Growl module: solidarity & cooperative economy

Festival of Solidarity and Cooperative Economy,

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Festival of Solidarity and Cooperative Economy,

Kostas Nikolaou
Graduate of Chemistry, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and holder of Master’s and Doctorate degrees of the Université Paris 7 - Diderot in Environmental Pollution. Along with his studies, he participated actively in the student and radical movement of the post-dictatorship period. He taught at universities in USA, France and Greece and worked 30 years in the private and public sectors. He was president of MESAEP (Mediterranean Scientific Association of Environmental Protection), vice president of the Union of Greek Chemists C. W. Macedonia, chairman of scientific conferences and is co-editor of international scientific journals. His writings include more than 380 papers in international and national journals, books and conference proceedings. He is scientific responsible of the Observatory for Sustainability and Environment of Thessaloniki and Adj. Professor of Cities Environmental Planning at the Hellenic Open University. Manages and reports on the website "Dialektika» ( to promote the dialectical approach of society, economy and environment. He participates actively in the cooperatives and self-management movement for the social solidarity economy and direct democracy: cofounder of PRO.S.K.AL.O. - Cooperation Initiative for the Social and Solidarity Economy, People's University of Social Solidarity Economy, social consumer cooperative of Thessaloniki "Bios Coop”, member of the "Initiative K136" for the water and the Initiative for the social management of waste.

Self-managing the commons in contemporary Greece: Αn emerging solidarity economy

Alexandros Kioupkiolis

Lecturer AUTh

The emerging ‘social economy’ in Greece brings into visibility a variety of partly non-capitalist processes of collective self-activity that have operated alongside and deeply intertwined with a state-dominated market economy involving a multitude of small business, an under-industrialised production and a large service sector (commerce, tourism, finance etc.).6 Taking our cues from the constructive critique of ‘capitalo-centrism’ put forward by Gibson-Graham,7 we trace here the contours of a heterogeneous economy which is not fully dominated by any single logic, global force or sovereign structure. The thrust is that if we can begin to see alternative activities and dimensions as diffuse, viable, and persistent over time, ‘we may be encouraged here and now to actively build on them to transform our local economies.’8

Self-management, networks and the commons in response to the crisis of neoliberal capitalism

  1. Social dislocation as an effect of neoliberal crisis-governance

From the ‘80’s onwards, key developments in Greek political culture featured the wide diffusion of utilitarian individualism and the eventual eclipse of collective concerns, projects and commitments. In the 90’s and the early 00’s a consensual post-democracy crystallised in Greece in line with similar mutations in liberal democracies across the world. The confluence of the mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties on a liberal-modernizing agenda enjoyed the consensus of middle-class individuals, several of whom had acquired loose party-ideological identifications. The consumerist, a-political individualism of a critical mass of the citizenry was the flipside of the shared allegiance of ruling parties to the neoliberal doctrine.9

From 2010 onwards, however, the neoliberal hegemony established in Greece and internationally brought about an authoritarian shift away from post-democratic consensus, using the sovereign debt crisis as an excuse for enforcing recession policies and an upward redistribution of wealth. As the distressed middle and lower classes resisted the destruction of their socio-economic condition, rulers have resorted ever more to authoritarian practices in an ever broader range of fields.

Klein’s Shock Doctrine offers a vivid and detailed description of how capitalist biopower produces a state of shock which explodes social norms and relations, destroys established forms of subjectivity, engenders regression and disorientiation, and depatterns the body social. This enables radical social engineering in line with the neoliberal vision of full corporate freedom, minimum social spending, collective demobilization and individualist social fragmentation. Between 2010 and 2012, the cluster of structural ‘reforms’ foisted on the Greek economy and society in return for the ‘bailout package’ of the Troika has inflicted likewise harsh material pain and suffering on popular majorities, terrorizing and traumatizing them.

This traumatic shock paved the way for repeated cutbacks in wages, welfare expenses and living standards, privatizations, the abrogation of numerous social rights (social benefits, protection from unemployment, labour rights), an effective disregard for political liberties and the removal of legal barriers to the unfettered exploitation of labour –cataclysmic changes that would have been unthinkable without the rhetoric and the politics of terror deployed in an undeclared state of exception.10

  1. The new social economy, biopolitical labour and the commons

The rise of an expanding network of self-organized collectives and initiatives, which operate in various fields of commerce, exchange, production, social services (health, education, care for the homeless etc.), marked a turning point in the actually existing social economy in Greece, in 2010-2011. This was a response to urgent social needs under the massive economic collapse and material distress caused by the neoliberal crisis governance. But it constituted also a qualitative shift in the historical function of cooperatives and social enterprises. These arose now within the context of a broader agonistic resistance movement and placed an enhanced emphasis on autonomous self-organization, social solidarity, networking among the different socio-economic ventures and opposition to state policies and neoliberal market capitalism11, gesturing towards the construction of alternative social, economic and political figures.

This is why the wedge driven between a wider not-for profit social economy, which fosters collective goods and social interests, and a solidarity economy, which is more politically oriented and antagonistic to market and state politics, becomes particularly pertinent in crisis-ridden Greece.

In 2012, 7197 co-operatives (agricultural, banks, plumbers’, pharmacists’, women’s agrotourist etc.), 11 mutual societies (mutual help funds etc.) and 50600 associations, foundations, non-profit and voluntary organisations can fall under a general description of the contemporary ‘social economy’ in Greece.12 But to gauge the transformative potential of those endeavours, we should view them against the backdrop of the current shift in the mode of capital accumulation. As De Angelis13 points out, capitalism is now facing an impasse, as its very existence is dependent upon the social and cultural reproduction of labour. Maintaining its current rate of growth presupposes now the demise of all redistributive arrangements, i.e. the dismantling of the welfare state, health and education systems, the privatisation of the provision of public goods, etc. By withdrawing from the social reproduction of labour power, capital is undermining its own foundations. This is why "capital needs the commons, or at least specific, domesticated versions of them."14 It needs to assent to economic arrangements founded on the principle of social cooperation, rather than profit, in order to manage the devastation inflicted by the neoliberal advance, to fill the gaps left by the retreating welfare state and to avoid generalised discontent and conflict.

However, commons-based economic activity can also have the exactly opposite effect: It can “create a social basis for alternative ways of articulating social production, independent from capital and its prerogatives.”15 This subversive possibility is inherent in all social economy endeavours, but it is made effective only when these structures are inserted within a wider transformative project that goes beyond economic activity and strives to supplant the dominant capitalist institutions with bottom-up alternatives based on equity, justice and solidarity.

From this perspective we can single out the collective economic activities that were initiated by the resistance movements from 2008 onwards and can be better grasped in terms of a distinct ‘solidarity economy’, which seeks to reinforce social bonds. This economic field is politically oriented towards direct democracy and mutual aid. It sees itself not as charity or as a substitute for the shrinking welfare state, but as a socio-political attempt at collective self-empowerment. It has an anti-systemic edge, purporting to transform relations of production, exchange and consumption through co-operative, free associational and mutual help institutions and networks. Rooted in neighbourhoods and localities, it struggles against the privatization of the commons and it resists co-optation by market and state forces.16

A solidarity economy construed along these lines is antagonistic to heteronomous state politics, capitalist hierarchies and the reign of profit, as opposed to a social economy which operates as ‘a third sector’ that exists side-by-side and complements the public (state) and private (market) economy.17 According to existing rough estimates and informal records, this solidarity economy in Greece comprises nearly 150 collective initiatives which include: social clinics and pharmacies for the uninsured and the unemployed; social kitchens and movements for the collection and distribution of food; social grocery stores and circuits for the distribution of consumer goods without middlemen; free share bazaars, time-sharing banks and local exchange trading systems; social evening classes; immigrant support centres; urban art collectives and alternative cultural spaces; legal support groups; work collectives such as coffee shops, courier delivery companies, bookshops, agricultural co-operatives of unemployed women and one occupied factory, the Vio.Me industry.18

These economic initiatives stage struggles for the defence and the expansion of the ‘commons’, of collective goods and social relations which are located between and beyond the domain of the public (state) and the private (market): ‘the commons of culture, the immediately socialized forms of ‘cognitive’ capital, primarily language, our means of communication and education...but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, post, etc; the commons of external nature threatened by pollution and exploitation...; the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity)’.19 The means of production and reproduction of common life (industry, water, education, software etc.) that have been privately appropriated in the past or they are now targeted for new enclosures and appropriations by global capital are arguably the locus of key social antagonisms in our era, bearing on collective resources and the shared substance of our social being.

The new social economy of solidarity should be grasped today in connection with post-Fordist forms of ‘immaterial labour’ or ‘biopolitical production’20 which establish expansive webs of communication, diffuse information and knowledge and extend social relations through new technologies across the globe.

‘Βiopolitical’ labour is not confined to the manufacture of material goods in a narrow economic sense but it also transforms and generates knowledge, affects, images, communication, social relationships and forms of life. Biopolitical production breaks down the barriers that separate the economic field from all other social domains, as it affects and engenders all facets of social life: economic, cultural and political. Consequently, it involves directly the construction of new subjectivities in society (Ibid., xvi, 66, 78) that are strongly egalitarian and libertarian at the same time. The ‘multitude’ embodies a distinctive type of social and political organization, where the common does not arise from the subordination of differences to an overarching particularity; it is rooted in participation and collective decision-making without centralised leadership or representation.

The Indignados and Occupy movements of 2011, which contested the rule of both private and public property, pointed to the possibility of the societal self-administration of the commons. They turned their backs on centralised leadership, closed ideologies and representation by political parties, trying to win back effective self-government. Following in the footsteps of such innovations, social self-rule could be refashioned along federalist lines, which would weld together an extensive variety of interacting forces and assemblies. These would spread horizontally across social fields and they would deliberate with each other without being subsumed under any overarching, centralised authority.21

The Greek Aganaktismenoi (Outraged) were likewise a leaderless and self-organised initiative of common citizens. Its organization was fluid and open, it lacked any pre-fixed program or ideology, and it was committed to the collective deliberation of the multitude as the final authority which conjured up institutions of popular self-rule through regular open assemblies that were held in central squares across Greece. They set about debating new national policies and effective ways to spread the ‘squares’ movement’ in popular urban neighbourhoods, workplaces and other key sites of everyday life, in an attempt to put in place an entire network of alternative power structures.22

The incipient economy of solidarity in Greece should be seen as an offshoot and a continuation of the foregoing movement, informed by its values and aspiring to a new mode of collective self-management of the commons. By dwelling on a few actual undertakings we seek to shed more light on the logics, the potential and the prospects of these experimental forays into building new economies of autonomy, equity and solidarity.

1. Pagkaki: a worker’s collective running a coffee shop

The idea to set up a coffee shop operating along the lines of collective ownership, autonomy and solidarity gained ground in late 2008 amidst a group of individuals who had already participated in ‘Sporos’, a cooperative of fair and solidarity trade in Athens.23

The coffee shop, which is designed as a traditional Greek kafeneio, serving coffee, teas, drinks and snacks, opened in June 2010 in Koukaki, a central district of Athens. It is ran by a workers’ collective which is made up of 10 members in 201224 and it is constituted in the legal form of an ‘urban co-operative’, the closest to work collective that is allowed for in the Greek law. From the outset, the intent was to create and foster the ‘commons’ in their twofold dimension, as collective goods and as a particular type of social relations of community, equality, participation, both inwards and outwards.

First, inwards. The commons were instituted, to begin with, in the fields of ownership and the distribution of goods within the kafeneio. No member of the collective owns a personal share in the workplace, which belong to the cooperative and not its current members, a condition enshrined in the constitution of the enterprise.25 There are no employers and employees, no surplus value extracted from the labour of workers. Everyone is equally remunerated at the same hourly rates for all kinds of labour, and they alternate in the different job posts. All workers are equal members of the collective and its decision-making body, the general assembly, which strives for the highest degree of consensus in its resolutions.

Second, outwards. The work collective is committed to creating a space of social communication, of political debate and conviviality accessible to all, it supports like-minded ventures in the economy of solidarity and works for their expansion, it engages in wider social struggles and contributes to the construction of socio-political networks with a view to realising an equitable autonomous society for all. Its constitution states that any remaining monthly surplus after the payment of wages (at equal hourly rates), running costs and an initial internal loan, will not be distributed to workers but will be used to aid like-minded collective initiatives.

Enacting the commons as social relations grounded in equal freedom, the collective is interested, first, in fostering the ‘social dimension’ of the coffee shop and its social space, through ‘the creation of an especially accessible-affordable place for meeting and entertainment.’ In addition to being a place for socialising, leisure and communication, Pagkaki acts also a site that hosts information-sharing events and discussions which bear on collective self-organization in our times, its practices and its prospects.26 Moreover, it is involved in the weaving of a wider network of autonomous ventures in workers’ self-management, solidarity and co-operation; it supports grassroots labour unionism which is structured in horizontal and direct-democratic forms; and it strives to function as a collective experiment in producers’ radical self-organization that will furnish a viable example for others to reflect upon, to emulate and to expand.27

2. Vio.Me.: A self-managed occupied factroy

A prominent place among the wealth of experiments in economic self-management is given to the Vio.Me. building materials factory, which is situated in the outskirts of Thessaloniki. This is the first experiment so far that is the product of a labour conflict and involves occupation of the means of production by the workers.

Vio.Me. was a subsidiary of Philkeram-Johnson that produced complementary products for the construction industry: adhesives, sealants, mortars, plasters, etc. In May 2011, at the height of the financial crisis, the factory was abandoned by its owners and the workers were left unpaid. In response, they occupied the factory and started legally withholding their labour28. After several months of unfruitful negotiations, the general assembly of the workers decided to operate the occupied factory under direct democratic workers' control. They started production on February 12, 201329 under the now emblematic motto ‘If you cannot do it, we can!’

The Vio.Me. project lies at the intersection of traditional labour struggles and the budding movement of social and solidarity economy. At the heart of this effort lies the Vio.Me. workers’ trade-union, driven by sharp class-consciousness and militancy. In the numerous deliberations leading up to the decision to engage in self-management, the workers of Vio.Me. resolved to dismiss the traditional positions of authority within the union and to institute the workers' assembly as the ultimate instrument of decision-making, regarding both the political decisions called for in the struggle and the factory's production process30. This arrangement has proven to eliminate inequalities within the workplace, to ensure equal participation, to unleash workers' creativity and to secure workers’ control of the production process.

Their decision to stray from the established ritual of protest and negotiation, which characterises countless labour conflicts during the Greek economic recession, triggered a visceral reaction from the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and its affiliated labour unions, which have accused the Vio.Me. workers that they aspire to become small capitalists and that they pursue partial and individual solutions. Gradually, through a sequence of ranting criticisms,31 the KKE evolved into one of the foremost critics and opponents of the struggle of Vio.Me.

In response, the workers of Vio.Me agreed on a series of measures that would prevent their cooperative endeavour from becoming a profit-driven capitalist company. In line with the principles of cooperativism, the workers decided to put a cap on their individual proceeds. They opted instead to collectively direct any surpluses towards serving the purposes of the wider community and bolstering similar struggles and endeavours, thus consciously discarding the profit principle. All workers will have a share, that is an enshrined right to voice and vote, in the new cooperative: ‘There will be no worker who is not a shareholder, and no shareholder who is not a worker,’ they reiterate.32 Thus, the occupied means of production are seen as a collectively managed commons rather than as the property of individuals.

The commons are what is considered essential for life, understood not merely in the biological sense. They are the structures which connect individuals to one another, tangible or intangible elements that we all have in common and which make us members of a society, not isolated entities in competition with each other.33

On this conception, the very notion of labour is treated as a commons: According to the capitalist mythology underpinning wage relationships, labour is the ‘property’ of the worker who enters into a voluntary agreement with the capital owner to exchange it for money. In contrast, on this new conception, our capacity to create, its individual dimension notwithstanding, is seen as an inherently social activity that is socially realised and socially beneficial, depending on collectively produced and learned skills and on collectively managed tools and means of production.34 Thus labour is not seen as a ‘commodity’ to be exchanged in the labour market, but as a plentiful resource that a self-instituted community can tap into in order to secure its subsistence.

The workers of Vio.Me. generate thus a commons-based vocabulary that is radically different from both the private property vocabulary used by capitalist firms, and the state-run public property vocabulary used by the KKE and major parties of the left. Indeed one could argue that the market and the state, with their corresponding forms of property, can be seen as mechanisms that usurp the control of communities over their own means of reproduction and subsistence and hand it over to bureaucratic elites, in the case of the state, or to business elites, in the case of the market. Conversely, ‘the decentralized, self-governing systems of co-production […] offer fairer, more direct access to resources [...] that expands the distribution of the means of production and decision making far more widely than through the top-down systems of the modern market/state.’35

This second component of the struggle, the Open Solidarity Initiative to Support the Struggle of Vio.Me., was established in Thessaloniki (as in many other Greek cities and abroad) immediately after the announcement of the workers’ decision to proceed to self-management. The Initiative meets once a week and it is open to participation by any and all. It operates on the same principle of horizontality and it is made up of all collectives and individuals that are motivated by the principle of social and economic self-management. While it always respects the political decisions taken by the workers’ assembly, the Solidarity Initiative has a key role in the organisation of mobilisations, protests and marches, as well as in the coordination of national and international communication, fundraising and solidarity campaigns.36 But most importantly it has a pivotal role in ensuring participation of the wider community in the struggle, extending thus the scope of the project from material to biopolitical production.

We are thus witnessing the formation of structures that go beyond simple workers’ control of production and aspire to a wider social control, which encompasses the production of new ideas and values (common ownership, solidarity, cooperation, protection of the environment), new relationships (through a network of decentralised collectives revolving around the issue of self-management), and, above all, new subjectivities. The workers cease to be mere followers of orders, assume responsibility for their actions, release their creativity and realise the importance of collectivity and mutual dependence.

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