Who would have thought that a sack of potatoes would make such a difference? But the initiative of a municipality in central Greece to order potatoes directly from the producers on behalf of its citizens, thereby eliminating the wholesalers, has become a trend that is spreading like wildfire. In the framework of declining wages and rising living costs, the municipality was able to reduce the cost of a kilo of potatoes by 65 per cent. Other municipalities followed suit and other products (olive oil, rice, beans) entered the shopping list. As a result, supermarkets were also forced to lower potatoes’ retail price in order to keep up with the competition.
A fruit and vegetable market in Corfu. Photo by Lee Cannon under a CC Licence
Potatoes in Greece suffer from a fate that affects all agricultural products: overpricing during their journey from the fields to the citizens’ plate. With the influx of cheap foreign agricultural goods, wholesalers are able to buy from the producers at a very low price, which they inflate when selling to the merchants. As such, they bear a huge amount of responsibility for the high costs in the markets. Nevertheless, the wholesalers don’t determine each product’s price entirely on their own. Big industries fix the cost of fertilizers, pesticides and farming equipment, while the production and commercialization process takes place under the rules set by the state and the European Union.
It is obvious that the alternative distribution network set up by the municipalities cannot affect the totality of this process. But it remains a very positive sign of self-organization, as well as an expression of solidarity in action between the poor producers and the impoverished consumers. And given that Greece is now suffering its third year AM (After the Memorandum) it is fortunate that this is not the only such effort. With traditional social protection mechanisms crumbling, it rests upon the citizens to ensure social cohesion. And there are many who believe that the best way to resist the crisis is to help others – not through philanthropy, but through active engagement. Free polyclinics provide their services to the uninsured, from the northern city of Drama to the Cretan port of Rethimno. University students offer free courses to schoolchildren, in order to help them pass their exams. Musicians organize concerts for families in need; and volunteers coach a football team of homeless people, in order to help them reintegrate in society.
The reaction of the state to these initiatives is usually indifference. Nevertheless, there is a caveat: such movements should not be openly political and they should not get in the way of institutionalized welfare providers, like the church or state-funded NGOs. In Greece, state tolerance to self-organization always has a limit.
The most characteristic example is soup kitchens. In Athens, they have been organized for years by autonomous collectives, in a spirit of solidarity and respect for the personality of the people in need. Thus, they created bonds that gradually became deeper and, as the crisis unfolded, escaped the confines of specific localities. Seeing them getting stronger, the state decided to step in. And, in an era when people are starving, it forbade food distribution by ‘non-qualified organizations’. The excuse was health concerns. The real reason was its intention to keep the monopoly of social care to itself and its industrial partners – which treat social solidarity as an advertising opportunity.
As far as the ‘potato movement’ is concerned, the reaction of the state and the mainstream media has been welcoming. But this has nothing to do with the positive social effects of this action. The movement rightly stands up against the abuses of a vested interest group and, in this time of national emergency, it just doesn’t address the question of national and European agricultural policies. Mainstream journalists, however, use this understandable omission to serve their own political goals: to show that the causes of the Greek crisis are questions of corruption and other market distortions, for which the citizens and some bad political decisions are to blame, and without which the capitalist structure of the European and the Greek economy would work just fine. In other words, they use the movement’s understandably limited focus in order to justify their deliberately shortsighted view of the economy.
The peaceful character of the ‘potato movement’ is also used to serve the goals of the mainstream press. Many journalists present it as the only true leftist action and use it to condemn the official Left as ‘negation-focused’ or ‘violent’. These are the same people that extolled the Greek Indignados as the ‘only true demonstration movement, which is peaceful and apolitical’, but promptly called for the evacuation of the tents in Syntagma Square, when the Indignados proved a threat to state authority.
The abuses of the ‘potato movement’ should only work to make it stronger – more political and broader in its demands. Then, it might lose the support of the press, but it will gain more support from the people, since it will really be building the foundations of a better future.