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Austerity and the mediated networks of solidarity in Greece

An aura of political creativity and a sense of ‘media justice’ have emerged in Greece; evolving communication practices have shaped the nature and character of solidarity.

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Over the last 18 months Greece has become the epicentre of consecutive crises, not only economic and political, but also of image and belonging. Statistics about rising unemployment, falling GDP, the mass exodus of young people, refugee and migrant flows and detentions do not fully capture contemporary realities of ordinary Greeks. The psychological pressures exerted by government, elite politicians and mainstream media domestically and abroad is overwhelming, all competing to dictate the urgency of austerity measures.

These very crises have produced different waves and scales of mobilizations, channelled by newly formed grass-roots structures and assemblies, solidarity and cooperative initiatives, nurturing a civic culture that strives for social change and symbolic recognition. I have previously argued how this civic culture diverts from mainstream civil society in Greece and have highlighted, along with others, the existing tensions between state power and non-partisan political movements. It is important to focus on the ways in which evolving communication practices on social media have shaped the nature and character of the solidarity and cooperative initiatives in the last few years.

Mediated through alternative and ‘small media’, and occasionally by random tactical communication channels, these sites have offered forms of alternative reporting and self-organisation. I use the particular urban character of the constellations defined as anti-austerity and cooperative solidarity movements with an evolving scope and stance of alternative and activist media in Greece. I suggest a two-phase periodization to correlate the historical context and changing priorities of urban mobilizations. The first period ushered a wave of mass mobilisations and protest, resulting in the development of a number of initiatives contesting the official discourse; a second period began once a government of the Left took power.

The repercussions of neoliberal urbanization, the broader forces of austerity and the corrosion of democratic processes experienced in Greece between 2011 and mid-2014 ushered a wave of mass mobilisations and protest events in large public spaces: the squares movement. A relative weakness of formal civil society actors meant that grievances provoked by urbanisation once partly resolved by a system of patronage, philanthropy and indirect representation, were left to fester around large urban centres, in particular Athens. The squares movement had a transformative effect, as it begun popularising the idea and practice of self-organization and direct democracy, and allowed for some experimentation with social media activism. Furthermore, these movements nurtured a number of creative initiatives, generating independent spaces for activists to channel their concerns, often resulting in spontaneous forms of citizen mobilization. Demonstrations took place in areas that have a tradition of political activism, such as Exarcheia and Kypseli, but also in places where forces of gentrification or austerity encouraged individuals to form cooperative and alternative structures,neighbourhoods such as Psiri, Plato Academy, Gazi and Neos Kosmos.

While some of these initiatives started by responding to social needs within a specified field - health, food, unemployment, labour rights and the rise of fascism, amongst many others - they gradually extended their activities to other sectors, and gave new meaning to processes of resistance. In most cases small scale, low cost 'micromedia' sites, such as mailing lists or Facebook groups, would be set up by one person or a small group with a specific purpose; these varied from coordination to the offer of hyperlocal knowledge and news. Eventually, through personal blogs but also through occasionally random tactical communication channels, these sites began offering real alternative reporting, generating modalities of resistance, provocation and solidarity.

In other cases, the scope of DIY activist media played a more confrontational role. As argued by Gigi Argiropoulou, critical performance spaces played a fundamental role in confronting the politics of gentrification and what I would call ‘creative clientilism’. For example, the occupation of a disused theatre -Theatro Embros – allowed the emergence of countercultural groups and architect collectives in the gentrified area of Psiri in central Athens. These groups used both physical and social media spaces to satirise municipally controlled participation schemes and posed pressing questions around the potentially muddy politics of a ‘social event’ produced in a public space.

In other areas, such as the deprived neighbourhood of Plato Academy, groups emerged from different power struggles within municipal institutions. These organisations raised from several bottom-up initiatives, such as cultural and educational clubs, conducting some hyper-local journalism and embarking upon some other social experiments, including cooperative economy collectives to social pharmacies, soup kitchens, and refugee support networks. All of these groups aimed at fostering relationships of equality, contrary to the structures of charity and philanthropy which preceded them.

After researching some of these groups, it became clear that in order to make the most of their efforts, it was important to collect, publicise and promote the productive use of the accumulated know-how, as well as their material and immaterial assets. Some of these resources are being made available on websites or ended up circulating in social media. Most have stayed within the confines of the groups who generate them. However, some solidarity media hubs have created platforms and means to bring together such resources, enhancing the visibility of such initiatives both within and outside Greece.

A number of disenfranchised professional and citizen journalists set up  solidarity media hubs during this first period of dissent. Notable examples are the bilingual The Press Project and, in a smaller scale, platforms such as Diaologos Media, OmniaTV, and more recently Athens Live. These initiatives demonstrated the lack of media representation in Greece to the outer world while striving to achieve a wider reach with local audiences, whose main media diet until then originated from privately owned television companies. 

Omikron Project was launched by Mehran Khalili, a British-Iranian political communications specialist who lives in Athens as a promotional campaign. Alongside a group of Greek journalists, designers, and film-makers he created short films to counter the image of Greeks as lazy victims of the economic crisis and to challenge stereotypes, questioning the ways the crisis is portrayed in the international media. Furthermore, they documented the rise of the grassroots groups in Greece and begun producing an annual list and infographics. Enallaktikos started with a view to create an online economy that promotes the use of alternative local currencies and emerged as another sources of alternative media, brokering portals for micro-sites. The Solidarity for all Network, originally funded by Syriza, has documented solidarity initiatives across Greece and continues to provide networking tools for decentralized practices, as well as set up a new agenda for collective action. 

It would be hard to argue that all these initiatives are ideologically cohesive. Nonetheless, they have all have played a crucial role in enhancing the visibility and the coordination of the solidarity movements in Greece, locally and across Europe. At the same time, and through repeated interactions of their members, some cross-fertilization has emerged and key actors from different initiatives have shared their know-hows and developed trust for one another. Trust and know-how have become crucial ‘relational assets’ generated through intensive and intimate face-to-face interactions and through direct digital communication and social media. These relational assets have allowed previously unconnected activists to not only pull their particular resources together, such as time, money, reputation and knowledge, towards collective projects, but have also provided them with the practical skills to deploy these resources to not only have serious reputational impact on particular individuals but even the power to question their political legitimacy.

After the 2015 Greece’s turbulent fiscal odyssey, another chapter in the struggles to fight austerity programmes emerged: the institutional forces of a newly elected government of the Left, which attempted to shake up the power balance, creating a sense of hope and solidarity across anti-austerity and resistance movements across Europe.  Unfortunately, the eventual capitulation of the Syriza government and its submission to yet another imposed structural adjustment programme resulted in fresh disillusion, culminating in the ambiguous national referendum of July 2015.

After these events, some activists transcended their digital spheres and began to engage in more direct forms of popular participation, consolidating their support. The solidarity and engagement practices which were slowly nurtured during the previous years resulted in a more mature civic culture, which strived to build the capacities of ordinary people to represent themselves in social and alternative media. Some of these groups even began to assist refugees and demonstrated the vast psychological resources available to the Greek people, even in times of political frustration.

While the affordances of social media platforms have led to a considerable reduction in microsites and hyperlocal blogs, other phenomena have emerged during the last few years, shaping the nature of anti-austerity and solidarity media activism. Social media is largely accessed through smart phones, the routes to media activism lie in both ‘opportunity structures’ of civil and urban rights movements or unconventional action repertoires, which emerge as more ‘open’ governance structures of Facebook groups.

As emergency appeals and positive stories of ‘humanitarian achievements’ coincided with a growing need for more resources, the multiplication of the activities of the solidarity structures go beyond their initial field. In some cases, initiatives which at first dealt with food shortages have now developed cooperative production in order to meet their needs, creating alternative economies through radical labour and hospitality structures. These structures have responded to the massive influx of refugees.

Due to the violent resurfacing of new economic measures which have condemned Greece to eight consecutive years of recession, and taking in consideration the refugee crisis, a new sense of a ‘state of emergency’ , perhaps more far reaching than  the state of bankruptocracy or debtocracy previously experienced in the country, the fragility of the relationship between the government, Europe and the social movements or indeed the grassroots solidarity movement has probably become more intense.

Much of the recent coverage in the mainstream press in Europe has over-emphasized the idea of populism as the driving force behind the anti-austerity projects and associated media activism. By focusing on anti-austerity discourse in mere economic terms, such coverage undermines the legitimacy of a new breed of political culture. An aura of political creativity, and a sense of ‘media justice’ have emerged in Greece. Activists and ordinary people turn a street, a kitchen, a website and social media not just into another ‘space of appearances’, but into new heterotopic and counter-sites for parody, satire, insider knowledge, distributed hospitality and affective solidarity. These sites dispersed through social media, are evocative of what Roger Silverstone argued almost ten years ago: hospitality is ‘a precondition for the effective emergence of the mediapolis, as a space for connection and compassion (…) a precondition for “media justice”’.

 

Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

About the author

Giota Alevizou is a Lecturer and Research Fellow in Digital Cultures and Citizenship at The Open University. She is interested in Urban Media Ecologies, Creative Civic Activism and the intersections of social media, knowledge and networked learning. She has recently co-authored The Creative Citizen Unbound (Policy Press, 2016) and is finalising a monograph, The Webs of Knowledge in the Digital Age (Polity, 2019).

Giota is a guest editor for the editorial partnership, 'Who are 'we' in a moving world?'. The Open University is one of the Tate Exchange Associates who programmed the week of events ‘Who Are We?’.


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