A solidarity kitchen in Greece: the poster in the back reads “Free Food for All”. Photo: Marko Djurika
A slightly different version of this article (in Greek) appeared in this month’s Unfollow Magazine. Credit for the original idea and inspiration behind the piece goes to Bue Rübner Hansen.
As the Greek debt crisis enters its dramatic apotheosis — with an unprecedented default on the IMF last Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of anti-austerity protesters taking to the streets on Friday, and a historic referendum scheduled for Sunday — concerns are growing over the state of the Greek economy.
The decision by the European creditors and the European Central Bank to basically cut off Greece’s banking system from continued emergency support has forced the government to close all private banks and impose far-reaching capital controls. As a result, Greek companies can no longer pay foreign suppliers. Some pensioners are struggling to obtain their much-needed cash.*
Sunday’s referendum, for all its flaws and limitations, marks a triumph for democracy. Still, it won’t bring an immediate end to the turmoil. Whatever the outcome, tough times are ahead. After nearly six years of brutal austerity, the Greek economy is devastated while the “welfare state” remains anemic and dysfunctional. Unemployment and misery are rife. Needless to say, none of this will change overnight. Indeed, as the creditors intensify their vicious campaign of financial asphyxiation, things are likely to get significantly worse.
A rupture with endless austerity, debt servitude and the straitjacket of the single currency would certainly restore a degree of autonomy and improve Greece’s economic prospects in the long run. But it would also come at a very high immediate cost. Both the government and Greek society would need to be highly organized and well-prepared to weather the stormy transition it would entail.
It should therefore be emphasized that the referendum is not a panacea. A friend of a friend described it as a choice between “poverty with servitude” and “poverty with freedom.” Moreover, this choice has to be made under the intense pressure of the creditors’ financial blackmail and the media’s campaign of fear and outright lies. It is hard to imagine more adverse circumstances for the NO camp.
The problems are further compounded by the lack of clarity about the consequences of either choice. What will happen in case YES wins? Will the government resign? Will we see a return to an unelected technocracy? And what in case of a NO vote? Will Tsipras really continue negotiating in good faith with the creditors? Will the creditors even trust him to reach an agreement and carry out further reforms? Or will they force Greece out of the euro? These are all monumental questions — none of which have been properly answered.
All we know is this: over the past couple of years, the debate within Syriza on how to resolve the crisis has essentially revolved around two poles: the government’s original plan A — to end austerity within the eurozone — and the more radical alternative originally proposed by the party’s left faction, whose Plan B envisions a unilateral default and Grexit as a way out of the misery. We also know that the latter plan has gained more and more support from Syriza cadres (even those close to Tsipras) as the negotiations with creditors stalled.
The two plans always appeared to be diametrically opposed to one another. In truth, the strong dichotomy between them obscures a shared premise. Ultimately, both Plan A and Plan B revolve around the belief that, if only the government can succeed in executing its chosen top-down program, recovery will be swift and things will quickly go back to the way they were before.
This is a dangerous illusion. With or without Grexit, for the majority of Greeks (as for the majority of Europeans and Americans) there will be no going back to the halcyon days of credit-fueled consumerism. Both Plan A and Plan B — however successful either may be — will still be accompanied by future hardship and deprivation. Plan A would result in endless austerity, forever, while Plan B would produce an extremely painful short-term shock to the economy.
In the medium-term, debt cancellation and currency devaluation would likely have a positive effect on economic recovery and social well-being. Still, neither Greece’s dysfunctional state apparatus nor its uncompetitive economy will be able to fully restore the status quo ante, or even meet the needs and desires of the millions of workers, pensioners and unemployed youth who have been dispossessed and immiserated over the course of the crisis. Besides facing a structural crisis of its own, Greek capitalism will always be inserted into the European and world economy under highly disadvantageous terms.
Clearly, if the government and society were well-prepared, Plan B would be superior to Plan A. But merely advocating a rupture is far from enough. In fact, it would be particularly irresponsible if done without the proper preparations — and right now it doesn’t really look like Syriza is properly prepared. Where, then, should we be looking for further options and alternatives?
Undoubtedly, grassroots movements and solidarity initiatives will have a critical role to play as both the crisis and the struggle intensify. Without a fresh upsurge in self-organized popular mobilization in the streets, workplaces and communities, the prospects of positive change will remain grim.
In this respect, it is remarkable how rapidly the radical horizon has shrunk in recent years. During the mass mobilizations of 2010-’12, especially the Movement of the Squares in 2011, the political imagination was still brimming over with original ideas, practices and organizational forms — many of them centered on an anti-capitalist conception of the commons, defined by Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis as:
… autonomous spaces from which to reclaim control over our life and the conditions of our reproduction, and to provide resources on the basis of sharing and equal access; but also bases from which to counter the processes of enclosure and increasingly disentangle our lives from the market and the state.
While we have since seen a remarkable proliferation of such commons — think of solidarity kitchens, social clinics, self-managed workplaces, mutual aid networks, alternative currencies, and so on — the urgency of the negotiations and the preoccupation with the “high politics” of Grexit and debt relief has largely overshadowed the deeper questions raised in these grassroots initiatives: What about the day after? What kind of country do we really want to build together? Can capitalism still fulfill our needs and desires?
These are the questions that would be addressed by an anti-capitalist Plan C: a reinvigorated project of the commons and communal solidarity. In contrast to both Plan A and Plan B, Plan C would be a bottom-up project organized by local communities that would situate itself directly on the terrain of everyday life. Its main contributions would be threefold. First, through solidarity networks and communal support systems, it would enhance popular resilience by securing the means of social reproduction under conditions of extreme precarity.
Second, by creating new and strengthening existing organs of popular power, the commons would collectively act as bases for continued grassroots resistance to further austerity and dispossession. History has shown that, without powerful grassroots movements exerting pressure from below, even left governments are easily led astray by the siren call of domestic and international capital. To prevent this, the still relatively small and dispersed movement of commoners will have to become an organized force of political opposition.
Third, a project of the commons has revolutionary potential insofar as its protagonists manage to reclaim the means of production and reproduction; democratize workplaces, communities and existing political institutions; and contribute to a fundamental transformation of social relations from below. All of this is clearly still a far way off, but Plan C is precisely about cultivating this sense of perspective and direction — taking the struggle far beyond the stale dichotomies of state and market, euro and drachma.
Needless to say, Sunday’s referendum will mark a historic moment for Greece and for Europe. Only a proud and dignified NO can begin to liberate Greek society from the endless suffocation, blackmail and humiliation at the hands of the country’s creditors. But whatever the outcome of the plebiscite may be, the left should not limit its political imagination to the terms of a new bailout agreement or the denomination of the national currency.
Deal or no deal, euro or no euro, one thing is clear: a long fight still lies ahead. As the creditors’ assault intensifies, only a reinvigoration of the struggle from below can save beleaguered Greece — and turn it, once again, into a proud beacon of democracy and solidarity for the rest of the world.