Alternatives emerging from the Greek crisis

Photo credit: cafemama

February 16, 2012 // By: Andrew Simms

Greece is gripped by an official self-fulfilling rhetoric that ‘there is no alternative’ to a hard-line, socially divisive, austerity-driven return to business-as-usual. It’s a policy in which, to misquote a famous ditty ‘it’s the rich who get the pleasure and the poor who take the pain.’ In this case, however, the poor includes the vast majority of Greek society.

My colleague David Boyle pointed out on this site that the Euro policy makers’ mantra of ‘no alternative’ is simply not true where the money system is concerned. Local currencies can restart the engines of local economies when mainstream finance has seized them. My other colleague James Meadway outlined other alternatives concerning default and the introduction of capital controls. Stephen Reid showed how self-sufficient in terms of trade Greece could be.

Greek suffering, although terrible for them, lays bare not just the failure of orthodox economics but positively highlights the benefits of doing things differently.

Ironically it is in the gaps of a broken system that the shoots of a different, new economy get a chance to grow. This is the progressive opposite to Naomi Klein’s chilling account of neo-liberal economics’ exploitation of disasters. Nowhere yet in daily coverage of worsening conditions in the Eurozone has the full irony been effectively exposed of a system’s advocates using its very failure to further promote it.

But while disaster reveals a society’s economic and social weaknesses, it also reveals where true resilience and real value can be found - in the ability of people to cooperate at the local level to meet a community’s needs.

Decades of work on humanitarian disasters show that, in the first most important hours after a disaster, how well a community responds depends on the strength, quality and capacity of the social networks it already has. These, obviously, are set by how the community and economy has been organised up until then. Small island states, for example, used to being on their own tend to develop more cooperative systems and be more resilient when disasters strike. Local people are first on the scene, and usually best understand who needs what kind of help. It was local businesses, not big corporations, who were first back to rebuild after the flood disaster in New Orleans (and Cuba, for interest, which was more cooperatively organised and, oddly, internationally isolated than New Orleans, survived far better a hurricane of similar scale). Elsewhere, in the wastelands created by recession in Detroit in the United States, unemployed people turned to urban gardening to grow their own food and reclaim abandoned plots of land. People have done the same in poor parts of New York.

After the financial crisis that wrecked Argentina’s economy at the turn of the millennium, Huerta Comunitaria, or community gardens, sprang up everywhere, such as in the La Boca district of Buenos Aires, alongside community kitchens. Things went much further in Argentina as whole arms of government ceased to function properly. El Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados, the movement of unemployed workers brought groups together to do everything from making food, to building shelters, creating markets for people to sell their products, schooling and, also, demonstrating. They created, in effect, a parallel economy. Panaderia, bloquera and ropero - bakeries, block making, and clothes making and selling were a particular focus which is perhaps unsurprising being the basics of a livelihood: food, shelter and clothing.

One such group, CTDAV had 15,000 and paid out 9,000 unemployment benefits per month in 2002.

This all suggests the best thing to do is always to build a community’s own capacity and resilience. It’s a simple insight for some extreme circumstances, but would also seem to have much more general application.

Last October, the New York Times reported that, just as elsewhere when times get hard, in Greece people were turning their backs on a failed mainstream to grow their own parallel economy.

In the Greek port City of Volos, reported the paper, Theodoros Mavridis bought eggs, milk and jam at market using a new informal barter currency – a Local Alternative Unit, or TEM as its known locally. “I felt liberated, I felt free for the first time,” he said. The system combines an element of barter, with an alternative currency and similar systems are emerging around Greece and are being used for basics like food as well as business and services. At the time of writing the Volos network had 400 members.

History shows that initiatives like this regularly emerge in times of crisis. And, from Buenos Aires to Detroit and Volos, they have enormous benefits. People who get involved feel happier, healthier and as if they have more control over their lives. They build community and more resilient local economies.

The big question is why we wait for disasters to strike – economic or environmental ones – before we take the initiative to do things differently?

In normal times the dominant financial system creates a disempowering dependency culture of passive consumerism. When this happens, community erodes, we become deskilled, our lives less healthy and economies more vulnerable to shocks. On the basis that prevention is better than cure, what is happening in Greece and elsewhere is an opportunity to learn from what we do in times of disaster and redesign the mainstream economy to prioritise well-being and resilience. 

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