Lessons on Solidarity from Greece.


Before going on the recent delegation of the Greece Solidarity Campaign to Athens, the old Communard had tended to make a negative judgement about the capitulation of the majority sections of SYRIZA around Alexis Tsipras in 2015 to the demands of the Troika. Obviously this was a moment of triumph for the neoliberal hegemony institutionalised in the EU, but I now see that I was in effect blaming the victim as to the outcome of a grossly unequal struggle in which the international integrity of finance capital was pitted against the clearly expressed democratic mandate of a few million Greeks. It really was no contest. Victim-blaming is a neoliberal reflex, and I had succumbed to it.

Partly this change of view occurred because of hearing poor defences of their positions from the representatives whom we met from Left organisations that had dissented from the capitulation. Petros Konstantinos, the co-ordinator of the anti-fascist organisation KEERFA, explained something of the history and continuing strength of the left in Greece, related to the legacy of the struggles against the Nazi occupation and the 1967-1974 military dictatorship; but this emphasis, whilst it fitted with his involvement in the necessary struggle against Golden Dawn, did not seem to me to register the overwhelming domination of capital at a global level, the capacity of the beneficiaries of the neoliberal order to simply disregard elected governments and democratic mandates through their ‘ownership’ of the world as ‘it presents itself to us as a great pile of commodities’. Likewise Panagiotis Lafazanis, leader of Popular Unity, failed to say what should have been done differently during the years of opposition and at the height of the Greek government debt crisis, whilst they were still in SYRIZA, to forestall the capitulation, as if he were locked in to the mode of declamatory opposition.

It is not possible to know how many have died, or gone through terrible deprivations, or emigrated from Greece as a result of that ferocious application of austerity, much worse than the Tories have yet been able to achieve in the UK, but which Wolfgang Schäuble thought was necessary medicine for what Chancellor Merkel dubbed the “lazy Greeks”. To oppose and counter this suffering, SYRIZA in opposition was at least partly successful in creating a system of social solidarity, funded in part from the salaries of their own MPs, which sought to mitigate the suffering of the poor, co-ordinating the activity of thousands of volunteers. The crisis had meant that millions of Greeks were suddenly without access to health care as well as social security, facing destitution unless they could rely for food and shelter on members of their family who still had any income; it was in this situation that the clinics such as the one where we met Georgia Koumparouli in Peristeri, a northern suburb of Athens, were set up by ordinary people, mostly women, using their organising skills to co-ordinate a volunteer workforce to provide medical care, dental care and access to drugs. Georgia described proudly how she and her colleagues had been able to benefit the whole community with their administrative skills, actively replacing labour as a commodity with labour as commitment.

The inspiring women at the Solidarity for All offices who gathered to tell us about their work at different similar centres expressed a determination to carry on working in that environment, where decisions were taken collectively at regular meetings and where the results of their work were attested not only through peoples’ survival through times of great hardship, but through their participation in the practice of mutual aid, a system of distribution totally foreign to the market and to capitalism.

As the two ministers we met, Efi Achtsioglou and Theano Fotiou, explained to us when we met them in the Greek parliament building, despite the limitations under which they operate under the terms of the Memoranda with the Troika, the SYRIZA government re-elected in late 2015 has succeeded in setting up a system of access of the very poorest sections of society to health care and minimal social security. This has meant that the focus of the Solidarity Clinics work had changed to being about access to pharmaceuticals for those who could still not afford them, and increasingly towards work with refugees. Much needed and laudable reform, though it was far from complete or even adequate to the needs the mass of the unemployed, the partially employed or the disabled, has in this context been destructive of the practice of solidarity.

Solidarity, according to Wikipedia, is “unity (as of a group or class) which produces or is based on unities of interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies. It refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one.” On the other hand, “Charitable giving is the act of giving money, goods or time to the unfortunate…”. Thus, where there is gross institutionalised inequality, such as in the situation of citizens trying to help refugee non-citizens, solidarity becomes less possible and to carry on with the same activity becomes imbued or overcome by charity, and loses its political momentum.

Workers in struggle have to rely on solidarity to improve or maintain their pay and conditions, but after a strike or industrial action has been won or lost, the solidarity falls away, though it remains dormant in class consciousness and identity. A burning anger also persists, which is easy to redirect towards proxy targets, through stigmatisation and victim-blaming. Solidarity retreats to its ineradicable base in the domestic sphere, the sphere of reproduction as opposed to that of production, where commodification has hitherto gained little traction. But to see solidarity as a gendered practice is a mistake – in a healthier society all of us, men, women and all genders in between would provide and benefit from solidarity work, which should be the basic paid employment of all. Then production of commodities and trade, much more susceptible to automation, would move to the periphery of the real economy.

For the moment, it is possible to build island structures of solidarity in one group or another, but in a sea of neoliberalism this demands extra effort and extra sacrifice, with constant tension at the boundaries, and these islands remain vulnerable to damage from failure, or, as I learned from the Greek Solidarity Clinics, from their goals being won and taken back from popular to institutional control. Solidarity practices foster a totally different kind of ownership, and it is how to keep them alive through good times and bad, to enable them to hold on and to spread, and thus to challenge the old kind of ownership, that we need to study and to develop. Here SYRIZA, if far ahead a few years ago from where we are on the left in the UK, seems to have fallen down, through a focus on achieving and holding on to state power, and losing sight of maintaining and fostering the power that comes from collective activity and responsibility, that is, from solidarity ownership. Yet an important legacy remains, and it was a privilege to meet some of the people who are agents and keepers of that legacy in its continuing struggle in Athens.