Peoples’ assemblies have been a dominant feature of anti-capitalism in Greece and Spain (see Part 1, published yesterday) for many years. In both countries this movement has paved the way for the success of Syriza and Podemos, respectively (though some may argue that they, particularly the latter, exploited the assemblies and Indignados for their own electoral ends). In the UK there has been no exact equivalent; instead, historically, activism there has largely been based on issues, sometimes community centres and, of course, via militant unionism. It is useful to examine how the assemblies movement in both Spain and Greece has evolved and the lessons learnt from successes and failures. They have the potential to return some degree of democracy to the people; they are also an important component of the wider anti-austerity movement. In Part 2 we get a glimpse of what has been happening in Greece…
The peoples’ assembly movement in Greece is at its core libertarian – anarchist – and is, today, the mainstay of popular, radical organisation at street and neighbourhood level. Whether or not Greece stays within the Eurozone, the peoples’ assemblies are still there, organising and seeing to the alternative economy. Below, we present a ‘potted history’ – the evolution – of the assembly movement in Greece; a snapshot of how things were with the movement prior to the downfall of the conservative government earlier this year.
The idea of neighbourhood assemblies spread massively after December 2008. The death of Alexis and the weeks of revolt, confrontations and occupations that followed, as well as the acid attack on the transit worker, Konstantina Kuneva, were the events that really shook society. The broad characteristics of that revolt are, on the one hand, the absence of any demands or petitions for reforms and, on the other hand, the aspect of decentralization in all the neighbourhoods of Athens and, immediately thereafter, in the whole country.
After December 2008, the dynamic of the actions and confrontations in the city centres reached its limit and then shifted to the neighbourhoods. With the assemblies, the idea at first consisted in obtaining places for meetings, without having anything particular in mind, except the will to engage in collective inquiry. It was a way to prolong the relations that had been created during the revolt. Many of the assemblies were formed at that time, but only four of them continued to function continuously. The others reappeared when the social movement broke out again, as is taking place today or as happened in 2011, when there were approximately forty assemblies in Athens.
The assembly of Vyronas, Kaisariani, Pangrati (VKP) was formed in neighbourhoods that have a long history of popular revolt: one of them was the old red neighbourhood during the Resistance, the neighbourhood that the Nazis were never able to conquer. This tradition was interrupted with the passage of the years as a result of the bourgeoisification of the population, but also because the State built a barracks there for armed police. Today these three neighbourhoods have a heterogeneous population, but in general they are rather well-off districts. There were assemblies in VKP before 2008, created amidst struggles over public space. The first one was formed to oppose the project to construct a theatre in the middle of a park. Besides the paving and cement this implied—Athens is one of the cities in Europe with the fewest green spaces—the inhabitants knew that the theatre would be rented to private companies that would raise the price of tickets through the roof. Thanks to this mobilization, the project was cancelled and the assembly continued to exist, and even still exists today, organizing activities for children, basketball tournaments and a free café in the park on the first Sunday of each month. It is also very active in participating in the life of the neighbourhood, distributing militant propaganda in the schools, organizing open festivals with the immigrants and also engaging in solidarity actions with people who were arrested in the demonstrations during the general strikes. And there was another struggle that attracted a lot of people: the opposition to the tunnel and highway overpass project that was slated to destroy part of the Hymettus mountain, one of the last green spaces in the city, located to the east of the city center. There were many demonstrations in the vicinity of the mountain, blockades of the highway bypasses, and actions at the toll booths, which caused the project to be abandoned. In VKP the people had these experiences as a starting point. Later, during the revolts of December 2008, they occupied a municipal youth center for a few days and rapidly convoked the assembly. After the weekly assemblies in the three neighbourhoods, the people decided to rent a place to meet. At this time about thirty persons participated in the assemblies, a figure that has remained more or less stable to this day.
We were involved in two types of action: on the one hand, we were defending ourselves against the attacks of the system and, on the other hand, we were elaborating projects and ways of life that seemed desirable to us. For example, in 2010 there was an initial attempt to coordinate with other assemblies and libertarian collectives that participated in the struggles in their neighbourhoods against the fare increases in public transport. We arranged for each assembly to simultaneously organize demonstrations in the subway and bus stations. Pamphlets were distributed, the ticket machines were vandalized, and we proposed self-reductions in order to question the discourse of the authorities, which consisted in saying that public transport was just another commodity that had to be profitable. We made an attempt to link up with the workers in public transport, but this was difficult as the people from Golden Dawn—the Greek neo-Nazi party—had a lot of influence among the bus drivers trade union.
Later, we participated in all the general strikes since 2010, which were severely repressed. During the course of one of these strikes, the police attacked the march of the neighbourhood assemblies, sending one person to the hospital in a coma and who almost died; others were seriously injured. These experiences brought us together and strengthened our determination. We blockaded the supermarkets and shopping centres of the neighbourhood in order to turn the strike into a real strike, so that no one would be able to consume. We also attempted to encircle the Greek Parliament when the deputies were voting on the second round of austerity measures. The neighbourhood assemblies played an important role in this demonstration. We also tried to maintain a permanent presence in the neighbourhood, organizing demonstrations and a collective kitchen and cultivating an occupied garden for the purpose of attaining food self-sufficiency. We also held a barter market once a month in different squares. We also had our own meeting hall, with a library that is open to the neighbourhood, in which we organized various activities, debates and talks.
All these actions were undertaken for the purpose of breaking with the individualism and the pessimism that seized Greece with the onset of the crisis, to fight against the social cannibalism that the State was indirectly promoting as a solution to the crisis. By way of these practices, we were attempting to encourage the development of relations based on equality and solidarity. The neighbourhood is a very fertile space for this, all the more so, insofar as in Athens the city districts are still socially quite mixed, which allows us to establish unexpected relations.
We had to deal with the problem of getting enough food ever since we opened the collective kitchens. We made contact with the other assemblies that had similar problems and, during that time, a large area in an adjacent neighbourhood was occupied: a villa with cultivable land.
We decided to convoke a new assembly entirely dedicated to this question. This same assembly was responsible for cultivating the land for the purpose of supplying the collective kitchens of the four neighbourhoods cooperating on this project. We were a long way from being self-sufficient with regard to food, but it was a first step. Having said this, the garden was threatened with eviction. Expulsions from the occupied spaces, such as, for example, at Villa Amalias and Skaramagas, multiplied in Athens since the beginning of 2013.
Certain people spoke at the assembly to express their view that there were too many immigrants in the neighbourhoods and that something must be done about this. This is a risk we have to take when participating in open movements. Sometimes there are even outbursts of sexism during actions. The only way to fight against this is by talking to people. Usually, they understand, and if not, they go away. Once, however, at a neighbourhood assembly convened to oppose the construction of cell phone towers, two fascists showed up without saying that they belonged to Golden Dawn. But we knew about them because in a small neighbourhood everyone knows everything. The only thing we could do was to tell them that they were not welcome.
Since they obtained seats in Parliament, and thanks to the support they received as a result, Golden Dawn opened offices throughout Greece. However, whenever they opened a new office, protests and demonstrations were held that often resulted in confrontations with the police. Without police protection the fascists would not have been able to maintain a presence in the neighbourhoods. Fortunately, they only had two really active neighbourhood committees in Athens. In some working class neighbourhoods such as those in western Athens, near the Piraeus, they had a certain amount of influence. In those districts, however, the neighbourhood assemblies openly confront them. In our neighbourhood there is neither a fascist presence nor any immigrant hunting, but this is due, in part, to our presence and constant vigilance. In my opinion, the antifascist struggle consists more in building our own structures and the kind of world we want—which is basically antifascist in essence—than in denouncing them with speeches.
In May 2011, following in the footsteps of the movement of the indignados in Spain and the occupation of Syntagma Square, there was a second wave of assemblies in Athens. In our neighbourhood, militants from one part of the radical left called for the creation of another assembly in which we also participated. Soon, however, major differences arose among us. If you want to create a space for dialogue with people who act in a paternalistic and condescending way, like leaders, you will necessarily have conflicts. During this period the assemblies were inundated with demands, such as a proposal to nationalize the Bank of Greece. People who wanted an open debate soon lost interest and this second wave did not last very long. The assemblies controlled by the leftists could not, or did not want to, propose concrete demands concerning health, education or food security. In short, they did not try to promote another way of life, beyond the capitalist system, which is collapsing all around us. Do we need to nationalize the Bank? This is not the correct question, in my view.
2012 – 14
A third wave of assemblies took place when the State implemented a special extra tax on everyone’s electricity bills: “those who do not pay the tax, will have their electricity cut off”. The tax and the attempts to fight against it have accentuated the differences between the assemblies. Some of them were composed of people who were concerned about having their electricity cut off and simply asked the more politically active participants to solve the problem for them. Some accepted this role, although this implied the abandonment of horizontal organization in favor of the logic of delegation.
Our assembly also issued an appeal to organize around the issue of these special taxes. It was very dynamic and was actually quite radical: our neighbourhoods did not have to undergo electricity cut-offs, whether because of non-payment of the tax, or for any other reason. For us, electricity is vital.
The assembly went to the tax offices and forced the company that was contracted to implement the electricity cut-offs to leave the neighbourhood. Later, we went to the local headquarters of the electricity company to cut off its electricity. We then established neighbourhood patrols to prevent the technicians from the electric company from cutting off our electricity. This, along with the antifascist struggle, became the main fight that the assemblies waged.
The assembly movement also owes a great deal to what took place in Argentina. Although there is no direct connection, the influence is real. During the first general strikes we were inspired by the Argentinian experience and later also by the Tunisian and Egyptian events. Another important influence was the self-reduction movements in Italy during the seventies: groups organized to not pay rents, electric bills or transport fares. In our assembly, particularly, many people were inspired by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and its quest for autonomy. We participate in solidarity actions with these struggles in our neighbourhood.
One factor that all these different sources of inspiration have in common, which is present in the assemblies, is the will to organize horizontally, without political parties: although there are party militants in the assemblies, they only participate in the assemblies as individuals, without labels. The political foundations of the assemblies are autonomy and the will to create structures outside capitalism, based on sharing and solidarity. In our assembly, there are basic positions that have been arrived at after long discussions. We are always seeking a consensus in order to find a way to move forward together.
In Greece, there is much less belief in institutions, in the idea of the social contract and representation, than in France. It is fertile ground both for anti-authoritarian ideas as well as for hyper-authoritarian ideas. Here, it is much easier than it is in France to associate on common bases with people from diverse political backgrounds. On the other hand, however, the danger of becoming a closed group also exists: finding a way to keep the assemblies open to recent arrivals is a never-ending task.
After the revolt of 2008-2009 we were continuously trying to keep abreast of what was happening. What the neighbourhood assemblies have once again contributed, as a possibility, was precisely not to restrict our demands to things that were taken away from us and instead to move towards the world we want to create. But the obstacles are numerous and the repression suffered by the political militants, the rise of Golden Dawn, the explosion of unemployment and the constant violence against immigrants prevented us from devoting ourselves to a program as if nothing else was happening.
One of the weak points of the movement is the fact that the moments of resurgence never obtained any concrete results. The general assembly of the neighbourhood assemblies was one of those moments. In November 2011 all the existing assemblies convened in one assembly: forty in Athens, with four hundred representatives and a good dynamic. But it quickly ran out of steam. It obtained no concrete victories and this was a source of discouragement, creating a feeling of defeat that is very acute at the present time. This feeling is also in part caused by the fact that the neighbourhood assemblies did not appear to be viable solutions for the organization of everyday life.
The will to create structures based on self-organization and autonomy poses numerous questions: how can they be built while simultaneously going beyond the logic of charity and philanthropy? How can we create our own autonomy in an environment in which everything has been stolen, where we cannot produce anything for ourselves, especially in the urban setting? What do we have to do to get people to really participate? When we organize collective kitchens or barter markets, we have to constantly explain that they are not ordinary distribution services.
I do not think there is a really convincing answer to these problems, we have to be patient. The way I see it, in the very large assemblies people are inclined to delegate tasks to others and to accept the representation of a small group, whereas when there are more personal relations and more contacts there is correspondingly greater equality in participation. It is a question of relations. There are not many people who think that we can live without anyone’s help, without a basis of consensus and dialogue, and that we can reclaim our lives on an individual basis.
I get the impression, however, that, as the State and the economic system decline and fall, more “grey zones” will arise and other modes of organization and relations will become possible. The role of the assemblies will be crucial in this. Not only do we have to keep the home fires burning, but we also have to make the fire last longer. New structures appear in Greece with each passing month. From this perspective, the movement is on the right path.
Above account translated from the Spanish journal, Argelaga.