Solidarity Economics and the Welfare State

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Janosch Sbeih:

"Greece is the country hit hardest by the economic crisis and the population’s capability to meet basic needs suffers accordingly. As many families struggle to feed themselves or access healthcare services, solidarity initiatives like social medical clinics, social pharmacies, and social kitchens spring up across the country (Solidarity4All, 2013). These solidarity initiatives are all volunteer-run centres for peer-to-peer assistance. Solidarity clinics are run by volunteer doctors and health care workers who provide free primary healthcare to those who lost access to the medical insurance system.

Social pharmacies are centres where citizens can donate pharmaceuticals or drop off the drugs that they have at home and do not need for themselves, in order for them to be given out to people who need medicine but cannot afford any. Social supermarkets provide every 15 days packages of food and household goods for families in need. The contents of the supply packages are gathered by private individuals in front of supermarkets who ask customers to donate something to the solidarity network; they often have a list of items that are most urgently needed. Solidarity kitchens are networks of individuals who bring ingredients and cooking equipment to a public place in order to cook and share a warm meal together. Often anybody can come to these events, whether in need or not, and people are encouraged to help in other ways – like cooking or helping to clean up – if they cannot contribute ingredients, in order remove the stigma of charity and make it an event of coproduction instead. Furthermore, there are free education activities like Greek language courses for immigrants and music and language classes for children which are not offered in school and families have to organise privately. Although in 2012, there were about 20.000 homeless in Greece – a phenomenon almost unknown before the crisis – there are no house evictions yet because Greek mortgage legislation is not as punitive on the debtor as in Spain. This legislation is scheduled for revision at the end of 2014 though (ibid.).

In June 2014, I have visited the umbrella organisation “Solidarity 4 All” (S4A) which attempts to assist the various autonomous solidarity projects in material and immaterial ways (Solidarity4All, 2013). I was told that the organisation is the node of 2,000 self-governing solidarity initiatives throughout the country, one third of which is situated in the metropolitan area of Athens. S4A provides financial assistance to purchase medical equipment and materials where solidarity clinics and pharmacies do not succeed to acquire them through their own means. The funds are partially provided by a number of Syriza MPs who donate 20% of their salaries to the organisation and partially through an international grassroots campaign for solidarity with Greece (Greece Solidarity Campaign, 2014). The international solidarity movement which comprises members from England, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium supports Greek solidarity initiatives through money and materials like clothes and school materials. Besides being the connecting hub and providing support for the various solidarity initiatives throughout Greece, S4A organises wider campaigns like asking olive oil producers to donate part of their produce to gather one litre of olive oil for every unemployed person in Greece. A more regular campaign is the “No Middlemen Movement” which connects farmers directly to the end-customers without using intermediaries to sell once a month fresh produce like vegetables, potatoes, oil, flour and lemons at cost price (Katerini, 2012). This way, the price for these goods can be lowered by up to 50 percent compared to what they cost in the supermarket (ibid.). Besides the immediate alleviation of material need, S4A regards the role of solidarity also as emotional support against the fear spread by the media, government and neo-Nazi movement of “Golden Dawn”. The latter runs their own solidarity networks which gives out rice and cooked meals to poor Greek Orthodox families to gather them for their cause. S4A hopes to have a long-term impact with their work to politically mobilise society and engage it in inclusive and democratic ways of making decisions.

The response of Greek civil society to the crisis is impressive: S4A estimates that between 2011 and 2012 the number of solidarity initiatives rose from about 100 to over 2,000 (Katerini, 2012) – a remarkable number for a population of about 10 million. Although the solidarity initiatives certainly have a positive impact in terms of people’s morale and actual material well-being, overall, the various clinics and food initiatives have far more people requesting help than they can assist with the means they have. Although such solidarity networks provide the lived experience of mutual aid which is important in the development of a new economic culture, they resemble rather Rebecca Solnit’s (2009) account of collaborative disaster relief than long-term structures for an economic transition. The S4A organisers are themselves painfully aware that the solidarity initiatives perform a role that a functional welfare state should usually perform. If there was a welfare state which would provide a basic social safety net to ensure people’s subsistence and a universally accessible healthcare system, there would be little need for a solidarity network. It often seemed to me as if people in the solidarity economy had an ambiguous relation to charity and the welfare state. On the one hand, they are outraged about the catastrophic shrinking of the welfare state in form of cut pensions, unemployment benefits and free healthcare, and on the other hand they disparage charity as an enslavement of the human spirit. Proponents of solidarity initiatives emphasize the notion of co-production and mutual aid in their projects to the extent that in some cases they exclude those unable (or unwilling) to help in the acquisition and distribution of resources. This is for example the case in the video documentary “Pieces of Madrid” (Jourdan, 2014) where a Spanish solidarity network asks customers in front of supermarkets to buy something extra for their food bank while framing it as mutual aid: “We have gathered this food to hand it out to people who need it. Mutual aid: we give the food out to the people who help. It’s not charity; it’s help that we give out mutually. Those who come to help also receive help. Those who don’t help, don’t receive help.” First of all, it is a questionable distinction between charity and mutual aid as the customers donate something to the solidarity network out of charitable reasons without expecting anything in return. To the extent that members of the food bank have to contribute to the acquisition of the food in order to receive something, it could equally well be framed as an organised beggar network which distributes its bounties internally. While acknowledging the virtues of co-production, I find it dangerous to exclude people from solidarity initiatives because they are unable to contribute. Certainly, it is important to empower people to contribute to their own subsistence since people easily fall in the trap of psychological and material dependency if they are being spoon-fed by a person or institution. However, if only people able to contribute are included in solidarity networks, then it raises the question where the people remain who do not have access to either state benefits or citizen-led solidarity initiatives. This is a crucial question that came up more generally in relation to my research. Individuals with the skills, education and social capital to build up and participate in alternative economic practices are to some extent able to weather the crisis outside of the formal economy and state services. Those, however, who lack the skills or social and cultural capital to gain access to these networks, are left to their own demise if there is no private or public support system to guarantee their subsistence. This is why, in my eyes, it is indispensable to have a functional state which guarantees at least the subsistence of all its inhabitants and the diffusion of social welfare."

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