The Not So Big Society – Lessons from Greece

As regular readers will now, I’ve been using the title of this blog as an excuse to ponder the kind of social changes we’re going through, and what it will mean for the most vulnerable in society.

I’ve been reading a fascinating article about a Greek island, and how it’s been affected by the economic collapse in that country. I suspect that we’ve got further hardships to come here in the UK, so I was left wondering whether it might have any lessons for us in the near future.

The article describes the island of Samos, and it’s clearly been hit hard.

Evidence of the crisis, the lack of jobs and the absence of money in people’s pockets is everywhere. In the two major towns of the island, Vathi and Karlovassi, approximately a quarter of the shops are now closed. Most of those that remain open are offering such discounts that we assume it is a matter of time before they shut too.

A friend who has a tourist shop in Vathi thinks at least another six shops will close by Christmas, with more to follow soon after. In our village we have two tavernas – and they only survive because their owners take no income. What income can you take from only selling a few Greek coffees and some beer and ouzo in the evening? 

It’s an island where public services are being shredded, businesses are closing, and ‘For Sale’ signs are everywhere. This has led to some dramatic changes to their way of life.

But it is the overwhelming sense of the people here that whilst things are hard and getting harder, at least it is better than Athens, or life in any of the other major cities. Why? Principally because on the islands and in the countryside most people here have access to or own land. Land means gardens and hence food. So just as the for sale signs proliferate, so do the number of vegetable plots.

There are scraps of land in our village which for years were neglected and overgrown but are now cleared and planted. At the beginning of September it was virtually impossible to find seed potatoes for sale. I suspect that the landscape is changing in many villages all over Greece as more and more land is cleared and workers with no waged work turn to self-cultivation and food production. We know of many families in Ambelos who now have chickens, goats, rabbits as well as vegetable gardens in their endeavour to survive. (I would suggest that tracking the sales of rabbit and chicken food would give a vivid sense of these developments.)

People seem not only to be returning to agriculture, but also retreating from money.

Sami from Agios Konstantinos told me last week that she has arranged to get a turkey for Christmas in return for wood and olive oil. Maria, who teaches art classes to kids, now receives ‘stuff’ (food, olive oil, wine, wood) in lieu of a class fee. As cash retreats, systems built on traditional village practices are emerging once more.

In other words, this is a modern Western economy reverting to subsistence and barter. Something that must be almost unprecedented in recent history.

The article also describes people falling back on extended family networks in order to cooperate for survival. These seems to be helping ensure the survival of vulnerable people such as refugees or people with physical or mental health problems.

So, that’s what’s happening in a small, agrarian community, but what of the cities?

We are constantly receiving information on exciting developments in Athens, Thessaloniki and Patras, where neighbourhoods, groups and activists are developing free medical centres, community cafes and restaurants, clothing and food exchanges, transport co-ops, squats and occupations, organising boycotts, refusing to pay transport fares and so on. There is nothing like this on Samos as yet, although a clothing exchange has just started where you can pick up clothes for free. Who knows where all this will lead – but without doubt we on Samos could do with some initiatives to lift our spirits and to bring us together.

Funnily enough, I’ve noticed some similar developments in my own city. Just recently in my neighbourhood a music, poetry and social club aimed at young people on the dole has been organised. The sort of community arts initiatives that used to be the preserve of the bourgeois and bohemian are increasingly being organised by unemployed graduates who simply don’t have anything else to do.

I recently reviewed Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth for this blog. Jackson emphasised a lot of the survival strategies described in this article – growing your own food, setting up community networks – and pointed out that these methods not only keep people alive but can also provide a sense of reward and belonging. Interestingly enough, some of the people interviewed on Samos seem to agree about that.

I don’t want to over-romanticise what’s happening in places like Samos. The journalist points out that suicide rates have jumped 40% in Greece (something that has ugly echoes over here). He also points to worrying signs of a resurgence in political extremism, with some people becoming nostalgic for the old military junta.

I don’t think the current economic crisis is going to be a couple of years hardship followed by a return to the old consumerist spending spree. I think in the medium term we’ll be challenged by resource scarcity, particularly peak oil. In the longer term is the spectre of climate change, which could be potentially catastrophic.

Perhaps this report from Samos gives us an indication of what the Not So Big Society will look like. A society where some find safety and reward in simple, less consumerist lifestyles, and where some will be driven to despair as their world collapses around them. Where some will flock to mutual support networks in order to help each other out, and where others will flock to groups like the English Defence League.

I’ve mentioned this before, but a few weeks after the August riots, I was chatting about the current changes with somebody from the Transition Network, and she made a comment that stuck in my head.

“It’ll cause some people to go out and loot, and some people to go out on the street with brooms.”

The more I think about it, the more I think that’s a very apt analogy.

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8 thoughts on “The Not So Big Society – Lessons from Greece

  1. *sniff* Do I sense a hint of Patchouli and a sneaky peek at Felicity Kendal’s nips?

  2. Good article, thanks for posting this. I saw an interesting talk recently about the effect of Greece’s economic crisis on mental health services (available at http://www.ucc.ie/en/nursingmidwifery/OurConferences/Title-142007-en.html). The speaker, Anna Emmanouelidou, is involved with the Hellenic Observatory For Rights In The Field Of Mental Health, who are doing some inspiring work over in Thessaloniki. This is an example of the positive alternatives to existing state-funded services that can be born out of austerity – pooling resources, people taking collective action to try and stave off the worst of the crisis’ effects on people’s wellbeing. Emmanouelidou views their collapsing system as a silver lining in the form of an opportunity to create alternatives to the dominant medicalised treatment of mental distress. Locating a crisis service in context of communal enterpises, like allotments and cafe’s, skill-sharing workshops etc is all the more likely if – as it seems to be with the ‘human observatory’ – these work around a central ‘hub’ such as an occupied building used as a social/support centre. Worth keeping an eye on how things progress in Greece as we are on the edge of a similar situation here in the UK.

  3. A few random thoughts here, apologies for lack of a coherent theme.

    What would happen here? Many of the same things I suspect, I only hope that Dave doesnt claim some sort of triumph for the Big Society when in fact people will be surviving and doing good things in spite of his policies, not as a result of them. I do fear however for those without family ties and the personal resources to ‘make do and mend’. The majority of people do not have access to land to grow their own food in this country, cities need to be fed by large scale production and transport, not window boxes and allotments, whatever other benefits these bring. During WW2, despite the much vaunted Dig for Victory campaign etc it was Liberty ships full of food from America that saved the population from real hunger. Greek islands, with a favourable climate, recent rural traditions and skill base, close family ties and the island sense of depending on your neighbour etc may be in an exceptionally lucky position. It wont apply much to the inner cities of the UK.

    Occasionally I think about the experience of sea kayaking, where you can get a group of strangers who have never met before put into a potentially lethal environment. There is an instant and universal unspoken recognition that each person depends on the other for survival. Class, nationality politics etc become irrelevant. There is rarely any doubt that the person paddling next to you will help you if you need it and everyone keeps an eye out for everyone else. I have never known any other scenario. Whether the same could be said if you were sitting next to them on a tube train is a different matter.

    • I think you’d be surprised. I commute by train and on a normal day people don’t communicate. But if the train is delayed/cancelled, someone is ill or there’s someone kicking off then people do offer assistance, chat and comment and function as a community.

      Another example I could think of is a community garden that my partner volunteers for. They had their shed/ classroom burnt down in an arson attack. All the regular volunteers did more, the kids (who all have behavioural issues) pulled their weight and didn’t cause trouble. Lots of people came out the woodwork and donated items and volunteered their time. Sometimes a crisis can pull people together, even those who normally don’t interact as a community and those who are actively antisocial.

      • Agreed! Such was my experience as a commuter in a previous life and more generally. I hope that as the UK worsens, more and more people will become involved in making things better at a local level.

      • I like both those examples – both the one of the sea kayaking and the one of commuters in trouble.

        My guess is that the coming trials will bring out both the best and the worst in people.

      • old cliché “hope for the best while preparing for the worst”

  4. Excellent post Alex: the debate is happening and the damaging societal delusion is that “growth is good” is a sentiment inextricably linked to the “greed is good” mantra. Some parts of Europe are more advanced than others and I fear that the currently fashionable Euro hate is part of the UK’s collective denial that there can be other ways of living. We can be the 51st state or be far more sensible and becoming an active part of Europe. The latter is more practical, the former won’t happen. The US has bigger problems than than to waste resource on its off-shore missile base.

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