Solidarity movement and solidarity economy in Greece

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Since 2011, the solidarity economy in Greece has existed alongside and often in collaboration with the grassroots solidarity movement, a network of initiatives for basic needs provision that arose in response to increasing and often severe levels of hardship resulting from state austerity measures. The solidarity movement operates along radically democratic principles and potentially provides both a material and social basis for an entirely new form of political action.

Solidarity Economy in Greece

The Greek Solidarity Movement

The Greek solidarity movement arose as a response to severe hardship experienced by large numbers of people in the wake of the national economic crisis and subsequent introduction of austerity measures and enforced sale and privatisation of public assets and services by the 'Troika' (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) as part of the 2011 financial bailout. It consists of multiple self-organised initiatives for the cashless provision of basic goods and services, including food, medical care and education, and support for victims of redundancy, foreclosure and withdrawal of state services, all organised on a voluntary, participatory and democratic basis.

Between 2009 and 2013 basic living standards suffered a marked decline for most of the Greek population, with marked increases in levels of unemployment (especially among youth), poverty (including child poverty), deprivation, inability to meet basic needs, exclusion from the hational health care and education systems, foreclosure on homes, closure of small businesses, rates of depression and suicide, and rates of aggression against refugees and other immigrants, all at a time of declining public spending and contraction of public services, particularly health care.[1] The solidarity movement arose as a grassroots response to this, people and communities self-organising to create alternative systems of provision based on principles of equality and fairness. Its roots include, most dramatically, the anti-austerity protests of early 2011, in which 28% of Greeks are reported to have participated, along with longer-standing actions like self-organised social centres, community mobilisations in defence of public space, and organised no-pay campaigns against dramatic increases in prices of food, transportation and electricity. From early 2012, solidarity intiatives began to form in many communities as bottom-up efforts to ensure provision of basic needs. All operate on a virtually moneyless basis, based on voluntary labour, donations of basic goods and smaller levels of financial donations to cover unavoidable monetary costs such as rent and utility bills. Drawing on principles of direct democracy, self-organisation and people's assemblies established in the 2011 protests, they operate horizontal forms of organisation in which each person's needs and opinion, whether a skilled volunteer or a recipient of support (or both) carries equal weight. By December 2014 they included 40 solidarity clinics staffed by unemployed or precariously employed doctors and nurses and seeing an average of 2000 patients per month; 47 solidarity food initiatives along with 21 solidarity kitchens and numerous cooperative social groceries and collective farms, supported by 45 'without middlemen' initiatives to allow food producers to obtain higher prices and consumers to spend less, and numerous intiatives in other areas such as clothing, education and cultural activities. At the same time, the monetary social and solidarity economy grew, with at least 300 new producers' or workers' cooperatives forming, many actively cooperating with solidarity movements and operating on principles of equal pay, worker self-management and democratic decision-making.[1] Against this background, Solidarity for All formed in 2014 as a collective structure to facilitate networking and communication among solidarity initiatives, improve the visibility of such initiatives, support existing projects, promote a politics of participation and solidarity, organise solidarity campaigns at national level and improve connections between the international solidarity movement and initiatives in Greece.[2]

According to an interview with Christos Giovanopoulos, one of the founders of Solidarity for All, in 2016, while immediate provision of material needs is obviously important, the movement’s deeper purpose and power lies in reclaiming the apparatus of democracy by building working alternatives to the neoliberal model that so dramatically failed the country and its people. These alternatives provide working models of participatory, people-centred democracy in practice through their emphasis on collaborative working, use of cooperative structures, and commitment to inclusive decision-making and organisational processes. They additionally constitute a material basis for these more democratic institutions to scale up and form structures for national level governance not tied to unsustainable and inequitable social and economic models. In Giovanopoulos’ opinion, this political imperative distinguishes the solidarity movement from conventional NGO action that restricts itself to compensating for the deficiencies of current models rather than creating genuine alternatives.[3]

Following the Syriza government's controversial decision to acquiesence to the Troika's bailout conditions in mid-2015, the solidariy movement's status as a democratic alternative has, in the opinion of participants and analysts such as Giovanopoulos, become even more important. The challenge he identifies is to consolidate its potential as the material basis for popular democracy by extending its activities into productive spheres, in addition to distribution and service provision, in collaboration with cooperatives and other vehicles of the solidarity economy, while maintaining the commitment to openness and horizontality that has ensured its democratic operations so far.[4] In this way, the solidarity movement could act as a vehicle not just to challenge and even assume political power, as Syriza did in Greece, but to model and enact an entirely new form of power rooted in principles of popular and participatory democracy[5]