“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, of “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 defined not so much by institutions and political parties, but by movements creating, 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 evidenced how the autonomy of the cities is being challenged by radical movements across the Southern European peripheries. Besides the traditional economic, labour or more confrontational struggles, these radical movements are directly connecting with the material and emotional conditions to organize and maintain life in cities.
Furthermore a process that it is embedded within the deconstruction of what they perceived as increased violent urban order imposed by state and capital and that it is also rooted in the historical unsustainable modes of food production .
Following this observation, we have explored the creative insurrectionist process released by 2008 revolts in Athens. And more specifically the convergences of the autonomous movement together with other radical movements as performed and experienced in this city which have been re-constructing the 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 along to understand that the current geography of the food autonomy of Athens it’s a complex contested space. More precisely, a space that was boosted and has been reshaped since the streets were occupied in December 2008 after 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 shared, these revolts boosted a time and space that made them believe they could “solve the problems of the city”. What others expressed 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 gradually have been transformed in 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 mobilisations and the answer of various radical movements to them have been shaping simultaneously their new political imaginaries and these new spaces.
Spaces where we have observed, life, and thus also food production, it is currently re-(self)-organized to facilitate gaining the needed conditions for their pursuing “take back our lives in our hands”, i.e, political autonomy from state and capital. Among them, 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-organized structures of the traditional autonomous movementhave led to the reconfiguration of these movements and to the emergence of new other radical movements. Moreover, it has resulted in building new “sporadic” ties among them and “more social” political imaginaries (Giorgos, Social Centre Nosotros; Thanos, Social Centre Eutopia, Athens, 2016).
Meaning, the traditional autonomous movement allied itself with the “Koukolouris” rebels that met on the barricades during the 2008 revolts and which characterized themselves with a more confrontational militancy. And after 2011 new uprising and occupation of Syntagma square, also with 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 answering to increased rates of unemployment, have come together 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 the increasing numbers of the “educated young” urban unemployed moving to the countryside to farm in Greece since 2008. And the “No middleman movement”, which has been built since 2012 by the cooperation among farmers and consumers in the cities to facilitate both the distribution and the consumption of food. Movements and alliances that have brought together a great diversity of constituencies. From students to retired activist. Unemployed and public servants, from women to men. Migrants and refugees, consumers, farmers, old activists and new rebels.
The prefigurative politics (assembly, horizontality, consensus decision-making) that are building these spaces and relations of the movements, have resulted in giving a decentralised and rhizomatic cooperative structure to their relationships. Beside this outcome, the prefigurative politics are perceived to be crucial to create the emerging new solidarities, trust and mutual aid relations. Moreover, to enable these movements to adapt themselves to the increased uncertainty and changing everyday life needs of the city and its neighbourhoods since 2008.
The performance of these relations and the geography of the food autonomy, has been built in synchronization 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 this processes of decentralisation and densification they have been engaging the neighbourhoods and the collectives on 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 to both, to trigger the process and to sustain it. Meaning, social centres, squats and stekia from the autonomous scene and the historical cooperative Sporos (Seed).
Furthermore, the ongoing inspiration of the politics of autonomy and the strength of transnational solidarity of urban and rural movements such as 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.
Tensions in the everyday life of building new solidarites
A persistent re-configuration of these movements, their relations and spaces have been occurring during these years. Such phenomenon can be understood, on one side as resulting by their material and political difficulties to create common spaces of struggle. And on the other side, by their creativity and awareness that allowed to adapt themselves to the changing material or emotional needs arisen (e.g. anger, unemployment, food emergency).
As Alex was sharing with us “the passion, and the individual “fantasies”, or political projects, are leading to constant fragmentations” (Exarcheia, 2016). The radical features of these movements are among others the causes that create tensions between. Looking to certain spaces such food cooperatives or farmers markets, and the changing construction of their common ground, we have come to identify tensions due to the difficulties of gaining the material autonomy needed.
Besides the collective needs of the movements, individual needs of the activists-affected, such as waged labour or incomes, have transformed some of these spaces from volunteers based to formal working cooperatives. While looking at the self-organized food banks we identify tensions between their transformative dimension and the humanitarian one. A tension that can be found in the paths that construct solidarities and reject philanthropy, through the mutual or delegative relationships between “activist-solidarious” and “affected”, and the construction of these two different identities.
The political construction of the spaces and the movements, keeping the “habitus” of hierarchical and delegative forms of organization and relation, maintaining informal hierarchies (leadership, group of vanguard) is perceived after various conversations, and the observation of these spaces, to persistent competitive relations and divisions of the movements. The political socialization of many of the activist within the traditional political parties (Greek Communist Party (KKE), or Syriza) and the traditional trade unions, is perceived as the main cause for maintaining these hierarchies.
The different rural or urban features of these movements can create also some tensions due to their different constraints and sometimes understandings of their same struggles and aims. Meaning their different needs of organization, more loose relations and times, or different needed logistics, financial needs, transports.
Instability within these movements and their alliances has been experienced also due to their porosity to be influenced by the parliamentary political context. This has been mainly observed in between the 2012 Greek elections, when the political party Syriza first got into parliament, and their acceptance of a new memorandum 2015 once they got elected in 2015 referendum. Delegation has been the main process identified 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 have also occurred through police repression and the traditional left parties control of their “spontaneous” insurrectionist features. The economical and material control implemented through the various memorandums since 2010 by the International Monetary Fund, European Union and the European Central Bank, and the resulted increased taxation on food goods and professional activities (farmers, working food cooperatives) make difficult their more stable and formal status and relations. Besides this, these repressions have been perceived to create boundaries and stronger ties built on trust and mutual aid among the participants and the various movements.
The relations with the local institutions have been 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 the continuous material cuts, the few spaces of negotiations with political parties or NGOs have almost disappeared. Universities are the formal institutions that remain having more exchanges and co-operations with 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 increased complex space where it’s possible 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)).
As result of the 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-wedding the city and the countryside and thus 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 is the existence and the everyday life collective construction of certain autonomous spaces (e.g. community urban gardens, collective kitchens) through prefigurative politics, what 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 emerged from them, have led them to work on the concrete (e.g. food emergency, unemployment) and in this way to gradually leave aside political divergences between the different participants and movements that converge on them. Yet, re-politicizing the everyday by engaging the neighbourhoods and the collectives on the organizing and maintenance of life, of food production, and in this way widening 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 performed in the city of Athens (e.g. austerity, police repression) are bringing tensions within the movements. But at the same time are allowing them to create more resilient relationships based on trust and mutual aid.
The quality of these relationships, loose, sporadic, spontaneous, it is resulting by the malleability of the spaces. The diverse discourses, subjectivities, constituencies, needs, engaged on these spaces and the aim to respect this diversity it is the main cause. Something also remarkable and positive from this kind of relations and their adaptability it is that is also allowing them to create sporadic relations with local governments in order to full-fill material needs, such as 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. Relationships that allow also the opening of new imaginaries to confront the socio-ecological limits of cities.