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Building hope in times of crisis

Building hope in times of crisis

The Sesoula co-operative, Exarchia, Athens, Greece. by Fanny Malinen

‘There is a big need for the solidarity movement in Greece. It started in late 2011 and has nearly doubled now to around 400 groups – even more if you add the more loosely networked ones,’ Christos Giovanopoulos says.

We sit in the central Athens office of Solidarity for All, a project that aims to facilitate the solidarity movement. It provide spaces and tools for co-ordination between different groups.

‘The government is friendly to these structures, but they have the bigger picture to consider,’ Giovanopoulos says, describing the attitude of ruling Left party Syriza. The self-organized social solidarity economy has grown quickly since the economic crisis hit Greece and the country was strangled by austerity measures imposed by the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Since 2009, unemployment has nearly trebled to 26%. As those who lose their jobs only receive benefits for the first year of unemployment, poverty and depression have skyrocketed. Even more strikingly, those without employment lose access to public healthcare services after a year. ‘About 50,000 people have died because they have no access to public healthcare. It is a human rights violation,’ Tonia Katerini, also a member of Solidarity for All, says. ‘When people are thrown out of social protection they don't feel part of the system any more. It is dangerous because if there is no progressive movement these people are easily affected by fascists and the far-right party Golden Dawn.’

As a response to the humanitarian crisis many activists and local people started organizing food distribution and healthcare for those who had fallen through the cracks.

But solidarity should not be confused with charity, Giovanopoulos emphasizes. Participation is the leading principle of the solidarity movement, whose history goes back far beyond the current crisis. The democracy movements that brought people to the squares across the Mediterranean basin helped to popularize self-organization as well as direct democracy and assemblies.

A key difference to solely providing for those in need is also that the solidarity movement has no pre-determined vision: ‘Nobody in the movement wants to return to the old system; [rather] everyone speaks of a new system. Vision is developed; as the Zapatistas say: you create the road as you walk. Creating spaces for this is very important.’

In addition to creating basic structures, the solidarity movement is moving to the realm of production and distribution. The following day, I visit a co-operative grocery shop nearby in the Exarchia district that Tonia Katerini works in.

It looks like any corner shop focusing on environmentally and ecologically sustainable produce, with its wooden shelves and dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. But a closer look reveals the solidarity: next to the till there is a basket where you can buy food to give to local families in need. ‘There are 25 families in the neighbourhood with very strong problems, who don’t have any employment,’ Katerini tells me. ‘Most solidarity projects provide those they are helping the opportunity to participate in meetings, which is very important. Everyone is making decisions together.’

The co-operative, called Sesoula, has weekly meetings, where decisions are taken in total equality: it does not matter if someone puts in more time. There are 15 members, one of whom is unemployed and does more hours than the others. Katerini says that the co-operative started to be able to pay its members last September after functioning on a totally voluntary basis for a year. The group proposed to pay the member most in need more than the others, but he rejected the offer. Now everyone is paid equally according to hours, but the person with no other employment of course has time to work more.

When I ask Katerini whether they make enough money to pay everyone, she laughs. ‘We are trying! It’s not always successful; it changes month to month.’

The principles of the solidarity economy are also reflected in the co-operative’s supply decisions. ‘We prefer to work with producers that are outside the supply chains of the big supermarkets. First we try to see if there are co-operatives making a product, and secondly we try the agricultural region near Athens because we try to eliminate the cost of the middlemen,’ Katerini explains. This is not possible for all products: some spices need to be imported, as does brown sugar.

‘We also promote solidarity products, for example cosmetics that are made by unemployed people’s workshops or the cleaning products of Vio.Me,’ she continues. Indeed, every co-operative I stumble upon in Athens sells cleaning products from Vio.Me’s worker-occupied and -run factory in Thessaloniki.

There are also problems in supporting local, decentralized production: it is illegal in Greece to sell home-made jams and preserves, unless made by, for instance, a farmer from their own products. This is why Sesoula would like to set up a space where Athens residents could do it legally, but they lack the resources in both time and money. It would also be useful to have bigger storage spaces to enable co-operatives to avoid having to deal with wholesalers or other intermediaries.

‘It is important to have support, not only financial but also a more friendly legal system, and perhaps some tax breaks,’ Katerini says. ‘The government has said it is going to support the social solidarity economy but there are difficulties, or delays mainly, because of the negotiations with the EU.’

But regardless of the political situation the vision-creating work of the solidarity structures goes on. When I ask Katerini about her reasons for being involved, she says that an important motivation is food quality: we need to challenge the monopoly supermarkets. ‘It is important to see that there is another, more horizontal way to run an economy,’ she explains.

Fanny Malinen is a freelance journalist and a member of Debt Resistance UK. She went to Athens as part of a knowledge exchange organized by the Political Economy Research Centre, Goldsmiths, University of London, with support from the ESRC.

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