. Another interesting point is the criticism of the paradoxical injunction to vulnerability addressed to exiles, which they themselves formulate.

We also discover that this is not the first time Lesbos has received exiles en masse. Many of the volunteers are descendants of the Greeks expelled from Turkey in 1922, an event referred to as the catastrophe.

Persecutions, reprisals and political betrayals

The final chapter, “Le temps long de l’histoire,” explores the historical dimension of forms of resistance and the resumption of initiatives in the face of political violence. The whole point of Christiane Vollaire’s approach is to undertake this historical reading from the perspective of the actors themselves, that is to say their political consciousness. A number of recurring themes emerge, already mentioned in connection with the use of these islands as a punitive archipelago.

These recurring themes can also be seen in the second photographic notebook, “Paysages à l’épreuve de l’histoire.” Philippe Bazin’s documentation is based on traces left in the landscape. The aesthetic choice is the reverse of that made for the series of interview portraits: now it is the scenery alone that appears, in its raw materiality, while the actors appear only through the imprints they have left there. This is a far cry from the memorial celebration that obscures political antagonisms. Instead, Philippe Bazin’s documentary approach invites the public to adopt the gaze of an archaeologist, who reads social and political history from the material clues inscribed in the landscape. We read persecution, destruction and deportation; refuge and retreat; the resumption of initiatives, those that take place in this archipelago of solidarities and that constitute the guiding thread of this book.

These include the villages destroyed by the German army during the Nazi occupation, as well as the mountains where resistance fighters took refuge before launching the offensive that liberated the country without outside intervention. After the Yalta agreements, the United States favored the restoration of a profascist power aimed at annihilating the victorious Communist forces. This founding political betrayal echoes in the consciousness of the players the betrayal of the radical left Syriza government, when in July 2015 it submitted to the umpteenth “bailout plan” it had just had rejected by referendum.

The photographs show the arid landscape of the island of Makronissos, where political opponents were deported during the 1946–1949 civil war with no chance of survival. On the island of Ikaria: a forest and a cave that were refuges for persecuted communists during this period (Figure 4), and again during the “dictatorship of the colonels” (1967–1974).

Figure 4. Cave near Therma that allowed communist exiles to hide during the civil war, 1946–1949 (April 2018)

© Philippe Bazin (Un archipel des solidarités, p. 241).

Traces of the past echo those of the passage of the present. Thus, in Lesbos, a photograph of the life jackets abandoned en masse on the beach where the exiles disembark; the images of the closed, gridded world of the Moria camp capture its mode of administration; those of Pikpa show the installations cobbled together with salvaged materials (pallets, logs, crates, tires) near the tents, in the middle of a pine forest.

At the center of the world, the exiles

Christiane Vollaire and Philippe Bazin place themselves in fine in the legacy of Hannah Arendt, who, in tracing The Origins of Totalitarianism in the essay Imperialism (1951), had shown the acuteness of the questions of statelessness and the pariahs produced by the dismantling of the Ottoman and Austrian empires. By placing the question of migration in the central chapter of the book, the authors in turn emphasize the place it occupies in the contemporary system of global governmentality. Hence the importance of the dynamics of solidarity that confront it and reconstitute a “political we.” Grégoire Chamayou (2018) brilliantly traces the genealogy of authoritarian liberalism, but fails to link xenophobic and racist policies to this form of government, which combines the restriction of state control over the economy with the policing of society. The authors show that the Greek “crisis” is paradigmatic: tutelage over economic policy makes manifest the loss of sovereignty over the economy. And what is the reversal after the 2015 referendum if not the spectacular negation of popular sovereignty (democracy): the destruction of politics. The result of authoritarian liberalism is the determination of states to assert their existence and sovereignty solely on the basis of their monopoly on the exercise of violence, and above all on the “control of migratory flows”: the spectacle of police brutality and the spectacle of foreigners being turned back. This is why the “migration question” occupies a central position in the reinvention of a “political we” that takes its place in the archipelago of solidarities.


  • Arendt, H. 2002 [1951]. L’Impérialisme. Les origines du totalitarisme 2, Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
  • Balandier, G. 1955. Sociologie actuelle de l’Afrique noire, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Bazin, P. 2017. Pour une photographie documentaire critique, Paris: Créaphis.
  • Chamayou, G. 2018. La Société ingouvernable. Une généalogie du libéralisme autoritaire, Paris: La Fabrique.
  • Durkheim, É. 1893. 2013. De la division du travail social, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Foucault, M. 2001. “Questions à Michel Foucault sur la géographie”, in Dits et écrits, tome II, Paris: Gallimard.
  • Migreurop. 2007. Guerre aux migrants. Le livre noir de Ceuta et Melilla, Paris: Syllepse.
  • Rey, A. (dir.). 2005. Dictionnaire culturel en langue française, Paris: Dictionnaire Le Robert.
  • Vollaire, C. 2017. Pour une philosophie de terrain, Paris: Créaphis.

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Laurent Bazin & translated by Oliver Waine, “Reinventing Politics Against its Brutalization”, Metropolitics, 27 October 2023. URL :

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