Lessons from the Beyond Europe camp in Chalkidiki, Greece
Political camps are great opportunities. They open a space for theoretical exchange and practical experiences. The form allows people to deeply discuss and understand what struggles others are involved in and what perspectives they share or don‘t. Furthermore it allows us to socialise and establish private and political relationships which outlast the camp itself. And that’s exactly what happened at the Beyond Europe camp in Chalkidiki, Greece, between the 18th and 25th of August 2015.
Up to 500 activists from all over Europe came together to exchange their knowledge about ecological, social, feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-state struggles. We discussed perspectives beyond nation, state and capitalism and participated in the local protest against the gold mining project of Skouries. In that way, what took place at the beautiful beach of Ierissos this summer, differs not much from other action & discussion camps all over Europe. But for some reasons what happened in Chalkidiki was totally different.
Not just another camp
What made the difference was two factors: (1) The equally transnational and local character of the camp, and (2) the fact that it took place in Greece shortly after the Syriza-government agreed to the repressive and anti-social politics forced upon them by the Troika and the German government. Both – the transnational character and the anchoring in the local communities on the one hand and the Europe-wide relevance of the defeat of the left reformist strategy in Greece on the other hand – made the existence of the camp a political factor, not only in the region of Chalkidiki, but all over Greece.
Weeks before the camping started, prime minister Alexis Tsipras got under pressure when he was asked what Syriza was going to do about the Skouries goldmine (1). It became clear, that the mining project was a weak spot for Syriza, whom had promissed to stop the extraction before the election in January 2015. After Syriza had to break its promises about stopping austerity, it could not afford losing further support by openly breaking its domestic promises. Especially because Tsipras was still trying to fight the opposition against the new austerity measures within his own party. On the other hand, what we met in Chalkidiki – and especially in the centres of the anti-gold mining movement in Ierissos and Megali Panagia – was a local community, who was disappointed by Syriza and fed up with vague promises for a better future.
This was the situation, in which the Greek network of Antiauthoritarian Movement and with it the Beyond Europe groups from Cyprus, Germany and the UK were trying to intervene. Left activists from Greece, Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, France, Austria, Germany, the UK, Spain and Sweden came. Some of them were members of the Beyond Europe network, but many were from other groups and struggles. The attendees could choose from various workshops about capitalist, racist and sexist exploitation and domination as well as discussions about recent struggles and left strategies in Europe and beyond it. As the idea of the camp was not to stay on our own, some of the workshops took place in the villages nearby.
After a walk to the mountain of Skouries – where the mining facilities are – we joined a discussion at the central square of Megali Panagia. The local committees and Antiauthoritarian Movement informed us about potential self-organized alternatives to the goldmining projects. On another occasion the camp joined a cultural and political event in Ierissos, where Antiauthoritarian Movement and the initiative for water from Thessaloniki discussed with local representatives of Syriza and Antarsya. (2) For Sunday, 23th of August, a demonstration at the gold mine was announced. And, of course there were plenty of opportunities to deepen the discussions at the beach or the bar.
Exchange of ideas: left reformism and the state
As it would not be very instructive to report all the discussions that took place during the camp, (3) I will focus on one topic that explicitly and implicitly came up in several workshops and assemblies: How does a promising strategy to change society look like, and what role do self-organization and left parties play in it. This question ties in to the current debate in Germany about the relation of the anti-authoritarian left (4) towards left party politics, in which I participated myself. (5) Coming from the German debate, I was interested in the analysis and discussions elsewhere and presented my ideas at a workshop in Megali Panagia on the third day of the camp. In my input I tried to conceptualize the problematic relationship between left reformism on the one hand and self-organized struggles and the anticapitalist movement on the other. My central argument was that the chances of changing society as a whole or even of improving some parts of it from within the state are more than limited. This especially is the case in times of ’neoliberal‘ capitalism with its universal competition between capitalists, people and states.
A better strategy for change, I argued, would be to put pressure on political parties and governments from outside and at the same time to develop self-organized projects of solidarity which point beyond capitalism and state. The latter I had conceptualised in the German discussion together with John Mallory as an understanding of „self-organized projects as cracks (6) against capitalist society and not as niches within it“.(7) As most participants of the workshop did not know each other or each other’s positions, the character of the discussion of course was more an exchange of standpoints. Coming from the German debate, for me it was interesting, that suddenly I was in the position to defend myself as a understander of left party politics: „Why do you say, that there are chances of left reformism“, I was asked. „Why does ums Ganze cooperate with left parties“, was another statement. In contrary to similar discussions in Germany, the position which supports a close alignement between left parties and movements, was barely present.
Practical lessons: False promises and what the movement can do about it
Even more instructive than the theoretical discussion about left reformism was meeting the local people from Chalkidiki. Talking to activists and other locals revealed to me a massive disappointment about Syriza. It was them who had to bear the brunt of a left reformist strategy over the past months: The promise to stop the gold mining before the election in January 2015; the stagnation of the movement against the gold mining, due to the hope put on Syriza; and the several let-downs by the government, not only regarding the mining project.
Chalkidiki indeed is a school book example for the limits of left reformism. In general it shows that left parties (8) – once they are in power – are under pressure to keep the economy running and to attract business. Furthermore, they are under pressure from institutional players and civil society. In the case of Chalkidiki these are the local communities fighting against the mining on the one side and the mining company, the workers and the Troika on the other side.
The example of Eldorado Gold shows how recent capitalism works: The potential economic costs, combined with the powers of an neoliberal institutional framework prevent the Syriza-government from effectively stopping the mining project. Alexis Tsipras knows exactly, that if he kicks out Eldorado, this could alienate future investors who still see Greece as a relatively riskless and profitable ground. And so he chooses the strategy of avoiding clear steps and playing out the interests of the workers against those of the committees against gold mining. In addition there are the institutions of neoliberal capitalism, represented by the Troika, which pressure the Greek government to secure capitalist investments at any costs. The terms of the contract between the mining company and the Greek state are in deed very similar to those, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank forced upon third world countries over decades to secure private investments. If the contract is not fullfilled, compensations have to be paid by the Greek state, not only for Eldorados past investions, but also for not realised future profits.
There is one thing we can learn from the Beyond Europe camp, which is as important as understanding the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and its power towards governments: It is possible to put governments under pressure and through that equalize the pressure from the ‚other side‘. But in order to do that it is essential not to defend the government’s actions only because it claims to be “Left” or care for the people. What we have to do instead is to hit them at their weak spots. That’s exactly what happened in Chalkidiki:
On the second day of the camp the Greek energy minister Panos Skourletis announced the temporarily ceasing of the gold mining activities of Eldorado. This happened just one day before a walk to the goldmine and four days before the joint demonstration of Beyond Europe and the local committees. (9) The declared reason for stopping the work at the mines was that Eldorado had not fulfilled its duties to explain the extraction process of the gold. Shortly after the election in January 2015 the ex-minister of energy, Panagiotis Lafazanis, had withdrawn Eldorados licences and urged them to present documents that show the environmental impact of the extraction methods. The company had months to explain themselves, but did not feel the need to react until now. The government did not do anything about that, until the recent protests arose in Chalkidiki. The fact that the government suddenly felt the need to react – shortly after a protest-camp by the local committees and just a few days before the joint demonstration of Beyond Europe and the committees – surely is no coincidence. (10)
The anti-authoritarian strategy of self-organization
To me the current situation in Chalkidiki and in Greece in general shows that both the left reformist strategy to slowly change society from within the state, and the romantic idea of an abrupt revolutionary break without getting involved in society are dead ends. The former is represented by Syriza and the latter by the nihilist parts of the Greek anarchist movement.
A more realistic and at the same time more radical strategy than relying on left parties or hoping for sudden break down of capitalism, to me seems the effort to develop cracks within and against capitalist society. With cracks, I mean self-organized projects of solidarity from which further struggles can be organized and whom can be glowing lights in the sea of capitalist darkness, that show the way beyond. This strategy bases itself on a general analysis of our society and an understanding of how change can be made and how it isn’t. Furthermore it takes into consideration the current status of ’neoliberal‘ capitalist accumulation and state power. (11) Even though it is hard to predict future developments, there is one thing we can be sure of: times are getting rougher in Europe and more conflicts and struggles are to come and not only in Greece. Though the question is not if these struggles will take place, but what will be our role in them.
From Vio.Me to Chalkidiki
That concept of „self-organized projects as cracks against capitalist society and not as niches within it“, as John Mallory and I put it, is not an abstract idea. What the Antiauthoritarian Movement is doing with the occupied fabric of Vio.Me and what they are trying to do in Chalkidiki is exactly what we had in mind. To explain this, I would like to take a closer look at Vio.Me.
Vio.Me often is named as an example of an alternative economy or of workers self-organization. What came to my mind, when I first heard this was the image of a small factory producing cleaning products for a niche market. Everybody with a little knowledge of Marxist theory and working class history knows that even a self-organized factory has to make profit, and more profit, and has to comply to the laws of the market in order to survive. Would that be everything to say about Vio.Me, it would not be more than a capitalist company with flat hierarchies.
But if you take a closer look at Vio.Me you will recognise that there is more. The small factory is part of a network of self-organized infrastructure of solidarity that Antiauthoritarian Movement and others are trying to establish. At the centre of this network are social centres in Thessaloniki, Athens and Komotini, where people support each other and projects like Vio.Me by distributing their products. And something else happened within the Vio.Me collective: workers, who once only went to work to earn their money, politicised themselves in the struggles they fought in and now support other struggles themselves. What the Vio.Me collective produces is more than the soap you can buy. (12) They support other struggles – like the one against the goldmines – and are an example that gives hope to others that self-organised solidarity is not just a hobby but can supply structures that make life possible and liveable again.
What Antiauthoritarian Movement and the people from the social centres with their small capacities are trying to do is to build up a similar network of self-organization and resistance in the communities of Chalkidiki. They are trying not to leave the local activists alone with their depression over Syriza. They are discussing self-organized alternatives with them in public as they did in Megali Panagia an Ierissos during the camp. They do that because they know that a stopped gold mining project with self-organized alternatives from below would be something totally different than a government’s decision to stop the gold mining without it. It would be a glowing star in the dark which gives hope to others. It would open alternatives that lie beyond voting for a left party or – if that does not work – for an authoritarian party that promises a better life at least for Greeks.
What happens if we don’t try to develop our own alternatives is that right wing movements will exploit the weakness and illegitimacy of the political system. Racist and authoritarian ‚answers‘ to the problems of the current capitalist society are already established in Hungary, the UK, in France, Germany and other European countries. And the Golden Dawn is trying to do so in Greece. Right populists and fascists present easy models of a national garden-gnome-world in which everything is in order. On a more global scale these movements compete with Islamic fundamentalists who recently are the most successful in presenting their ‚answers‘ to the problems of capitalist society. What both, Islamic fundamentalist and nationalists, offer is easy: A particular advantage for their own community and a scapegoat for the problems that capitalism produces. If we are not able to show that solidarity works, our ideas will always be less attractive than the easy answers of the right populists and fascists.
Beyond nation state and European Union: a local and transnational perspective
Like the plankton in the sea of Chalkidiki, the efforts of self-organisation are not visible in the daylight of the current political circus in Europe yet. You need to take your eyes from the blinding lights of big politics and have a closer look at the local struggles to realise what is going on at the local level. To get involved is the only way that we can influence if particular struggles become narrow “Not In My Backyard”-initiatives or if they develop to broader fights for “Not On Planet Earth”. If we want to get stronger we have to support those fights and spread the word that solidarity based alternatives to capitalist logics and state politics are possible. We need to build self-organized projects where we live and work (13) and we need to interconnect them with others, struggling against the impositions of the capitalist society we live in. In two words: We need to localise and transnationalise our struggles.
Goodbye and thanx for all the …
The Beyond Europe camp was the right intervention at the right time. It showed the possibilities to impose pressure upon governments from below if there is a strong movement that hits in a weak spot. But the pressure of one camp and one demonstration is not enough. For a success against the mining project it would at least need a revitalisation of the local protest. I’m doubtful that that will happen. To big are the let-downs the local communities had to bear: the broken promises; the split of whole families over the issue; the state repression against hundreds. And too small seem the chances to succeed against the interests of Eldorado, the Greek state and the Troika. Nevertheless there are important lessons that we could learn (14): We had the chance to examine an example of how to fruitfully combine political pressure form below with the critique of contemporary capitalist society and with an approach of self-organized alternatives. This is exactly what Antiauthoritarian Movement is doing with Vio.Me on a small scale and what they are trying to do in Chalkidiki. We should be thankful for the possibility of being part of this process and take the lessons seriously for our own political practice.
(1) For more details here
(2) The highlight of the discussion was that Grigorgos Kiritsis, local represantative of Syriza, declared his retreat from the party.
(3) In deed it would be impossible, as I only participated in a small part of them.
(4) I use the term ‚antiautoritarian‘ in distinction to the reformist, stalinist and state socialist left.
(5) My contributions to the german debate in Lower Class Magazine, Neues Deutschland and Indymedia
(6) In German we used the term „Bresche“, which literally would be translated with „breach“. As „breach“ does not really hit what we wanted to describe – at least that’s what a comrade from the UK told me – I decided to use the phrase „crack“. I’m not totally happy with that. In my ears it sounds more like something breaking up. When using this term “crack”, I have to explain, that we do not use it in the same sense as John Holloway does, when he speaks of creating “cracks” against capitalism. What we mean by creating “cracks instead of niches”, is building structures that make it possible not only to survive in the battles of capitalist society, but beyond that to work at its overcoming. Structures, in which we organize our social reproduction in collectivly and that at the same time provide a basis for organised resistance. Institutions that do not depend on the state and resist capitalist logic as much as possible.
(8) This is not only true for left parties, of course.
(9) It was one of the last actions of the Greek government before Alexis Tsipras stepped down only one day later.
(10) See also the Beyond Europe press release
(11) For more details see my contribution to the German debate together with John Mallory
(12) Or as The Invisible Committee puts it: “What is different is that the resumption of factory production was conceived from the beginning as a political offensive supported by all the remaining elements of the Greek ‚movement‘, and not merely as an attempt at alternative economy”.
(13) That of course is easier said than made. Especially if you live in a region where the majority of the people think that they are at the winning end of capitalism and might therefore be better of with the social chauvinist or racist ticket – like Germany right now.
(14) Of course there were much more experiences made at the camp than the ones I reflected in this article. As mentioned before my aim was not to present an overview on what happend at the camp, but to focus on the struggles and self-organization processes and what we can learn from them for an anti-capitalist strategy.
Pix by Beyond Europe