Growl module: solidarity & cooperative economy

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3. Micropolis

The idea behind Micropolis originated in the heat of the December 2008 uprisings, which shook the country and brought new political actors to the forefront. In the second half of the ‘90s, a critical mass of young and not-so young people underwent a growing radicalisation. This erupted into violent clashes with the police, an exhilarating feeling of liberation from social norms and an unleashing of social creativity. Social imagination in action transformed the public space in urban centres37 –for the duration of the uprising at least- setting up numerous occupations of public buildings, parks and squares as well as permanent neighbourhood assemblies, festivals, street art, interventions in malls, theatres, museums and conferences.38

It was in one of these temporary spatial reappropriations, in the occupied premises of the Drama School of Thessaloniki, where parts of the libertarian movement, along with many other collectives and individuals, felt the need for a space which would sustain a permanent contact of the social movements with society, a space where this atmosphere of radical self-institution that they were breathing during the uprising could become an everyday lived experience.

After a long period of search, they rented a 900 sq. meters neo-classical 3-floor building right in the centre of the city. They established it a ‘commons’ run by a “community” that met weekly in a general assembly. This community grouped together an assortment of collectives and individuals under three basic principles: horizontal decision-making, radical independence from existing institutions (the state, the church, political parties, companies, etc.) and absence of personal economic profit. This ‘vagueness’ of the criteria of inclusion allowed a multitude of collectives that were not “political” in the strictest sense of the term to incorporate themselves in the process. Let us only mention a few of the activities initially housed in the building: drama, furniture refurbishment, music rehearsals, wild animal rescue, concerts, a library, talks and movie projections, an assortment of political meetings and many different free classes, from yoga to violin to pottery to sign language. The bar on the first floor was soon established as a cheap and tasteful alternative to Thessaloniki’s hyper-glamorous nightlife. Members of Micropolis offered voluntary work behind the bar as part of their duties for keeping the place alive and helping pay the rent.

The selection of the name was intentional: This stretch of space was intended to be a miniature (micro) of the city (polis) that the participants envisioned for themselves, the locus of extensive prefigurative experimentation. Micropolis soon became for many the point of entry to the activity of social movements. Not without conflicts and contradictions, charting its way through endless heated discussions and a perpetual quest for the elusive consensus, this project evolved into a successful experiment in social self-management.

However, the squares movement of 2011 brought forward new issues and actors, and provided an opportunity to enrich and deepen the insights gained by the 2008 uprising. Moreover, voluntary work started taking a toll on the participants, and the crisis started affecting their personal circumstances in ways that drove them away from the project. This brought to the fore a whole new range of issues that had not been addressed by the project thus far, such as access to cheap and nutritious food, defence of the rapidly privatised commons, solidarity and mutual support among the members of the community. There was a prompt realisation that the ‘private circumstances’ of each one of the members should not be left private, that the issues of what is produced, who produces it and how it is distributed and consumed should not remain outside the scope of the project. A long period of reflection and debate ensued, and a new constitutive process was initiated to reconfigure the existing framework in a manner conducive to the collective control of the new economic activities that were to take place within Micropolis.

At first, the issue of remuneration sparked a process of intense but creative theoretical debate that seems to have been going on at the same time in a series of self-managed projects in Greece throughout 201139. Following a long period of reflection and debate, a new constitutive process was initiated to amend the existing framework in a manner that enables equal participation, access of everyone to the labour commons, and collective control over all decisions involved.

The vexing issue around which the discussion revolved at first was access to food. The entrenchment of agribusiness and powerful trade interests in Greece, in tandem with the dwindling incomes of middle and lower classes and the skyrocketing prices, brought about a situation bordering on a humanitarian disaster. The community set about trying to put in place a structure that would bring the producers of good food in direct contact with the consumers, cutting out the middlemen and ensuring thus a fair price for both. A new assembly coordinated the creation of a small food dispensary where members of the community, alternating at regular intervals, were remunerated for keeping the shop. A similar structure was launched for running the kitchen. Soon thereafter a furniture workshop, a kindergarten, a bookstore and a print shop started operating along the same lines, transforming the building into a vibrant centre of activity. The constitutive process went on, seeking to craft institutions that enable a collective control of the economic processes, preventing an asymmetrical influence of ny groups or individuals, but ensuring also worker’s participation in decision-making.

This last point is decisive. Labour as a common good belongs to the community, and not to the individual worker. How can we, however, guarantee social/communal control of production without reducing the worker to a ‘waged labourer’ servicing the community?

The answer to this was twofold: Firstly, all interested members alternate regularly in the remunerated positions, so as to diffuse all the necessary skills throughout the community and to avoid the entrenchment of certain people in specific positions. Secondly, a series of assemblies with different competencies were instituted. Each new economic unit is run by its own assembly, where everyday management decisions are taken jointly by remunerated and non-remunerated members alike. A joint assembly of all the economic units coordinates all economic activity and prepares proposals to be submitted to the weekly general assembly, where all members of the community are required (and encouraged) to attend. The general assembly has the final say over all activities taking place within the limits of Micropolis. At the same time, a rotational ‘administrative’ assembly attends to the smooth functioning of the social centre (supplies, repairs, etc.). All assemblies are open to members and non-members alike.

The whole economic activity of Micropolis is non-profit, and any small surpluses are directed towards two ‘funds’: A ‘mutual’ fund that can cover medical expenses, and a ‘solidarity’ fund that is destined for economically assisting political struggles and for setting up new social centres and cognate experiments in solidarity economy.

Beyond the fulfilment of material needs, the thrust of experiments like Micropolis lies in their intervention in biopolitical production and the cultivation of a new civilisation grounded int the values of solidarity, equity, mutual recognition, participation, collectivity. They help thus to forge non-alienated subjectivities that can break free from the work-consume-sleep pattern imposed by the latest destructive stage of capitalist accumulation. This social control extended to many areas of communal life is complemented by workers’ control over their own activity and their active participation in decision-making over production, distribution and consumption.

Indeed, in Micropolis, as in many other similar structures proliferating throughout Greece, many of the needs of the participants –food, child care, entertainment, learning- can be met collectively in their own terms. This is triggering a motion towards autonomy in the proper sense of the term: setting the nomos (rule) that governs one´s existence.

Autonomy, however, does not imply isolation from the wider social becoming or the creation of ‘islets of liberty.’ Micropolis was conceived as an antagonistic project and today it is probably even more so, having overcome its introversion and sectarian attitudes and nurturing meaningful relationships of mutual support and cooperation with a multitude of militant grassroots projects throughout the country. Today it is an important node in a wide network of collective endeavours that try to challenge both pillars of the capitalist system, namely the state and the market, and to gradually replace them with radical democratic alternatives from below.



  1. (In)conclusive thoughts

All the foregoing contemporary experiments in the self-creation of a new social economy of the commons embody a distinct take on political change and social self-emancipation which is worth contemplating and pursuing as a promising avenue of social transformation in our times.

First, they incarnate a practice of prefiguration whereby the envisaged aim of the process, i.e. the institution of workers’ autonomy, social solidarity and responsibility, is embodied in the very means through which it is pursued.

Second, they opt for a politics of immanent and horizontal change, that is for grassroots, direct self-mobilization of social agents on a footing of equal participation. Such direct collective self-rule in the spheres of production and circulation kick-starts a politicization of the commons in everyday life that breaks through the divides between the economic, the social and the political and re-connects them in ways that restore to societies their power of effective self-direction, abolishing the rule of separate, formal politics and ‘free’ markets.

Τhird, they stitch together partiality with pluralism. They do not promote themselves as fully-fledged, total and exclusive pathways to social reconstruction, but just as one among the various roads that need to be travelled so as to reach a new social constellation of greater freedom and equality. Issues of broader political strategy, alliances, involvement with grassroots union militancy and engagement with the formal political system remain wide open and subject to debate.

Fourth, the ventures in question are intrinsically agonistic not only in the sense that they set themselves against the hegemony of the state and private economies or that they are riddled with contradictions and internal fights. They also pose as an ongoing reflection, experimentation and self-questioning as to the best practices that will carry collective emancipation forward under given conditions.40

Last, they have crafted particular responses to the challenge to build an ‘association of associations’ that will displace hierarchical models, bureaucratic domination and state centralism: the network structure and the open assembly. This type of network strives to break down the divides between consumers and producers or workers in particular enterprises and wider communities of interest. They advance thus social integration in ways that cater to the collective good and organize an effective economy of the commons, whereby production and consumption are handled in terms of common ownership of assets and common concern for sustainable and equitable consumption.


ALEXANDROS KIOUPKIOLIS, LECTURER AUTH

SHORT BIO (IN GREEK): http://www.polsci.auth.gr/index.php?lang=el&rm=1&mn=13&stid=52


Ecology, Politics, Local Institutions and Degrowth

Alexandros Georgopoulos

Professor Aristotelion University of Thessaloniki

Political Ecology: is the study of the relationships between political, economic and social factors with environmental issues and changes. For instance, wasting of natural resources, like coal or oil, polluting the atmosphere or the water, choosing the nuclear power instead of the alternative sources of energy, are all parameters which cause some social groups to profit, some others to lose, therefore, costs and benefits associated with environmental change are distributed unequally. A minority of human race has denied its social and ecological responsibility and transcended ecological limits (in extracting a greater amount of natural resources, enjoying more leisure time or higher speed limits and claiming more space) at the expense of others, that is by exploiting, excluding , marginalizing and depriving human and non human “others” (Eckersley, 2004: 10). The same goes for decisions to avert environmental destruction which are really political decisions, because the expenses for implementing them are distributed to different social strata according to their political and economic power through taxes. At the end of the day political ecology has come to mean not only environmental and Nature protection (sometimes ascribing intrinsic value to it-Goodin, 1992: 8· Dobson, 1995: 37), but also solidarity to the vulnerable groups of the society and a different North-South relationship, in that way affecting the political and economic status quo (Bryant and Bailey 1997 : 28). In addition, political ecology attempts to provide critiques as well as (political and not technological) alternatives in the interplay of the environment and political, economic and social factors, searching for better, less coercive, less exploitative, and more sustainable ways of development (Robbins, 2012). Green thinking holds that what we need is a “non violent revolution to overthrow our whole polluting, plundering a materialistic industrial society and, in its place to create an new economic and social order which will allow human beings to live in harmony with the planet. In those terms, the Green Movement lays claim to being the most radical and important political force since the birth of socialism” (Porritt and Winner, 1988: 9). All that relies heavily on the citizen action to promote justice in local communities (Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005: 234)

The above mentioned assumptions combined to the “limits to growth” mentality and boosted by the capitalism-will-go-on-exploiting-nature-to-the-verge-of the-destruction of-the-planet-Earth argument which seems more and more convincing under the light of the present financial crisis, ended up in the “carrying capacity” indices of different ecosystems, which take into account not only the constraints on consumption of fossil fuels but the limits of the alternative sources of energy potential, which of course is not infinite either!
In the seventies, some heterodox perspicacious researchers (Illich, Georgescu-Roegen, Ellul, Partant, Castoriadis…) drew up themselves against this dictatorship of the official view about economics and provided the foundations for a framework for degrowth In the political space created by Political Ecology, “degrowth” has gained more importance recently and increased its influence through publications (newspapers- Decroissance, periodicals-Entropia, books etc), articles in main stream newspapers like Le Monde, discussions into political parties like the Greens and the French Socialist Party with only marginal effect though, creation of networks like the “objectors to growth” (Fabrice Flipo, ????)

Degrowth has proven to be a “shell-concept” whose guidance helped to deconstruct emotional arguments like “we cannot imagine any future beyond that of growth” or supposedly rational ones like “growth reduces inequalities, therefore the numbers of poor people tend to decrease in a growing economy” or “modern economies tend to dematerialize themselves, therefore an ever increasing GNP can be produced out of an economy which uses less and less natural resources”. De-economization of spirits which is a process taking place right now

HOW to PROCEED


Make the distinction between development and growth clear to the people, provide examples out of the every day’s social and political reality. Explain the irrational element included in the today’s estimation of social welfare, which practically is GDP. For instance refer to the unexpected increase of GDP when a forest is destroyed and a city takes its place, or when increase of speed limit in our highways might lead to the same outcome
The local element: Local control makes collective management of the commons more effective because of the higher visibility of the commons resources and behaviour toward them, feedback on the effect of regulations is fast, people is “closer” to the administrative body, etc. When people depend on the surrounding natural ecosystems and natural resources for their livelihood, they are bound to develop an intimate knowledge of those surroundings, which will necessarily affect positively their behaviour towards them.

There is ample evidence about the remarkable success of local communities in safeguarding their environments.

Of course for that local control of the environment to be successful, there is a critical parameter we have to take into account: the local people-the demos-should perceive their environment as the absolute base upon which they will rely for their long term subsistence, consequently they would have a vital interest in protecting it. Otherwise, they would be inclined to try to extract profit in a way that in the long run would degrade both the natural environment and human society (Fotopoulos, 2010)

The idea of non-market capitals (Polanyi, Gandhi) is to “restore the economic base of the community and to return the economic control into the hands of the local people”. Non market capitals are defined as land, finance, workspace or housing, equipment, knowledge, etc and is an attempt to avoid the stringent top-down state control and offer the possibility to be democratically controlled by the local people on a non-profit basis, ideally by the local community (Nadia Johanisova, Tim Crabtree, Eva Franková, 2013)41. Institutions such as local communities, municipalities, social enterprise umbrella groups, community land trusts

and ethical banks take out capitals (such as land, premises, knowledge, seeds, financial capital) from the market and place them under local/member/democratic control to serve the common good and hopefully help satisfy basic needs in a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable manner. in this way decelerating and weakening the growth process

Specifically as far as money and finance is concerned, there are many institutions which can be seen as based on the non-market capital approach. Ethical banks and communal currency systems among them which operate locally as credit unions (credit cooperatives). Credit unions by-pass the mainstream economic credit model of a usual bank and instead

are based on a group of people pooling together their resources with each having the possibility to borrow from this pool.

Among the localized credit unions benefits is first, the fact that local savings can be re-invested locally again, in such a way revitalizing the local efforts and second that by avoiding problematic investments in dubious “developmental” projects, credit unions are less vulnerable to the “money must grow” mentality-one of the principal drivers of economic growth (Hoogendijk, 1991; Douthwaite, 2000). Last but not least, all previous practices are schools of a kind, promoting democratic self-governance, to the local authorities: their obligations concerning, for instance, decreasing the emission of greenhouse gases
Example of the Czech republic local authorities in small villages retain some ownership of land and buildings and in that way do support local traders, farmers, renewable energy and food processing units, pubs, farmers’ markets, community groups etc. through renting workspace and land on a non-market basis, e.g. at prices lower than market prices, designated in some cases to cover maintenance only. From a degrowth perspective, the land-and-assets as non-market capitals can facilitate localised production and consumption, the existence of small-scale enterprises and the satisfaction of real and basic needs.) have been doing.

That communal ownership of assets for the common good is a way of rediscovering what centuries ago and in the world over has been practiced (see e.g. The Ecologist, 1992; Neeson, 1993; Sarukhán and Larson, 2001; Ostrom, 1990). The nonmarket capital approach can be understood as a modern incarnation and continuation of that the commons (Johanisova, 2004) bringing in mind the English Middle Ages “commoners” who use to manage them collectively and extract natural resources for their subsistence and resisted the Enclosures accompanying the Industrial Revolution and creating the landless working class that provided the labour required in the new industries developing in the north of England. Death economies (producing pollution, wasting resources, employ toxic materials etc) inflate their benefits by producing externalities (costs and impacts) in parasitizing on older subsistence production activities taking place in both the sustainability (air, oceans, forests etc) and civil (public libraries, concert halls, public schools, pension plans, health benefit plans, water facilities etc) commons (Burch, 2012: 6)42

Summing up all the above practices we end up with a political strategy according to which, more and more people are involved in a new kind of politics and the parallel shifting of economic resources (labour, capital, land) away from the market economy (Fotopoulos, 2010)
As can be seen from the above mentioned arguments, there is a duty degrowth activists cannot avoid: participation in the local government elections! Because if we are lucky enough to see an active electorate demanding to be the owners of their lives, then contesting municipal elections represents the culmination of that grassroots action. This is the most appropriate moment to massively publicize arguments about degrowth, show its advantages and possibly pave the way for implementing some of its aspects on a significant social scale. In working among the demos is a chance to start changing society from below, which is the only democratic strategy, as against the statist approaches, which aim to change society from above through the conquest of state power and nominating demos as the fundamental socio-political and economic cell of the democratic society (Fotopoulos, 2010)

Try to “decolonize our imagination” (Latouche, 2005) in order for the degrowth messages to be able to reach in it and produce fresh thoughts about an alternative organization of the every day life. Change the “social imaginary meanings” (Castoriadis, 1975). First, change the way politics is imagined and actively promote the idea of the local authorities councils to claim more responsibilities from he national assemblies, sparking a reverse to the centralization procedure towards more decentralized decision-making local bodies, instead of the highly bureaucratized and sluggish central power (Fotopoulos, 2010). Second, to start imagining life alternatively, with ample space for play, love, enjoy nature and art, communicate with friends, partners, children, take care of our health etc.
Perhaps a sub-category of the previous is the “spiritual attack” on the present multifaceted crisis ridden industrialized society on the grounds that more and more material wealth (commodities, money, power) obliges people to an endless, self defeating “rat race” to increase the output of whatever they produce : more, bigger, faster, this is the growth dictum which should be obeyed by all means. All that argument is summed up by the question “how much more wealth you need in order to feel happy?” which is notoriously unanswerable. The spiritual attack holds that humans ought to attune themselves with nature, other human beings and the planet in general through meditation and listening. Internal peace is the product of the previous attunement very much like a non violent revolution on the part of the previously disordered state of mind which now might be able to act along the lines of Gandhi’s precepts and not of technology’s power and dictates. Voluntary simplicity, after Francois d'Assise, is not a way of depriving oneself, but a way of becoming lighter in order to let a major direction come into oneself, less superficial than that which drives the ceaseless ballet of ordinary things.


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