31 Ιουλίου 2014

Self-management as an antagonistic force: commons-based responses to the Greek structural adjustment

As a response to the unprecedented attack on their social, economic and political rights triggered by the imposed austerity measures, Greek citizens organize prefigurative arrangements of political governance from below based on solidarity, direct democracy and defence of the commons, in reclaiming their health, water and livelihood.
Theodoros Karyotis
July 2014

It is evident today that the Greek population is experiencing an unprecedented attack on its socialeconomic and political rights. Using the sovereign debt crisis as an excuse, a series of neoliberal governments have followed the prescriptions of the troika to promote the dismantling of the public health and education systems, to push down wages and pensions, to rob the majority of the population of the little they had through debt and taxation, and most importantly, to sell off everything that constituted the public wealth of the people to multinational corporations. This is not the first case of a structural adjustment that damages the lives of millions· it is however the first violent adjustment that takes place in the European periphery.

The Greek parliamentary left has so far been unable to slow down this offensive, in part due to the strategy of the powerful to divide and rule, by setting every social group against each other through powerful propaganda, and in part because a new reality renders our traditional means of struggle obsolete: The reality that social consensus is not necessary anymore for the exercise of power, since a permanent state of exception makes every extreme measure justifiable and allows the state to systematically repress, criminalize, manipulate and lie. The victims of such repression are systematically presented as perpetrators.

Reactions on the part of the population to this rapid disappearance of all that was familiar and normative in our country range from reactionary, chauvinist and violent postures, such as the rise of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn, to resignation and individualist efforts to save oneself, whatever the cost. But fortunately, we also witness an unprecedented activity and creativity of the social movements. There is a widespread realization that the oppressed social strata cannot merely entrust their salvation to representational structures or institutions such as trade unions and political parties anymore, but that constant grassroots involvement and political participation is imperative.

Greece is probably a peculiar case within Europe in that the state never had a positive role of economic redistribution and the welfare mechanisms were rudimentary even when they existed in the "good days" before the crisis severely hit. This is probably why within the social movements there are presently many voices that not only are anti-austerity or anti-neoliberal, but envision a whole new path that leads us away from state-sponsored capitalism.
What follows is the presentation of 3 movements, which revolve around the following core values: resistance, horizontality, participation, solidarity and defence of the commons, through practices that challenge the dominant discourse and promote popular education and self-initiative.

When the sale of Thessaloniki’s water company was announced in 2011 as part of the Troika’s conditions, citizens promoting direct democracy and cooperativism met with the water workers’ trade union in the occupied squares of the Greek indignados. There, they elaborated a proposal for a viable alternative to both corporate privatization and state administration of water services. They formed a new movement called Initiative 136, based on the simple premise that if 136 Euros is provided by each household in the city, the citizens can raise the amount needed to buy the water company, protect it from corporate greed and manage it through local cooperatives in a non-profit manner, thus ensuring democratic participation, social justice and access to this vital good for everyone. After securing funding from cooperative banks, Initiative 136 presented its bid in the public tender for the privatization of the water company. Its bid was rejected by the institution carrying out the privatization, with no sufficient justification, so Initiative 136 started a legal battle to overturn this decision, parallel to the process of organizing the community and applying political pressure against privatization.

In May 2014, Initiative 136 was one of the main promoters of a grassroots referendum where 98 per cent of the voters rejected water privatization. Massive popular opposition and a Supreme Court decision have since obliged the government to freeze the privatization process. This, however, is only a partial victory; Initiative 136 continues organizing to make social control of water a reality.

Another recent experiment is the occupation, and subsequent operation under workers’ self-management, of the construction materials factory of Vio.Me. in Thessaloniki. In February 2013, 2 years after the employers abandoned the factory, the 40 members of the Vio.Me. workers’ union, organized through assemblary and horizontal decision making, with the support of a wide solidarity movement, restarted production in the occupied factory. At the same time they switched production towards environmentally friendly cleaning products that are distributed through solidarity channels, especially the structures of the blooming social and solidarity economy that is rapidly growing around Greece. The workers of Vio.Me face the hostility of the Greek state, which refuses to create a legal framework that allows the normal operation of the factory and conspires with the ex- owners against this new endeavour. But there is also resistance from a large sector of the communist Left, which accuses the workers of aiming to become small capitalists. According to the traditional Left’s mode of thinking, whatever is not state-owned is private: Society cannot have any self-determined and independent existence outside the dominant institutions of the state and the market.

Despite such a hostile environment, Vio.Me has had significant success in sustaining the worker’s families, in has created a big international solidarity movement. In April 2014, after overcoming several legal and bureaucratic hurdles, the workers formed a cooperative, based on the very principles that had been guiding their endeavor since the beginning: collective decision-making through the workers’ assembly, collective ownership of the means of production, and non-profit operation, as any surpluses will return to the wider community.

The third movement I would like to mention here is Thessaloniki's social solidarity clinic. It is one of the oldest and biggest in a network of clinics around Greece that are run by volunteer health professionals. They are providing free healthcare services to a target population of approximately 3 million Greeks and immigrants that have no social securitcoverage at the moment. They operate remarkably efficiently by horizontal decision making, they finance their activity only on donations of individuals, barring companies and governmental institutions, and they try to engage the community and the patientthemselves in their processes of self-management. At the same time they are part of a wider movement in Greece that demands universal healthcare by engaging in direct action, applying political pressure and trying to create public awareness. At great personal risk, solidarity clinic volunteers who work as physicians and nurses in the public health system, honour their oath by smuggling” into the public hospitals uninsured patients that need treatment or examinations that the solidarity clinic cannot provide.

This article starts by denouncing that the political, economic and social rights of the Greek population are under attack, however what is presented here is not big crowds protesting and demanding that their rights are respected. Rather, present examples are offered where groups of people organize from below and just try to take back what has been robbed of them: Water, healthcare, livelihood. They have fallen out of trust with political and governmental institutions. They envision a different world and at the same time they create the instruments to move towards it. New instruments that are autonomous from existing structures of power, that work outside of the spaces of representational democracy, which are so consistently co-opted, undermined or appeased by the traditional holders of power.

These movements seek not only to create new spaces of political participation and debate, but to operate on a different set of principles: Solidarity, cooperation, self- management, participation, community involvement and defence of the common goods. In short: They organize prefigurative arrangements of political governance from below rather than wait for social or economic rights to be granted by an omnipotent instance of power.

This is not to say that social movements and organizations should stop demanding the enforcement of negotiated rights. Rather, we have to be aware of the limits of the rights discourse and the individualisation it produces in front of instances of power, and be ready to overcome it when it helps perpetuate asymmetrical power relations, by legitimating the domination of those who grant” them over those who claim” the rights. We have already seen how Thessaloniki's social solidarity clinic is a defender of universal healthcare as a right, but also a promoter of community healthcare as a commons. Self-managed initiatives don't reject the idea of rights altogether, but they renegotiate those rights within the context of the community and they challenge the role of the state as enforcer and guarantor of those rights, promoting instead the collective empowerment of the rights holders themselves.
Capitalism is going through a structural crisis. It has reached its energetic, environmental and social limits. Can the practices of commoning, of solidarity, gift and sharing economy, through their questioning of capitalism's core values private property, methodological individualism, political representation– offer us a sneak peek of a new economic and political configuration? Or do we run the chance of offering capitalism a way out of its problems, by helping alleviate the social reproduction crisis that neoliberal policies have created?

To get out of its dead-end, capitalism is trying to get what Massimo DeAngelis calls a commons fix: It tries to utilize commons-based alternatives, especially solidarity structures and cooperatives, as a cheap and easy way to provide welfare support, healthcare, income, protection from unemployment, etc. Through a discursive shift from the Thatcherite "there is no thing such as a society" to the official U.K. state policy of the big society, the people are left to fend for themselves while the state pulls the welfare rug from under their feet. This is why the creation of tame” and co-optable versions of commons practices (disguised as social entrepreneurship, NGOs, solidarity networks, etc) is now an institutionally sanctioned practice in a hyper-neoliberal European Union in crisis: They are providing cheap alternatives to the rapidly privatized and dismantled public welfare system for the reproduction of the workforce and preservation of social peace.

In this light, merely building commons alternatives is hardly enough from the point of view of social emancipation: What is needed is an articulation of radical and dynamic commons endeavours that seek not to complement state and capital, but to foreshadow their substitution with a new set of social practices and institutions that can guarantee a futurfor the next generations. While capitalism will keep on trying to disrupt, coopt and utilize the flow of social cooperation, commons initiatives have to be articulated in a diverse and militant constitutive process that will extend commons practices and institutions in ever more areas of social life, thus leaving gradually less and less of people’s lives in the hands of the state and the market.

The existing experiments in social appropriation and self-management of workplaces, public utilities and services around Europe can light the way in this direction.