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An Autogestión Alternative to Austerity: Occupy, Resist, Produce!

Austerity policies continue to deliver pain to populations the world over, but shifts toward democratic self-direction deliver much-needed hope.

Austerity policies continue to deliver pain to populations the world over. In Greece, the process has been exceptionally painful. Yet shifts toward worker ownership and democratic self-direction deliver much-needed hope.

The workers at the Viomichaniki Metalleutiki (Vio.Me) factory in Thessaloniki, Greece have adopted the motto that originated with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) in the 1980s: “Occupy, Resist, Produce!” The factory, which makes mortars, plasters, tile adhesives and other building materials, started production under worker control on February 13, 2013. Putting into practice in their own lives the principles of autogestión (self-direction, or leaderless self-management) developed in occupied workplaces across Latin America, the worker-owners at Vio.Me are trying to prefigure a better future in the present, in large part because they were left with little choice.

The previous owners of the factory stopped paying employees in May 2011. They abandoned workers in a manner similar to that by which the Greek government, at the behest of the Troika, abandoned the majority of its population, severing the social contract.

The Social Preconditions for Emerging Economic Alternatives in Greece

The 2007-2008 global economic implosion, government corruption, state collusion with Wall Street, eurozone travails and a structural adjustment program imposed upon the people by international investors, in familiar neoliberal fashion, yielded predictable consequences. Bailouts and mass privatization benefited banks, but “little actually went to Greek workers who fell into severe poverty,” economist Marjolein Van Der Veen explains. The Greek government’s “self-destructive dance with the Troika of foreign lenders – the European Union (EU), The European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF),” as Leonidas Oikonomakis and Jérôme Roos assert, initiated an ongoing tango of social turmoil.

Increased wage polarization, along with fiscal consolidation, contributed to deterioration of the labor market situation, failed to fix the protracted crisis, came up short in stabilizing public debt, and also did not seriously reduce the deficit or curb unemployment, according to the 2013 World of Work Report published by the International Labor Organization.

Social unrest increased in countries throughout the eurozone and Greece was among those that experienced some of the most pronounced unrest during 2010-2012, the report documented: “This increase in the risk of unrest in the European Union is likely to be due to the policy responses to the ongoing sovereign debt crisis and their impacts on people’s lives and perceptions of well-being.”

Even the IMF now admits it failed to recognize the damage austerity would do to Greece. The mistakes are nothing new, and make sense if conceptualized as part of a neoliberal project designed to maximize profits, concentrate wealth and accelerate capital accumulation at all costs.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, recently told a Greek audience, “You’re living these shocks every day of your lives.”

She added: “Greeks know that the debt crisis is being exaggerated. It’s being deepened so that it can provide the prextext for wrenching austerity measures and in order sell off your natural assets and your natural resources. This you know.”

And those austerity cuts continue apace. Recently, the government shut down ERT, the country’s state broadcaster, leaving 600 journalists unemployed, punctuating the latest installment in the protracted socioeconomic strife.

The Self-Management Solution: Work in Progress

Protests erupted when the crisis first hit. People occupied public spaces like Syntagma Square and held popular assemblies. A small group of little-known organizers from Thessaloniki first called for the occupation of Syntagma. Before too long, many came together to form solutions from below. Workers at Vio.Me decided to start down the path toward self-management, for reasons of pure exigency.

“We must understand that the more difficult the conditions are, the more determined are those who experience them, and they are more determined because all they have to lose is subjugation,” said a spokesperson for Thessaloniki’s Open Solidarity Initiative, the organization supporting Vio.Me, via email correspondence. “When we faced that situation, the unemployment and the poverty, the decision-making – at least for most of us – was only a matter of survival.”

When unemployment first neared 30 percent in Greece, they proclaimed “their determination not to fall prey to a condition of perpetual unemployment, but instead to take the factory in their own hands to operate themselves.”

Autogestión seemed necessary. However, it has not been easy. Colleagues who previously worked at the factory resigned during the course of the turmoil, “but most of them are waiting to see how the situation is going so as to return if things go better,” the workers said.

Van Der Veen reported that the workers “do not intend to buy out the owners, since the company owed the workers a significant amount of money when it abandoned the factory.”

That is partly correct. But the challenges of worker-ownership within a capitalist economy, intimations of state repression, recalcitrant corporate control and ever-evolving political-economic circumstances require more nuanced attention to the unfolding process.

The workers actually made a genuine offer to the ministry to take the factory in their ownership. “An offer that – of course – was not accepted,” they said. “So we try to find another solution.”

Efforts to prefigure alternative institutional arrangements appear insuperable at times. As the Vio.Me web site states, “The costs of production are high, access to credit is impossible and getting a part of the market in times of recession is uncertain.”

Despite hurdles to direct economic democracy, they remain hopeful and focused.

“Our priority is to keep all union’s member[s] equally involved,” in relation to the struggle, they say, “so as to maintain the hope and interest of everyone that takes part in the production.”

Through discussion, deliberation, dialogue – the same sort of workplace processes which define their prefigurative politics – the unionized laborers intend to overcome their conditions together, without well-paid elites telling them what to do. Nevertheless, adversity is not going away anytime soon.

“We are always going to face problems and for that we have abolished all the management and administrative councils and solve them, all the workers in common, through assembly,” the spokesperson for the Solidarity Initiative explained.

Vio.Me operates, in the main, on principles of horizontalidad, a process part and parcel with autogestión. Sociologist Marina Sitrin describes it as “a living word, reflecting an ever-changing experience,” that “is not an ideology, but more of a social relationship, a way of being and relating.” It implies nonhierarchical relationships, direct democracy, anti-authoritarian structure and “a break with vertical ways of organizing and relating, but a break that is also an opening.”

Horizontalidad spread through Argentina after the largely IMF-induced economic crisis hit the country in 2001. The movement spurred autonomous assemblies, factory occupations, experiments in autogestión and the development of hundreds of workplace democracies, including worker-run newspapers and media cooperatives communicating the benefits of collective ownership and participatory (typically consensus-based) decisionmaking.

David Graeber, an anthropologist who helped organize the Occupy Wall Street movement, called the prefigurative politics in Argentina “The Buenos Aires Strategy.” In his new book, The Democracy Project, he suggests the popular modus operandi during and after the 2001 crisis was “not to engage directly with the political establishment at all, but rather, to strip it of all legitimacy,” adding that, “This might be called the Argentina model, or delegitimation approach, and it seems to be more or less what’s happening at the time of writing in Greece.”

Indeed, workers at Vio.Me drew inspiration from Argentina. They learned from, adopted and adapted what they learned from Argentine workers. Specifically, they gained insight from the experience of the Zanón ceramics factory (renamed FaSinPat for Fábrica sin Patrones, or Factory Without a Boss).

Workers in Thessaloniki stress that their primary motivation in recuperating the Vio.Me factory was, as they said, “to keep us and our families alive,” but at the same time they emphasize the practical and humanistic importance of transnational solidarity given the realities of transnational corporate hegemony.

“[W]e are sure that if we stay alone we won’t stand, and the capitalism will ‘swallow’ us,” they said. “It’s between that and the building of a network of occupied-factories in different countries, agricultural co-operatives where we will be able to support each other.”

Many governments resist alternatives to capitalist ownership that seriously attempt to democratize wealth, but certain policy changes have proven possible elsewhere and could aid in finding the kind of legal solutions workers in Greece seek.

Italy, which leads the world with over 800,000 workers in the cooperative sector, has favorable public policy codified in its constitution, recognizing “the social function of co-operation with mutual character and without private speculation purposes.” Likewise, recent legislation in Brazil breaks new ground in ensuring rights of worker cooperatives. The Working World, a nonprofit of self-described “venture capitalists with a radical social mission,” helped Nicaraguan co-ops secure government grants. The organization also lent support to Vio.Me.

Workers at Vio.Me would appreciate any positive changes in public policy that can be obtained. Help for policies promoting autogestión over austerity could come from the popular left coalition, Syriza, or possibly from extra-parliamentary forces like the Front of Solidarity and Overthrow (MAA), a radical left party in Greece.

Either way, the Greek workers intend to recuperate even more businesses that are being shuttered.

“We believe that unemployment can be solved this way,” the workers say. “It serves a way out of the worker’s dead end, because now we are workers with no job, no money, no dignity.”

Their mission points to lifesaving escapes from future economic hardships, they add. The process affects individuals, institutions and society writ large.

“The whole struggle has changed us collectively and in total,” said Theodoros Karyotis, a spokesperson for the Vio.Me Solidarity Initiative. “We have become more active and we are more willing to take part in many things and procedures.”

He explained how everyone at Vio.Me appears more interested in implementable ideas “about democracy, about the collectivity.”

Dialectically speaking, that personal transformation is essential to far-reaching social transformation, as the two are interdependent parts of a totality, much like the different individuals who comprise autonomous horizontal collectives. Innovative cooperative establishments that link up across borders and commit to practicing participatory democracy can potentially alter both individual and collective consciousness.

“In that way the economy model will start to change along with people’s awareness,” they said. “That may be the start of the whole society’s change.”

The workers want to impress upon the public that the time is now to start making things happen. For those interested in embarking with others on a self-management venture, “we will stand by you,” they say.

“We will surely win, all together!”

The author would like to thank Anastasia at the Thessaloniki Solidarity Initiative for translating interview questions. He also thanks all of the workers at Vio.Me and everyone who supports them.

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