The Greek Left Takes Stock of the Commons

If the Greek experience of the past two years shows anything, it is that conventional Left politics, even with massive electoral support and control of the government, cannot prevail against finance capital and its international allies.  European creditors continue to force Greek citizens to endure the punishing trauma of austerity politics with no credible scenario for economic recovery or social reconstruction in sight. 

After the governing coalition Syriza capitulated to creditors’ draconian demands in 2016, its credibility as a force for political change declined. Despite its best intentions, it could not deliver. The Greek people might understandably ask:  Have we reached the limits of what the conventional Left can achieve within “representative democracies” whose sovereignty is so compromised by global capital?  Beyond such political questions, citizens might also wonder whether centralized bureaucratic programs in this age of digital networks can ever act swiftly and responsively.  Self-organized, bottom-up federations of commoning often produce much better results.    

Pummeled by some harsh realities and sobered by the limits of Left politics, many Greeks are now giving the commons a serious look as a political option. This was my impression after a recent visit to Athens where I tried to give some visibility to the recently published Greek translation of my book Think Like a Commoner.  In Greek, the book is entitled Κοινά: Μια σύντομη εισαγωγή.  Besides a public talk at a bookstore (video here), I spoke at the respected left Nicos Poulantzas Institute (video with Greek translation & English version), which was eager to host a discussion about commons and commoning. 

In my talk, I suggested that the Greek state might wish to re-imagine “the economy,” politics and law by considering what commons could accomplish (and are accomplishing), and how state policies might support commoning. Since the left cannot necessarily advance its larger agenda of social justice, fairness and human rights through the state – subservient as it is to neoliberal circuits of global power – it should entertain how the commons might open up some new solution-sets. 

To that end, I discussed the promise of relocalized food and agriculture systems; the potential of re-imagining city policies and programs as a commons; the advantages of academic commons to more efficiently generate and share scholarship and scientific knowledge; the power of open source software and open design and manufacturing; the ecological wisdom of traditional agricultural, forestry and fishery commons; and the ways in which law could decriminalize and support commoning, moving beyond many pathologies of bureaucracy.

At the macro-scale, a commons-based economy could also help a country escape the massive inefficiencies, ecological costs, predatory behaviors and corruption associated with the conventional economy -- while generating new forms nonmarket provisioning and socially legitimate political power.

I was told about medical care commons that have sprung up in Athens in recent years.  Staffed by volunteers and donated/low-cost supplies, the system is a desperate social improvisation to help people meet basic medical needs at a time when public hospitals turn people away.  The system has become a respected alternative system for medical care, engaging people as real human beings and not as mere “clients” or numbers. When patients don’t use all the pills they are given, for example, they return them, so someone else can use them. A kind of social solidarity has emerged. Supplies and personnel are obviously limited, but some aspects of healthcare have been reinvented as flexible modes of human caring, escaping the economic and social logic of conventional healthcare. 

Of necessity, Greeks have established other commons as well – for food, housing and fuel.  There are active efforts to make Greek academic research and data more available as a commons, going beyond the logic of open platforms.  A Greek hacker community, the Libre Space Foundation, has even built the first open source satellite and ground station network – UPSat and SatNOGS -- from readily available and affordable tools. 

These are the sorts of initiatives that the traditional left may regard as interesting, but not politically significant. I think that is a huge mistake. In that gap of understanding lies the potential for inventing a new type of climate-friendly, socially just economy and political culture.

At this moment of transition, therefore, when the commons seems to be acquiring new traction and visibility in Greece, I am thrilled that my book Think Like a Commoner is now available there. 

I wish to thank George Papanikolaou and Andreas Karitzis for their role in organizing the translation of my book, and Efstathiou Anastasio of Angelus Novus Editions for publishing and promoting the Greek edition.  My thanks also to two commons scholars, Antonis Broumas and Stavros Stravrides, for graciously sharing their thoughts on the commons at the bookstore event.  A salute, too, to the Nicos Poulantzas Institute for hosting my talk. 

For any readers of Greek, here are a few press interviews with me and reviews of my book – in Epohi; in Avgi, a collective blog (and here); in efsyn; and in Left.

Even though it was cold and blustery -- Athens in February! -- I had a great time, including a visit to the Acropolis and Agora. Next time: longer discussions, a day at the National Museum, and a visit to Greek islands.