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Building new solidarities between movements: insurrectionary politics of food autonomy in the city of Athens

Their insurrectionary politics of autonomy, such as food autonomy in Athens, is crucial for building new solidarities and emancipatory imaginaries within cities.

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Every town should have its agora, where all who are animated by a common passion can meet together”

The Evolution of the Cities, 1895, Élisée Reclus

The global tendency that we are witnessing, as Giorgio Agamben described it, of “a convergence of an absolutely liberal paradigm in the economy with an unprecedented and equally absolute paradigm of state and police control”, is leading to the re-emergence of a socio-spatial imaginary. It is defined not so much by institutions and political parties, as by movements opening up in their practices, discourses and modes of action, new political, social and economic spaces.

Under these circumstances, and since the 2008 capitalist (debt) crisis, we have seen how the autonomy of cities is being challenged by radical movements across the southern European peripheries. Alongside traditional economic, labour or more confrontational struggles, these radical movements directly engage with material and emotional conditions to re-organize and maintain life in the cities.

Furthermore, this is a process that is embedded within the deconstruction of what they perceive as an increase in the violent urban order imposed both by state and capital, that is furthermore rooted in historically unsustainable modes of food production .

We have been exploring the creative insurrectionist process released by the 2008 revolts in Athens. And more specifically the convergence of the autonomous movement together with other radical movements as performed and experienced in a city which has been re-constructing food autonomy since 2008.

The autonomous food geography of the city of Athens: a new contested territory

“They tried to bury us, they didn't know we were seeds”

Graffiti in Parko Navarinou, Exarchia, 2017

The insurrectionary politics of autonomy “as involving a sensitivity to the fragility of what exists and to the different forms of natural, social and cultural life that should be preserved, along with a desire to radically modify other social forms” that Saul Newman introduced in his work about revolutionary fantasies and autonomous zones, expresses some of the meanings of the practice of autonomy developed in the city of Athens since 2008 revolts.

Through the shared memories of the revolts and the everyday life of the city we came to understand that the current geography of the food autonomy of Athens is a complex contested space. More precisely, a space that was expanded and subsequently reshaped after the streets were occupied in December 2008 in response to the assassination of Alexis Grigoropoulos and through the cooperation of heterogeneous radical movements.

“A completely different time and space from what we have experienced before was created. We felt we could intervene on the reality in a more direct form. We felt that we could solve the problems of the city”

Katerina, remembering 2008 December revolts, Exarcheia, 2015

As Katerina shares with us, these revolts augmented a time and a space encouraing them to believe that they could “solve the problems of the city”. Others expressed this through their desire to “Παίρνουμε τη ζωή μας στα χέρια μας” (“take back their lives in their hands”)  (Areti, Nikos, Michalis, Vaso, and many other rebels of December 2008). The “spirit of December” (Giorgos, Exarxeia, Athens, 2015) released passions and desires which have gradually been transformed into a creative re-appropriation of the city and the setting up of new autonomous spaces.

The persistently changing material and emotional needs arose (e.g. outrage, unemployment, hunger) in this period of mobilisation and the response to them of various radical movements have simultaneously shaped their new political imaginaries and these new spaces.

Spaces where we observe life and therefore also food production are currently being re-(self)-organized to facilitate the search for  the necessary conditions to pursue “taking back our lives in our own hands”, i.e, political autonomy both from the state and capital. Among these spaces, we find community urban gardens, collective kitchens, food cooperatives, self-organized food banks and self-organized farmers' markets.

The everyday life encounters within these spaces and the support of the existing self-organizing structures of the traditional autonomous movement[1] have led to the reconfiguration of these movements and to the emergence of other new radical movements. Moreover, they have resulted in the formation of new “sporadic” ties among them and “more social” political imaginaries (Giorgos, Social Centre Nosotros; Thanos, Social Centre Eutopia, Athens, 2016).

The traditional autonomous movement allied itself with the “Koukolouris” rebels that met on the barricades during the 2008 revolts characterized by a more confrontational militancy. And after 2011 new uprisings and occupations of Syntagma square took place, also joined by activists with more “hippie-like values” and socio-ecological concerns. These alliances resulted mainly in spreading the “seeds of the revolt” and the desire of autonomy all over the city.

More concrete and also spontaneous alliances have resulted with the radical trends of new specific movements. In a response to the increased rates of unemployment, they have converged with the radical trends of a new “Social and solidarity economy movement” which has been built by establishing networks of “structures of solidarity”.

With the Greek trend of the new “Back to the land movement”, built by increasing numbers of “educated young” urban unemployed moving to the countryside to farm in Greece since 2008, and the “No middleman movement”, built since 2012 through cooperation between farmers and consumers in the cities to facilitate both the distribution and the consumption of food – these movements and alliances have brought together a great diversity of constituencies. From students to retired activists, unemployed and public servants, women and men, migrants and refugees, consumers, farmers, old activists and new rebels. 

Prefigurative politics (including assembly, horizontality, consensus decision-making) enables the building of these spaces and relations between the movements, and results in a decentralised and rhizomatic cooperative structure that informs their relationships. Besides this outcome, prefigurative politics are perceived to be crucial to creating emerging new solidarities, trust and mutual aid relations. Moreover, it enables these movements to adapt themselves to the increased uncertainty and change afflicting everyday life and needs in the city and its neighbourhoods since 2008.

The performance of these relations and the geography of food autonomy, have been synchronized with the geography of the revolt. In this way the geography of food autonomy has been expanding from the historically contested neighbourhood in the city centre (Exarcheia), through social centres, “stekia”, squats or community urban gardens, to various neighbourhoods (e.g. Petroupoli, Lambidona, Nikeias, Akademía Platonos, Zografou) and its political organizational structures and neighborhood assemblies.

And from them to other cities (e.g.Thessaloniki) and their surrounding countryside through farming collectives. Through these processes of decentralisation and densification they have been engaging the neighbourhoods and the collectives in their everyday organization and maintenance of life. Moreover, they are building new relations between new and traditional farmers and a broad umbrella of consumers in the city.

The previous existence of certain spaces in the neighbourhood of Exarcheia and solidarities with movements from the southern peripheries of Latin America and Europe have been crucial both to trigger the process and to sustain it as can be seen in the social centres, squats and stekia from the autonomous scene and the historical cooperative Sporos (Seed)[2].

Furthermore, the politics of autonomy and the strength of transnational solidarity of urban and rural movements exemplified by the Zapatistas in Mexico, “Piqueteros, asambleístas”, and “fábricas recuperadas” of the 2001 uprising in Argentina, the Kurdish communities in Rojava, and European urban autonomous movements are an ongoing inspiration.

Tensions in the everyday life of building new solidarites

A persistent re-configuration of these movements, their relations and spaces has been occurring in the intervening years. Such phenomena can be understood as the result of the material and political difficulties involved in creating common spaces of struggle, but also by the creativity and awareness that allowed them to adapt to the changing material or emotional needs as they arose (e.g. anger, unemployment, food emergency).

Meanwhile, “the passion, and the individual “fantasies”, or political projects, are leading to constant fragmentations” (Exarcheia, 2016). The radical features of these movements are among a range of causes that create tensions between the various parts. Food cooperatives or farmers markets, against the background of a shifting common terrain, manifested tensions we soon came to identify with the difficulties of gaining the necessary material autonomy to survive and flourish.

Besides the collective needs of the movements, the individual needs of the activists affected by the conditions of waged labour and their incomes, have transformed some of these spaces from volunteer-based to formal working cooperatives. While looking at the self-organized food banks we could see tensions between their transformative dimension and the humanitarian one. One such tension could be found in the different paths of constructing solidarities or rejecting philanthropy, through the mutual or delegated relationships between “activists in solidarity” and those “directly affected”, and through the construction of these two different identities.

The political construction of spaces and the movements, keeping the “habitus” of hierarchical and delegative forms of organization and relationship while maintaining informal hierarchies (leadership, vanguard group) is perceived after various conversations, and the observation of these spaces, to lead to persistent competition and divisiveness in the movements. The political socialization of many of the activists within traditional political parties such as the Greek Communist Party (KKE), or Syriza and the traditional trade unions, seems to have been a major cause of the persistence of these unproductive hierarchies.

The different rural or urban features of these movements can also create some tensions, due to the different constraints and sometimes understandings of their similar struggles and aims. They have different needs for organization, looser relations and more laidback schedules, or different logistics, financial needs and transport are required.

Instability within these movements and their alliances has also been experienced due to their porosity to the influence of the parliamentary political context. This was mainly to be seen in between the 2012 Greek elections, when the political party Syriza first got into parliament, and their acceptance of a new memorandum once they got elected in the 2015 referendum. Delegation was the main process identified as creating tensions between the movements due to their different relations and approaches to the umbrella of organizations related to Syriza and set up in 2012, Solidarity for All.

The increased control and destabilisation of these movements also occurred through police repression and the traditional left parties' control of their “spontaneous” insurrectionist features. The economic and material control implemented through the various memorandums since 2010 by the International Monetary Fund, European Union and the European Central Bank, and the resulting increased taxation on food goods and professional activities (farmers, working food cooperatives) jeopardised their more stable and formal status and relations. Besides this, the repression created boundaries and stronger ties built on trust and mutual aid among the participants and the various movements. 

The relations with the local institutions were established in a top-down direction, through Solidarity for All, and through some programs from the municipality of Athens trying to establish food policies (i.e. urban agriculture, schools gardens). Some of the spaces or groups have sporadic relations with the local governments to re-negotiate the management of material resources such as water or electricity (e.g. community urban gardens Elleniko).

Since the last approval of the memorandum in 2015, and through continuous cuts in spending, the few spaces of negotiation within political parties or NGOs almost disappeared. Universities are the formal institutions that remain with the most exchanges and co-operation in these spaces.

The city of Athens as an opportunity for new emancipatory scenarios

In the increasingly polarized and global city of Athens, we have perceived the reconstruction of urban food autonomy as an increasingly complex space where the collaboration of the autonomous movement with urban and rural heterogeneous movements, at a local level but also worldwide (e.g. BioME (Thessaloniki, Greece), Zapatistas (México) is possible.

As a result of this new food geography new relationships based on cooperation, trust and mutual aid between farmers in the countryside and consumers in the city of Athens are resulting, re-connecting the city and the countryside and modifying the metabolism of the city. Furthermore, the multiple connections and collaboration between these radical movements, between the countryside and the city, at a local and global level, seems to influence positively the creation of stronger bonds within the movements.

Cities, and in this case, the city of Athens, are perceived as relational incubators for new emancipatory scenarios. But it is the existence and the everyday construction of certain autonomous spaces (e.g. community urban gardens, collective kitchens) through prefigurative politics that creates the stable ground for new cooperative relations and new emancipatory imaginaries.

As experienced during 8 years in the city of Athens, the expansion and multiplication of these spaces and the everyday life encounters and politics that have arisen from them, have led to concrete solutions to problems (e.g. food emergency, unemployment) and in this way have encouraged people to gradually leave aside political divergences between the different participants and movements that converge on them. Re-politicizing the everyday by engaging the neighbourhoods and the collectives in the organizing and maintenance of life, and of food production, widens their transformative dimension.

It is important to notice that the focus of these movements on the everyday life dimension together with the local and global persistent and changing forms of social control enacted in the city of Athens (e.g. austerity, police repression) are bringing tensions within the movements. But at the same time they allow them to create more resilient relationships based on trust and mutual aid.

The quality of these relationships, loose, sporadic, spontaneous, results in malleable spaces. The diverse discourses, subjectivities, constituencies, needs, engaged in these spaces and with the aim of respecting this diversity is a major determinant. Something also remarkable and positive from these kinds of relations and their adaptability also allows them to create sporadic relations with local governments in order to fulfil material needs, such as procuing the water or electricity needed to run their spaces. 

Based on these observations, we argue that there is a need to reconsider the quality of the relations that conceive the cooperation of movements and that are able to build new emancipatory imaginaries within cities. These relationships need to allow the opening up of new imaginaries to confront the socio-ecological limits of cities.

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[1] The autonomous movement, it is a term not well accepted by the movements in Athens. But it used in this work to refer to anarchists, anti-authoritarians, libertarian communists, autonomists, anti-fascists and other movements that are based on horizontal and self-organized political structures. In a call made from one of the collectives where the ethnographic work has been done, they addressed them as follows, “anarchist, communist, comrades, political groups, squats, stekia”. 

[2] This cooperative, divided nowadays in two different collectives, Svoura and Syn-allois, it was a local experimental space for “alternative and solidarity trade” built within the solidarity movement with Zapatistas communities in Mexico.

How to cite:
Morales Bernardos, I. (2017) Building new solidarities between movements: insurrectionary politics of food autonomy in the city of Athens, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 6 April. https://opendemocracy.net/ines-morales-bernardos/building-new-solidarities-between-movements-insurrectionary-politics-of-food-
About the author

Ines Morales Bernardos forest engineer and later specialized in agroecology and organic farming is currently conducting a Phd in social science at Institute of Sociology and Peasant Studies (ISEC), University of Córdoba, Spain. In her research she is looking at urban radical movements and their practices of food autonomy with case studies in Madrid, Athens and Lisbon. As an activist she has been involved in several autonomous movements across Europe.

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