The Transformative Effects of Crisis: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Economic Cultures in Spain and Greece

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By adopting an action research methodology, I inquire into how far the responses of citizens to the global economic crisis of 2008 lead to the emergence of a new economic culture in Spain and Greece. Since Southern European states follow austerity directives and do not offer sufficient support for their population, communities organise to provide for each other through cooperation and solidarity. Decentralised political and economic movements are building structures to challenge and replace established centralised institutions. As people drop out of the formal economy, they find material relief, ideological support and a sense of belonging in networks of alternative economic practices.


My heartfelt gratitude goes to all the individuals whose support has made this thesis possible. Without the generous scholarships from the Schumacher College Bursary Fund and the German National Merit Foundation (“Studienstiftung”), I would not have been able to attend the MA program at Schumacher College of which this dissertation is a final output. I want to thank my supervisor Jonathan Dawson for his continuous support, enthusiastic interest into my research and numerous introductions to people in the field. Special thanks to all the people who gave me lifts and let me stay in their homes during my travels through Southern Europe: Aldo, the Iranian trio in Turin, the community of Torri Superiore, Luca Adrian and the other drivers who kindly took me from Italy to Spain, Mirko & Marisol whose lovely company I could enjoy for a month during my literature review, Olga who introduced me to Madrid, Yara, Eleni, Jennifer who was a great help already before I arrived in Greece, Katerina, and Pip whose house I could use as a writing retreat in Brighton. Many thanks also to all the activists and inspiring practitioners of the new economic culture who took their time to talk with me – your input is the backbone of this paper. Lots of love to Gesa-habibti who gave me company and confidence during the writing process. Finally, much love of course to my family who gives me all the support I need to venture out in the world and a reason to always come back.

List of Tables and Figures

  • Figure 1: Universe of alternative economic practices in Catalonia
  • Table 1: Data on alternative economic practices of Barcelona's population sample
  • Table 2: Comparison of practice intensity by socio-demographic categories


The economic crisis of 2008 which was triggered by the bursting of the US American housing bubble took its toll on the societies of Southern Europe. The speculation and trading of fictitious financial instruments led ultimately to a tangible humanitarian crisis (Red Cross, 2013). Spain’s unemployment rates peaked in 2013 at 26.2% across the whole population and 55.5% for people under 25 (Eurostat, 2014). These numbers are only eclipsed by Greece, the first developed country to be downgraded to “emerging market” status (Stoukas & El Madany, 2013). There, the unemployment rates were 27.3% and 58.3% respectively in 2013 (Eurostat, 2014), with the average Greek salary being cut by 40% five years into the crisis (Georgiopoulos, 2013). Combined with harsh cuts in state support, this translates directly into increased rates of homelessness, poverty and social exclusion (Red Cross, 2013). Many of the young and mobile leave their countries in search of brighter prospects elsewhere – 500,000 emigrated from Spain in 2012 alone (Burgen, 2013). In Greece, 800,000 lack access to primary healthcare (Cooper, 2014) and there are reports of children fainting in school due to malnutrition (Katerini, 2012). The economic situation puts many in the position of having literally to decide between either buying foods or paying the electricity bill and keeping the lights on (Pascalidou, 2012). The discussion and analysis that follows over the course of this thesis must be read against the backdrop of this social devastation and human suffering.

As much human tragedy as is incorporated in these numbers, crises like this are an integral part of the capitalist system and essential for its reproduction (Harvey, 2014). Its systemic instabilities are confronted and reconfigured in the course of such crises while much gets torn down and laid waste to make way for the new. What the new is is often unclear as Antonio Gramsci (1971) explained: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Crises shake people’s mental conceptions of the world and their place within it as unconscious assumptions that previously were held to be universally true, suddenly fail to make meaning of the unfolding events. Institutions that were always assumed to be rock-solid and that helped to govern one’s life suddenly disintegrate and leave a void of insecurity until there are new concepts and institutions that give a meaningful framework to the personal world of subjective experience. That phase of transition between the disintegration of the old and the creation of the new – which may happen in different chronological orders, simultaneously and over longer timeframes – holds opportunities and dangers in the course of shifting power relations. This moment of turmoil is often regarded as a ‘window of opportunity’ to push forward an agenda that has been long crafted but was never able to be implemented because the antagonistic forces are too strong in times of stability.

At the moment, it seems like neoliberal actors are successful in their cause of forcing structural adjustment programs that have been long tested by the Washington Consensus in the global periphery on the crisis-struck societies of Southern Europe. In the name of fiscal stabilisation, comprehensive austerity programs prescribed by the “Troika” of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund are dismantling the welfare state through cuts in public services and employment. This means that people not only lose their jobs, but the social safety net to fall back on and to provide for at least the basic necessities of life is at the same time severely reduced. The old, the young and the infirm thus join the freshly unemployed in the ranks of the victims of the crisis. Amidst this social distress, public assets and common goods are identified to being privatised in a fire-sale that is said to even eclipse the disastrous privatisation programs in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in sheer size and aggressiveness (Roos, 2014). Public assets and utilities like railroad networks and water utilities are planned to be given over to private corporations for a fraction of their actual value. Cultural and ecological commons like the Greek coastline and ancient temples are considered to be sold off for private development. This “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2004) is benefiting the global capital class by transferring common goods into their hands for private development. On the other hand, representatives of the traditional left like Marxist geographer David Harvey (2014) lament that the political left does not have much to hold up against the power of capital which is currently expressed in the form of neoliberal policies. After trade unions and traditional left wing parties have been beaten down by thirty years of ideological and political assault from the right, what remains of the radical left now operates largely outside of any institutional or organised oppositional channels, focusing on small-scale actions and local activism, so he argues (ibid.). As the autonomist, anarchist and localist groups seek to change the world without taking power, an increasingly consolidated plutocratic capitalist class remains unchallenged in its ability to dominate the world without constraint, so it seems.

Underneath this grim image of the world, however, an entirely different state of affairs seems to emerge from the rubble of the crisis. An entire generation of young people who are well-educated, literate in digital communication technology and disconnected from the formal labour market sees itself confronted with a society that seems to hold no prospects for them beside a life in precarity (Mason, 2012). Unencumbered from prior struggles for political participation and workers’ rights, this group that is equipped with the skills to become tomorrow’s elite is the reason “why it’s kicking off everywhere” (Mason, 2013). Without any central organisation or leadership to follow, a mass movement of people who felt indignant about the self-serving politics of the political and economic elite came together in 2011 to occupy the main squares of Spain and Greece. Distrustful of leadership and representative democracy as such, the Spanish indignados movement and the Greek movement of Syntagma square started to engage in radically democratic prefigurative politics through direct participation in assemblies. Once the occupations of the main squares were evicted, the assemblies dispersed into different chapters and moved into the neighbourhoods where they are less visible but better able to organise themselves to address local issues.

Besides grassroots activism in the realm of politics, also the economic sphere is a space for constructive change on the ground. As the formal economy starts failing on increasingly many people, a parallel economy begins to develop that is founded on principles of social and ecological values, participation and cooperation. Decentralised networks of workers’ cooperatives, community currencies, alternative exchange networks, community supported agriculture, cooperative financial institutions and solidarity initiatives to provide food, housing and healthcare for those abandoned by the welfare state are only some of the creations of people who imagine and practise a new economy. Since the onset of the crisis, a surge in such alternative economic projects could be observed and members of the middleclass who in other circumstances might have dismissed such unorthodox economic practices search in these economic countercultures ways to get through the crisis. Indeed, the participants of this new economy differ in their motivations from the meeting of sheer need which proves easier in these solidarity networks to ideologically motivated groups that are convinced of the unethical and instable basis of the mainstream economy. For many, these new economic practices provide not least of all conceptual stability, something to believe in, in a time where everything seems uncertain and formerly trusted institutions like banks and governments stand all of a sudden on shaky grounds.

In the midst of a crisis it is hard to see where the exit might be. Crises are not singular events. While they have their obvious triggers, the tectonic shifts they represent take many years to work out. It is often unclear whether one is still in the crisis itself or in its aftermath as the crisis metamorphoses and gives rise to new dynamics. In this sense, the aim of my dissertation is to explore the cultural economic shifts as they are currently unfolding. In order to do so, I recognise the need to immerse myself in the field where these shifts are taking place. Therefore, I have spent six weeks in Spain and Greece researching the new economic cultures that emerge as a response to the crisis. It is not my aim to come up with a unified statement of what the conclusive effects of the crisis are which is an impossible task as we are still in the midst of unfolding events. I much more attempt to tease out some of the changes that are currently unfolding in the form of shifts of economic cultures; in particular, a strengthening of so-called “alternative” or “new economics”. However, the effects of the economic crisis on economic culture are complex, contradictory and in dialectic struggle. The crisis represents a political and cultural hegemony in crisis. As much as there are grassroots movements to detach themselves from political and economic practice as commonly known, there are intensified efforts by the current centralised powers to uphold the old order of a political and economic elite.

In order adequately assess the economic cultural shifts resulting from the crisis, I regard it as indispensable to include the related political movement in my analysis. The political movements of 15M in Spain and the occupation of Syntagma square in Greece are relevant for the countries’ economic cultural shifts for a number of reasons. First, they overlap largely in terms of social networks; most people who are part of the new economics networks have also been part in the political movement. Second, both movements’ central concern is to create viable alternatives to an undesirable status quo in the political and economic sphere. It is generally accepted that one cannot come about without the other. Third, both movements adopt decentralised, transparent and participative models and processes as their prefigurative structures. Fourth, while the economic initiatives are inherently political as they are concerned with ownership, participation and social change, the political movements are deeply concerned about economics as they emerged as a response to the dismantling of the welfare state, protest centrally about the prioritisation of banks over civil population and have a strong focus on the commons in their projects and organisation.

The research question guiding my thesis is: “To what extent do the responses to the economic crisis in Spain and Greece resemble a move towards a new economic culture that is characterized by cooperation, solidarity and community-orientation?”. To gather data for this research question, I have engaged in field research in Spain and Greece adopting a methodology of “action research” which I lay out in the following section. Chapter 1 provides an overview and discussion of the literature pertinent to my research and a theoretical grounding how to interpret the impact of economic crises on culture. Chapter 2 presents my research findings in Spain where I discuss a few select examples of signs for a new economic culture that I personally came across during my research. In Chapter 3, I discuss my research findings in Greece and compare and contrast my impressions of the development of a new economic culture in Greece to that of Spain. The last section forms the conclusion of this dissertation and offers a short outlook how the findings might play out in the years to come.


In order to address my research question, I recognise the necessity to immerse myself in the economies most affected by the economic crisis and directly engage with the alternative economic networks that emerge as a response to this on-going event. As Parker J Palmer (2009) would phrase it, I attempt to not make the common mistake of creating a false distinction between the knower (myself) and the known (my object of study). This would be committing the ‘objectivist fallacy’ of studying my object of inquiry “at arm’s length” (ibid.), as if it had nothing to do with me. Instead, my research plan is to move within the dynamics that I want to analyse rather than trying to observe them from a distance. In accordance with ‘standpoint theory’ (Haraway, 1988), I recognise that as a researcher my analysis is always inevitably influenced by my subjective lens through which I view the world and social position that impacts my worldview and life-experiences. To keep my scientific integrity, it is thus crucial to make my personal standpoint explicit by writing from my personal point of view, rather than a disembodied “all-seeing gaze from nowhere” (ibid.) that pretends to be an objective account of a universal truth ‘out there’. While I consciously seek out alternative economic initiatives, projects and networks that are products of the creative responses to the on-going economic crisis in Southern Europe, my account of them is necessarily a limited one and by no means a comprehensive overview of the state of affairs in these affected economies or their particular sub-sectors. This paper is rather the product of a personal inquiry which took form after several weeks of travel and field research, including many formal and informal conversations that shaped the opinions expressed on the following pages. My personal experiences are complemented by and contrasted to empirical studies and theoretical analyses found in the wider academic literature pertaining my field. My aspiration is that this combination of taking personal experience serious and positioning it in the established network of academic knowledge leads to a scientifically valid account that leaves my personal voice intact.

Within the five months of the dissertation period, I travelled through and spent time in seven different European countries (England, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Belgium and Germany). Madrid, Barcelona and Athens are the places I explicitly travelled to in order do field research (six weeks in total in these three cities). However, even the time spent in the other countries contributes to my dissertation as the crisis is a topic in all of these countries, even if the perspective and discourse of it is different in each country. Being exposed to the different perceptions and narratives about the economic crisis brings in a wider European perspective into my dissertation that approaches the shared events from different angles. I noticed that although I went to many places without the explicit purpose to conduct research, my mind was so attuned to my research questions that I still had many experiences and conversations that contributed to my research. In the spirit of collapsing the distinction between the knower and the known, my mode of travelling was in itself often a research experience. In both aspects of transport and accommodation, I relied largely on individual cases of solidarity (in the case of hitchhiking when random passersby offered to give me a lift) and established communities of sharing and collaboration. In the latter case I became a member of ‘blablacar’ (a ride-sharing platform) and ‘couchsurfing’ (a platform in which members offer to host other members in their homes for free). Although these platforms did not emerge as a response to the economic crisis, it is part of the sharing culture which plays a crucial part in my research. Although this mode of travelling was quite demanding in terms of constantly having to arrange a place to sleep through personal interaction rather than just booking a hotel room, it also had the effect of enriching me with random encounters of people who were able to give me valuable inputs about my research, refer me to people and projects they knew of and tell me about important aspects of their culture. Often, one person would refer me to another, either for a place to stay, a project to visit or a person who I could talk to about my research.

A lot of my research was conducted on this basis of referral and personal networks. In the initial phase, my supervisor Jonathan Dawson introduced me to a number of his contacts who are active in the countries that I travelled through. They were either relevant persons themselves for me to talk to or could refer me to people and projects in their region. Tapping into this network of Schumacher College affiliates and Jonathan’s personal friends and colleagues proved to be an invaluable resource which led to many interesting encounters during my field trip. It also helped me to prepare for my field trip by establishing first contacts with people in the field while still being at Schumacher College in Devon. At the same time, I prepared myself for the field trip beforehand by engaging in literature review that would give context to my personal research. Besides, I read many blog-articles and watched video documentaries made by members of alternative economic networks and activists that were part of the 2011 occupations in Spain and Greece. These resources were the first impressions that were able to give me a ‘feel’ for the situation on the ground. As such reports tend to be documentations of the diversity of projects in the local alternative economies, they provided me with a good initial overview of the activity in the field. Once I started meeting the first people in their local environment and talked to them about initiatives in their locality, they often referred me to other projects and individuals that might be of interest to me. This way, I moved through the networks of alternative economic practices in Spain and Greece, partially relying on information I could find online and arrangements that I have made before starting the field trip and partially improvising where to go next as I uncovered new information on the ground. The latter aspect gave an emergent nature to my research, since my next steps would only disclose themselves to me as my research unfolded in the field. In total, I conducted nineteen semi-structured interviews, eleven of which took place in Spain and eight in Greece. I tried to diversify my sample by interviewing individuals involved in different kinds of economic and political activities and members of a variety of projects to obtain a broad overview of the new emerging economic cultures from different angles. I selected many research participants due to their broad overview as they connected various projects and networks with each other by organising festivals for that purpose, having done research themselves in that field or working for organisations that function as umbrella networks for the new economy in their locality. I furthermore interviewed members of cooperatives, time banks, local exchange trading schemes, self-sufficiency projects, solidarity networks, community centres, squatter movements, economic disobedience offices, newly emerging political parties and decentralised political movements. Besides, I engaged in countless informal conversations related to my research with people who I happened to meet on the way.

This emergent way of researching is typical for the cluster of ideas and practices that form the research methodology of ‘action research’ (Dick, 2000). I believe that my way of researching can be best described as action research for several reasons. First, like the essential purpose of action research (Reason & Bradbury, 2001), the purpose of my research is to address issues of concern to individuals and communities in the everyday conduct of their lives. In my particular case, the question is how individuals and communities can cope with the difficulties posed through a faltering formal economy and how they can use the instability of their economic environment to bring about a qualitatively different kind of economy. The latter point is connected to the wider purpose of action research, namely to contribute to the increased well-being of humanity and to a more equitable and sustainable relationship with the wider ecology of the planet of which we are an intrinsic part (Reason, 2006). As my research aims to both understand the shift that is currently taking place in the European economies hit hardest by the economic crisis and to assist the practice of working towards a social and economic transition, my research activity is concerned with both theory and practice. The desire to ground my research in real-life experience and to move within the field that I research is reflected in action research’s maxim to base itself on the phenomenology of everyday experience and to draw on an extended epistemology that integrates theory and practice (Ladkin, 2004). I believe that this way of researching enriches me with the tacit knowledge of experiential knowing that can only be obtained through live encounter, empathy and resonance with the people and places I study (Heron, 1996).

One of the most defining features of action research is its cyclic nature. Similar steps of planning, acting and reflecting occur in cycles (after reflecting starts again planning, etc) (Dick, 2000). This was also the case in my research as I went through cycles of initial planning where I wanted to go, which projects to visit, which people to talk to, what questions to ask, etc. Then, I would act and execute these plans while often having to adapt to the situations I am confronted with in the actual site. As action research is responsive by nature (Dick, 2000), it enabled me to improvise and respond to the emerging needs of the situation. Afterwards, I would reflect on my observations and make summaries of what I have experienced and initial notes of what I found remarkable or what analyses and hypotheses would spring to mind immediately. In this context, my regular journaling practice proved to be an invaluable resource to me as I wrote down every day what struck me about the experiences I made. The journaling also helped me in the writing stage as I could go back to the particular instances and review the thoughts I had at that time. At some points throughout this thesis I highlight where I quote from my journal. The ‘acting’ part of the cycle consisted mostly of observing (space, exhibited information and people) and talking to stakeholders of the respective project about the project, their involvement, my research and their take on it. I always had a rough idea of what kind of questions I wanted to ask and sometimes the conversation took the form of a semi-structured interview where we stayed closely to the prepared questions, and at other times (which happened in most of the cases) we entered into a conversation which was more dynamic and sometimes took unexpected turns that revealed information that I did not think of before (Feldman, 1999). Oftentimes, the planning stage repeated itself in the action and reflection phase as participants told me about places and projects that I should visit. The critical reflection about my observations happened both in private and in shared conversations with other participants. Through my observations and reflections I generated working hypotheses which I later tried to challenge by myself and in conversations with other participants. My hypotheses became thus further refined in successive cycles of inquiry as I tried to disprove them through literature review, personal reflection and in conversation with participants. This method draws on Karl Popper’s (1959) scientific method of “falsificationism” and is an important aspect of the action research methodology (Dick, 2000). The later cycles were thus influenced by prior cycles and provided me with opportunities to discuss hypotheses, interpretations and analyses with my research participants. The research process thus proved to be participative as participants were both actively shaping my research through referrals and inputs to my hypotheses and analyses. They were also generally eager to hear about the experiences of projects in other countries and what my interpretation of the development of the last years is. I always hoped to ensure that my research participants were learning as much from our interaction as I did and that I was able to assist in their quest for social action (Lincoln, 1995).

Finally, Peter Reason and Judi Marshall (2001) argue in their chapter about “working with graduate students” in the Handbook on Action Research that researchers often choose (consciously or unconsciously) research topics that will re-stimulate old patterns of distress and invite a renewed attention to restrictive patterns. Reason and Marshall suggest further that the choice of research process topic and inquiry process is a bid for personal development by moving into the anxiety of old distress. This seems to hold true in my case as the research process proved to be challenging for me on a personal and emotional level. The fact that I travelled through seven countries in a handful of months illustrates very vividly my general lifestyle of living a highly transient life. This feeling of uprootedness led to a personal realisation that this transient lifestyle produces a lot of anxiety within me and that I feel the strong need to settle down somewhere to invest myself in a place and a stable community. In the course of my dissertation research the longing for a place-based and occupational identity became more explicit for me and I believe that this is an important step on my path of personal development. '


The Metamorphosis of the Current Economic Crisis

When in 2008 the financial markets collapsed, first in the US and then in Europe, the repercussions of what initially started as the bursting of a housing bubble went far beyond the financial markets alone (Castells, Caraca, & Cardoso, 2012). As the lending of credit froze up, industries and businesses entered the crisis as they had to stall many of their projects. This led to an employment crisis as industries reacted with mass lay-offs to the inaccessibility of credit. This in turn led to a demand crisis which in combination with the credit-crisis caused many small- and medium-sized enterprises to shrink or close which further worsened the employment crisis. As the current model of capitalism is finance driven, governments created massive bail-out packages of unprecedented size not to support their struggling population or the ‘real’ economy, but to liquidate the banks’ debts and get the financial sector on its feet again. As this was done with public funds, the bail-out of the banks ultimately led to a fiscal crisis. When European governments started to fail their financial obligations in the eurozone and threatened to go bankrupt, they would be bailed out through emergency funds administered by the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission (often called “the Troika” in Southern Europe). Attached to these bail-out packages were conditions that severely eroded national sovereignty and prescribed harsh austerity measures that created wide-spread suffering in the affected populations. Institutionalised solidarity in form of the welfare state started to be severely eroded, racism and xenophobia were on the rise in many countries and national media were scapegoating other countries for mismanaging their economies and living off other societies’ tax-money (Rantanen, 2012). Citizens withdrew their trust and money from political and financial institutions and societies entered into a crisis of political legitimacy which together with the economic crisis threatened to destabilise society at large (Judt, 2010; Engelen et al., 2011).

It becomes evident that the current ‘economic’ crisis is multi-dimensional and can be understood only in a transdisciplinary perspective (Castells et al., 2012). A pure economic, sociological, cultural or political analysis would not be able to explain the crisis in its many forms and would do justice to only one of its many aspects. What is fascinating about this crisis is its evolutionary character and its transformative dynamics (Thompson, 2012). The financial crisis created an economic crisis which turned into an institutional crisis that transformed into a social and cultural crisis. What was initially a financial crisis in 2007/2008, the credit crunch, has become a political crisis because governments have become directly involved in sorting out the crisis and therefore the burden has been shifted on states and governments. It is also a social crisis because governments have to fulfil the demands of private investors and in order to do that they have to clamp down on public spending and have to try to raise taxes. And this impinges directly on the lives of millions of ordinary citizens who feel that their life conditions are being threatened (Thompson, 2011). They respond through resentment and anger: a common sentiment is that “we are being asked to sort out a crisis caused by others. That is, the bankers have caused a crisis and now we have to pick up the bill.” One effect is that people do not trust their governments anymore and have the feeling that they only look out for the need of private capital and not for the need of ordinary people. So there is a widespread distrust of anything that government and institutions do. When the crisis cuts into their lives, they do not have any instruments because they do not trust their leaders that have the role to protect them and bring them out of the crisis. While mistrust of governments is hardly anything new in much of Southern Europe, most people knew how to navigate through governmental requirements like tax declarations, use public services and otherwise stay out of the realm of politics. The crisis upset this stable relation as suddenly politics and ‘the economy’ which usually seemed far removed from people’s everyday lives directly cut into their living conditions without people knowing how to react to these new circumstances. This leaves many in a state of cultural uncertainty where formerly firmly established institutions like banks or the state are called into question and people do not know anymore how to navigate through the public realm and which institutions to rely on.

This tendency of crises to shift spheres in advanced capitalist societies has been analysed by Juergen Habermas (1988) in his book Legitimation Crisis. Habermas distinguishes two types of crises that arise in context of socio-economic lives: “system crisis” and “identity crisis”. In a system crisis, the system – a self-regulating order of rational action regulated by certain mediating mechanisms (e.g. money) – faces breakdown of system integration. This happens when the self-regulating mechanisms of a system break down (e.g. the credit markets), the medium for coordinating actions fails to fulfil its role (credit), and the system seizes up. An identity crisis, by contrast, has to do with the breakdown of social integration: it arises when members of a society become aware of a major disruption and feel that their own lives or “collective identity” is in some way threatened. Not all system crises give rise to an identity crisis, but some do, and Habermas concerns himself with the question under what conditions system crises become identity crises. His argument is that a crisis originating in the economic sphere can be displaced into the political sphere in the form of a “rationality crisis”. A political system is in a rationality crisis when it is unable to cope with the conflicting demands that are placed on it; for example the demand to provide an extensive array of welfare services on the one hand, and the demand to implement comprehensive austerity measures on the other hand. Such a rationality crisis can transform into a “legitimation crisis” when there is a withdrawal of legitimation on the part of the public and the political system is unable to reproduce itself without resorting to force or violence. A legitimation crisis is not another form of a system crisis, but rather an identity crisis which is mostly characterised through a loss of trust and pervasive sense of disillusionment. These are the conditions we can observe in Southern Europe for the last years: governments unable to cope with the rationality crisis between the demands of their populations and the demands of the Troika to cut spending. The same governments are in a deep legitimation crisis as they face widespread protests from their population to which they respond with coercive force and increasingly repressive anti-demonstration laws. All of this originated and simultaneously keeps on playing out in the economic sphere. “The logic of crisis displacement” that Habermas writes about can thus be observed as a metamorphosis of crises in Southern Europe where an economic crisis morphs into an identity crisis while continuing to be and not losing its force in the economic sphere.

Crisis: Meaning and Origins

The etymology of the word ‘crisis’ tells a lot about the characteristics of such an event. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Crisis comes from the Greek word kerein, meaning to separate or cut, to make fixed, settled (Williams, 2012). The earliest registered use of the word, dating back to the 1500s, is in relation to medical and also astrological events, which were believed to be closely related. In this context, crisis describes “the point in the progress of a disease when an important development or change takes place which is decisive of recovery or death; the turning-point of a disease for better or for worse” (OED, 2014). Crisis is defined in contrast to ongoing progress – initially progress of an illness, and by the seventeenth century, “of anything” (Williams, 2012). A crisis can be understood in two ways. First, as an obstacle to be overcome, a bump in the road of progress that that needs to be dealt with in order to return to the “normal” state of affairs. Alternatively, a crisis can be understood as the convulsion in the transition from one system to another, as a deciding phase in a change of systems. Media and governments universally frame the current crisis in the first sense, as a temporary turbulence which needs to be addressed through technical fixes in the current system. Every response is geared towards the reinstallment of a functional pre-crisis system. As we live in a growth-dependent economic system, the central question of the mass-media and policy-makers is “how do we get the economy to grow again?”. In contrast, people who are critical of the current economic system and work towards structural change tend to conceptualise the crisis in the second way, namely, as a moment that marks the transition into a new system. Long-term critics and grassroots activists often feel that their views are being validated through the crisis, as the economic system proves to be inherently unstable and governments look out only for the needs of the banking sector. People on the ground thus need to rely on each other and take matters in their own hands to save themselves and each other through the crisis. Many decide that it is time to change how the society works and push for political and economic change. The former takes shape in occupations, demonstrations and practices of direct democracy while the latter can be found in the establishment of and participation in alternative economic networks. Both are prefigurative in the sense that the movements embody the values people want to see in politics and the economy. On a small scale in the individual initiatives, they are thus already practising the changes they want to bring about in society at large. The political and economic ideas that people advocate in these movements are not necessarily new and many have been practising them already for years before the crisis. It has been argued that severe downturns tend to accelerate deep economic shifts that are already under way which is why these ideas that have been around for a while suddenly gain traction through the crisis (Williams, 2012).

Edgar Morin (1976, 1984) who advocated in the mid-1970s the development of the scientific study of the crisis as such (“crisology”) suggested that a crisis can be an event that both reveals and has an effect. It reveals what usually remains invisible; it forces us to see things that we are usually unwilling to confront. The crisis reveals aspects that are inherent to reality and are not merely accidents; it constitutes a moment of truth. In the current case, it can be said that the crisis reveals unbridled capitalism, in particular financial capitalism, in all its brutality and its extreme injustice (Wieviorka, 2012). Above all, it reveals the dynamics of debt which structure our global economy to a large extend while at the same time destabilising it and stripping it of resilience. It is interesting to observe that in this context the Bank of England published for the first time a report that openly states that money is created ex nihilo as loans by private banks (Graeber, 2014). The crisis thus reveals threatening dynamics that have been going on long before 2008. As an event that has an effect, Morin considers that a crisis sets in motion not only forces of decomposition, disorganisation and destruction, but also forces of transformation (Morin, 1976, 1984). In these cases it is also a critical point in a process that includes dimensions of construction, innovation, and invention. The focus of my dissertation is the transformational dynamics of alternative economic practices that this particular crisis fuels and set in motion. Continuing the idea that a crisis both “reveals” and “has an effect”, Edgar Morin invites us to admit that the crisis demonstrates that what a matter of course was is in fact a source of difficulties and presents problems: what worked had its limits, its drawbacks, and its inadequacies. The crisis therefore constitutes an incentive to invent something new; but an incentive that is imperative as the system that previously helped us structure our lives became deeply dysfunctional and cannot further be relied on.

Crisis as Opportunity

Crises offer the opportunity to implement policies that lead to profound political and economic changes on the fast track as societies are in turmoil and unable to organise themselves against these implementations. Naomi Klein (2007) explains in her book, “The Shock Doctrine”, how proponents of neoliberalism unable to convince people by means of argument, use situations of shock such as coups d’état, dictatorships or natural disasters to proliferate neoliberal policies. These entail a stripping of the welfare state and general public services as well as the privatisation of public assets. Rather than “free economies” going hand in hand with democratic societies, as it often tends to be represented, the “liberalisation” of economies historically depended on the shocking of populations through extreme state violence and terror or the seizing of opportunities that had an equally traumatising and paralysing effect on civil society. Naomi Klein shows through a rich array of case studies of the last 50 years how neoliberal policies are incompatible with constitutional democracy if no repressive measures are taken against the own population. Neoliberalism was tested first as an experiment in Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile where the population was held in check through widespread torture and disappearances. After the experiment was repeated in other military dictatorships like the Argentinean junta, Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain became the first Western democracy that adopted neoliberal policies. After initially dismissing neoliberalism as “incompatible with constitutional democracy”, she created domestic conditions that enabled her to push forward with the neoliberal agenda at home. These conditions were created through the Falkland War abroad and a violent suppression of unions at home. In Thatcher’s Great Britain, downsizing of the welfare state and far-reaching privatisation programs came along with the curtailment of labour and demonstration rights and an increase in repressive measures. Such developments can also be observed in Spain and Greece today.

In direct resemblance to Thatcher’s TINA (“There is no alternative”) narrative, the media and politicians of both Spain and Greece adopt a discourse of “we have lived beyond our means and now we have to cut back, there is nothing we can do about it, we have to cut social services and privatise in the name of fiscal balancing” (Reich, 2013). One of the main objectives of the Shock Doctrine, as explained by Klein (2007), is to sweep away autonomous narratives and inoculate people with fear to diverge from the prescribed plan of action; in other words, to create an experiential understanding that there really is no alternative to what the central powers say and do. Similarly, David Graeber interprets neoliberalism less as an economic program than a political program “designed to produce hopelessness and kill any future alternatives” (Graeber & Solnit, 2012). It is thus telling that the Greek mass media create horror scenarios of what happens if the congress does not pass Troika’s austerity memoranda. “Economic experts” literally tell the Greek people on national TV that “there will be chaos. Greece will become a Third World Country. The supermarket shelves will soon be empty. There will be ration coupons” (Chatzistefanou & Kitidi, 2012). Similarly, a special “Citizen Security Law” is crafted in Spain to quell the new forms of citizen protests and politics that defy the austerity programs, create autonomous narratives and form the Spanish indignado movement (Fernandez-Savater & Martin, 2014). These anti-protest laws take such repressive measures as criminalizing passive resistance, uploading police violence on Youtube or Tweeting about a protest which can be punishable by fines as high as 600,000€ (The Guardian, 2013). Members of the indignado movement identified the objective of these laws as an attempt “to proscribe politics by criminalizing it, and withdrawing anything other than politics by politicians from circulation” (Fernandez-Savater & Martin, 2014). It is thus directly aimed at the citizenry’s capability to create their own narratives and to make sense of the events around them without having to rely on the information propagated by the political elite and the mass media.

While civil society is educated towards learned helplessness, a psychological state in which there is no more perceived capability to effect changes on the personal environment and complete submission to any external changes that are inflicted on the person, comprehensive privatisation programs transform public goods into private wealth (Soy Publica, 2014). Before the privatisation program in Greece could begin, however, the necessary governmental positions needed to be staffed by the appropriate personnel favourable to the plans. When former Prime Minister George Papandreou stepped down from his post in 2011 due to vehement popular opposition to the conditions of the Troika’s bailout plan, he made way for the former Vice President of the European Central Bank, Lucas Papademos, to lead the new interim-government until elections in 2012 (The Guardian, 2011). Papademos then staffed governmental positions with people from the private Greek Bank Eurobank which made negotiations with the Troika essentially into an interbank deal (Chatzistefanou & Kitidi, 2012). It is important to note that this interim government had no democratic legitimacy while passing comprehensive austerity and privatisation bills that would shape the country’s future for years to come. In the light of the massive vocal opposition to the neoliberal policies passed, this interim government can be viewed as a direct cancellation of democracy where sovereignty is given to experts from the banking sector. One Greek citizen summarizes the feeling of the time in the Greek documentary Catastroika: “The political system we have now in Greece resembles that of a junta. It is a banker’s junta with no more popular legitimation than the 1967 junta” (ibid.).

In order to facilitate a speedy privatisation process, the Greek privatisation fund “Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund” (commonly known under the Greek acronym TAIPED) has been founded to undertake the most extensive privatisation program ever implemented in an EU country (Mavroudi, 2013). The stated mission of the private fund is “to restrict governmental intervention in the privatisation process” (TAIPED, 2014). Public assets ranging from islands to public utility companies and motorways are handed over in escrow to the fund for it to be sold off to private bidders. A special law prohibits assets once handed over to be given back to the state, and the Greek public sector has legally withdrawn from any financial claim over revenues which are committed to go towards debt-service (Mavroudi, 2013). Only two out of the six board members are approved by a parliamentary committee and there are a range of international experts and observers from the Troika advising the fund. Critical observers argue that the Greek privatisation process resembles that of occupied countries where external agents come to the country, run the sell-off of the country’s assets, while the costs of the whole operation are carried by the local population whereas the profits which are expected to amount to 50 billion Euros go to the creditors (Chatzistefanou & Kitidi, 2012). It is a large scale transfer of public wealth into private property outside of any democratic control.

As in other privatisation cases, the value of the public assets are vastly underestimated and therefore sold far below actual value (Klein, 2007). To take an example, the old Hellenikon airport has been estimated by independent pre-crisis valuations to be worth $6.8 billion (Baboulias, 2014). Recently, however, it has been sold to the private entity of Lamda Development for $1.2 billion who as the sole bidder for the site has been exempted “from any tax, duty or fee, including income tax in respect of any form of income derived from its business, of transfer tax for any reason, [or] capital accumulation tax” (The Press Project, 2014). To make matters worse, the Greek newspaper To Vima calculated that the Greek state will have to make at least another $3.4 billion in administrative and infrastructural expenses before it can deliver the property to its new owner (Roos, 2014). The Greek state thus accumulates further public debt by subsidizing the multi-billionnaire Latsis family through this purchase while poverty-inducing fees and taxes are imposed on ordinary citizens who survive on less than 500 Euros per month. This is but one example to show how the privatisation process is first of all a transfer of public wealth to the capital class and not necessarily helping in fiscal balancing.

Crisis as Community Builder

Crises do not only cause material hardship and an opportunity for the powerful to privatise public wealth, but they can also spur the fast building of communities and a sense of solidarity between those who are affected by it. Rebecca Solnit (2009) provides in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster a rich array of case studies where people came together as a response to natural disasters in order to help each other through the difficult times. From earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City to floods in New Orleans and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, what Solnit found time and again was that in these times of external disruptions to social life, people who usually lived individuated lives suddenly came together for cooperative disaster relief. On the ground, people were there for each other, helping their neighbours and fellow citizens who they mostly did not know, and people reported a great sense of belonging and solidarity. At the same time, individuals respond emotionally in surprising ways: rather than being overwhelmed by fear and confusion, they report an intense joy of working together for a greater cause, and of getting intimate with people instantly who lived in their vicinity for years without ever having personally interacted with them. Furthermore, as external structures and institutions break down and individuals respond to them in cooperation with others, they start to feel in control of their own lives again; they feel to have more power and agency than in their uninterrupted everyday lives. Solnit describes this spirit of mutual aid always in great contrast to the response of the central powers – governments – who often militarise disaster zones expecting people to behave in savage Hobbesian ways as “the social order” is expected to break down through the external havoc. The only way the prevailing social order breaks down however, is in the sense that people stop relying on external institutions and start taking responsibility for their own lives by interacting in spontaneously emerging decentralised networks for dispersed decision making. Solnit recognises how threatening disasters are for political elites as power is being devolved to people on the ground as they are the first responders who assemble impromptu kitchens and networks to rebuild their neighbourhoods. She argues that centralised powers are structurally incapable of dealing with such situations and that “only the dispersed force of countless people making countless decision is adequate to a major crisis” (Solnit, 2009, p. 305).

My hypothesis is that economic crises like the one we are currently living through have a similar effect on people as the account Rebecca Solnit (2009) provides of natural disasters. As great parts of the population lose their employment and some even their home, and they feel they cannot turn to the state for help, they start to rely on each other again. In such times of widespread shared economic distress, people begin to build networks of solidarity and mutual aid. As hierarchical institutions fail and cannot further be relied on, people build their own decentralised networks of provision and decision-making on the ground. This can take the form of widespread social movements or collaborative economic projects. As the formal economy breaks down, people start building their own parallel economy on the ground based on values they view should be embodied in economic interactions. The question is though whether these alternative economic networks persist longer than the spontaneous reactions of disaster relief which vanish again as their environment is rebuilt and many think only warmly back to it as an episode they once lived through. If these new economic networks are built for the purpose of social transformation rather than surviving through the times of a dysfunctional formal economy, then they can lead through a genuinely different economic culture that continues to flourish even outside the times of crisis. Either way, through the convergence of various ecological crises that can be expected to seriously disrupt the economic system in a not too distant future, the experience of having built a grassroots economy increases the resilience of these local communities who are better prepared for the crises still to come. The more these alternative structures are developed, the less hard will be the transition to a new economy when we are forced to. For this, it is important to strengthen a new economic culture now that relies on cooperation, mutual aid and solidarity within ecological limits.

Beyond the Crisis: The Emergence of Alternative Economic Practices

Economies are inherently cultural. The way things are produced, distributed and consumed is strongly shaped through cultural norms and practices (Zelizer, 2011). When there is a systemic crisis, this indicates also a cultural crisis: the existence of certain values as the guiding principles of human behaviour that are non-sustainable (Aitken, 2007; Akerloff & Shiller, 2010). Thus, the transition towards a new sustainable economy based on social and environmental values is strongly dependent on a fundamental cultural change if we are not to wait on external resource pressures that force us in that direction (Nolan, 2009). It may very well be that we are currently in such a period of cultural transition. Since culture is a material practice, it should be possible to observe signs of new proto-cultural forms in the spontaneous adaptation of peoples’ lives to the constraints and opportunities arising from the crisis. This dissertation investigates new economic practices as an indication of such a cultural transition.

The financial crisis has been brought about through a combination of deregulation and individualism as a way of life which manifested in corporate managers focused on their own short-term profits as the guiding principle of their increasingly risky decisions (Tett, 2009; Zaloom, 2006). The “me first” culture is a key-ingredient of business management, manifested in the self-interested, rational, utility-maximising “homo economicus” (Sennett, 2006; Moran, 2009). This culture can be designated as “networked self-interest” (Cardoso & Jacobetty, 2012). On the other hand, across the world, there are movements of protesters that condemn this “me-first” culture in economic and political networks of power and the results it has brought about. Gustavo Cardoso and Pedro Jacobetty (2012) research the culture of these oppositional movements and argue that although we live in a network society under network individualism, an underlying cultural shift is taking place towards the adoption of a paradigm less centred on self-interest and more on the ability to adopt common interests and belong to a group that shares objectives within a given network. Such a cultural transition is fuelled by a change in values and belief in cooperation, free sharing, transparency, and open source production. Cardoso and Jacobetty identify these traits in the political and economic movements for social change and term them “cultures of networked belonging”. A description that I find very appropriate as a sense of belonging is one of the most valuable features that these networks offer to their participants. The sense of belonging to a wider movement, contributing to a bigger cause, to be looked after and to be able to care for other people are some of the most valuable psychological support mechanisms that save its participants through the time of crisis. This has always been the case with catastrophes as Rebecca Solnit (2009) makes abundantly clear in her book A Paradise Made in Hell, but the difference with the support systems that flourish in this particular crisis is that they are created to stay on afterwards and continue to provide these benefits as they embody exactly the social change that people are aiming for. As one writing on a wall in Madrid puts it: “Nothing would be worse than getting back to ‘normal’” (Biliris, 2012).

The crisis creates a profound cultural challenge for many as it throws them into an identity crisis as consumers (Chatzidakis, 2014). Since the crisis leads to a severe drop in income for many people who are also not able anymore to consume on the basis of credit as they used to for the last decade, large parts of the Southern European population find themselves in a position where they cannot consume as much as they used to and would like to. Some try desperately to revive consumer fantasies by visiting gifting bazaars or paying small deposits in stores to reserve items, pretending not to know that it is no longer possible for them to return and buy them (ibid.). Others try to find fulfilment in something else than consumption and in order to do so need to change their values and generate from within a new culture in order to overcome consumerism (Castells, Caraca & Cardoso, 2012). Since new values do not generate in a vacuum, this non-consumerist culture may only grow on the basis of actual social practices that exist in societies around the world, often first enacted by drop-outs of the current economy because of their rejection of what they consider to be a destructive way of life (ibid.). The rise of a new economic culture may thus result from the historical convergence between a cultural vanguard searching for a different way of life, and the disoriented masses of ex-consumers who no longer have the opportunity to consume anything but themselves – “people who have nothing to lose but their cancelled credit cards” (ibid., p. 12). In this light, they need to make the shift Erich Fromm (1976) advocated almost 40 years ago “from having to being”. In the context of the crisis, the identity of an affected person framed through “having” is likely to be that of a “defective and disqualified consumer” for whom “non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled” (Bauman, 2011). To create a dignified identity in this new context, it thus remains the frame of “being” which places greater emphasis on a person’s relationships, belonging and processes someone is involved in (Fromm, 1976). The alternative economic practices that currently proliferate in Southern Europe’s crisis-ridden societies offer exactly this kind of identity-creation through practical affiliation.

A Catalan research group, including the eminent sociologist Manuel Castells, conducted an empirical research project to study the universe of conscious alternative economic practices in Catalonia (Conill et al., 2012). On basis of seventy filmed interviews of individuals involved in such networks and organisations, the research group created the documentary film “Homage to Catalonia II” which subsequently was used to stimulate debate in eight focus groups. From this qualitative research, a questionnaire was created which was used to conduct 800 interviews with a statistically representative sample of the population of Barcelona. The survey tried to measure the extent of diffusion of each one of the identified alternative economic practices in society at large, and determine the factors inducing or restraining the diffusion of these practices during the economic crisis. To be sure, economic activities that do not fit within the pattern structured by the rules of the capitalist market permeate throughout the entire society, and society only functions because everybody performs every day countless acts of generosity that defy market logic (Graeber, 2011). In some cases, however, there is a deliberate attempt to connect these practices to an alternative vision of how social interaction and especially economic activities should be organised (Conill et al., 2012). The research team attempts to map the diffusion of these conscious non-capitalist practices in Catalonia and has categorised the diverse activities in a typology that is displayed in Figure 1.

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Figure 2: Universe of alternative economic practices in Catalonia (Conill et al., 2012, p.214)

The researchers have found that alternative economic practices have grown considerably since the onset of the crisis, but are due to their methodological setup – a one-time survey and not a longitudinal study – not able to quantify this growth (Conill et al., 2012). Nonetheless, one remarkable quantitative finding is that 97% of the surveyed people have engaged in some kind of non-capitalist economic practice since the start of the crisis 2008. The fact that virtually every participant of the representative sample of Barcelona’s population is engaged to some degree with these practices shows that there is a strong resonance between a conscious alternative economic culture and the culture of a mainstream society shaken by the economic crisis. While everybody, regardless in how intensely they are involved in alternative economic practices, is fully aware of the severity of the economic crisis, people differ widely in their perception and evaluation of the crisis. The first group, which the research team terms “culturally transformative” feels reaffirmed in their analysis and rejection of a consumerist lifestyle and feels vindicated to have set up an alternative way of life before the crisis hit. They position themselves ideologically and aim for social change that treats the root causes of the crisis rather than adapting to its effects. For the second group, who the researchers term “alternative practitioners”, the crisis has shaken their beliefs and their understanding of life. It affects everything they used to do or think, so that adapting to the new environment is difficult and confusing. In order to get by in these hard times, they change their practices: they consume less, they share and barter, they participate in solidarity networks and a number of other practices that help them to deal with the economic unpredictability in which they currently find themselves, but often without knowing exactly why, how and for what kind of future. While the practice of the first group is mostly value-driven, the motivation of the second group to engage with such alternative economic practices tends to be to meet their needs in a new way as old patterns do not suffice anymore. While the culturally transformatives had anticipated the crisis, the alternative practitioners are reacting only now and are learning by doing, slowly discovering a new world of alternative economic practices through gradual involvement. In contrast, the third group that the researchers term “culturally adapted” are unable or unwilling to accept the new circumstances, are waiting, enduring the hard times, and hoping for the best, which is often vocalised as a return to the ‘normal’ pre-crisis conditions. The research team speculates that as the crisis deepens, the shift from being culturally adapted to becoming alternative practitioners may be one of the most decisive trends in ongoing social change (Conill et al., 2012).

The research team has identified 26 practices which they grouped in three categories: self-sufficiency, altruistic and exchange and cooperation (Conill et al., 2012). Table 1 depicts the percentage of the total population that has engaged in each of these practices since the beginning of the crisis in 2008 until the research was conducted in 2011.

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Table 2: Data on alternative economic practices of Barcelona's population sample (Conill et al., 2012, p.232)

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Table 1 (continued): Data on alternative economic practices of Barcelona's population sample (Conill et al., 2012, p.233)

Furthermore, they made a statistical analysis of the intensity of engagement along the lines of socio-demographic categories which is displayed in Table 2. While the mean of the total population is to engage in 6.29 of the 26 identified practices, the intensity of engagement with these alternative economic practices varies along the lines of age, gender, occupation, marital status, residential status and income. While some findings confirm widely held assumptions, such as the most common practitioners are aged 18-49 and often highly educated, other findings are rather surprising, like that the highest income brackets perform the most number of practices. A final finding – which has not been displayed visually – is that people whose employment has suffered engage in the greatest number of practices among those affected by the crisis – 7.4 on average. Personally, I would interpret the absolute numbers of “non-capitalist practices” people are consciously engaged in with caution. While the statistical analysis is certainly valuable research that depicts the widespread involvement with economic practices outside of the market, and sheds some light on the proliferation of individual practices and distinctions of involvement along socio-demographic lines, it is merely a first step to approach the question the research team has set out to investigate. In order to appropriately address the question of an increase of such practices since the crisis, a longitudinal research setup would need to be conducted in order to compare different points in time and how the involvement with these practices changes over time as the overall economic circumstances worsen or improve. Furthermore, the finite list of 26 alternative economic practices is necessary for a quantitative analysis, but seems somewhat arbitrary to me as there are many more practices that could qualify for such a list, and some items on the list – like using free software or performing manual work at home – can easily be practiced without having to be consciously identified as an alternative economic practice.

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Table 3: Comparison of practice intensity by socio-demographic categories (Conill et al., 2012, p.238f)

Cultural Hegemony and the Third Industrial Revolution

In order to contextualise the cultural shift of economic behaviour, it is worthwhile to look to Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) concept of ‘cultural hegemony’. Gramsci argues that the grand societal narratives, clusters of beliefs and cultural norms that people unconsciously take for granted and regard as “common sense” is in fact the dominant ideology imposed by the ruling class. These views and norms constitute the cultural hegemony to which people have consented if they have not been forced to do so through coercive means. We can observe through the widespread protests in Southern Europe that the ruling power’s degree of consensual control – that is that individuals voluntarily assimilate the worldview of the dominant group – is waning. As this type of social control does not suffice anymore, the governmental forces use coercive control through state violence and repressive laws to uphold their cultural hegemony; a sign that their hegemonic leadership is fractured. At the same time, the political and economic grassroots movements that have been occupying public squares and creating alternative economic networks are building their own cultural hegemony. That is, they disseminate values, norms and behaviours based on cooperation, participation, transparency, solidarity and community-mindedness. Every act of solidarity, every cooperative project is part of what Gramsci terms the “war of position” in the construction of hegemony. Each of our daily actions, according to Gramsci, holds an implicit vision or philosophy of the world. The defining feature of the war of position is the affirmation and development of a new vision of the world. Thus, rather than a frontal attack on the social order, the oppositional forces construct first their own cultural hegemony to slowly leak power away from the old vision to finally displace it. The prefigurative politics and economics practiced by the new grassroots movements are thus developing a new definition of reality, and the “revolution” is not won through a concentrated accumulation of forces, but rather through an indirect diffuse pressure that slowly builds new cultural norms and behaviours (Fernandez-Savater, 2013a).

This understanding and strategy of social change is perfectly expressed through the big 15M banner that read “Vamos despacio porque vamos lejos.”: “We go slow because we go far” (Castells, 2011). The understanding is that this is a big beginning and nothing has to be taken for granted; the economic or the electoral systems are not eternal. Things can be changed by adopting a different cultural viewpoint and acting on that view together with like-minded peers. This movement is for many an antidote against that crisis of meaning that people experience who previously felt firmly embedded in the old cultural hegemony of consumerism and now lack the tools to make sense of their world as their worldview is disintegrating. The latter group is exactly what Gramsci describes with this quote: “The crisis consists of the fact that the old is dying while the new cannot be born” (quoted in Dawson, 2014). The population of disillusioned ex-consumers are bereaved of their old lifestyles while they struggle to adopt a new one. In contrast to Gramsci’s quote, however, the argument of my thesis is that the new is already in the process of being born. The political and economic grassroots movements of my research are so to say in labour to give birth to a new economic culture. By proliferating their practices, letting their networks grow and making them accessible to more people, they offer something new to hold on to for the disillusioned masses that cannot follow the old worldview anymore but have not found a new one yet. I thus wholeheartedly agree with my supervisor Jonathan Dawson (2014) that we need not to theorize about a new story to displace the old one, because the new story exists already and only needs to be strengthened through practice.

There is also a technological argument to be made for the emergence of a new economic culture. Jeremy Rifkin (2014) argues that with the advent of the internet and diffused renewable energies, we are about to enter a new communication/energy matrix which ushers in a paradigm shift from capitalist markets to collaborative commons. While the economic system which we now call “capitalism” has resulted out of the first and second industrial revolution in the nineteenth and twentieth century, the collaborative commons – an economic paradigm based on dispersed production, peer-to-peer distribution and free access due to near zero marginal costs of production – will be brought about through what Rifkin terms the “Third Industrial Revolution”. The first and second industrial revolution were brought about through the new energy regimes of fossil fuels (first coal and then oil), and the communication systems of first print and telegraph, and later telephone, radio and television networks. The energy sources themselves were centralised as they are found only in certain places and require high capital investment to be extracted and processed. Similarly, the centralised communication systems needed immense capital investment to be installed and were most efficiently operated through a top-down command structure. These circumstances required giant vertically-integrated, centralised corporations that could ensure sufficient economies of scale to guarantee a return on the huge initial investment of developing the communications- and energy-infrastructure.

The third industrial revolution that Rifkin (2014) sees coming is the dispersed communication model of the internet which manages distributed renewable energies and decentralised production and distribution networks. In contrast to the old mass media which are centralised one-to-all communication models, the internet is a dispersed all-to-all communication tool which requires near zero marginal cost for any new unit of communication or production of digital content. Similarly, Rifkin expects renewable energies to become markedly cheaper over the next years which enables individual households and communities to generate their own energy that can be managed and distributed over an intelligent “Energy Internet” infrastructure. The marginal costs of production for goods and services will gravitate towards zero through technologies like 3D-printing which enables manufacturing at household scale and the free sharing of blueprints across the internet, free online education where the marginal cost of each additional student is close to zero, and the technological enabling of the sharing economy which changes the economic regime from property to access. As everybody can freely produce and share goods and services, Rifkin expects corporate profits to dry up, property rights to weaken and the current economy of scarcity to give way to a new economy of abundance. This new economy – which already exists at the margins of the current capitalist market economy – can be described as the “collaborative commons” as it is characterised through collaborative peer-to-peer production and governance of shared information, energy, goods and services. Along with this new economic regime comes a shift in economic cultures from the competitive mindset of the capitalist market to the collaborative spirit of the commons (Rifkin, 2014).

Rifkin (2014) makes a compelling case for how technologies influence economic cultures and acknowledges the struggle that is currently being fought between the two competing paradigms. On the one hand we have the vertically integrated centralised corporations who sit firmly established at the politico-economic power-centres, and on the other hand we have new economic movements engaging in cooperative production, technologically enabled community currencies that ease the dependence on national currencies, and peer-to-peer networks governing and producing for material and immaterial commons. While it is tempting to view the new technologies as catalysts for a new economic culture, I would be cautious not to fall in the trap of “technological determinism” (see e.g. Smith & Marx, 1994). The idea that a society’s technology determines its political, social, economic, and cultural forms is widespread, yet scholars of the field of “Science and Technology Studies” show in their historical analyses that reality is more complex than that (see e.g. Sismondo, 2010). Although technology certainly has an influence on economic cultures, a particular culture also influences the way technologies are being developed and used. Thus, while the internet certainly empowers distributed peer-to-peer production, it also strengthens the corporate sector through increased interconnectivity and hyper-mobile capital movements. Whether technologies like the internet remain open and free for everybody depends largely on political struggles around issues like “network neutrality” – the question whether internet service providers are allowed to discriminate between data, artificially degrade some services or explicitly filter out content (see e.g. Wikipedia, 2014a; Rifkin, 2014, chapter 12). While Rifkin’s observed technological developments may indeed have profound implications for an enabling of economic cultures to work for the collaborative commons, it is equally important to build the cultural hegemony of such an economic culture so that the technologies are indeed used in the way Rifkin envisions the “Third Industrial Revolution”. Rifkin (2014) acknowledges this in his account and adequately interprets “the struggle to define and control the intelligent infrastructure” (chapter 12) as a battle of paradigms between the “Second Industrial Revolution telecom giants” (p. 198) who strive to enclose the common infrastructure and force a centralised command and control governance model on it to boost their profit margins, and the end users who are determined to keep the internet an open commons to enable the development of a new economic paradigm of peer-to-peer production with zero marginal costs.

Chapter 2: SPAIN

The four weeks that I spent in Spain researching new economic projects, alternative political movements and other signs for a shift in economic cultures brought me in contact with a diverse range of fascinating ideas, actors and practices. Some of them I expected due to my preparatory research, and some took me by surprise in their approach, innovativeness, outreach and intensity. This section consists of a selection of organisations, movements and practices that I encountered during my time in Barcelona and Madrid in May/June 2014. Where appropriate, I refer to the organisations’ websites or external articles and videos that describe their practices. Much information presented in this section has been gathered in personal interviews however, and is therefore not referenced.

La Feria de la Economia Social y Solidaria – Madrid

I was lucky enough that my stay in Madrid coincided with “La Feria de la Economia Social y Solidaria – Madrid”, a trade fair and convention of the local social and solidarity economy (La Feria, 2014). This two-day event took place for the second time with the first one being held the year before in 2013. The event offered an interesting crosscut between intellectual debates and presentations, a “social market” that offered sustainably produced local goods and a trade fair in which over 100 organisations related to the Madrilenian social and solidarity economy presented themselves and established connections between each other. For my research purposes, this event proved to be a lucky coincidence as it visualised the diversity of Madrid’s new economy in one focal space. The exhibited organisations ranged from producer and service cooperatives of all sorts to alternative financial institutions, local currency and umbrella networks, research and advocacy groups, fablabs, community projects, and solidarity initiatives.

First of all, I was struck by the diversity of cooperatives which is certainly due to Spain’s historically strong cooperative sector, as for example in contrast to Greece where such a sector and organisational culture needs to be built nearly from scratch. Besides the traditional producers’ cooperatives I find especially remarkable that also the modern 21st century knowledge and service economy begins to “cooperatise”. Examples of such a new kind of innovative cooperatives range from a juridical lawyer’s network that specialises in work and consultancy for the alternative economy and social movements like 15M, over design, communication and market research cooperatives, to a network of therapists who combine psychological and philosophical insights to counsel their clients through these challenging times of change. What I find especially relevant in the current ‘crisis-context’ are the many examples of groups of unemployed individuals who form a cooperative together to offer such services as commercial cleaning, printing, gardening, house and bike repairs, elderly and nursing care, craftsmanship and building maintenance collectively. These cooperatives mostly offer a range of services in a particular sector like building maintenance collectively to have a bigger public image and more appeal to enterprises as an organisation. The groups consist mostly of four to eight individuals and told me that they would take on more people if there was enough work, but they often struggle already to keep their current members sufficiently occupied. Still, it is a good example of how people group together in a crisis to help themselves and each other as they collectively have a higher capacity to “surf the crisis” (Cardoso & Jacobetty, 2012).

The supportive networks to start and sustain a new social enterprise in Madrid are impressive. There are many cooperatives that offer help in setting up new enterprises by providing expertise, working space, legal support and start-up capital. Contrary to the formal economy where credit lending froze up during the crisis, finance institutions in the Spanish social and solidarity economy seem impervious to the global financial crisis and continue to provide loans for projects that correspond to their ethical standards (Conill et al., 2012). This holds true for ethical banks like FIARE as well as credit cooperatives like Coop 57 which held savings of members worth 7 million Euros in 2009 which is projected to rise to 25-30 million Euros in the same quarter of 2014. When I interviewed a bank official at the end of May 2014, he told me that they currently had 8 million Euros in savings that they were willing to lend out to appropriate businesses, but did not have enough viable projects applying. The access to seed finance does thus not seem to be a problem in the Spanish social and solidarity economy. I found it furthermore remarkable how the individual enterprises strive to strengthen the alternative economy through offering services specifically addressed to this particular sector like specialised legal advice or social and solidarity based insurance policies, through the use of the local currency “Boniato” which is mainly used for business-to-business trading, and through umbrella organisations that improve the networking and cooperation between the individual organisations. The individual organisations seem to have a consciousness of wanting to strengthen and expand their sector as they do not move within business-culture of competition but cooperation.

Besides organisations for an ethical and cooperative business culture, la feria featured solidarity initiatives that were both peer-directed and support-initiatives from a wider movement for those most in need. One example that shows an interesting cultural shift in the older generation is that of self-help groups for older workers who lost their jobs. While initiated through younger members of the political movements, it is an interesting development that older members of the working class who delved into an identity crisis through the loss of their occupations are able to break out of their isolation and talk about the emotional aspects of losing their jobs; something remarkable, as the verbal sharing of feelings is usually not common among the male members of that generation. A wider solidarity movement of another kind is that of doctors and health care workers resisting the Royal Decree 16/2012 – a norm comparable to a law but not approved by the parliament – which changed the public health care system by withdrawing coverage from undocumented migrants (Garcia, 2012). The movement “Yo SI, Sanidad Universal” (“YES to Universal Healthcare”) informs doctors and health care workers at private clinics and public hospitals how they can practice civil disobedience against this decree, lobbies the government to revoke it and forms support groups that accompany affected individuals to clinics in case the administrative assistant does not heed the patient (Yo SI, 2014). The solidarity movement and individual actions of doctors and municipal governments have succeeded within a few months to create widespread civil disobedience against this decree (Garcia, 2012). A similar method of support groups helps mortgage-victims resist evictions from their homes and is spreading widely in Spain under the movement of PAH: Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Movement of Mortgage Victims).

La Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH)

The struggle between the Spanish population and their elected political leaders who favour banks over their electorate is probably most distinctly pronounced in Spain’s notorious real estate sector. Before the financial crisis hit Spain in 2008, there was a prolonged real estate bubble building up in which many families took on mortgages to buy a home. Now that this housing bubble burst, many of these mortgage-affected families do not only see a huge drop in the value of their houses (far below the mortgage they took on), but they also get to know the clauses of their contracts and the Spanish mortgage legislation the hard way. What many of them did not know when they signed their contracts – because neither the bank, nor the realtor, nor the notary, nor the government warned them of that particular legislation – is that if they happen to be late on one month’s payment, the bank is allowed to start a fast-track foreclosure process on the debtor (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013). These foreclosure processes cannot be halted by contesting abusive or downright illegal clauses of the mortgage contract in court (BBC News, 2013). As Spain happens to be a country with extremely high home ownership rates and a soaring unemployment rate since the crisis – with 26% the highest figure after Greece in the eurozone – a growing number of families find themselves unable to meet their monthly mortgage payments (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013). In 2010, the Spanish consumer protection association Adicae estimated that about 1.4 million Spaniards were facing potential foreclosure proceedings (Daley, 2010). Within the first five years of the crisis, over 350,000 families have been evicted from their homes with numbers of daily evictions increasing year by year (Jourdan, 2014). In 2013, an average of 184 families was evicted from their homes every day (ibid.). What they also only get to know in the foreclosure process is that they happen to live in one of the few countries where legislation is excessively punitive on foreclosed families. Not only can they be evicted from their homes through high-speed foreclosures if they happen to be one month late with their payment, but they also continue to be personally liable for the full amount of the loan even after their house was repossessed by the bank (Daley, 2010). On top of that come penalty interest charges which range from 5-19% and tens of thousands of Euros in court fees, including those of the bank (ibid.). Individuals who find themselves in this situation can effectively never get rid of this debt as it is not possible to get relief in the courts through personal bankruptcy – Spanish legislation specifically excludes mortgage debt there (ibid.). “I will be working for the bank for the rest of my life; I will never own anything – not even a car” (ibid.) quotes the New York Times one mortgage victim. As bankers pressed many homeowners to find guarantors at the time they took out the mortgages or when they began to struggle to make payments, this even affects other family members like debtor’s children who often took on that role thinking of it as a formality or not fully understanding the implications (ibid.). Spanish banks are legally allowed to collect a percentage of the debtor’s income if it exceeds €962 per month or €1,347 per month if the debtor has dependents (Human Rights Watch, 2014). The chairman of the Spanish Mortgage Association called it “the bank’s duty to try to collect” the debt from foreclosed families in order to ensure the bank’s solvency (Daley, 2010).

The government takes on a similar discourse in favour of the banks’ interests, arguing that “we have not seen the problems of the U.S. because the guarantees here are so much better” (Daley, 2010). Note that the “guarantees” that are spoken of here are guarantees for the lenders to be paid irrespective of social circumstances of the debtor and not guarantees for the debtor that there are no abusive clauses in the loan agreement. Implicitly, it is assumed that the lender is morally in the right and needs to be protected from potentially immoral actions of the debtor (like not paying her debts). This unspoken conception of the lender’s moral superiority over the debtor is an almost universally held assumption that, as David Graeber (2011) shows formidably in his book Debt: The First 5.000 Years, has been deeply engrained in our culture over time. Similarly, with “the problems of the U.S.”, the politician did not mean mass evictions of people from their homes, but private banks going bankrupt. This was in 2010 before Spain’s banks had to be bailed out with 41.3 billion Euros from the eurozone rescue fund; a loan that will have to be serviced by tax-payers’ money (Dowsett & White, 2014). However, even after banks were propped up through tax-payers’ money, politicians did not start to take sides with their population who demand amendments to the foreclosure laws, including letting mortgage defaulters settle their debts with the bank by turning over the property. The situation is such that judges have begun to look for legal loopholes in order to aid foreclosure victims by temporarily suspending evictions (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013). Eventually, the European Court of justice even ruled that Spanish legislation infringes EU law and that Spanish judges should have the power to halt evictions while homeowners take legal action against clauses in their contracts (BBC News, 2013). It seems the biggest support for mortgage victims comes from within their own ranks though.

Since 2009, the popular movement Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) supports mortgage victims through legal advice, direct action, and lobbying the state for a retroactive amendment of the foreclosure laws (PAH, 2014a). The PAH is a nation-wide (over 200 groups in different cities throughout Spain), decentralized, horizontal, non-violent, assembly-based movement that uses a discourse of a right to housing and considers forceful evictions over economic motives a legal but immoral violation of the right to a home (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013; PAH, 2014a). It defines itself as “a group of people who, unaffiliated with any party, recognizes that […] the current legal framework is designed to guarantee that banks cash in on debt, while at the same time the law gives no protection to the people with mortgages who are unable to cover their payments due to reasons such as unemployment or rising fees/interests” (Wikipedia translation of PAH, 2014b). Under the platform, families who have trouble paying their mortgages, face eviction or have been evicted are brought together with people in solidarity with them. The first thing that attracted many to seek the PAH’s consultation was to first of all understand what happened with their mortgage, the legal terminology being used, what their rights were and what they could do in this situation (Jourdan, 2014). Quickly, they realised that there was not much they could do legally, as even if there were illegal clauses in their contracts, they would still be evicted while engaging in a lengthy and costly process against the banks. At this stage, many would join the PAH’s assemblies and direct action groups to help themselves and others in their situation through social pressure on the banks and politicians.

On the political front, the PAH has exceeded the necessary amount of 500,000 signatures by an additional one million in order to introduce a so-called popular legislative initiative (ILP), a proposal of law by popular demand, to be voted in parliament (PAH, 2014c). The demands of the ILP are: “a) A moratorium on evictions; b) The cancellation of mortgage debt upon handover of the property to the bank; c) The creation of public rent housing with empty homes owned by banks” (ibid.). Although, according to surveys, 90% of the Spanish population supports these demands, the Spanish government of the conservative Partido Popular (PP; “People’s Party”) initially opposed these demands and when this was no longer politically tenable, they merged it with a proposal of their own which watered the demands so far down that it did not resemble the original ILP anymore (Garea, 2013; Hernandez, 2013). In the meantime, the PAH started a visual campaign that spread widely in the streets, social networks and mass-media (Enmedio, 2013a). It was a very simple message for positive change that was rather non-confrontational and easy to reproduce. It contained the popular slogan of the different Spanish political movements “Si se puede” (“Yes we can”) printed on a green cardboard circle and a red cardboard circle that read “Pero no quieren” (“But they don’t want to”). This visual imagery intended to display the possibility of change as advocated by the PAH’s ILP and the opposition of conservative parliamentarians that block it against the will of the people (ibid.). It spread widely across Spain and was displayed in the streets, on demonstrations and in shop windows that supported the initiative. It was also displayed by demonstrators in the rather confrontational – yet non-violent – escraches that took place in front of banks, politicians’ workplaces and homes (Alvarez, Manetto & Hernandez, 2013). This tactic of making demonstrations personal to name and shame politicians where they live and work is called escrache and was widely used by Argentinean human rights activists against officials trying to avoid responsibility for their actions under Argentina’s junta (Nichols, 2013). Taking their inspiration from Argentina, the Spanish demonstrators adopting that strategy enraged parliamentarians who called this practice “pure Nazism” and compared their perpetrators to the Basque terror organisation ETA (Alvarez et al., 2013). The PAH’s response to the charges of obstructing democratic representatives to freely exert their work are that they have tried to use every official way to meet these supposed representatives to discuss the issue of thousands of families being made homeless, including collecting 1.5 million signatures to propose a law in parliament, and that these representatives have “not moved a millimetre” and do not seem to represent the will of the people (Nichols, 2013). The reasoning is that as the politicians cannot be found another way, the people need to find them in person to make their demands heard.

A similar strategy of deligitimation is applied to the banks by publically personalising the evictions through a demonstration where a bank’s facade is placated with images and life-stories of individuals who have been evicted by the banks (Enmedio, 2013b). The PAH reports that banks have been much more willing to sit down and talk since they have been attacking their public image (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013). And this is exactly what the PAH attempts to achieve: to sit down with the banks that start foreclosure processes against their customers and negotiate with them to find a way that the families can stay in their homes although they cannot meet their agreed mortgage payment. In a personal interview, two members of a PAH-associated group in Madrid explained to me the working methodology of the PAH. They told me most families are helped through negotiations for social rent. If a family comes to the PAH because they struggle to meet their mortgage payments and are facing a foreclosure process, the aim is to renegotiate the mortgage payment to a rate that the family can afford. The most difficult step is to have the bank enter the negotiation process as in their eyes there is no reason to negotiate about a standard foreclosure process – the law is in their favour. Therefore, the PAH exerts social pressure on the banks to make them enter a negotiation with the family. First, one or two activists go with the family to the bank to support them in asking for a rearrangement of their mortgage plan. If the bank turns their request down, the next day the family comes again with 10 more people from the PAH. If that does not help, they come the following day back with 20 people, 30 people, and so on. Then people start peacefully protesting inside and outside the bank, spraying the entrance, sleeping in the bank, etc. At the time of writing, this method has halted 1135 foreclosures throughout Spain by negotiating social rents for affected families (PAH, 2014a).

In the cases where the banks do not agree to halt the foreclosures and evict families, the negotiation process is taken to a second stage which the PAH calls obra social (“social program”) (Garcia & Sanz Paratcha, 2013). In that case, a vacant building which is owned by the bank that evicted one or more families is identified and subsequently squatted, or in the PAH’s terminology “liberated”. The liberation of a building is being done and celebrated in broad daylight with music and dancers; a huge party, publically visible for everyone. When enough people have gathered round to see what is happening, a pamphlet is being read through a megaphone explaining the obra social and why they regard it as legitimate. The PAH gives special trainings to people opening the building, to people supporting the first group by shielding them from police, to people whose role it is to talk to police officers that may arrive, and so on. The trainings are published online in a so-called “squatter’s manual” (PAH, 2014d). Once the building is open, the families who have agreed beforehand to live in the liberated building enter and cannot be evicted without a court order signed by a judge (Jourdan, 2014). As mostly apartment blocks are chosen for this purpose, many families – often up to 100 people, including children – can be housed in one building. Before they are allocated to a building, the families undergo extensive training and education over the concepts and (legal) consequences of squatting, philosophical discussions over private property, how to function as a community inside the blocks, how to react when owners and police come and generally how to look after each other in this newly formed living arrangement. If the bank wants their squatted building back, they have to find a solution where to relocate the families in exchange for social rent payments. Most families can afford to pay a certain amount of rent, but the most difficult thing, for the banks to accept, the PAH activists told me, is that some families require a social rent of €0. The building is only handed over when an acceptable arrangement has been found for all families, since they function as a collective once moving into a block together. “One of the best things”, the PAH activist confided me with a smile, “is that the bank needs to acknowledge and interact with this group of people who they would usually just ignore.”

The idea of a large-scale public takeover of empty buildings to house evicted people began to develop in the summer of 2011 (Garcia & Sanz Paratcha, 2013). A few months before that, people in Andalusia who are not members of the PAH had begun their own campaigns for housing rights with the same objective and strategy: occupy vacant housing blocks owned by banks and negotiate for social rents (ibid.). While the local 15M assembly in Sevilla has contacts to these families, they organise on their own, most of them middle-class families without any former background in squatting (ibid.). At the time of writing, the PAH has relocated 1180 persons into liberated buildings (PAH, 2014a), and many more follow the same method like the group in Andalusia (Garcia & Sanz Paratcha, 2013). In many cases, the banks went to court to get the judge to sign an eviction order. Several occupied buildings have been evicted, and in most of those cases the families are facing criminal charges (ibid.). In an interview from November 2013, one of the lawyers who works with the PAH admitted that the legal strategy of the movement “is still at an initial stage” (ibid.). A lot of work went into developing the manual on squatters’ rights but there is no offensive legal strategy yet. “We are thinking about looking for pronouncements from international agencies and centering the offensive on the lack of alternatives that those who are evicted face,” said the lawyer at that stage (ibid.). In the meantime, there have also been encouraging responses from the courts where judges asserted the right to housing over the right to property (ibid.). On 16 October 2013, one building should be evicted in Salt, near Barcelona. The night before the planned eviction, dozens of people came to the building to support the families, and 100 fire-fighters announced that they would join the fight to stop the eviction (ibid.). When the day came, the European Court of Human Rights ordered that the eviction should be postponed until the end of the month and urged the Spanish government to provide alternative housing to the families (ibid.). '

The PAH is an especially interesting political and economic movement for me, because it takes a narrative to scale that squatting activists adopt since a long time, but could never popularize beyond their own marginalised sub-culture. Their campaign for mutual aid, solidarity and civil disobedience strikes at the very core of Spain’s power structure which lies at the nexus between the political elite and the financial industry (Delclos, 2013). The fact that a wide spectrum of society, including middle-class families who would usually pass off as ‘respectable citizens’, challenges in this particular context state decisions and a legal property regime gives the movement greater significance and legitimacy. In contrast, the legitimacy of the Spanish state is further decreased through repeated interventions of the European Court of Justice due to national legislation that violates human rights in order to benefit banks over people’s livelihoods. According to surveys, the PAH enjoys more support from the Spanish population than any political party (El Pais, 2013) and was awarded the Spanish national prize for human rights in January 2013 (El Diario, 2013). Apart from the practical help the movement offers to families in distress in their struggle against abusive legislation and financial institutions, I find it especially pertinent to my thesis for the emotional support, community work and formacion (education) it offers to its members. Through the short term tactics and strategies which lead to tangible successes in relatively little time, the PAH succeeds in empowering people (Delclos, 2013). Where state violence and media reports indoctrinate people with the message of “There is no alternative”, movements like the PAH help people out of their learned helplessness and let them experience the power of community. The members that I interviewed told me that the PAH always emphasizes that families who come for help are not being helped by the organisation’s saviours, but that they help themselves and need to help others, too. While every family has two references who act as mentors for them, soon they are encouraged to act as reference persons for new members. This way, the community grows constantly as the families tell other families they know in similar situations. One member answers the question of what the movements keys to success have been so far this way:

The PAH’s success lies in every one of its local assemblies. People arrive at those assemblies looking for a solution to their individual situation, but they quickly realise that through solidarity and civil disobedience, not only can they find solutions to their problems, but also that they are part of a community that is capable of large scale success.” (Delclos, 2013)

This is where I believe the long-term impact of the movement lies in terms of shifting political and economic cultures. Surely, the movement helps families to housing when they might have ended up on the street, and the PAH may eventually even be successful in pushing for a change in Spanish mortgage legislation. The real impact for a long-term transition in economic cultures is in my eyes however the experiential formacion they offer to their members. The whole educational work of the movement is to externalise individuated systemic problems again (not being able to pay their mortgage) and let people feel that it is not necessarily their fault, but that the situation they find themselves in is of systemic nature, that they have a right to housing and that they are supported by a community to attain that right. This experience makes people want to help others in the same way and a movement of mutual aid and solidarity is born; values that differ significantly from the neoliberal economic culture of networked self-interest and that may very well persist even after the PAH may not be needed anymore. Ada Colau, spokesperson of the PAH, describes this transition in a beautiful quote as an answer to the question how people respond when their eviction gets halted:

More than with gratitude, they respond with personal involvement. Regardless of what response it manages to elicit from the government, the PAH has won already. People arrive here with their self-esteem at rock-bottom levels, they find support, and they feel the desire to help others. It's a process that nearly everyone describes as like being born again: turning from a victim into an activist. It's the most beautiful thing I have seen in my life.” (Lopez Iturriaga, 2013)

La Cooperativa Integral Catalana

"In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete. That, in essence, is the higher service to which we are all being called." (Buckminster Fuller, quoted on P2P Foundation Website (2014))

The most comprehensive and practically articulate manifestation of a new economic culture which I came across during my research in Spain and Greece is embodied in the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC: Catalonia’s Integrated Cooperative) (CIC, 2014a). The network came into existence after a controversial action by the anti-capitalist activist Enric Duran (Duran, 2014a). A few years prior to the financial crisis in 2008, Duran started to study in depth the way the economy in its current form functions and came to the conclusion that at the root of many of the contemporary social, economic and ecological crises lies the creation of money by private banks through interest-bearing debt. Then in 2005, he started to plan an action to expropriate banks with the motive to use the money to create a social alternative to the current economy based on cooperation and self-management (Duran, Bauwens, Gorenflo, & Restakis, 2014). The timing for his plan was just right – a few months before the crisis where loans were given out freely – and so he managed to take out 68 commercial and personal loans from 39 banks in Spain (Kassam, 2014). In total, he managed to take out loans in the magnitude of €492,000, the bulk of which he withdrew while being on a promotional degrowth pilgrimage through Catalonia (, 2014). Mainly, it was not his cunning way of misusing the financial system without being in an ‘insider’ position, but the way the money was spent that earned him international media fame. Rather than putting the money away in a private off-shore account, he used it to promote social alternatives to the current economic system by sponsoring the mentioned degrowth pilgrimage, purchasing collectively held media equipment, printing several editions of a free magazine that denounces the flaws and injustices of the current system and points out viable alternatives, and building up the structures of the CIC (ibid.). After spending two months in jail, he was released on bail and is now in hiding since he did not show up to his trial in February 2013 where he was convicted to eight years in jail (RT, 2014). From his undisclosed location, he continues to work on several projects surrounding the CIC and has pledged to face trial under the condition that his case be treated under a restorative justice process tied to the wider financial crisis (Chalmers, 2014). This would entail having banks alongside him on trial to be judged for the damages done to their victims.

The founding story of the CIC sheds light on its radical working methods. The objective of the network is to promote economic and political disobedience, and to embody a constructive proposal for self-management to rebuild society in a bottom-up manner (CIC, 2014b). Activities are thus aimed at enabling members to detach themselves as much as possible from the state and capitalist formal economy through the building up of structures in which people can provide for each other the diverse necessities for life in a self-organised manner. Duran describes the CIC as “a model for transition more than a model for society” (Duran et al., 2014), as the idea is to progressively construct practices and take decisions that move its members away from their starting point in the current system and towards the world they envision. It is an open cooperative that does not require formal membership and anyone who is interested can participate in its meetings and decision-making process (Duran, 2014b). The political organisation and decision-making process is assembly-based to fully incorporate the ideals of self-management, self-organisation and direct democracy (CIC, 2014b). The network formally began its development in May 2010 with the first constituting assembly and defines itself as follows (CIC, 2014c):

  • Cooperativa, as a project that practices economic and political self-management with the equal participation of all of its members. Also, because it takes the same legal form.
  • Integral, to join all of the basic elements of an economy, such as production, consumption, financing and its own currency and at the same time because it seeks to integrate all of the areas of activity necessary to live: food, housing, health, education, energy, transportation …
  • Catalana, because it organises itself and functions principally within Catalan territory.” (ibid.)

It should be clear by now that CIC differs from most traditional cooperatives in a variety of ways: it is not membership-based, is largely not integrated in the formal national or global economy, does not follow a competitive mentality and, most crucially, is statutorily oriented towards the common good and the creation of material and immaterial commons (Bauwens, 2014). The CIC explicitly identifies itself as an example of the new kind of open cooperativism that Michel Bauwens calls for (Duran, 2014b) and has recently entered into a strategic partnership with the “Peer to Peer Foundation” (CIC, 2014d). The way the CIC dedicates itself to the creation of commons is by constructing an integrated cooperative public system that produces in a collective and cooperative manner goods and services for the collective good, outside of the realm of the state or private property (CIC, 2014c). The identified needs to be addressed by the network are listed as “food, education, health, housing, transportation and energy” (ibid.). This is being done through a combination of collectivisation and decentralisation. On the one hand, the CIC is a decentralised territorial network constituted through autonomous projects that form nuclei of self-management (Duran et al., 2014). On the other hand, these self-governing projects are linked through the CIC to promote between each other the collectivisation of goods, land and buildings, and contribute to common goods like education and public health (CIC, 2014c). While for example the collectivisation of land and buildings is done through cooperative purchase or donation from its owners, common goods like education and healthcare are maintained through mutual, pooled systems to cover project expenses (Duran et al., 2014). This means that every participant contributes according to their economic means in form of spontaneous donations or on the base of a table which displays the amount of income and number of dependents (ibid.). Regarding access to food, the CIC built a structure of supply centres in which food is collectively pooled and then distributed to the “pantries” of the individual projects and communities (CIC, 2014e). Each of the supply centres interacts with farmers and food producers from the local area and within the network to guarantee equitable food distribution for the entire network (Duran et al., 2014). The different distribution mechanisms and individual exchanges are facilitated through a network wide currency called “eco” which is connected to some 20 community currencies in the bioregion. Duran estimates there to be some 300-400 productive projects, 30 local nodes for integral self-management, about 15 communal living projects and about 4000-5000 active participants in the network (ibid.). When I asked a member how much of their material needs families can cover within the network, he told me the example of a family of four who lives materially comfortable with 17€ per week; the rest of the family’s needs are covered within the network. He continued to tell me that some people join the network because they are desperate and need to find a way to get by, and others feed their houses and other capital stocks into the network because they support it ideologically.

What animates all this activity is the conviction that the current political and economic system is deeply flawed, inherently violent and currently drives itself into the ground. The motivation is thus to detach themselves from a self-destructive system and build resilience in self-managed networks of mutual provision. The members do not believe in the fixing of a corrupt system of representative democracy or the return of the welfare state and aspire to move beyond it to a system of networks of mutual aid (CIC, 2014c). As, for the time being, the legal entity of a cooperative involves interaction with the bureaucratic structures of the state, the CIC minimises this interaction for its members by collectivising them under one legal organisational structure (CIC, 2014b) which is furthermore made accessible as an open-source structure to anyone who would like to replicate this model (Duran, 2014b). Indeed, the worldwide proliferation of their model of integrated cooperatives is something the CIC actively promotes through outreach work like the “call for integral revolution” (Integra Revolucio, 2014) and the construction of an independent digital communications and networking platform called “” (, 2014b). In a personal interview, one member told me that the CIC has been invited to Germany and Greece to help with the construction of similar networks there. Besides its constructive work through the various projects within the network, the CIC promotes economic disobedience through the legal support of squatting activities and a call for “self-taxation” to local projects dedicated to the common good instead of the state (Duran, 2013). It furthermore works together with so-called “economic disobedience offices” (five physical offices listed in different cities of Spain) and has helped to publish two editions of a “Manual of Economic Disobedience” to assist people in withdrawing resources and legitimacy from the state and channelling them into local projects instead (ibid.; CIC, 2014f).

15 May 2011: A Historical Date

What we may be witnessing is […] the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” (Francis Fukuyama (1992): The End of History?.)

Vamos despacio porque vamos lejos.” (Banner at 15M Occupation in Barcelona (2011): “We go slow because we go far.”)

Contrary to the famously proclaimed “end of history” by Francis Fukuyama (1992) after the fall of the Berlin Wall, most Spanish youth I have talked to seem to be conscious of having witnessed and partaken in a historical event that has significantly changed their ideological evolution. Many told me explicitly that “there was a world before 15 May [2011], and there is a world after.” Nothing seems to be quite the same since the 15M movement (named after the date 15 May when occupations began) has occupied the main public squares for weeks on end in several cities throughout Spain. In the run up to the date, the soon-to-be indignado movement felt frustrated and “indignant” as political subjects about the empty debates in the municipal election campaigns and took to the streets to demonstrate that there is nothing to vote and none of the representatives actually represents the electorate (Castells, 2011). It is a feeling of disaffection for representative democracy that is shared throughout Europe and much of the world, symbolised through the physical occupation of public spaces in over 1,000 cities in more than 80 countries by mid-October 2011 (Oikonomakis & Roos, 2014). The old political elite are aware of the crisis of the political model within which they rule. Felipe Gonzalez, one of the founders of Spain’s social-democratic Party PSOE that governed Spain in tandem with the conservative Party PP for the last decades, puts it bluntly: “There’s disaffection with politics – it’s quite universal. Representative democracy as we know it is in crisis” (Mason, 2013, p. 226). Indeed, the economic crisis seems to drain the little legitimacy that the political elite still held and redirects it to the streets where people experiment with horizontal, assembly-based, direct democracy. The new political movements are decentralised, non-hierarchical and practice “prefigurative politics – the end as process” (Sitrin & Azzelini, 2014). The dynamics, cultures, methods and motivations of these new political movements are fascinating in their own right and have been subject to many sociological and anthropological analyses (e.g. Castells, 2012; Graeber, 2013; Sitrin & Azzelini, 2014). At this point, however, I want to focus on the movement’s impact on the development of a new economic culture. For this, it is important to understand the wide-ranging implications of a cultural shift brought about through the 15M movement.

The 15M movement can best be described as “a new social climate” (Fernandez-Savater, 2012). People say that they can now “see, think, feel and do other things” (ibid.) than they could before 15M. The party system is no longer a taboo and there is a widespread conviction that politics can be done differently. Generally, a whole generation has been politicised. A friend from Madrid told me during my research that she was never interested in politics and always wanted to move out of Madrid – until 15M. Before, “politics was a joke”, because people felt it was very removed from their lives, run by a corrupt elite that governs in their own interest and does not care anyways what people say or think. 15M changed a lot because all of a sudden politics got real for her generation and people felt they had a stake in running their city and country. The disaffection with politics does thus only pertain to the old political model which does not allow for citizen-participation beyond casting a vote for two indistinguishable parties (which are colloquially grouped together under the acronym PPSOE) every four years. On the streets and on the internet, everybody started talking politics since 15M, and much more people got involved in neighbourhood assemblies, local community projects, and wider political movements. 15M changed the general political culture (in the sense of grassroots politics, not in the party system) and created communities of political subjects. According to French philosopher Jacques Rancière (2001), politics interrupts what is perceived as inevitable, creates an alternate map of what is possible and invents new political subjects. It can thus be argued, that after decades of stifling politics through a TINA (“there is no alternative”) discourse, 15M can be identified as the (re)birth of politics. What is presented as the inevitable (austerity, representative democracy, neoliberal capitalism) is interrupted, an alternative map of what is possible is being created (new political spaces, new economic networks) and new political actors are being created from a formerly silenced mass into “the 99%” who now start raising their voice (Fernandez-Savater, 2013b). As politics and economics go hand in hand, the new political culture is accompanied by a new economic culture that evades the “inevitable laws of the market” and practices economics differently by creating communities of new economic subjects.

Suddenly, outrage about legal economic injustices is not limited to marginalised activist groups anymore, but pervades the whole of society. The indignation is cross-generational, exemplified for example through senior citizens who group together in collectives to invade and occupy the Barcelona Stock Exchange (Coca, 2012). What has previously been regarded as a routine eviction due to lack of mortgage payment becomes suddenly intolerable (Fernandez-Savater, 2013b). Traditional banks suffer the worst deterioration in their public image since the Great Depression and many people move their money to ethical banks instead. In 2011 alone, deposits in Spanish ethical banks like Triodos, Fiare and Coop57 have increased by 54% (Gaupp-Berghausen, 2012). Besides indignation about the economic status quo, viable alternatives are being built on the basis of cooperation, decentralisation, mutual aid and solidarity. While alternative economic initiatives like consumer and producer cooperatives, time banks and community currencies have existed already before the crisis and 15M, they suddenly gain traction through an increase in people interested to participate and start up new projects. The reason is that the crisis sheds light on the dark underbelly of the current economic system, people feel indignant about it, question their values and are exposed to viable alternatives in the occupations of 15M which are focal points for long-established practitioners of alternative economic projects. Furthermore, the encampments themselves are counter-cultural spaces where practices of “commoning” (the creation of commons (see e.g. Bollier, 2014)) abound (Gutierrez, 2013). People who have never heard of the commons before are thus experientially immersed into what it is like to be a “commoner”, and to govern and co-produce a shared space with shared resource through leaderless, non-hierarchical networks (ibid.). Since the beginning, references to the commons and other values of the new economic culture like autogestion (self-management), horizontalidad (horizontalism), cooperation, decentralisation, solidarity and mutual aid were omnipresent in the debates and daily practices of 15M (ibid.). They were felt everywhere from the daily provision of food, over open libraries to mutual legal aid. People who were part of the occupations told me that it was like living in a political and economic utopia for some time.

The real revolution of 15M though, I have been told many times, is that 15M brought people into contact with each other. Amador Fernández-Savater (2012), a popular philosopher who is an active member of the movement, explains that “15-M has much to do with the joy of being together in a competitive society of ‘each man for himself’. We have learned that the unknown other is not only an enemy or an indifferent object, but can also be an accomplice” (ibid.). An activist from the Madrilenian community project “Patio Maravillas” told me that 15M was an event where many people lost their fears to meet their neighbours. The real revolution that took place was the community building at that time. It is known from successful initiatives in the social and solidarity economy that the most important factor for success is not the innovative technology that enables people to cooperate, but the social capital that needs to be built beforehand through community work (Jackson & Victor, 2013). This is a lesson drawn, for example, from the emblematic case study of the community development bank “Banco Palmas” in Brazil, which subsumes economic activities to community relations, trust and solidarity (França Filho et al., 2012). As important as the organizations, initiatives and technologies are that emerge out of 15M, the crucial factor are the social relations that are being built in the process. The cultural shift that needs to happen for a new economy is that of a society of isolated individuals and fragmented communities to that of tightly-knit, networked communities that create social and economic resilience. This sense of connection and belonging is also a key aspect for people’s well-being which is yearned for more than anything else in contemporary Western society (Jackson, 2011). I strongly assume that this feeling of togetherness and working for a greater cause is why so many talk of the times of 15M as a “utopia”. Eventually, the utopia needed to diffuse as people cannot continue to live in the squares and need to get on with their daily lives. In fact, one of the challenges is to integrate the lessons and experiences of 15M in everyday live. It still continues even though it is now less visible. Now, it does not take the form of symbolic occupations of the central squares anymore, but the organisation through neighbourhood assemblies and alternative economic networks. What remains from the weeks of 15M besides the newly formed institutions and organisations, are the networked social relations, a new perception of economy and politics, and the experiential knowledge of “si, se puede” (“Yes, we can”). As my personal journal entry reflects, now that the spectacle in the main squares is gone, it is easy for outsiders who have not been part of this experience to fall in the trap of assuming the “revolution” or cultural shift has subsided:

24 May 2014: When I visited Puerta del Sol, the main occupation space of the indignados in Madrid, I noticed for the first time that it was the square from which all the biggest shopping streets in Madrid start. Before going there, I heard Olga’s stories about how thousands of people were occupying the plaza, how direct democratic elections and invigorated discussions took place there. How people were drawing the crowds as a chronicle and writing up the happenings as counter information against the misrepresentation of the mass media. Now that I was there, I did not see any sign on this plaza that this event ever happened. All I saw were huge shopping streets going in all directions, people running around with big shopping bags displaying the logos from where they have just bought their latest consumer goods and tourists taking pictures of themselves and others. I felt like in the centre of Babylon. There was no statue, no commemorative plaque, no material sign that any of the revolutionary democratic practices that my subculture was so enthusiastic about ever happened. After having heard all the stories about the indignado movement, about the events that happened at this historic place not too long ago, after having sought out alternative economic initiatives and counter-hegemonic spaces throughout the city, I was confronted with the realisation that the consumer culture is still dominant. That most of the people who I saw on this plaza did not share my conviction (or possibly even desire for that matter) that a cultural transition is going on. They have probably not heard of a single project or alternative economic practice that I take as evidence for the transition we are currently going through. The consumer culture is still ubiquitous; I need to consciously search for the signs of a cultural transition towards different economic practices, but as soon as I diverge from my carefully researched path, the other side presents itself as the overwhelming standard.

This journal entry serves as a good reminder that the new economic culture is not a cultural hegemony yet and that consumerism is still the modus operandi for many individuals out there. Nonetheless, the economic countercultures are clearly growing and while the old political and economic model may still reign in the centres of power, they are losing legitimacy with the ongoing crisis, and the decentralised economic networks are more resilient and better equipped to deal with the various crises still to come.

Chapter 3: GREECE

The goal of my dissertation is to find out in how far the responses of Southern European communities to the economic crisis constitute the emergence of a new economic culture. For this purpose I travelled to two of the countries which were hit hardest by the crisis: Spain and Greece. It was important for me to experience the shared dynamics and differences of how the emergence of new economic cultures plays out in the respective countries. I could equally well have travelled to Italy and Portugal and would certainly have found commonalities of new economic practices and distinct characteristics of the contingencies in the particular countries. In the following section I want to sketch out a short comparison how the emergence of new economic cultures plays out in Greece as in contrast to Spain. I have spent two weeks of June 2014 in Athens to conduct field research and most of the information presented in the following section is based on personal conversations and interviews.

The Importance of Culture and History

Before I arrived in Greece, the first thing I heard from a fellow researcher and alternative economic practitioner was “familiarize yourself with the modern Greek history before you come. This context is vital to understanding the why's, how's, and who's of the solidarity economy (and anything else) here.” While I cannot go much in depth here, it is important to know that the modern Greek history of the last 200 years is a chaotic sequence of gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire, being ruled over by Western European royalty, the Balkan Wars, the Greco-Turkish War, the Nazi occupation, a civil war, a seven-year long American-backed military dictatorship and the very recent evolution of a modern democracy and market economy after the end of the junta in 1974 (see e.g. Wikipedia, 2014b). This sequence of occupations and the experience of collaborators within the own population has left a legacy of a “culture of mistrust” which still persists today, I have been told many times. In the context of the new political movements, at the occupation of Syntagma square (the Greek equivalent to 15M), this expresses itself in the existence of various strains of anarchist and communist fractions which are contrasted to reports of the open and inclusive communities of the 15M squares in Spain (Fernandez-Savater, 2013b). A “culture of mistrust” is a crucial feature to be worked on in the context of a new economic culture which essentially relies on trust and the strengthening of social relations within and between communities. In comparison to Spain, I found that political parties like the left alliance ”Syriza” play a much bigger role in Greece, as well as reports about serious discussions whether rather to use violence against the state or build up alternative structures - a discussion not being had in Spain since there is a clear decision for the latter option.

Another aspect that is tied to the recent integration in the European community and the long history of being part of the Ottoman Empire is the question of cultural identity in Greece (Hinton, 2012). On the one hand, modern Western culture – including Western philosophy and democracy – has been born in ancient Greece. On the other hand, during the 400 years under Ottoman rule, Greece did not share much of Europe’s more recent cultural development, including the Renaissance and Enlightenment. On the front, Greece identifies very much as a modern European state and did much from the 1980s throughout the 2000s to catch up with its European neighbours in terms of urbanisation and the development of mass consumerism. Underneath the surface, however, every so often shines a certain inferiority complex through with people saying in a slightly embarrassed tone “you know this country; it’s not like Germany or the UK” or flat out “this is not Europe”. It is possible that this cultural identity crisis of being at the crossroads of East and West contributes to a glorification and fetishism of its ancient culture and the development of a heightened nationalism as exemplified through the neo-Nazi movement of “Golden Dawn”.

At the same time that there is an internal cultural crisis in Greece, there is an unprecedented attack by Northern European (e.g. German, Dutch and Skandinavian) media on the Greek culture. At the time of the Greek bailout in 2011, the Northern European media launched an ugly campaign presenting Greece as a country full of lazy people who do not want to work and therefore need to rely on the tax money of the hard working Northern European population. The Dutch newspaper “Telegraaf” ran a headline saying “Boom, kick them out of the eurozone. Our citizens no longer want to pay for these wasteful Greeks” (Beugel, 2011), and the German “Bild” Magazine demanded that Greece should pawn its natural and cultural heritage to pay off its debts: “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks! And sell the Acropolis too!” (Roos, 2014). Oblivious to the historical sensitivities around the German annexation of foreign territories, the right-wing magazine demanded “We give you cash, you give us Corfu” (ibid.). That these allegations of laziness do not hold up to statistical analysis – the Greek people work with 40.6 hours per week most of all 27 EU member countries (Beugel, 2011) – does not interest these newspapers and magazines. They are simply preparing a discourse to justify the large-scale privatisation of Greek national assets. It is sad to observe that big parts of the Northern European population adopt this narrative without much critical reflection and elect nationalist political parties on the platform of non-solidarity campaigns against the financial assistance of fellow eurozone countries (Rantanen, 2012). A Greek friend told me of an experience he had when he was with friends at a cafe in the Netherlands. As soon as one member (a Dutch lady) of the group heard that he was Greek, she proclaimed: “I’m not going to pay my part of the bill. You should pay for me, as my tax money goes to cover your country’s debts.” Luckily, in the same countries there are also international grassroots solidarity movements which recognise the dire situation the Greek population finds itself in and financially assists local solidarity initiatives on peer-to-peer basis.

Solidarity Economics and the Welfare State

Greece is the country hit hardest by the economic crisis and the population’s capability to meet basic needs suffers accordingly. As many families struggle to feed themselves or access healthcare services, solidarity initiatives like social medical clinics, social pharmacies, and social kitchens spring up across the country (Solidarity4All, 2013). These solidarity initiatives are all volunteer-run centres for peer-to-peer assistance. Solidarity clinics are run by volunteer doctors and health care workers who provide free primary healthcare to those who lost access to the medical insurance system. Social pharmacies are centres where citizens can donate pharmaceuticals or drop off the drugs that they have at home and do not need for themselves, in order for them to be given out to people who need medicine but cannot afford any. Social supermarkets provide every 15 days packages of food and household goods for families in need. The contents of the supply packages are gathered by private individuals in front of supermarkets who ask customers to donate something to the solidarity network; they often have a list of items that are most urgently needed. Solidarity kitchens are networks of individuals who bring ingredients and cooking equipment to a public place in order to cook and share a warm meal together. Often anybody can come to these events, whether in need or not, and people are encouraged to help in other ways – like cooking or helping to clean up – if they cannot contribute ingredients, in order remove the stigma of charity and make it an event of co-production instead. Furthermore, there are free education activities like Greek language courses for immigrants and music and language classes for children which are not offered in school and families have to organise privately. Although in 2012, there were about 20.000 homeless in Greece – a phenomenon almost unknown before the crisis – there are no house evictions yet because Greek mortgage legislation is not as punitive on the debtor as in Spain. This legislation is scheduled for revision at the end of 2014 though (ibid.).

In June 2014, I have visited the umbrella organisation “Solidarity 4 All” (S4A) which attempts to assist the various autonomous solidarity projects in material and immaterial ways (Solidarity4All, 2013). I was told that the organisation is the node of 2,000 self-governing solidarity initiatives throughout the country, one third of which is situated in the metropolitan area of Athens. S4A provides financial assistance to purchase medical equipment and materials where solidarity clinics and pharmacies do not succeed to acquire them through their own means. The funds are partially provided by a number of Syriza MPs who donate 20% of their salaries to the organisation and partially through an international grassroots campaign for solidarity with Greece (Greece Solidarity Campaign, 2014). The international solidarity movement which comprises members from England, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium supports Greek solidarity initiatives through money and materials like clothes and school materials. Besides being the connecting hub and providing support for the various solidarity initiatives throughout Greece, S4A organises wider campaigns like asking olive oil producers to donate part of their produce to gather one litre of olive oil for every unemployed person in Greece. A more regular campaign is the “No Middlemen Movement” which connects farmers directly to the end-customers without using intermediaries to sell once a month fresh produce like vegetables, potatoes, oil, flour and lemons at cost price (Katerini, 2012). This way, the price for these goods can be lowered by up to 50 percent compared to what they cost in the supermarket (ibid.). Besides the immediate alleviation of material need, S4A regards the role of solidarity also as emotional support against the fear spread by the media, government and neo-Nazi movement of “Golden Dawn”. The latter runs their own solidarity networks which gives out rice and cooked meals to poor Greek Orthodox families to gather them for their cause. S4A hopes to have a long-term impact with their work to politically mobilise society and engage it in inclusive and democratic ways of making decisions.

The response of Greek civil society to the crisis is impressive: S4A estimates that between 2011 and 2012 the number of solidarity initiatives rose from about 100 to over 2,000 (Katerini, 2012) – a remarkable number for a population of about 10 million. Although the solidarity initiatives certainly have a positive impact in terms of people’s morale and actual material well-being, overall, the various clinics and food initiatives have far more people requesting help than they can assist with the means they have. Although such solidarity networks provide the lived experience of mutual aid which is important in the development of a new economic culture, they resemble rather Rebecca Solnit’s (2009) account of collaborative disaster relief than long-term structures for an economic transition. The S4A organisers are themselves painfully aware that the solidarity initiatives perform a role that a functional welfare state should usually perform. If there was a welfare state which would provide a basic social safety net to ensure people’s subsistence and a universally accessible healthcare system, there would be little need for a solidarity network. It often seemed to me as if people in the solidarity economy had an ambiguous relation to charity and the welfare state. On the one hand, they are outraged about the catastrophic shrinking of the welfare state in form of cut pensions, unemployment benefits and free healthcare, and on the other hand they disparage charity as an enslavement of the human spirit. Proponents of solidarity initiatives emphasize the notion of co-production and mutual aid in their projects to the extent that in some cases they exclude those unable (or unwilling) to help in the acquisition and distribution of resources. This is for example the case in the video documentary “Pieces of Madrid” (Jourdan, 2014) where a Spanish solidarity network asks customers in front of supermarkets to buy something extra for their food bank while framing it as mutual aid: “We have gathered this food to hand it out to people who need it. Mutual aid: we give the food out to the people who help. It’s not charity; it’s help that we give out mutually. Those who come to help also receive help. Those who don’t help, don’t receive help.” First of all, it is a questionable distinction between charity and mutual aid as the customers donate something to the solidarity network out of charitable reasons without expecting anything in return. To the extent that members of the food bank have to contribute to the acquisition of the food in order to receive something, it could equally well be framed as an organised beggar network which distributes its bounties internally. While acknowledging the virtues of co-production, I find it dangerous to exclude people from solidarity initiatives because they are unable to contribute. Certainly, it is important to empower people to contribute to their own subsistence since people easily fall in the trap of psychological and material dependency if they are being spoon-fed by a person or institution. However, if only people able to contribute are included in solidarity networks, then it raises the question where the people remain who do not have access to either state benefits or citizen-led solidarity initiatives. This is a crucial question that came up more generally in relation to my research. Individuals with the skills, education and social capital to build up and participate in alternative economic practices are to some extent able to weather the crisis outside of the formal economy and state services. Those, however, who lack the skills or social and cultural capital to gain access to these networks, are left to their own demise if there is no private or public support system to guarantee their subsistence. This is why, in my eyes, it is indispensable to have a functional state which guarantees at least the subsistence of all its inhabitants and the diffusion of social welfare.

The New Economy in Greece

Compared to Spain, there is a far bigger emphasis on solidarity projects in Greece to address the immediate needs of the population who see themselves confronted with increased taxes, rising prices for food and electricity, steep salary cuts and a mere one-year period of unemployment benefits (Solidarity4All, 2013). The Greek cooperative movement is by far not as strong as in Spain, since it does not have a comparable history in the country and basically started to develop as a response to the crisis. Spain’s comparatively strong development of an alternative economy can be traced back to its historically strong cooperative movement and establishment of social infrastructure to support alternative economic practices prior to the crisis (De Jong, 2014).While in Spain, activists have already been working on the establishment of an alternative economic culture for decades and built networks for the development of a new economy prior to 2008, this culture only starts to develop as a response to the crisis in Greece. The effect of this is that there are several obstacles to the development of cooperatives and alternative economic networks in Greece. According to Klaus Niederländer, the director of Cooperatives Europe, the missing legal framework to enable growth on a national scale is the main barrier to the Greek cooperative sector (Birch, 2012). Organisers from Solidarity 4 All told me that one of the main obstacles to start new ventures in the social and solidarity economy is the access to finance. In contrast to Spain, which has established financial cooperatives that continue to provide seed funding for ethical businesses during the crisis, Greece does not have any infrastructure to support individuals who would like to start a cooperative or other value-driven economic institution. Besides a supportive legal framework and access to seed funding, also other supportive institutions like legal advice and networks that increase the interconnectivity between individual projects still need to be developed in Greece. Basically, whereas Spain already had a functional infrastructure that could support the new enthusiasts of alternative economic practices to start their own projects or to get engaged in existing ones, Greece needs to build the whole sector from scratch. It is the more impressive how many new economic projects are starting up in the short amount of time since the crisis hit Greece. Overall, the development of a shared vision what kind of economic transition is needed and how to effect it is at a much earlier stage in Greece than it is in Spain, although there is already a big culture surrounding the concepts of “solidarity” and “degrowth”.

There are a number of hubs that attempt to map the emerging new economy in Greece and connect the variety of projects with each other. Solidarity 4 All is one of these hubs for the solidarity economy and the “Omikron Project” tries to create increased visibility for the newly emerging sector and culture of alternative economic practices while at the same time challenging the Northern European defamations of the “lazy coffee- and ouzo-drinking Greeks” (see Appendix 1 & 2). Furthermore, there have been two editions of “The Festival of Solidarity & Cooperative Economy” with a third one being scheduled for October 2014 (Festival4sce, 2014). I have been lucky to get the chance to interview the festival’s main organiser during my time in Athens. While she recognises that Greece is still taking the first steps of developing economic alternatives to the collapsing formal economy, she sees a lot of initiatives starting up in a very short amount of time. According to her, within the last five years over 1,000 initiatives started up with a great diversity of forms and content, including local exchanging trading schemes (LETS), community-supported agriculture initiatives (CSA), self-sufficiency projects, commons movements, local sharing economies, time banks and a wide variety of community currencies. She says that Greek networks are much less organised than Spanish ones in terms of overarching networks and technological tools like digital assemblies, and that the next step is to build ties between the various initiatives and have them collaborate. Like many social networkers in the new economy sector that I met during my research, she is also helping to organise a particular project; in her case a time bank in Athens. The Athens Time Bank has about 3,000 registered members of which around 800 are active. She assumes that most of the participants use the time bank because they do not have sufficient Euros to meet their needs and the participation in the time bank eases their dependency on national currency. As a person who is involved in the organisation of many projects, she wishes for more people to help in the governance of the project to not depend on a small group of dedicated activists and because such projects should be run by the community on principles of direct democracy. She told me that there are also EU funded time banks in Greece but she does not collaborate with them in her role as the festival organiser, because she believes that it “doesn’t make sense to use money to build a time bank which purpose is to circumvent the use of money”. She claims that due to their founding structures, these initiatives will never develop the necessary consciousness for deep-rooted systemic change. Like many others in the new economy sector, she is also very critical of big philanthropic initiatives from the church or state as they are not citizen-led and lack the necessary awareness of the need for systemic change or have even vested interests against it. While she acknowledges that it is good that they are there since they also help, she does not like their approach which resembles more charity than cooperative aid. They do not educate people and communities for self-sufficiency and do not enable people to contribute to their own material improvement. She emphasizes that it is of key importance to have the educative projects for self-sufficiency cooperate with the solidarity projects so that they can complement their short-term impacts with the formacion for long-term transition.

Besides having a tangible material impact on people’s lives in the crisis, the alternative economic practices provide a beacon of hope and life quality for people in Greece. In a country where many say that the crisis has resulted in a “collective depression”, the sense of empowerment, social solidarity and belonging to a community is vital to survive the economic disaster wreaked upon the Greek population. One former business owner describes the impact of being member of a citizen-led solidarity initiative:

“From being a gentleman, from having my own shop, [...], I reached the point of going to the Church’s soup kitchens. I had gone mad, my psychology had sunk to the bottom... Now I offer help to others, but also to myself, this gives me pleasure, keeps me alive. We are at the end, but from this end we try to help each other. Here we are all one family, the Club’s premises has become my second home.” (Solidarity4All, 2013)

I find this quote describes the powerfully the difference between being helped at “the Church’s soup kitchens” and being enabled to help yourself and others through cooperative solidarity initiatives. Similarly, research about Greek complimentary currency systems shows that while they can offer significant material relief by leading to increased transactions, production level and employment, the strongest motive for participation in such schemes is not the need for goods and services but the need to “participate, offer and feel empowered” (Eleni, George, & Dimitris, 2013, p.3).

Like in Spain, there are also widespread anti-austerity movements in Greece. In response to the harsh austerity measures devised by the Troika and passed by the Greek parliament, there have been widespread riots in Athens’ inner city and violent conflicts between protesters and riot police (Vradis & Dalakoglou, 2011). At the same time, especially in 2011 and 2012, Greece saw the rise of the neo-Nazi movement and fascist party “Golden Dawn” which controlled whole neighbourhoods, trashed market stands of migrant traders, and did face controls at subway exits to beat up immigrants in plain eyesight of police officers (ibid.). For a while, “anomy” – “a situation where instead of anarchy (lack of government), you find mass refusals to cooperate with the system, amid the collapse of social norms” (Mason, 2013, p.103) – was the buzzword of political commentators in Greece who feared social breakdown as they saw their society disintegrate (ibid.). The government lost grip on social control in the country and tried to uphold it through brutal police force while people defied social norms like paying road tolls or the bills for their privatised utilities as a protest against the austerity “memoranda” (ibid.). While never reaching far into Greek society, the state lost absolutely any legitimacy through the passing of successive austerity memoranda which not only caused humanitarian crises in the country but also increased its public debt (ibid). The social opposition to these measures was so fierce that the Greek government eventually had to scale back its projected privatisation proceeds from 50 billion Euros by 2015 to 11 billion Euros by 2016 (Smith, 2014). Grassroots campaigns throughout several cities in Greece rouse public opinion against the privatisation of public water utilities and have achieved first successes through a favourable court ruling that blocked the privatisation of the Athens water utility (Kanellopoulou, 2013). In contrast to Spain, where the squatting movement is largely directed towards housing, Greek occupations seem to be more related to geographical struggles like the preservation of particular neighbourhood parks which are commissioned for “development” (e.g. into parking lots). One example is the so-called “parking park” in the anarchist neighbourhood Exarcheia in Athens which has become a commons initiative after people occupied an open air parking lot and turned it into a self-managed neighbourhood park (Parkingparko, 2014). Another popular occupation success story in Greece is that of the occupied Vio.Me. factory which has been occupied by its workers before the owners could take away the machinery without paying the nearly 1.5 million Euros owed in salaries and compensations (Karyotis, 2014). Taking inspiration from Argentina, the workers adopted the slogan “Occupy! Resist! Produce!” and decided to continue to produce while governing their workplace through workers assemblies (ibid.). So far, the factory has been operating under workers’ control for over 1,5 years and shifted parts of its production to environmentally friendly cleaning products using local and natural ingredients (Vio.Me., 2014). The products have been largely distributed through the Greek solidarity networks and the workers received widespread support from other solidarity initiatives (Karyotis, 2014).

Overall, it seems to me that Greece is at a much more radicalised position than Spain with its material hardships being more severely pronounced and the reactions more desperate than in Spain. Political ideologies clash harder in Greece with the police and Golden Dawn members taking violent actions against protesters and anti-fascist groups as well as left-wing cooperatives and solidarity initiatives (Youlountas, 2013). Nonetheless, there are very promising developments of a surge of a wide variety of new economic initiatives being developed in a very short time. If this rapid prototyping and developing of new economic cultures continues at such a pace and supplementary support structures are built to connect the various initiatives with each other, it might well be that Greece may soon champion one of the strongest cultural hegemonies of a new economic culture.


I believe right now that we are sleeping on a volcano. Can you not sense by a sort of instinctive intuition … that the earth is trembling again in Europe? Can you not feel the wind of revolution in the air?” (Alexis De Tocqueville, 1848)

De Tocqueville’s quote above has a timely resonance to it. It seems like the earth is trembling again in Europe. The global financial crisis of 2008 has drawn ripples through the social, political and economic spheres of Southern Europe. Contemporary Greece and Spain are characterised through the struggles between a political elite trying to adhere to the Troika’s austerity policies and a population that is indignant about the prioritisation of banks over their own needs. In both countries, there are resistance movements against the austerity policies that dismantle their welfare state and privatise the country’s public assets. 2011 has been a decisive year to construct a movement of the people as decentralised, non-hierarchical, assembly-based movements occupied the main squares in Spain and Greece. Out of these spontaneous gatherings rose neighbourhood assemblies and communities of new economic practitioners. Together, they started to construct their own political processes and alternative economy that is based on cooperation, solidarity and community-mindedness.

The research question that serves as the red thread of my dissertation reads: “To what extent do the responses to the economic crisis in Spain and Greece resemble a move towards a new economic culture that is characterized by cooperation, solidarity and community-orientation?”. During my field research I came across festivals for the cooperative and solidarity economy, a large-scale squatter’s movement for mortgage-affected people, an integrated cooperative network that helps people to detach themselves from the formal economy by building up a collective production network, and many individual projects that aim to build up a new economy with the values that people would like to see embodied in economic interactions. The values embodied in these economic initiatives can be described as “from the people for the people”; this new economy is based on cooperation, democratic decision-making, mutual aid and solidarity. Its primary motive is the creation and provision for communities, placing a strong emphasis on social relations, participation and the common good. I believe that the plethora of alternative economic initiatives and the decentralised political movements constitute clear signs of a new economic culture in the making. The economic crisis plays a crucial role in the development of this new economic culture. First, it disrupts the cultural hegemony of the current economic system by demonstrating its inherent injustices and instabilities. Consumerism and “business-as-usual” is for many not an option anymore as they are taken out of their old lifestyle with the loss of their jobs. Since it is very difficult to find new employment, people look for alternatives to make ends meet. They start engaging in barter networks, group together in worker cooperatives and find social support in a wider movement of people who face similar troubles with paying their mortgage. As the state is not supporting its population adequately through the economic crisis, people look to each other to help each other out and build something new. Some people have engaged in these alternative economic networks for many years already and others try to find their way into this new economic culture as the crisis cuts into their lives. While in Spain established networks saw a significant increase in people interested to get involved or start up new projects and were able to provide assistance through established institutions and frameworks, Greece has to prototype this culture from scratch and boasts an impressive number of projects starting up in the social and solidarity economy. At the same time, governments and banks lose legitimacy and are challenged by their electorate and former customers. Representative democracy and property rights of banks are called into question by widespread social movements that put social pressure on banks and experiment with direct democratic processes. Legitimacy is drawn from established centralised institutions and redirected to newly emerging dispersed social networks. The social turmoil that can be observed in Southern Europe at the moment can be interpreted as the struggle between the old and the new economic culture, between the old centralised institutions of power and the new dispersed social movements that challenge the cultural hegemony of the governing institutions and build new political and economic structures.

The question how this new economic culture will fare when/if the economic crisis ends and regular employment opportunities become available again is posed often in relation to my research. I believe that the new economic culture and structures currently being built will persist one way or the other and are not only a temporary phenomenon to weather the crisis. Certainly, many individuals who get engaged with alternative economic practices, because they currently do not see another possibility to get by, aim to take up formal employment again as soon as the opportunity arises. Many others though find a deeper sense of fulfilment and belonging through the communities of new economic practitioners and would not want to give up the practised values of cooperation and solidarity for a better-paid job. The older generation that has lived for decades in the old work- and consumption-model may find it tempting to go back to their old lifestyles even though the alternative economic practices that were very marginal before the crisis have become widely accepted by now. However, the young people who are now in their twenties and have lived through six years of crisis – and who knows how many more – will be strongly shaped by this period of their lives. They are engrained with values of economic democracy, cooperation and solidarity in a time that is crucial for their socialisation. They adopt the new political and economic culture as their main culture and will want to continue to co-create the economic structures they are part of even if the formal economy recovers again. Furthermore, it can be expected that the global economic structures will continue to be shaken by economic crises in the years to come, if not by inherent instabilities of the capitalist system itself, then by external resource pressures that will converge in the coming years and make a radical rethinking of the economy necessary. The localised and cooperative production networks that are currently developing in Southern Europe are crucial prototypes of resilient production and distribution networks outside of the global economy. Chris Thomson who has been a Bank of England economist, lawyer in Scotland and Scottish National Party candidate lives now in Catalonia and recognises the change that is currently taking place: “I don’t think the mainstream structures will last much longer. They are in their death throes. One global paradigm is dying and, at the same time, another one is growing that will replace it. The new paradigm hasn’t got a name but you can see signs of it, social and economic signs” (Chalmers, 2014). He explains: “It’s like any birth – it’s painful for the mother and it’s utterly confusing for the child. The real success of the paradigm will be individual change, individual by individual” (ibid.). In context of the current economic crisis, many individuals have bid goodbye to the old economic paradigm and are now adopting a new economic culture that may constitute this new paradigm.


Janosch Sbeih

MA Economics for Transition

Schumacher College

SCH 504: Dissertation

25 August 2014


  • Appendix 1: Omikron Project – Grassroots Groups in Greece May 2013 (Omikron, 2013)
  • Appendix 2: Omikron Project – Grassroots Groups in Greece June 2014 (Omikron, 2014)