Commoning Against the Crisis in Greece and Beyond

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* Article (Chapter 6): Commoning Against The Crisis. By Angelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis.


(source does not mention which book the essay belongs to, beyond a reference to Manuel Castells)


By Angelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis:

"First, we propose to think of alternative economies as new forms of commons (De Angelis 2013b). Second, we argue that an early stage of liminality is catalytic for the take-off of new commons. And third, we observe that the evolution of a patchwork of new commons follows a rhizomatic pattern. Our core thesis is that the commoning movement in Greece benefited from a liminal state of unfixed identity, dominant in the period of the occupied indignant squares, and then blossomed as a rhizome. It now faces challenges of maturity in terms of its internal and external relations."


  • "Part 1 explains the key concepts and theoretical terms used in this chapter: commons and commoning; liminality; and rhizomatic movements.
  • Part 2 provides contextual information on the Greek crisis and outlines the fieldwork methods.
  • Part 3 traces the origins of the new commons in the occupied squares and Greece’s indignant movement, and
  • Part 4 details its rhizomatic expansion in health and food provi-sion, education and cooperative production.
  • Part 5 discusses how the movement handles internal conflicts and democracy, how it attempts to organize at higher scales, and how it relates to the state and the market."


Liminality and the Commons

By Angelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis:

"A claim we advance and which is new in the literature is that many of these new commons are, or have passed, or have been generated through, what we define as liminal conditions , before evolving into more stable structures. The inspiration comes from anthropologi-cal studies of the “rites of passage” (Van Gennep 1960 [1908]), the ambiguous and ambivalent processes that a subject enters when it loses its established identity and before obtaining a new one.

As Victor Turner (1977) puts it “liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.” This condition of “in- betweeness” characterizes both the individuals who participate in commoning projects foregoing at least temporarily their fixed identities, and the institutions that govern the projects. What does the concept of liminality add to the understanding of the commons? In Ostrom’s theory, the commons are governed by fixed communities (Wade 1988; Ostrom 1990; Steins and Edwards 1999). “Define clear group boundaries” is the first principle that Ostrom proposes for a successful management of the commons. Recent litera-ture though questions this fixity and communities are not conceived necessarily as homogeneous (Agrawal and Gibson 1999; De Angelis 2010; Stavrides 2015). In liminal commons, instead, the community of the commoners shines through its absence. Some kind of community of course is temporarily emerging for the production of the common. But this is always precarious and often dissolves. The borders of a liminal community are not only blurred. They actually do not exist as such. Liminal commons, in other words, are not defined by exclusion. Because of this they are more likely to happen in spaces where exclu-sion is not likely or desirable, such as a public square. In a liminal commons, the glue that brings the actors together is the practical production of the common. A collective identity is neither a precondition nor the purpose of the process and is discouraged when it puts obstacles in the way of common production. Sharing, solidarity, or horizontality are not introduced as indisputable a priori identity values. They emerge as their worth is experienced in practice, in solving practical problems or in organizing collective action. As the subjects enter a liminal condition where dominant social taxonomies and identities are contested, “collective inventiveness” (Stavrides 2015) flourishes. Liminal subjects are more open and more vulnerable to imitate social behaviors and practices that offer a possible way out from the uncertainty that the liminal phase is associated with. The institutions that are performed in this kind of commoning and that define what is to be shared and how are also characterized by liminality. Liminal institutions are not fixed but precarious and fluid and they emerge and perish within decentralization–recentralization dynamics. They unify, not exclude the diverse potential commoners and they promote the non-antagonistic co-existence of different perceptions. Whereas in Ostrom’s approach, the commons are regarded as “nested” institutions between the private and public typically requiring support from institutions at higher levels in order to operate (Ostrom 1990; Steins and Edwards 1999), liminal commons emerge within uncertainty and a reversion of social taxonomies and order-ing, operating as deliberative processes without linkage to “higher” institutions. Our theory of liminal commons is radically different from theo-ries of collective action that celebrate difference and claim that the contemporary collective action unfolds around the cultural capital of a “politics of selves” (Lichterman 1996; McDonald 2002). These theories too criticize the idea of collective identity, arguing that in contemporary movements this has been replaced by a personalized “public expression of the self” (Lichterman 1996). Whereas this may have some value in describing some contemporary movements, especially those dominated by a “middle class culture,” the liminal commons presented here are not the outcome of an individualism that propels a self- actualization process. They are the result of the loss of an established identity, which allows space for a precarious and fluid “we” to emerge. People do not only express publicly themselves; they propose, even incompletely and contradictorily, an alternative social organization." (

The Commons as a Rhizomatic Movement

By Angelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis:

"We argue that the new (liminal) commons unfold and expand as a “rhizomatic movement” (Castells 2012). A rhizomatic movement is one that has no center or periphery, does not begin from or end at a specific point. Its nodes are either not connected or connected mostly through unforeseen encounters, following a decentralization- recentralization process (Zibechi 2010). The nodes of the rhizome are not stable but appear and disappear within a highly accelerating spiral; multiple nodes can be added to the move-ment without previous control of whether or not they are compatible with the network.Not all networked movements are rhizomatic. The transition town movement, for example, is a networked movement, without center or periphery, but in which, differently from a rhizome, there is a bigger stability of nodes. The connection of the nodes is not the outcome of unforeseen but of planned encounters, whose aim is to deepen an organic collaboration and not a temporal exchange of experiences as in rhizomes. Moreover, in a network there are usually checking mechanisms which ensure that new nodes are compatible with the existing structure and a minimum agreement is usually regarded essential for an expansion to occur." (

Neighborhood Assemblies as Hubs of Urban Commoning

By Angelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis:

"Neighborhood assemblies act as hubs of urban commoning. They were the engines of the decentralization- recentralization process during the occupation of Syntagma; conversations and actions were decentralized in the neighborhoods before they were recentralized at the squares. Some of them remain popular and active. For example, the popular assembly of “Koukaki- Thisio- Petralona” occupied an abandoned public building, which had been offering health services previously, and transformed it into a social clinic and kindergarten. A different initiative is that against the privatization of the water utility of the city of Thessaloniki. Fifty citizens’ groups together with the trade union of the utility organized a public referendum. Of the 218,002 citizens who voted, 98 percent were against water privatization. Initiative 136 in turn is a citizens’ initiative to buy the water utility and turn it into a cooperative governed by municipal councils. “136” refers to the estimated cost per household of buying the company, allegedly an idea conceived on the back of an envelope during the square occupation in Thessaloniki." (

The Rhizomatic expansion of cooperatives and other collectives

By Angelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis:

"After the squares movement, and facilitated by a 2011 law for the social economy, 415 new workers cooperatives started operating by March 2014 ( 2014). Greece had seen an agricultural cooperativist movement in the past, which decayed as a result of political patronage, indebtedness, and corruption. Most of the new cooperatives now are dedicated instead to small services, especially cafés and restaurants, though there are also cooperative publishing houses, engineering and construction cooperatives, a cooperative newspaper, and several groceries and coop markets (such as Bioscoop in Thessaloniki, which covers the needs of more than 400 families per day; Interview 18), renewable energy cooperatives, collective couriers and manufacturing cooperatives. At least 150 of those cooperatives were functional and operating at the time of this writing, and at least 100 of them are, according to our own estimations, genuine social cooperatives (compared to opportunistic enterprises taking advantage of the exemptions of cooperatives from social security taxes). These are part of an emerging, still small, cooperativist movement in Greece espousing values of democratic self-management, confederation, and association (PASEGES 2011; Kioupkiolis and Karyotis 2013). Following their rhizomatic expansion, the cooperatives now seek a more stable network structure and a shared building in the center of Athens to coordinate efforts, funding, and legal support.There are also several projects that target needs directly without the intermediation of money: time banks, free-share bazaars, direct exchange networks, and local alternative currencies. While only three time banks and alternative currencies existed before 2011, at the time of writing there are 37 projects (or 110 according to estimates of others; Solidarity4all 2014). While some are primarily interested in meeting everyday material needs, others, such as the time bank in the Holargos-Papagou neighborhoods of Athens, conduct political and solidarity campaigns, theatrical or musical performances, and popular assemblies (Interview 7). In agriculture and food, direct producer- to- consumer networks were launched after February 2012, when potato producers in Northern Greece bypassed intermediaries and distributed their prod-ucts to consumers directly, at a low price. This practice of circumventing middlemen spread across the country, expanding to other items besides potatoes.

Collectives were set up to organize and inform members and the public about the days of direct distribution. From 12 initiatives in September 2012, there were 47 active networks in December 2014, supporting some 2,169 households and distribut-ing more than 5,000 tons of food in metropolitan Athens alone (Solidarity4all 2014). Like Solidarity Clinics, the alternative food net-works quickly formed their formal network that coordinates action. Solidarity kitchens existed before the crisis, but from three known ventures before 2011, there are now more than 21 all over Greece. In solidarity kitchens one can eat for free or for a small amount of money and participate in the cooking process if one so wishes (Vathakou 2015). Most operate weekly. Some are organized per-manently at the same place. Others are “nomadic,” moving from neighborhood to neighborhood or even city to city to spread the practice. There are no professional cooks and foodstuff is provided by donations or by participants who can afford it.

There are several local associations which also organize “solidarity food parcels,” which are collected from donations by shoppers or producers, and are distributed to those in need. A total of 1,987 parcels were distributed in February 2013, and more than 4,318 in September 2014 all over Greece (Solidarity4all 2014). Initially, parcels served as nutrition complements, but as the system developed, they included deals with suppliers of fresh vegetables and meat, making it possible to cover the full dietary needs of the recipients (Interview 16). Even though such projects are mostly organized by people who are not directly in need themselves, in many cases the recipients are involved in the organization and the distribution of the parcels (30 percent of all recipients according to Solidarity4all 2014), or they participate in other projects organized by the local associations. This distinguishes such “commoning” initiatives from charity.Education initiatives cater to those excluded from the public system or to those who want to continue education but cannot afford it. Established for less than a year, the People’s University of Social Solidarity Economy (UnivSSE) in Thessaloniki gives online lectures to thousands of visitors (Vathakou 2015). The Network of Solidary Knowledge “Mesopotamia,” which emerged from the time bank of the Moschato neighborhood in Athens, offers tutorials to high school students, seminars for people of all ages, and tries to establish what organizers call a “community of knowledge.” “Solidarity schools” provide free tutorials to schoolchildren who cannot afford private tuition (90 percent of all schoolchildren in Greece pay for private lessons for the national university exam). In “alternative schools” families come together to establish self- organized kindergartens (Vathakou 2015). As in the case of social clinics, they have also estab-lished a national network for a more effective collaboration between them. Different projects do not operate in silos. Often a single collec-tive develops different projects for different functions or at different scales. As commoning projects grew rhizomatically, stronger connections were forged between projects operating in different domains or locations. For instance, the old airport of Helleniko now hosts not only urban gardens and social centers but is closely related with the metropolitan social clinic and pharmacy which operates in the proximity of the airport. The patients of the clinic in turn developed a local time bank to exchange services with doctors. At the time of writing, the intention of the group was to start a worker cooperative as well (Interview 16). Likewise, in the neighborhood of Galatsi, the self-managed social space “Abariza” cooperated with the local food network without intermediates to start a consumers’ cooperative (Interview 16)." (

Efforts to Connect the commons rhizome

By Angelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis:

"Regarding connections across sectors, “Commons Fest” is a festival dedicated to the commons, organized since 2013, first in Crete and then Athens. The main umbrella for the movement, since 2012, is the Festival of the Solidarity Economy (#Festival4sce), where more than 200 commoning projects from all over Greece organ-ize practical workshops, discussions, presentations, and collective events (Insurgenta Iskra 2014). These collectives adhere to minimal principles, namely, independence from political parties, no funding from private or public bodies, self-management, direct-democracy, horizontality, open processes, and openness to society (Insurgenta Iskra 2014). In the first edition of the festival, monetary exchanges were not allowed, but in subsequent events the sale of products was permitted, allowing in enterprises from the broader “social economy” (Interview 7; Interview 1). The third festival in 2014 focused on networking and integration, inviting activists from the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC).

The Cooperativa has an integrated struc-ture aspiring to cover all needs of its members within its auspices, a model that inspires Greek counterparts as a structure for the com-moning movement. The fourth festival in 2015 intended to develop a concrete agenda for setting up an Integrated Cooperative adopted to Greek reality. A parallel, different networking approach is Solidarity4all, founded in 2012 and financed by a 20 percent donation from the salaries of SYRIZA’s parliamentarians. The members of Solidarity4all are in their majority members of SYRIZA but, according to their own words during a group interview, do not seek to “provide solidarity” as a political party to those in need, but to facilitate networking, respecting the autonomy of projects. The association is divided on a sectoral basis. It keeps a national database of projects, and seeks to forge permanent bonds with and between projects via personal relations, campaigns, and direct support. In 2014 Solidarity4all facili-tated a nationwide meeting of food collectives (Solidarity4all 2014; Interview 16). Solidarity4all members claim that they do not intend to substitute grassroots movements or represent them politically (Interview 16). Yet several interviewees from the projects expressed skepticism, and no wish to relate to a political party, even a leftist party, that many of them happen to vote for. They did see as positive, however, the fact that SYRIZA founded an organization to support commoning, and have no problem participating in events organized by Solidarity4all." (


From the Conclusions

By Angelos Varvarousis and Giorgos Kallis:

"This chapter contributed to the literature on the commons, and more generally societal transitions, by showing how and why new commons are being constantly created and how they network and expand. We identified a rhizomatic dynamic, whereby liminality plays a catalytic role. We argued that as the network of commons expands, there is a tendency to keep its rhizomatic attributes, while foregoing its rhizo-matic constitution, entertaining strategies of both internal association and innovative external interactions with state and the markets, facilitating in this way an accumulation of and for the commons.Plan C&D – Commons & Democracy – has been proposed as an alternative to austerity and stimulus for a future without growth (De Angelis 2013a). Here we explained how and why new commons emerge. Benefiting from an ethnography of new commons in Greece, we argued that their exponential growth can be traced to the open-access character of the occupied squares and the shock of the crisis with the rupture of established identities. This favored the emergence of “liminal commons”: projects of sharing without pre- fixed collective or individual identities. We proposed a direct and catalytic relationship between this liminality and the subsequent growth of the new commons: practices that were previously marginal were popularized, recruiting new members, while identarian political formations opened to take advantage of the new possibilities. C&D hence went together: the democratic assemblarian processes first tried in the squares became a crucial element of this liminality, making expansion of the commons possible; reciprocally, the new commons became the material embodiment of the new democratic spirit of the squares, transferring it to different spheres of life.Projects in open- access spaces, such as occupied squares, continue to be liminal since by definition they cannot enclose a public space. Projects that had previously a more closed, political mission, by necessity open up as they want to engage new people. And yet, many other projects that formed in the squares and passed through a period of liminality try now to find ways to stabilize. Importantly, rather than closing themselves around fixed identities and memberships, or establishing hierarchical structures of organization, most projects experiment with novel forms of deliberative and conflict resolution processes, and new ways to train and incorporate newcomers.Are the projects sustainable, can they be scaled up and will they avoid the short life or assimilation of similar mobilizations in the past, including the student and counter- culture movements of the late 1960s? We did not directly engage with these questions, as we were more interested in understanding the dynamics of take- off of new commons. But we can reflect on this question on the basis of our empirical material.First, it is important to recognize the differences between different waves of mobilizations as movements learn from their predeces-sors, and adapt to their contexts. A distinctive characteristic of the indignant/occupy mobilizations is the attention to the pre- figurative transformation of the space, and their direct experimentation with actual ways of producing, consuming, and deciding differently. In Greece, for example, the 1972 students’ movement focused on toppling the dictatorship and democratizing the political system, and only marginally with establishing new forms of cooperative production, education, or health.Second, it is not only the direct effects and scaling up of the projects that should concern us but their “afterlives” and legacies (see Ross 2002). Our research suggests, as we showed, a fundamental transfor-mation of the imaginaries of those participating in the new commons; for them there is no way back to the way things were. Further research is necessary to evaluate the effects of the new commons upon Greek society at large.Third, one cannot rule out the assimilation of projects and partici-pants by the mainstream capitalist economy or political party system; it will not be the first time. As our research indicated, however, movement participants are very aware and try to negotiate carefully their relationship with state and the market. Aware of the risks of a capitalist “commons fix,” they attempt to develop structures that will allow an accumulation of the commons. They engage with the state strategically and selectively, to establish an institutional framework conducive to the flourishing of the commons. This is very hard, given the political economy of the Eurozone, and the very limited scope for national policies that diverge from the neoliberal norm. At the time of this chapter’s writing, commoning projects in Greece are concerned with how to stabilize networking, forming inter- sectoral associations at regional or national levels. These will allow, first, a more complete satisfaction of members’ needs, without money, within their space; second, act as mechanisms of redistribu-tion, collecting the surplus of individual projects and investing it for the expansion of others (an “accumulation of the commons”); and third, provide a common face for interacting with the government and negotiating institutional changes.

No doubt, despite their phenomenal growth, the scale of the new commons is still small if seen in the context of the Greek economy or the total needs of the population. Will they remain small and perhaps vanish over time? One can never predict the future. Secular stagna-tion and perpetual economic crisis might be the new norm (Kallis, this volume) and then the experience from the fate of past movements or other alternative economies cannot be a guide for the future. Perhaps, just perhaps, the importance of Greece’s new commons is here to stay and grow." (