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Greek Solidarity Co-ops: Disruption of Austerity beyond the Electoral Terrain

by Andreas Bieler on May 24, 2017
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On Thursday, 11 May 2017, George Kokkinidis, Leicester University, gave a seminar at the Nottingham Sumac Centre on the objectives and principles of Greek Solidarity Co-ops in the ongoing crisis. While Greece gave in to the restructuring demands by the European Union (EU) in the summer of 2015, George made clear that resistance and the search for alternatives on the ground is alive and well today. In this blog post, I will draw on George’s presentation in an assessment of the state of the Left and ongoing possibilities of resistance.

The state of the Left

An assessment of the chances of the Left to take state power around the world is down-heartening. There were great hopes for Latin America in the 2000s, when a decisive shift to the left took place during the so-called ‘pink tide’ of more and more centre-left and left governments. Today, however, these advances are being rolled back. Whether the ongoing unsettling of the Venezuelan experiment, the right-wing coup in Brazil against the workers’ party government of Dilma Rousseff, or the victory of the Right in the most recent elections in Argentina, past gains are being lost.

In Europe too, there had been cause for optimism in the 2000s. The first European Social Forum meeting of anti-neoliberal globalisation groups in Florence/Italy in November 2002 was characterised by a dynamism, which combined resistance to the impending war on Iraq with a criticism and challenge of neoliberal economics. ‘Another World, Another Europe’ seemed indeed to be possible, as I have outlined elsewhere here. By now, however, these hopes have evaporated. The European Social Forum is no longer active and any European level efforts of creating a mass movement against neoliberalism have not met with success. The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) is only one of the most recent examples, which has failed to attract support beyond a circle of well-known, but ultimately isolated intellectuals.

Instead, what we are confronted with is an electoral choice between a right-wing, xenophobic nationalist option and a neoliberal economic option, as it was visible in the recent French presidential elections and the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016. Globalisation has continued to fuel rising inequality and undermine people’s livelihoods, exactly as the Left predicted in the early 2000s, but it is the nationalist Right, which for many seems to offer an alternative way forward. Nevertheless, does the electoral failure of the Left imply that there is no progressive resistance, that there are no experiments of left alternatives?

Disruptive politics and the search for left alternatives

It would be wrong to dismiss the possibilities of the Left by simply pointing to the electoral arena. In an important article, Nikolai Huke, Mònica Clua-Losada and David Bailey contrast an emphasis on winning political power with a focus on disruption. ‘Whereas domination-focused accounts view resistance (somewhat melancholically) in terms of the capacity, or hope, for a Keynesian U-Turn and/or leftist government programmes, the disruption-oriented account we develop here makes visible passageways towards new forms of radical emancipatory action, collective self-organisation and an autonomous reorganisation of social reproduction’.

It is this kind of disruption-oriented activity that George Kokkinidis reported on in his presentation. Against the background of a dramatic economic crisis with unemployment of 25% in 2016, youth unemployment of more than 50%, a wage drop by 20% and severe cuts in public spending, about 3,391 alternative co-operatives have emerged in Greece by 2015. In his research, George has focused on those groups, which intend to provide a clear political alternative to the current  capitalist system, including amongst others Vio.Me, a building materials factory in Thessaloniki, Greece, which after bankruptcy was taken over by its workers, who re-started production in February 2013, as well as Pagaki, a café workers’ collective in Athens.

These initiatives have several key characteristics. First, as far as the organisation of work is concerned, there are no supervisors and no hierarchy in the work place. The emphasis is on horizontality. Work is regarded as a collective effort and every job is considered to be equally important and equally remunerated. Wage labour as such is rejected, every worker is part of the workers’ collective with the same rights in determining the operations of the company.

Second, the decision-making process is a reflection of the horizontal organisation. Key decisions are taken in general assemblies and based on consensus. This can be very time-consuming, but participants accept this as the process is also self-transformative. The focus is clearly on creating autonomous spaces.

While often small in themselves, there are increasingly efforts at building a network across Greece, George reported. There is a general shift towards a solidarity economy, in which these initiatives support each other in their struggles through solidarity funds and exchange of experiences. Thus, these efforts attempt to challenge capitalist relations through a different model of organising work and life. The emphasis is not on getting political power in elections, but on disrupting capitalist relations by demonstrating the feasibility of alternatives. Importantly, these initiatives do not only create new structures, but in turn they also support the emergence of a new morality, which is counterpoised to the utility maximising individualist of neoliberal economics.

It may well be through this kind of workers’ co-operatives, emerging in Greece and elsewhere, that the Left will be able to stem the increasing brutality of capitalist exploitation.

Relevant articles by George Kokkinidis include:

Kokkinidis, G. (2015) “Spaces of possibilities: Workers’ self-management in Greece”, Organization, 22(6): 847-871.

Kokkinidis, G. (2015) “Post-capitalist imaginaries: The case of workers’ cooperatives in Greece”, Journal of Management Inquiry, 24(4):429-432.

Kokkinidis, G. (2012) “In search of workplace democracy”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 32(3/4): 233-256.

This post was first published on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring

Andreas Bieler

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).

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