The election of SYRIZA, a leftist coalition party, in Greece, has understandably rocked European politics to its very foundation. It has inspired myriad reactions on the Left, ranging from unrestrained, and often uncritical, joy and adulation, to cynical mistrust of “reformism” and electoral politics as a means of transformation.
However, what is missing from these analyses is the important fact that while Greek politics is undoubtedly vital to the future of the country, it is not the only means by which the Greek working class and poor are building a future for themselves and their children. Rather, the last five years have inspired an entire solidarity movement organized to meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable in Greek society.
From co-operative cafes and kitchens, to the establishment of direct producer-consumer relations, the solidarity economy (“informal economy” to use the more traditional phraseology) has opened new horizons of possibility for ordinary Greek people. But are these possibilities merely temporary fixes that will evaporate like morning dew now that a leftist government is in power? This seems unlikely, as solidarity structures have entrenched themselves in the very fabric of the communities they serve.
However, the question remains: can the solidarity economy move beyond acting as a temporary solution, and instead become a true alternative to traditional capitalist production?
Cooperation, Mutual Aid and the Building of Community
The development of mutual aid networks, cooperatives, and a solidarity economy is no secret to most in Greece. Nor has it gone unnoticed by many leftists around the world who have looked to Greece as a model for non-capitalist economic organization in a time of austerity and privation. And yet, this phenomenon has been relegated to the periphery of our collective political horizon, as the struggle for political and state power has remained central in the thinking of most.
So, it should come as no surprise that even most leftists are painfully unaware of the numerous ways in which this sort of economic organization has developed. With the rallying cry of “None will be alone in the crisis,” local organizations began fulfilling many of the functions normally associated either with the state or, in the neoliberal capitalist environment of Europe in the 21st Century, increasingly the so called “free market.”
As Solidarity 4 All, an independent grassroots organization in Greece, noted:
The solidarity movement is now comprised of hundreds of self-organised collectives and initiatives…By trying initially to respond to the most sharp needs for survival and to the need for collective organization and starting from a specified field (e.g. health, food, education etc.), they gradually function as a social transformer and they extend their activities to other sectors. The main basis of these projects and ground for their activity is the neighbourhood and fundamental form of their function is the open assembly… It is by no accident that an important number of those active through these structures, are unemployed men and women, people who were found out of work (pensioners, pauperised small businessmen and lower middle-class) or workers in precarious labor relations. (P. 14-15)
This local, self-organization of the poor and unemployed is a startling example of the power inherent in this sort of solidarity economy. By transforming the depressed, despondent and economically discarded into both an economic and, inherently, a political power, ordinary Greek workers take their destiny out of the hands of the Greek bourgeoisie, not to mention the European financiers howling for the blood of the Greek working class and state.
This sort of economic organization has begun to touch nearly every aspect of the economic life of the marginalized. In regard to health care, a number of “social clinics” and “social pharmacies,” which cater to the health needs of the unemployed and uninsured, have been established. But the power of such grassroots institutions rests not in the individual clinic or pharmacy, but in the collective resources of larger networks incorporating many clinics, providing an abundance of medicines, vaccines, and equipment which might otherwise have gone to waste or languished on pharmacy shelves. In other words, the resources are being utilized more effectively, and more efficiently, than they ever could have been otherwise.
The “social kitchens” or “collective kitchens” have gone a long way to ensuring that unemployed and poor Greek people not only do not starve, but also have a way of connecting with their fellow working class and poor people through mutual aid networks. These can include everything from strike support to feeding the homeless and physically or mentally handicapped. Such kitchens provide both a tangible benefit in the form of feeding the hungry, but also a more abstract benefit: a rejuvenated feeling of self-worth and pride, two things often lost when one has their livelihood taken away.
In many ways a corollary to the kitchens is the “potato movement” or the “movement without middlemen,” a food security movement addressing the danger of hunger and rising food prices among the most vulnerable Greeks. As Solidarity 4 All noted:
Its practice is based in connecting directly the producers of agricultural produce with the consumers of the urban areas. The bypassing of mediators of the commercial circuits and of the supermarkets, gives the possibility to the producers to give their goods in better prices than those they would get from the merchants or the super-market and to the consumers to buy fresh products in prices much lower than those of the market. The movement also emphasises the enhancment [sic] of local production and for the local needs, posing in practice the demand of food sovereignty and of a decentralised agricultural development. (P. 16)
This attempt to connect food producers directly with those consumers most acutely affected by the depression is in many ways transformative as it essentially circumvents the entire notion of global food markets or, put more directly, removes the neoliberal capitalist imprint on food production and distribution. Instead of exploiting food insecurity and hunger globally through inegalitarian distribution based on commodity prices and profits, this localized food production system addresses two fundamental needs at once: employment and food security.
There is much more happening within the heterogeneous space of the solidarity economy which, perhaps more broadly, could also be called a solidarity society. Indeed, everything from “skills banks” and cultural centers, to the transformation of vacant lots and abandoned structures into community gardens and classrooms, has been taking place. These are exciting developments that have the potential to cushion the fall of Greek living standards and quality of life. However, there is another fundamental question that remains: can a solidarity economy meet other pressing needs? Can it expand beyond these spheres and into the realm of true industrial production?
The Revolution Will Not Be Two Dimensional
One of the central problems in Greece is that the economy has been dominated by a wealthy bourgeois oligarchy since the end of the Nazi occupation. Many of the symbolic moves by the new SYRIZA government, such as PM Tsipras’s visit to the Kaisariani memorial in honor of the anti-fascist heroes murdered by Nazis in 1944, have been an attempt to propagate the message that Greece is finally turning the page from its checkered past, and that the political transformation is, inherently, also an economic one.
But the question of industrial production remains. Specifically, how will Greece, a country still being bled by European financiers, and long since at the mercy of the Eurozone market, be able to address the issue of large scale production? And here, one is not solely concerned with mass production of consumer goods, though this issue too must be addressed, especially if Greece is forced out of the EU/euro system by German and European intransigence. Rather, basic economic activity essential for society must also be addressed in a sustainable way. For instance, construction of high quality, affordable housing is an absolute necessity in a depressed country that could find itself frozen out of the traditional market. Perhaps Greece could look east to China for a solution.
In January 2015, the little-known Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co. unveiled what is undoubtedly a landmark achievement in the development of the technology known as 3D printing, namely the construction of a five-storey apartment building entirely fabricated through 3D printing. Not only was the building produced in a fraction of the time and cost of traditional construction, it was done with “their exclusive 3D printing ‘ink,’ which is a mixture of recycled construction waste, glass fiber, steel, cement and special additives. According to [WinSun CEO] Ma, “waste from recycling construction and mine rest produces a lot of carbon emissions, but with 3D printing, the company has turned that waste into brand new building materials.”
The material benefits – especially for a country in crisis as Greece is – of this sort of breakthrough are not hard to imagine. Not only would it allow communities with this technology to address their own housing needs to alleviate problems such as homelessness and unemployment, but it would do it in a sustainable way, with minimal environmental impact as compared to traditional methods of building. Now, imagine for a moment, what a country could accomplish with dozens of such large-scale 3D printers: the possibilities are quite literally limitless.
Small scale 3D printing (“desktop 3D printing”) could also have a transformative impact on communities and the solidarity economy. Rather than being dependent on the major corporate vultures of the eurozone market, many traditionally imported consumer goods could be substituted with 3D printed equivalents. Whether mobile phone cases or furniture, surgical instruments or larger machine-tools, a surge in 3D printing, buttressed by the already flourishing solidarity networks embedded in communities, could transform Greece from a passive and subservient receiver of European goods, to an active producer capable of meeting many of its domestic needs, and perhaps also those of other countries. Rather than being solely dependent on tourism and the associated economic benefits, Greece could, quite literally, reinvent itself as a mecca of innovative design and anti-capitalist development.
One could point to many instances of Marx and other thinkers describing the importance of the tools of production, the means by which labor produces. It is a constant of leftist revolutionary theory that the seizure of the means of production is a prerequisite for any true workers’ revolution. While no one is suggesting that 3D printing alone can overturn capitalism (the notion itself is beyond ridiculous), it can point the way to a transformation in how we think about production. Moreover, it would pry loose the grip of the neoliberal financiers on the throat of Greece (and so many other poverty-stricken countries around the world), as they would no longer be able to entirely strangle development by controlling the purse-strings of credit and finance.
In effect, 3D printing on a large scale could “democratize” (to employ an overused term) production or, perhaps more correctly, de-monopolize it. This technology, coupled with profound socioeconomic changes such as can be seen with the solidarity economy in Greece, have the potential to transform our entire world.
With the election of SYRIZA, and the ascendance of an anti-austerity political economy, Greece has already shown the way in terms of political resistance to the neoliberal capitalist order. However, it also has the potential to show the way in terms of economic and social transformation. Perhaps this aspect, above all others, will be the lasting impact of these dark times in Greece.