Austerity and grassroots mobilization in Athens: The emergence of an urban governance divide?

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderIoannis Chorianopoulos and Nayia Tselepi report on findings from a second round of research in Melbourne carried out as part of our collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

In our last posting we discussed the collaborative governance shift noted in the government of the City of Athens by reason of funding cutbacks and reduced revenue raising capacities.  In this light, the City administration turned to the private sector and NGOs, creating a wide range of joined up schemes that exist by virtue of their ability to generate or attract resources.  Our focus here is ‘civil society’, and its responses to austerity and municipal collaboration.  Civil society is the sum total of a wide range of social actors that operate outside the realm of the state apparatus and the private market.  In order to align and position our research in relation to this heterogeneous domain of associations, we drew from the Gramscian standpoint.  Civil society was explored in respect of its role in urban governance and its stances on the changing matrices of Athenian urban politics.

The proliferation of grassroots initiatives

Economic crisis, whether in the form of a cyclical contraction or a severe long lasting recession, is seen as triggering particular civil society responses, driven by welfare need. Such mobilisation, in turn, is perceived as an incipient ‘social movement’ to the extent that it involves a campaign that extends beyond any single event, and a collective effort that frames key issues and claims alternative world views.

According to various research accounts, more than 2.500 grassroots schemes have emerged in Greek cities during the crisis, signifying a discernable social movement with a prominent presence in Athens.  For “Omikron Project”, an informal group of 40 volunteers mapping grassroots initiatives in an attempt to address the stereotypes of ‘idleness’ and ‘helplessness’ projected to the country:

“During the last three years [2013-2016], grassroots initiatives in Athens more than doubled, while a total of 70 per cent of the networks that existed prior to 2013, do remain active.  These are groups that operate informally on principle, and only a few turn into NGOs. They don’t want to have any dealings with the state or with handling funds. They just want to offer a way out to the crisis.  That means a lot as we see a different civil society emerging; different from the one that surfaced in the 1990s because of EU funds”.

Informality in practice

The sheer diversity of goals and practices that characterize Athenian grassroots initiatives renders their classification an unfruitful exercise.  However, a number of key common traits were noted, referring primarily to their informal features and their contrariety to prescribed structures and institutions associated with austerity.  Informality is underscored by the absence of any legal status in the majority of cases, and by the voluntary nature of their activities.   Even groups that decided to acquire a legal form in order to participate in a wider range of formal fundraising bids, they also operate along self-organised and voluntary-based lines.  Voluntarism is facilitated by the social media and the presence of dedicated web platforms, such as “volunteer4Greece” and “solidarity4all”, which communicate grassroots activities and needs to an increasingly receptive public.  More than that, however, ‘volunteerism’ complements ‘informality’ as a key trait of grassroots’ mobilization, shaping a contentious political stance that draws from a growing frustration with formal structures and institutions.

“Volunteerism is a form of resistance. It’s a statement, exposing the absence of the authorities from where they are needed; it’s a way to show and deal with the problems the city is facing”.

The second common trait that grassroots initiatives share is their opposition to austerity, the socio-economic impacts of which is the key reason behind their mobilization.  In this light, agents, practices and institutions associated with austerity are purposefully avoided, even by the less radical sides of this movement.

Relations with the City

‘Collaboration’ in the Athenian civil society realm refers to a markedly different process than the one observed in the City administration.  Voluntarism suggests a firm attempt to create ‘self-managed’ spaces of encounters amongst citizens, forming collective solidarity efforts that avoid hierarchies.  It doesn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that relations between the grassroots and the City of Athens are virtually nonexistent.

The views of civil society networks regarding the collaborative governance policies launched by the City range from the guarded to the outright contentious.  In the first case we see groups that use municipal resources in order to promote their goals.  The example of the “One Stop” initiative sheds light on this standpoint.  Two NGOs together with two informal social solidarity networks and a number of individuals, gather twice a week in a municipal building offering food and a variety of services (legal advice, first aid, laundry, haircut, showers, etc.) to the homeless population.  “One stop” is also using a municipal web platform, called “synAthina”, that’s facilitating unofficial groups and individual initiatives to make its actions and events known. None of the groups involved in this scheme, however, is willing to invest further in any type of relations with the City administration.

“No, we don’t collaborate with any state institutions.  Yes, we’re an NGO, but we don’t want to be seen as yet another organization that’s funded by the state to return a fraction of what it gets to the people in need.  This view might not do justice to many NGOs, but it’s a strong one and we hear it all the time;  “…ah, you’re there, so you get a piece of the pie as well”, so to speak”.

The more outspoken and drastic viewpoints reject outright any association with the City, accusing the current municipal administration for endorsing the framework of austerity policies.  The culmination of an already thorny relation, however, appears to be the 2015 national referendum.  Voters were asked on whether to approve of the austerity-laden bailout conditions in the country’s government-debt crisis proposed jointly by the EC, the IMF and the ECB.  The Mayor’s leading role in the national campaign for accepting the proposal, broke any remaining links with the more radical of grassroots’ networks.  As stated:

“The referendum wasn’t about the Euro or Grexit. It was about austerity. You can’t stand out as the main proponent of the “yes” vote, as the mayor did, knowing that what we stand for is negated by the “yes” vote.  That’s why very many solidarity networks have pulled out from synAthina ever since.  The networks don’t trust the City any more”.

At first hand, the apparent distance between the City and the grassroots reflects the decades’ long trajectories of hierarchical municipal administration, restricting the emergence of avenues of communication.   Institutional legacies aside, the City’s current compliant role in administering austerity policies fuzzed local relations further.  As municipal collaborative policies didn’t allow any room for contesting austerity, a series of counter-hegemonic voices surfaced and asserted their presence in the civil society realm, primarily in the form of social solidarity networks.   The anti-austerity origins of this movement shaped its political orientation, arresting relations with the City.  What is unfolding in Athenian politics, is an austerity-driven governance divide.

Ioannis Chorianopoulos is an Associate Professor at the Dept. of Geography, University of the Aegean.

Naya Tselepi is Ph.D. holder in Geography.  Naya is currently a Research Fellow at the Dept. of Geography, University of the Aegean.

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