At the Limit: Self-Organisation in Greece

By Anna O'Lory, 27 February 2013
Image: 'The economy is injured, I hope it dies', Graffiti, Athens, c.2012

In Greece a resurgence of self-organising under crisis conditions is drawing on an established repertoire of existing alternatives. Anna O’Lory – member of the group and journal Blaumachen – describes these initiatives’ central features and exposes their integral limits

Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s recent film, Ultimate Substance, influenced by Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s work, links money as the universal equivalent to forms of thought and social organisation: the quantification of activity through an abstract equivalent corresponds to abstraction in thought and scientific quantification. For us, the important consequence of this is that not only exploitation, but the imposition of accounting on social life is itself denaturalised. Money is not critiqued for not corresponding to value in a precise enough way. It is critiqued precisely for being what it is: a universal equivalent that mediates exchange and, simultaneously, a form of value.

In Greece, today, as the State withdraws from the reproduction of labour power in the form of welfare, replacing it with workfare and policing, while capital, small and large, is forced to withdraw from investment and production, throwing a large section of the population out of the labour contract and into informal/precarious labour and unemployment, there is a resurgence of self-organising activity as well as of interest in it, notably on the part of the state. This self-organising activity is a direct response to the removal of previous sources of reproduction (wages, pensions, welfare), presenting itself as a necessity. Not only is this self-organisation symptomatic of the crisis, but it is itself pervaded by it. The aim here is to lay out some thoughts about these activities, not from the perspective of whether these activities are right or wrong, or whether people should be doing something else, but in terms of the kinds of limits or contradictions they face. Money, commodity exchange, value and abstract labour will be of central relevance to this discussion.

Commodity exchange is precisely what constitutes alternative economy initiatives for alternative currency networks or ‘time banks’, whose numbers are rapidly increasing in the crisis.i The idea behind these schemes is, on one hand, to create economic activity where there is little and, on the other, to create communities and relations of solidarity among residents of a local area. A localised currency, whether time-based or not, restricts options, and protects its members from external competition. It could be said to be a form of micro-protectionism. In addition, it strives to form a community among its members. These two aspects of these initiatives are closely interlinked and their contradictions prefigure future tensions within this interrelation.

Simple exchange relations among members means that we are talking of home-based production, dependent on the wider economy outside it, being penetrated by the crisis. On the other hand, a community based on simple exchange, both in past modes of production and today, forms necessary ties of interdependence around local property, rather than voluntary relations among individuals. It is an open question as to whether the recreation of such interdependent communities today could lead also to the creation of communities of struggle, that would not hinge on the issue of local identity and local property, coming into conflict with those outside it.

In these micro-markets we already have a general equivalent that measures exchange value, whether it be alternative money or time, as well as production for the market, which means the commodity labour is already equalised through exchange, thus abstracted from its concrete, specific qualities. Time banks, however, motivated by a notion of equality, use concrete labour time as a measure of wealth, ignoring variations in productivity, intensity and complexity of labour. The coexistence of these variations, however, will need to be negotiated for this principle of equality to be valid. Equalisation of different labours in the market needs its adequate form. This negotiation can either lead to the time-currency becoming actual money, i.e. not pegged to concrete labour time, or the need for strict and constant controls on the qualities and types of labour exchanged that would prevent the expansion of the micro-market. The time bank cannot expand without introducing the form of money, and it cannot avoid introducing money without shrinking. If it does expand, its difference from the mainstream economy would tend to disappear.

The perspective that sees alternative economies as something more than attempts at survival in the crisis and seeks moments of resistance in what they are and not in their self-overcoming, views money as mere domination, or as a mere symbol, instead of what it is: an abstract equivalent, a function, the most sufficient medium of exchange. Commodity exchange necessitates money, it is not ‘dominated’ by it. Exchange, abstract labour, the division of labour, are all preconditions of the production of value, in other words, capitalism. They are not ‘genuine’ relations that then come to be appropriated by capitalists. Capitalist social relations are not less capitalist when money is replaced with something else. And the abolition of money as a mediator of the relations of production cannot take place without the abolition of all the other mediations that support and are supported by money, through the whole of society and not just locally.

Social projects that enact free giving are having to face such limits in their attempt to provide social services that the state has withdrawn. These projects are both a symptom of, and equally essential for, survival in the crisis. They range from kitchens that hand out food to the homeless, to clothes exchanges, to ‘social grocery stores’ (stores selling cheaply basic commodities that have been donated), to nurseries and free lessons for children, being organised both by political groups as well as more spontaneously. Healthcare is a case in point, as there are a few self-organised medical centres in cities around the country. These centres are run by health workers who offer their services for free, and all space, equipment and medicine is donated.ii They are part of health workers’ struggles and of the fight for universal free health care, attempting its decommodification in practice. Their contradiction, however, becomes most evident when the demand for autonomy (with self-management in the imagined horizon) also emerges within these projects. Solidarity health centres are expensive, and the time comes when comrades’ donations are not enough. Then, the problem of autonomy is clear: either accept funding from corporations, NGOs or the state, or it is impossible to continue. Meanwhile, the dismantling of the public health service may make a refusal seem like an insensitive move.


Image: 'And I replied to her / Daisy the moment is / extremely costly / we worked and made do / with new banknotes / and then we realised that / it is us who make / the new banknotes / then we eat them / then we shit them out / and then we say that / we've shitloads of money...' , Graffiti, Exarchia, Athens. Lyrics taken from 'Lego' by Lena Platonos, 1980s

Despite these widely acknowledged problems, what participants see as hopeful in their attempts is building a ‘subjectivity of solidarity’ which they directly link to workers’ self-management. The limit, here, though, is not in the subject but in the possibility of the practice itself. The meaning of their action does not depend on the act itself, and it is not a matter of subjectivity, but everything depends on the context. Direct, selfless giving, however necessary, cannot stop health care being systematically mediated by money. Meanwhile, the coexistence of unpaid health workers alongside private clinics and a shrinking public health service means the exploitation of these workers at a broad social level. Perhaps in a different, broader situation of rupture encompassing the whole of society, in an all out conflict against the capitalist class and the state, where the mediations of money and exchange would be thrown into question, such organisations could acquire a different significance or dynamic. There again, new limits would emerge – for example the question of the power relations between doctor and patient and the division of labour, which both presuppose capitalist social relations.

The generalisation and convergence of such ruptures is not the same thing as the spreading of autonomous spaces, or the multiplication and enlargement of what is often called ‘the commons’, however. The reason for this is that the form of autonomous organisation is always a community whose members have common interests and a common property. Property is not abolished but rather belongs to a community. What is inside it is always defined by its outside and its boundaries. On one hand, an autonomous community faces all the risks of localism, even nationalism; on the other, its boundaries ‘against capitalism’ are anything but foolproof. Capitalism is not only not actively opposed or ruptured by communities of sharing, but it is a condition of the existence of such autonomous communities, which inevitably depend on capitalist commodity production and exchange for their survival (except if there are primitivist communes). Sharing has no intrinsic meaning independently of what is being shared and under what conditions it is being shared. It could evade money at an individual level, but is not intrinsically against it – it can equally be an outcome of friendship or an ingredient of capitalist production.

These contradictions of community and property are most evident in projects that aim to ‘liberate’ public space, particularly in Athens. If a lovingly planted occupied park, intended to be a haven of collective solidarity activity in the middle of the urban jungle, is as much a public space as any other in the city, it will inevitably be a locus of the same social contradictions. It follows that there are few options to maintain what such a park’s organisers see as its integrity, beyond actually policing the space. Indeed, some of those who wish to defend such spaces do in fact police access to them by junkies and drug dealers – usually immigrants – and street clashes between those defending the space and those seeking to ‘misuse’ it are not uncommon.

The discourse of autonomy that underlies many of these initiatives views the self-management of production as its ultimate goal. While current attempts at self-management are not that many, they are increasing, again – and importantly – as a symptom of the crisis and efforts to avoid unemployment.iii These projects are, again, more dependent on the vicissitudes of the market than on their members’ decisions. To remain competitive, workers very often voluntarily work longer and harder, unpaid, viewing themselves as both worker and business owner, while, when there is surplus, they reinvest it in new self-managed ventures. The relation between labour and capital is still here, just not personalised as capitalist and worker, but still existing within the same subjects. So, despite the fact that these enterprises are not subjectively driven by the motive of accumulation, they still function as capitalist enterprises and are forced to face the question of self-exploitation.

The viewpoint of such practice, the reason its participants see it as a political project, while often being careful to recognise its ‘imperfections’, is that it looks towards the ideal of a society of autonomous, self-organised worker-producers, where commodities and surpluses are distributed equally and collective planning takes the place of capitalist competition. This view, the view of autonomy, supposes that the definition of the working class is not in relation to capital but is inherent to it, that the society of workers can exist without reproducing capitalist social relations, or that the continued production of value, of accounting, of imposing an abstract quantifying equalisation of activities, has nothing to do with capitalism. It essentially formalises what we are in our present society as a basis for a new society, which is to be constructed as the liberation of what we are – the liberation of the worker as a worker.

We cannot consider self-management in a historical vacuum. Today, self management is not a triumph but a last resort, seen as a solution to unemployment. Grassroots organisations, today, whether they organise on the basis of workers’ identity, or that of democracy and autonomy, or all three, they face the limit posed by the status of the class relation. They cannot be part of a class unity, because of the class fragmentation that is made even worse by precarity and unemployment in the crisis and economic restructuring. We see that the very capacity of the proletariat to find in its relation to capital the basis for constituting itself as an autonomous class and in a powerful workers’ movement has all but disappeared. This is precisely why self-management today is a last resort, rather than a revolutionary project. Autonomy and self-organisation represented a historical moment of the history of the class struggle and not formal modalities of action. Their decline is not the retreat of class struggles, but the decline of a historical stage of class struggles. Today, the struggle is not fought on the basis of class unity, but the class contradiction plays itself out within social struggles.

The battle against self-organisation itself can emerge within battles in the name of a ‘better’ self-organisation, and find its limits, contradicting itself. The battle against state or corporate co-optation and legalisation, the defence by more combative elements against squats becoming ‘social co-operatives’, and the rebellion against managerial control in co-operatives, all boil down to the contradiction between, on one hand, the subjectivity and inter-individuality put forward as the most ‘positive moment’ of self-organisation, and, on the other, the separation of labour as a distinct activity, the production of value, the division between production and reproduction, and the autonomisation of the conditions of production as economy. In such battles, should they be generalised, the perspective of revolution could begin to move away from class self-affirmation and towards a self-recognition as a category of the capitalist mode of production. And this is a dynamic of rupture and not one of the continuity and growth of the self-organised sphere. It prefigures the self-supersession of the subject that previously found in its situation the capacity to self-organise.

This rupture and its generalisation, however, does not happen without organisation, without an upfront collision against the capitalist class and the state on a wider scale. It takes organisation when proletarians take on various tasks necessary for the development of their struggle: blocking roads, laying siege to police stations, blocking supplies to the forces of order, seizing essential commodities… and so on. The question here is not one of spontaneity versus organisation, but of expropriation versus the appropriation and management of what exists in the construction of a new economy. Organisation can be something other than the formalisation of a preceding subject, of what proletarians are in existing society, as the basis for a new society and economy. And such organisation would emerge not as a voluntary decision but out of the necessities of the struggle against the opponent class, through which the situation of proletarians can become not something to organise, to defend and liberate, but something to abolish.


Anna O’Lory is a member of Blaumachen,, a communist group based mainly in Thessaloniki, Greece, who produce a journal of the same name and contribute to SIC – International Journal for Communisation,


This text was written with contributions by other members of Blaumachen and presented at the event Money in the State of Crisis: the Example of Greece, a discussion organised as part of the closing of the exhibition, Ultimate Substance, by Anja Kirschner and David Panos, at Neue Berliner Kunstverein 27 January 2013