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Greeks Bearing Gifts

by Jonathan Dawson

The timing could not have been more perfect.  The date for my workshop on solidarity-based responses to austerity in the delightful Kalikalos retreat centre in Pellion, Greece, that was set fully nine months ago, coincided exactly with the peak of the stand-off between the Syriza government and the troika of creditor agencies.  The convergence of timing, venue and subject matter could hardly have been bettered.

With events unfolding with such speed and volatility in Athens, it was at times difficult to stay on the subject.  However, this too proved paradoxically to be part of the curriculum, for at the heart of our learning journey was an enquiry into whether recent developments within the social and solidarity economy may have the potential to transform the organisation of social, economic and political life – in Greece……………and beyond.  The challenge facing us, in other words, was whether it was possible ‘join up the dots’ differently, to reveal a whole other story and emerging reality from that broadcast daily on the evening news channels.

There is certainly a huge wave of heroic voluntarism emerging in response to austerity, especially in the worst affected European countries, Greece and Spain.  This manifests in many professionals (doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, teachers and so on) opening up their work-spaces for free consultations after hours for the growing number of people unable to pay for basic services. 

It also manifests in the donation, gathering and cooking of food – in which the volunteers and those too poor to pay for food work as equals at all levels, thus creating solidarity and removing any stigma attached to ‘being needy’.  It manifests in such initiatives as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (in English, Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) which has prevented the eviction of tens of thousands of those unable to make mortgage payments through solidarity activism in squatting empty buildings and persuading banks to negotiate affordable debt repayment schedules with debtors.

Heroic activism indeed, that is palpably building muscles of solidarity.  However, on their own, such actions are probably better understood as stop-gap responses to austerity rather than a remaking of the social economy.  Much else is happening, however, out of the glare of the cameras focused on the high-level political negotiations and demonstrations in Syntagma Square,

Channel 4 journalist, Paul Mason, reporting from Greece  found that, ‘when a grassroots NGO mapped the country’s food co-ops, alternative producers, parallel currencies and local exchange systems they found more than 70 substantive projects and hundreds of smaller initiatives ranging from squats to carpools to free kindergartens.’ 

Meanwhile, in Spain there is a wave of cooperative activity in response to austerity, driven partly by desperation and need and partly by revulsion especially among the young at the amoral and immoral nature of the currently dominant economic regime.  This takes its most vibrant and disruptive form in the shape of the Catalan Integral Cooperative, that facilitates and coordinates hundreds of mutually supporting social and economic initiatives – mutual financing, workers’ and housing cooperatives, complementary currencies, ‘liquid’, direct democratic governance structures and much else besides. 

Meanwhile, innovation hubs and maker spaces are proliferating, especially in Barcelona and Madrid.  These build on the capacity of information technology to enable people to self-organise at least to some degree independently of the market and the state.  Austerity appears to be incubating and fast-tracking the economic transition described by senior advisor to the EU, Jeremy Rifkin  ‘Hundreds of millions of people are already transferring bits and pieces of their lives from capitalist markets to the emerging global collaborative commons……The great economic paradigm shift has begun’. 

This is certainly a conclusion shared by Paul Mason who suggests we are already well into the transition to ‘Post-Capitalism’, the title of his new book: ‘New forms of ownership, new forms of lending, new legal contracts: a whole business subculture has emerged over the past 10 years’, which has the potential to displace capitalism as we know it.

Certainly, by the end of our time together in Kalikalos, a week of joining up the dots differently left us all feeling uplifted, empowered and already sensing that a quite different form of society and economy is emerging out of the now cramped chrysalis of the old.

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Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator, currently working as Head of Economics at Schumacher College in Devon. Until recently a long-term resident at the Findhorn ecovillage and a former President of the Global Ecovillage Network, he has around 20 years experience as a researcher, author, consultant and project manager in the field of small enterprise development in Africa and South Asia.

Jonathan is the principal author of the Gaia Education sustainable economy curriculum is external), drawn from best practice within ecovillages worldwide, that has been endorsed by UNITAR and adopted by UNESCO as a valuable contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. He teaches this curriculum at universities, ecovillages and community centres in Brazil, Spain and Scotland. He has also adopted the curriculum to virtual format and teaches it through the Open University of Catalunya in Barcelona.

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