In the first of these posts on The Abduction of Europe encounter in madrid we outlined the rationale for the event and why we think it is necessary for social movements to be thinking and acting at the European level. In the second, we described one of the workshops we participated in, looking at financialization and debt. In this post we look at the second workshop we participated in: ‘Commonfare’. This was a term that was introduced by the organizers of the workshop. It provoked the question of how the ‘commons’ might become the basis for new forms of ‘welfare’ – literally ‘to go well’ – at a time when neither (financial) capitalism nor the state are capable of providing for the material well-being of people. The workshop was an interesting mix because it brought together concrete examples of new forms of commons production, particularly in the areas of housing and healthcare in Greece, Spain and Italy, and more theoretical and speculative questions around the relationship between the commons and the state/public.
As was mentioned by one of the participants, the ‘commons’ has not suddenly appeared from nowhere. It has different intellectual and political lineages: the environmental economics of Elinor Ostrom; the historical accounts of commoners and commoning of Peter Linebaugh and the feminist perspective of Silvia Federici, to name a few. What these different approaches share is a concern for social reproduction, for the ways particular communities produce and manage the resources on which they depend at a distance from the market or the state. It is no surprise then that the commons has taken on particular salience in the current crisis, a crisis that is experienced by most people as a crisis of social reproduction. By this is meant the everyday struggles that people face to find and keep a roof over their heads, pay for energy and food bills, access healthcare and childcare. These basic social needs have been met in the past through a combination of wages, access to public goods and services and, increasingly over the last decade, access to credit. Since the crisis many people find themselves without work, or working in increasingly precarious conditions. At the same time, the burden of debt continues to hang over them – particularly mortgage-related debt.
Since 2008, governments on different sides of the political spectrum have been elected into power across Europe and all of them have implemented austerity programs. As we identified in the first post, this regime of financial austerity is imposed through the institutions of the European Union. Austerity policies have not only meant a reduction in public investment but also the withdrawal of vital welfare services in the areas of housing, healthcare, education and social benefits, the privatization of public goods and services, cuts to the public sector and the general withering and hollowing out of what remains through the financial disciplining of public administration.
While the current regime of austerity makes it impossible for the state to provide for the material well-being of the population it is wrong to imagine that a return to a golden past of publicly-managed goods and services is possible or even desirable. Clearly the production and organization of water and energy infrastructure, social housing, healthcare and education at the level of the state allowed for huge investments and developments. But putting the provision of such basic social needs in the hands of a professional elite and state bureaucracy have also meant a separation between the many different needs and experiences of people and the institutions and expert knowledge that provide for them. The hierarchies that are built into state institutions have meant that narrow, often elitist visions of the public good have prevailed. Indeed this has ensured that the very notion of the public good has been eroded for some time as the provision of social needs, such as housing, has become little more than a form of charity or ‘service’ subject to chronic under-funding and poor planning, thereby reproducing of long-standing social inequalities. The exclusionary dynamics of the state have only been exacerbated with the financial crisis as governments have been quick to limit and put new conditions on welfare payments and access to basic social services that affect the most vulnerable.
The ‘commons’ thus arises in a context where the crisis of social reproduction, experienced everyday by millions across Europe, is not being met by either the state or the market. In response, many grassroots, community initiatives are occupying the space left open, developing new ways of providing and caring for one another. All across southern Europe, pragmatic, practical experiments are underway as people develop new ways of collectively responding to the everyday problems they face.
Greece is the obvious example, where the disasters of crisis and austerity have forced many people to develop their own networks of social and material support. In Madrid, Frossos, a woman from Thessaloniki, painted a vivid picture of how the social model in Greece had suddenly and shockingly been blown apart. The force of this change has not just played out in the political and economic spheres, but has also radically altered the fabric of social life. This has meant a tremendous amount of pain and suffering, which has partly been channelled into everyday racism and violence against migrants, but it has also been channelled into progressive social ‘experiments’. Frossos, for example, works in a solidarity health clinic run on a volunteer basis by doctors, nurses and other health-workers in Thessaloniki, Greece. The clinic offers free health care five days a week to anyone who needs it. Over the past two years it has treated 12,000 patients alone. It does this by raising funds for medicine and equipment through donations and fundraisers, such as hosting children’s music concerts in local schools. This is just one of a network of forty self-managed health clinics in Greece that have emerged since 2011.
Frossos is constantly being invited to be part of new projects and initiatives that are attempting to create new networks of solidarity and reproduction (food, health, childcare etc.) She said that these projects are emerging all over Greece because people have no choice. For example, only those who are officially employed can receive health insurance. This means that 3 million Greeks and countless undocumented migrants have no access to health care. New laws also mean that if you are taken to hospital for an operation or emergency and are unable to pay, the hospital is able to access the assets you own through the banks, including your house. There are stories of people losing their homes because they couldn’t afford the cost of an operation. Not surprisingly, people with no money don’t go to hospital even if they are dying.
Vangelis, who also volunteers in the solidarity health clinic, has been unemployed for four years. Because he works in the clinic for free he sometimes can’t afford the bus fare from his home. He relies on the kindness and support of those who are part of this new ‘community of healthcare’, as he put it. He explained that in this community the concept and practice of care extends beyond the normal hierarchical relationships between doctor and patient. The clinic does not function like the state medical institutions where patients are treated like objects and with expensive drugs. New relations and practices of healthcare are being established that recognize that health is not simply a technical, individual issue but a social, collective one. This community of healthcare also cannot exist without a wider network of solidarity and support. In this way, healthcare is not a discreet part of social life, a practice ‘owned’ by professional doctors and nurses, but rather the ‘common’ responsibility of all those involved.
The health clinic in Thessaloniki is a good example of how new forms of the commons are emerging in the wake of crisis and austerity. It illustrates how the commons is not simply about providing a material response to immediate social needs, but about the production of new social relations and practices at the level of everyday life. At the same time, the people who worked in the health clinic were acutely aware that what they were doing was not a panacea for the problems in Greece. There were many more people who were sick and dying than they could take care of. Everyday is a struggle with limited resources and labor. The minimal provision of services by under-resourced communities can also obscure the fact that while millions of people go without basis necessities, the common wealth of society is hoarded by private economic interests. This is a concrete reality for the health clinic as they struggle to pay for drugs and medicine that are privately owned by multinational pharmaceutical companies.
As well as the immediate difficulties of sustaining self-managed initiatives during a time of crisis, the organization of de-centralised, self-managed forms of social reproduction, such as healthcare, can be encouraged and used by governments at a time of crisis to placate and manage the population. While this is less the case in Greece, participants from the UK discussed the legacy of the ‘Big Society’ where the government has actively encouraged community management of basic public functions. This does not just function to obscure political questions of re-distribution, normalizing austerity, it also allows the government to more effectively police communities through various disciplining mechanisms tied to funding. In Dublin, the creative uses of vacant spaces is another way in which voluntary collective activity is being used to cover up the continuing failure of developer-led planning in the city. The positive aspects of these localized commons can also draw our attention away from the powerful financial dynamics that continue to create a topsy turvy situation in which austerity is normalized at a time when more wealth exists than ever.
While all of us in the workshop were drawn to the many possibilities and hopes that are carried in the concept of the commons, there was a clear understanding that it should not be romanticized. This echoes the general tone of the meeting in Madrid which was focussed on how we can actually intervene in and transform the current situation of austerity and debt. The ‘commons’ provides us with a point of reference outside of the public/private binary but it is not a model to be applied to society, nor should it be imagined outside the context of global financial capitalism and global environmental crises, such as climate change.
One way in which the discussion of ‘commonfare’ attempted to address the apparent gap between the everyday grounded commons and the need to construct new forms of organization capable of sustaining real alternatives was to distinguish the self-managed commons from the idea of the common good. Where the self-managed commons can take many different forms, always situated and negotiated between a particular community and the resources they depend on, the common good refers to the universal need for healthcare, housing, knowledge, culture and so on. The common good is something like an axiom or principle that can guide action from below. In this sense it is not just an empirical description of our basic needs. Claiming that water, the city or even money is a common good means that it belongs to all of us, that we should have a say in how it is produced, managed and distributed. The clearest example of how this has been articulated through a concrete struggle comes from Italy where the successful campaign against water privatization was made on the grounds that water was a common good, not simply a public good that could be bought or sold by the government. As a common good it belongs to everybody and thus should be accessible to everyone. Similar demands and struggles are arising around Europe as people come to recognize that their demands for greater democracy and a life worth living go far beyond the miserly existence that the existing political and economic systems can provide. In the next post the connection between ‘commonfare’ and these new movements will be discussed in more detail.