Solidarity Economy in Greece

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Janosch Sbeih:

"Compared to Spain, there is a far bigger emphasis on solidarity projects in Greece to address the immediate needs of the population who see themselves confronted with increased taxes, rising prices for food and electricity, steep salary cuts and a mere one-year period of unemployment benefits (Solidarity4All, 2013). The Greek cooperative movement is by far not as strong as in Spain, since it does not have a comparable history in the country and basically started to develop as a response to the crisis. Spain’s comparatively strong development of an alternative economy can be traced back to its historically strong cooperative movement and establishment of social infrastructure to support alternative economic practices prior to the crisis (De Jong, 2014).While in Spain, activists have already been working on the establishment of an alternative economic culture for decades and built networks for the development of a new economy prior to 2008, this culture only starts to develop as a response to the crisis in Greece. The effect of this is that there are several obstacles to the development of cooperatives and alternative economic networks in Greece.

According to Klaus Niederländer, the director of Cooperatives Europe, the missing legal framework to enable growth on a national scale is the main barrier to the Greek cooperative sector (Birch, 2012). Organisers from Solidarity 4 All told me that one of the main obstacles to start new ventures in the social and solidarity economy is the access to finance. In contrast to Spain, which has established financial cooperatives that continue to provide seed funding for ethical businesses during the crisis, Greece does not have any infrastructure to support individuals who would like to start a cooperative or other value-driven economic institution. Besides a supportive legal framework and access to seed funding, also other supportive institutions like legal advice and networks that increase the interconnectivity between individual projects still need to be developed in Greece.

Basically, whereas Spain already had a functional infrastructure that could support the new enthusiasts of alternative economic practices to start their own projects or to get engaged in existing ones, Greece needs to build the whole sector from scratch. It is the more impressive how many new economic projects are starting up in the short amount of time since the crisis hit Greece. Overall, the development of a shared vision what kind of economic transition is needed and how to effect it is at a much earlier stage in Greece than it is in Spain, although there is already a big culture surrounding the concepts of “solidarity” and “degrowth”.

There are a number of hubs that attempt to map the emerging new economy in Greece and connect the variety of projects with each other. Solidarity 4 All is one of these hubs for the solidarity economy and the “Omikron Project” tries to create increased visibility for the newly emerging sector and culture of alternative economic practices while at the same time challenging the Northern European defamations of the “lazy coffee- and ouzo-drinking Greeks” (see Appendix 1 & 2).

Furthermore, there have been two editions of “The Festival of Solidarity & Cooperative Economy” with a third one being scheduled for October 2014 (Festival4sce, 2014). I have been lucky to get the chance to interview the festival’s main organiser during my time in Athens. While she recognises that Greece is still taking the first steps of developing economic alternatives to the collapsing formal economy, she sees a lot of initiatives starting up in a very short amount of time. According to her, within the last five years over 1,000 initiatives started up with a great diversity of forms and content, including local exchanging trading schemes (LETS), community-supported agriculture initiatives (CSA), self-sufficiency projects, commons movements, local sharing economies, time banks and a wide variety of community currencies. She says that Greek networks are much less organised than Spanish ones in terms of overarching networks and technological tools like digital assemblies, and that the next step is to build ties between the various initiatives and have them collaborate. Like many social networkers in the new economy sector that I met during my research, she is also helping to organise a particular project; in her case a time bank in Athens. The Athens Time Bank has about 3,000 registered members of which around 800 are active. She assumes that most of the participants use the time bank because they do not have sufficient Euros to meet their needs and the participation in the time bank eases their dependency on national currency. As a person who is involved in the organisation of many projects, she wishes for more people to help in the governance of the project to not depend on a small group of dedicated activists and because such projects should be run by the community on principles of direct democracy. She told me that there are also EU funded time banks in Greece but she does not collaborate with them in her role as the festival organiser, because she believes that it “doesn’t make sense to use money to build a time bank which purpose is to circumvent the use of money”. She claims that due to their founding structures, these initiatives will never develop the necessary consciousness for deep-rooted systemic change. Like many others in the new economy sector, she is also very critical of big philanthropic initiatives from the church or state as they are not citizen-led and lack the necessary awareness of the need for systemic change or have even vested interests against it. While she acknowledges that it is good that they are there since they also help, she does not like their approach which resembles more charity than cooperative aid. They do not educate people and communities for self-sufficiency and do not enable people to contribute to their own material improvement. She emphasizes that it is of key importance to have the educative projects for self-sufficiency cooperate with the solidarity projects so that they can complement their short-term impacts with the formacion for long-term transition. Besides having a tangible material impact on people’s lives in the crisis, the alternative economic practices provide a beacon of hope and life quality for people in Greece. In a country where many say that the crisis has resulted in a “collective depression”, the sense of empowerment, social solidarity and belonging to a community is vital to survive the economic disaster wreaked upon the Greek population.

One former business owner describes the impact of being member of a citizen-led solidarity initiative:

- “From being a gentleman, from having my own shop, [...], I reached the point of going to the Church’s soup kitchens. I had gone mad, my psychology had sunk to the bottom... Now I offer help to others, but also to myself, this gives me pleasure, keeps me alive. We are at the end, but from this end we try to help each other. Here we are all one family, the Club’s premises has become my second home.” (Solidarity4All, 2013)

I find this quote describes the powerfully the difference between being helped at “the Church’s soup kitchens” and being enabled to help yourself and others through cooperative solidarity initiatives. Similarly, research about Greek complimentary currency systems shows that while they can offer significant material relief by leading to increased transactions, production level and employment, the strongest motive for participation in such schemes is not the need for goods and services but the need to “participate, offer and feel empowered” (Eleni, George, & Dimitris, 2013, p.3).

Like in Spain, there are also widespread anti-austerity movements in Greece. In response to the harsh austerity measures devised by the Troika and passed by the Greek parliament, there have been widespread riots in Athens’ inner city and violent conflicts between protesters and riot police (Vradis & Dalakoglou, 2011). At the same time, especially in 2011 and 2012, Greece saw the rise of the neo-Nazi movement and fascist party “Golden Dawn” which controlled whole neighbourhoods, trashed market stands of migrant traders, and did face controls at subway exits to beat up immigrants in plain eyesight of police officers (ibid.). For a while, “anomy” – “a situation where instead of anarchy (lack of government), you find mass refusals to cooperate with the system, amid the collapse of social norms” (Mason, 2013, p.103) – was the buzzword of political commentators in Greece who feared social breakdown as they saw their society disintegrate (ibid.). The government lost grip on social control in the country and tried to uphold it through brutal police force while people defied social norms like paying road tolls or the bills for their privatised utilities as a protest against the austerity “memoranda” (ibid.). While never reaching far into Greek society, the state lost absolutely any legitimacy through the passing of successive austerity memoranda which not only caused humanitarian crises in the country but also increased its public debt (ibid). The social opposition to these measures was so fierce that the Greek government eventually had to scale back its projected privatisation proceeds from 50 billion Euros by 2015 to 11 billion Euros by 2016 (Smith, 2014). Grassroots campaigns throughout several cities in Greece rouse public opinion against the privatisation of public water utilities and have achieved first successes through a favourable court ruling that blocked the privatisation of the Athens water utility (Kanellopoulou, 2013). In contrast to Spain, where the squatting movement is largely directed towards housing, Greek occupations seem to be more related to geographical struggles like the preservation of particular neighbourhood parks which are commissioned for “development” (e.g. into parking lots). One example is the so-called “parking park” in the anarchist neighbourhood Exarcheia in Athens which has become a commons initiative after people occupied an open air parking lot and turned it into a self-managed neighbourhood park (Parkingparko, 2014). Another popular occupation success story in Greece is that of the occupied Vio.Me. factory which has been occupied by its workers before the owners could take away the machinery without paying the nearly 1.5 million Euros owed in salaries and compensations (Karyotis, 2014). Taking inspiration from Argentina, the workers adopted the slogan “Occupy! Resist! Produce!” and decided to continue to produce while governing their workplace through workers assemblies (ibid.). So far, the factory has been operating under workers’ control for over 1,5 years and shifted parts of its production to environmentally friendly cleaning products using local and natural ingredients (Vio.Me., 2014). The products have been largely distributed through the Greek solidarity networks and the workers received widespread support from other solidarity initiatives (Karyotis, 2014).

Overall, it seems to me that Greece is at a much more radicalised position than Spain with its material hardships being more severely pronounced and the reactions more desperate than in Spain. Political ideologies clash harder in Greece with the police and Golden Dawn members taking violent actions against protesters and anti-fascist groups as well as left-wing cooperatives and solidarity initiatives (Youlountas, 2013). Nonetheless, there are very promising developments of a surge of a wide variety of new economic initiatives being developed in a very short time. If this rapid prototyping and developing of new economic cultures continues at such a pace and supplementary support structures are built to connect the various initiatives with each other, it might well be that Greece may soon champion one of the strongest cultural hegemonies of a new economic culture."