Building new solidarities between movements: insurrectionary politics of food autonomy in the city of Athens
The question of rebellion/revolution is often posed in terms of the question, “what is to be done?” However, by so articulating any reflection-practice on radical political change, we are lead to consider revolution in terms of struggles between and for power. For what the question forces us to consider is what is to be done against those who hold power unjustly and what is to be done after power is conquered by the revolution. To so frame the matter though is to condemn all anti-capitalist politics to the logic of the very power that it seeks to destroy (with everything that this brings: presuppositions and demands of ideological consistency and purity, the need or desire for institutional, normative and legal compromise, the organisation of social life on the basis of law and obligation, and so on). This is the reef upon which all revolutions have been broken, trapped by the siren calls of sovereignty and the conviction that freedom depends upon sovereign control.
But what if revolution were instead to be thought through the question, “how should we be or live?” Such a question creates an ethical (the ethical as a way of life, desired and loved) space within which one’s life can be divorced from power, a space within which autonomous forms of life can be structured independently of the destructive obsession for power. In its place then emerges a politics of the concrete, a prefigurative politics that seeks to address needs and desires while simultaneously constructing a world of freedom.
As regards autonomous or anarchist politics, it frees it from ideological neurosis and practical paralysis, which is to say, irrelevance. It is not for the anarchist to organise the anarchist revolution exclusively with anarchists; it is not for the anarchist to struggle between the different types of anarchist thought and practice. What is necessary is an understanding of oppression and the expansion and intensification of ways of being, forms of life, incompatible with it.
On one interpretation, the “occupy” movements that began with this century (I am thinking of Argentina, but precedents can be found further back in time) sought not to replace one power with another, but to destitute power altogether. To quote from an older essay published with Autonomies:
“The multitudes in Tahrir, Sol, Syntagma, Taksim and elsewhere, withdrew from state authority not with the aim of making themselves into an opposing sovereignty, but to create forms of life beyond sovereignty. In these moments, the exception of the sovereign decision was suspended, identities already weakened were discarded and ways of being emerged that suppressed the divide between the disunited many and the constituted people. In the binding collective refusal of the anonymous many, a force without a name appeared, a paradoxical force born of weakness, the weakness of the politically non-existent who in retreating from sovereignty realise a form of politics in which the potential for permanent self-transformation is sustained at the heart collective self-creation.”
In continuity with this reading of recent political events and practice, we publish below an essay that was generously shared with us by its author, Inés Morales Bernardos, and that raises many of these same questions within the context of greece. (The essay was originally published with open Democracy 07/04/2017)
Insurrectionary politics of autonomy, such as food autonomy in Athens, is crucial for building new solidarities and emancipatory imaginaries within cities.
“Every town should have its agora, where all who are animated by a common passion can meet together”
The Evolution of the Cities, 1895, Élisée Reclus
The global tendency that we are witnessing, as Giorgio Agamben described, of “convergence of an absolutely liberal paradigm in the economy with an unprecedented and equally absolute paradigm of state and police control”, is leading to the re-emergence of a socio-spatial imaginary defined not so much by institutions and political parties, but by movements creating, in and through their practices, discourses and modes of action, new political, social and economic spaces.
Under these circumstances, and since the 2008 capitalist (debt) crisis, we have seen how the autonomy of the cities is being challenged and re-made by radical movements across the Southern European peripheries. In addition to the traditional economic, labour or more confrontational struggles, these radical movements are directly connecting with material and emotional conditions to organize and maintain life in cities; a process that it is embedded in both the contestation of what they perceive as an increasingly violent urban order imposed by state and capital and in the historical unsustainable modes of food production .
Following on this observation, we have explored the creative insurrectionist process released by the 2008 revolts in Athens. And more specifically, we have examined the convergences of the autonomous movement together with other radical movements, as performed and experienced in this city, in the reconstructing of food autonomy since 2008.
The autonomous food geography of the city of Athens: a new contested territory
“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds”
Graffiti in Parko Navarinou, Exarchia, 2017
The insurrectionary politics of autonomy “as involving a sensitivity to the fragility of what exists and to the different forms of natural, social and cultural life that should be preserved, along with a desire to radically modify other social forms” that Saul Newman introduced in his work about revolutionary fantasies and autonomous zones, expresses some of the meanings of the practice of autonomy developed in the city of Athens since the 2008 revolts.
Through the shared memories of the revolts and the everyday life of the city we came to understand that the current geography of the food autonomy of Athens is a complex and contested space. More precisely, it is a space that was expanded and reshaped since the streets were occupied in December 2008, after the assassination of Alexis Grigoropoulos and through the cooperation of heterogeneous radical movements.
“A completely different time and space from what we have experienced before was created. We felt we could intervene on the reality in a more direct form. We felt that we could solve the problems of the city”
Katerina, remembering 2008 December revolts, Exarchia, 2015
As Katerina shared, these revolts promoted a time and space that made them believe they could “solve the problems of the city”. What others expressed through their desire to “take back their lives in their hands” (Areti, Nikos, Michalis, Vaso, and many other rebels of December 2008). The “spirit of December” (Giorgos, Exarxeia, Athens, 2015) released passions and desires which gradually have been transformed in a creative re-appropriation of the city and the setting up of new autonomous spaces.
The persistently changing material and emotional needs that arose (e.g. outrage, unemployment, hunger) in this period of mobilisations and the answer of various radical movements to them have been shaping simultaneously their new political imaginaries and these new spaces.
In the spaces we have observed, life, and with it then, food production, is re-(self)-organized to facilitate gaining the conditions necessary to “take back our lives in our hands”, i.e, political autonomy from state and capital. Among them, we find community urban gardens, collective kitchens, food cooperatives, self-organized food banks and self-organized farmers markets.
The everyday life encountered in these spaces and the support of the existing self-organized structures of the traditional autonomous movementhave led to the reconfiguration of these movements and to the emergence of other, new radical movements. Moreover, it has resulted in the building of new “sporadic” ties among them and “more social” political imaginaries (Giorgos, Social Centre Nosotros; Thanos, Social Centre Eutopia, Athens, 2016).
In other words, the traditional autonomous movement allied itself with the “Koukolouris” rebels that met on the barricades during the 2008 revolts and who associated themselves with a more confrontational militancy. And after 2011, these were joined by the new uprising and occupation of Syntagma square, as well as with activists with more “hippie-like values” and socio-ecological concerns. These alliances resulted mainly in spreading the “seeds of the revolt” and the desire of autonomy all over the city.
More concrete and also spontaneous alliances have also resulted from relations with the radical trends of new, more specifically focused movements. In answering to increased rates of unemployment, they have come together with the radical trends of a new “social and solidarity economy movement” which has been built by establishing networks of “structures of solidarity”: with the new Greek trend of the “Back to the land movement”, built by the increasing numbers of the “educated young” urban unemployed moving to the countryside to farm in Greece since 2008; the “No middleman movement”, which has been built since 2012 by the cooperation among farmers and consumers in the cities to facilitate both the distribution and the consumption of food. These are movements and alliances that have brought together a great diversity of constituencies: from students to retired activist, the unemployed and civil servants, from women to men, migrants and refugees, consumers, farmers, old activists and new rebels.
The prefigurative politics (assembly based, horizontality, consensus decision-making) that are building these spaces and the relations of the movements have shaped the latter into a decentralised and rhizomatic cooperative structure. Furthermore, the prefigurative politics are perceived to be crucial to create the emerging new solidarities, trust and mutual aid relations, as well as enabling these movements to adapt themselves to the increased uncertainty and changing everyday life needs of the city and its neighbourhoods since 2008.
The performance of these relations and the geography of food autonomy been have been built in synchrony with the geography of the revolt. In this way, the geography of food autonomy has been expanding from the historically contested neighbourhood in the city centre (Exarcheia), through social centres, “stekia”, squats or community urban gardens, to various neighbourhoods (e.g. Petroupoli, Lambidona, Nikeias, Akademía Platonos, Zografou) and its political organizational structures and neighborhood assemblies.
And from these the movements have expanded to or reproduced themselves in other cities (e.g.Thessaloniki) and their surrounding countryside, through farming collectives. Through this processes of decentralisation and densification, they have been engaging the neighbourhoods and the collectives in their everyday organization and in the maintenance of life. Moreover, they are building new relations between new and traditional farmers and a broad range of consumers in the city.
The earlier existence of certain spaces in the neighbourhood of Exarcheia (social centres, squats and stekia from the autonomous scene and the historical cooperative Sporos [Seed]) and solidarities with movements from the southern peripheries of Latin America and Europe, have been crucial both to trigger the process and to sustain it.
Furthermore, the ongoing inspiration of the politics of autonomy and the strength of transnational solidarity of urban and rural movements such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, “Piqueteros, asambleístas”, and “fábricas recuperadas” of the 2001 uprising in Argentina, the Kurdish communities in Rojava, and European urban autonomous movements have also been fundamental.
Tensions in the everyday life of building new solidarites
A persistent re-configuration of these movements, their relations and spaces, has been taking place during these years, processes not without tension and conflict. Such phenomena can be understood, on the one hand, as resulting from the material and political difficulties in creating common spaces of struggle. And, on the other hand, as a consequence of their very awareness and creativity viz. a viz. the current social, economic and political realities that allowed them to adapt to changing material or emotional needs, as they have arisen (e.g. anger, unemployment, the food emergency).
As Alex shared with us, “the passion, and the individual “fantasies”, or political projects, are leading to constant fragmentations” (Exarchia, 2016). The radical features of these movements are also among the causes that generate tensions. Looking at certain spaces such food cooperatives or farmers markets, and the changing construction of their common ground, we have come to identify tensions due to the difficulties of attaining the material autonomy needed.
In addition to the collective needs of the movements, individual needs of the activists-affected, such as wage labour or incomes, have transformed some of these spaces from volunteer based to formal working cooperatives. While exploring the self-organized food banks, we identified tensions between their transformative dimension and the humanitarian one. A tension that can be found in the paths that construct solidarities and reject philanthropy, through the mutual or delegative relationships between “activist-agent of solidarity” and the “affected”, and the construction of these two different identities.
The political construction of the spaces and the movements that continue to keep to the “habitus” of hierarchical and delegated forms of organization and relation, maintaining informal hierarchies (leadership, vanguard group), is perceived, after various conversations and the observation of these spaces, to persistent competitive relations and divisions of the movements. The political socialization of many of the activist within the traditional political parties (Greek Communist Party (KKE), or Syriza) and the traditional trade unions is perceived as the main cause for maintaining these hierarchies.
The different rural and urban features of these movements can also create some tensions, due to their different constraints and sometimes different understandings of their common struggles and aims, that is, their different needs of organization, more loose relations and times, or different logistic, financial, and transportation.
The experienced instability within these movements and their alliances has also been due to their susceptibility to influence from the parliamentary political context. This was mainly observed between the second of the two 2012 Greek parliamentary elections, when the political party Syriza became the second largest and thus the official opposition party, and their acceptance of a new memorandum in 2015, now as the party of government. The place and role of delegated or representational authority has also been identified as source of tension the movements, because of their different relations and approaches to the many organisations related to Syriza, such as Solidarity for All created in 2012.
The increased control and destabilisation of these movements have also been the result of police repression and the traditional left parties’ control of their “spontaneous” insurrectionist features. The economical and material control implemented through the various memorandums since 2010 by the International Monetary Fund, European Union and the European Central Bank, and the resulting increased taxation on food goods and professional activities (farmers, working food cooperatives) render difficult more stable and fixed, recognised relations. Furthermore, the police repression has been perceived to create boundaries against stronger ties built on trust and mutual aid among the participants in the various movements.
The relations with the local political institutions have also been established in a top-down direction, through Solidarity for All and through some programs of the municipality of Athens, trying to establish food policies (i.e. urban agriculture, schools gardens). Some of the spaces or groups have sporadic relations with the local governments to re-negotiate the management of material resources such as water or electricity (e.g., the community urban garden Elleniko).
Since the last approval of the memorandum in 2015, and through the continuous material cuts, the few spaces of negotiations with political parties or NGOs have almost disappeared. Universities are the formal institutions that continue to maintain exchanges and co-operation with these spaces.
The city of Athens as an opportunity for new emancipatory scenarios
In the increasingly polarized and global city of Athens, we have perceived the reconstruction of urban food autonomy as an increased complex space where the collaboration of the autonomous movement with urban and rural heterogeneous movements has been possible, at a local level as well as worldwide (e.g., BioME (Thessaloniki, Greece), Zapatistas (Chiapas, México).
As result of the new food geography, new relationships based on cooperation, trust and mutual aid between farmers in the countryside and consumers in the city of Athens have arisen, re-wedding the city and the countryside and thus modifying the metabolism of the city. Furthermore, the multiple connections and collaboration between these radical movements, between the countryside and the city, at a local and global level, seems to influence positively the creation of stronger bonds within the movements.
Cities, and in this case, the city of Athens, are perceived as relational incubators for new emancipatory scenarios. But are the existence and the everyday life of the collective construction of autonomous spaces (e.g. community urban gardens, collective kitchens) through a prefigurative politics, adequate to create the stable ground for new cooperative relations and new emancipatory imaginaries.
As experienced during eight years in the city of Athens, the expansion and multiplication of these spaces and the everyday life encounters and politics that have emerged from them, have led those involved to work on the concrete (e.g. food emergency, unemployment) and in this way to gradually leave aside the political divergences between the different participants and movements that converge on them. Yet, at the same time, this convergence re-politicises the everyday by engaging the neighbourhoods and the collectives in the organisation and maintenance of life, of food production, and in this way broadening their transformative dimension.
It is important to notice that the focus of these movements on the everyday life dimension, together with the locally and globally persistent and changing forms of social control performed in the city of Athens (e.g. austerity, police repression) create tensions within the movements. But at the same time, they generate the occasion to create more resilient relationships based on trust and mutual aid.
The quality of these relationships, loose, sporadic, spontaneous, is a direct result of the malleability of the spaces created. The diverse discourses, subjectivities, constituencies, needs, engaged in these spaces and the aim of respecting this diversity is it’s the main cause. Something that is also important and positive from these kinds of relations and their adaptability is that it also allows the movements to create sporadic relations with local governments, in order to fulfill material needs, such as water or electricity necessary to maintain their spaces.
Based on these observations, we argue that there is a need to reconsider the quality of the relationships that render possible and sustain the cooperation of movements and that are able to build new emancipatory imaginaries within cities; relationships that also allow the opening up of new imaginaries to confront the socio-ecological limits of cities.
The “autonomous” movement is a term not well accepted by the movements in Athens. But it used in this work to refer to anarchists, anti-authoritarians, libertarian communists, autonomists, anti-fascists and other movements that are based on horizontal and self-organized political structures. In a call made from one of the collectives where the ethnographic work has been done, they addressed them as follows, “anarchist, communist, comrades, political groups, squats, stekia”.
This cooperative, divided nowadays in two different collectives, Svoura and Syn-allois was a local experimental space for “alternative and solidarity trade” built within the solidarity movement with Zapatista communities in Mexico.