By Chris Spannos at Jun 11, 2009
Below is an interview for the Babylonia anti-authoritarian newspaper of Greece. Sofia Papagiannakh sent me six questions about urban problems and possibilities. Below the interview is a very brief but informative outline of ecological movements in the country.
What are the benefits cities can offer?
Cities can potentially offer diverse and satisfying social and material relations. They can and should offer a rich array of lifestyle options for people to choose from including when and where people want to work and live. Cities are also locations that offer concentrated forms of cultural and social diversity and so, potentially, can offer near endless possibilities to get human social needs and wants met. People often choose to live in urban areas for the convenience that cities offer, and that convenience should be environmentally judicious and sensible.
Sadly however, most of the cities that we inhabit today offer the above positive attributes in a limited and warped way. People's decision-making about where and how to live is limited by their class and race position. Social and public space is often dominated by private interests and commercial activity for profit-making. The sense of social connectivity, mutual-aid, and compassion that cities could offer are weakened while the sense of social isolation, fragmentation and disinterest in shared social and material interests are strengthened. And finally, the convenience of city life is often provided at high environmental costs, for example hundreds of shops that all sell minor variations on the same products, the associated waste of advertising, and also private means of transportation over more public forms, so cities have become consumers of vast amounts of energy and producers of excessive amounts of waste which translates into cities being major sources of greenhouse gases.
Instead of that, nowadays cities are far from fulfilling this potential. Why do you think this happens?
I think the major source of these problems is the lack of decision-making control that people have over their daily lives and that this dispossession of power is rooted in society's defining institutions, rural or urban: in our economy, polity, cultural/community, and kinship institutions. We have an economy that distributes wealth and power upward rather than downward; political institutions that serve the interests of those at the top rather than those most affected; community that wrongfully excludes others instead of sharing material resources and relating culturally and intimately to one another; and kinship that socialize oppressive gender, child rearing, and care-giving hierarchies rather than for balanced and emancipatory social relations. I believe that all these oppressive forces are intimately entwined and that to win a new society means to transform these defining institutions in their totality. We should seek to make improvements in today's cities, but if we leave society's defining oppressive institutions untouched, they will always threaten to rollback our progressive efforts. It is this rational that leads me to believe that revolution---transformation of society's defining institutions---is necessary.
Is it possible for an already settled down urban center to be transformed to a more liberal and fair place or do such centers have to be pre-designed and built from scratch?
If you mean by "pre-designed and built from scratch " the literal physical reconstruction of our built environment, since people built the city in the first place, I suppose it is feasible, however, probably not the most rational or appealing organizing principle, especially since, if such a re-construction effort did take place and left intact hierarchical class, political, community relations, etc., so that new buildings and streets existed however without redistributing decision-making control so that people had new classless and self-managed relations over the things that affected them, then there would be little change except for new infrastructure. However, if you mean, by transforming an "already settled down urban center," the building of movements that fight to make improvements in urban living conditions today so that we can gain more collective decision-making power over the defining institutions that affect us---in economy and polity, etc.---then yes, I also think this is not only possible but makes the most sense. Once we achieve a series of victories that leave the balance of power in favor of our movement control we can collectively determine how best to re-organize social space and material relations in the city to best serve our own objectives.
Nowadays, at least in Greece, rural areas resemble more small and bad copies of the large cities rather than presenting an alternative (more balanced and fairer) way of living. How can this be explained?
I don't know the history of urban and rural development in Greece, but I do think that what you say about modern Greece is consistent with the tendency for society's institutions to re-produce dominant social and material relations. To do this in rural areas means to have similar class relations and political disempowerment as exists in cities, however with less people and therefore less concentrated, and so on a smaller scale. People may believe that just because they move from the urban center out to the rural periphery that they are relocating closer to nature and away from the concentrated social and material disparities of the city, that they are achieving a more balanced and fair way of living as you say.
It is also a way for developers to expand their market into less developed areas. However, and more substantially I think, suburbs and smaller rural replicas of cities are another way of expanding, from the urban center to the rural periphery, the ways to structurally hide our shared social and material interests so to rationalize and increase further individual interests and culture for a self-perception that makes it easy to not interact with others or care about them. In short, I think this development pattern that you identify, on the one hand is the expansion and reproduction of predominant oppressive social and material relations, and on the other hand, perhaps also serves as "release valve" to depress the possibility of increasing social tensions in urban locations.
Towards another society, apart from facing the state's violence, mass-apathy and self-interest, I think there is another factor that prevents us from acting and that is the extra effort we have to put into keeping ourselves constantly informed over the decisions that are made for us without us and vastly affect our lives. How can we deal with this?
I think this particular problem is largely rooted in class relations where people work long hours, and harder, for little pay, and for less control over their lives. This leaves us with little energy or interest, especially to take part in decisions which are often removed from the possibility of directly improving our lives, for example, increased salaries, more time off from work, better conditions at work, and more control over the production process. I think these are the things that really matter to people. If someone's interest is sparked and they want to come to a movement meeting, help organize an event, or participate in a social space, that is good for us and them. However, we are all working just as hard and long at our jobs as before, making just as little money as before, and have just as little control over our lives, and now we are also going to additional meetings and organizing, not to mention having given up the little things that gave us pleasure and made the misery of everyday life bearable, such as certain friendships, popular entertainment, or hobbies.
There is tremendous social value in struggling with others to change the world. But ultimately we need to make real gains. We need to build movements that want to win massive redistribution of wealth and decision-making power. We have to start small, yes, but we build, and struggle for more victories that eventually snowball into more and more, and this should translate, eventually, into people having more time, energy, and passion in taking decision-making control over their lives.
After spending 3 weeks in Athens, do you feel any more optimistic about the future judging from the steps made towards self-organization and decision making control?
My stay here in Greece has left me highly optimistic and energized. Not least because of all the hospitality of my hosts and many new friends, but because what I saw of social movements here left me with the impression that you have many of the ingredients necessary for successful social transformation---ingredients that we are trying to build in the U.S. People I met here are engaged in serious movement and institution building and openly discuss movement faults and differences as well as needs. And most inspiring, the people I have met have the desire to win. It is humbling to have met with people here, 6 months after last December's uprising, who today genuinely wonder what kind of new emancipatory society is possible and are eager to discuss it. Of course, you are not without your own obstacles here, for example the prevalence of the right-wing and neo-liberalism, not to mention old Left attitudes and sectarianism. I will be reflecting on my visit here for some time and I hope to learn more about Greece and come back in the not too distant future.
Finally, it was an honor to be invited here, for the B-Fest, one of the most inspiring conferences I've ever attended. I want thank everyone who made it possible. I hope to take the energy and inspiration I gathered here back to the U.S., the most destructive country in the modern world, and work for change there with the hope that this would open new and transformative possibilities for everyone everywhere. However, this will take time, and for now I hope to work with you one way or another in solidarity and for liberation.
Grassroots movements in Greece regarding "ecological" issues:
· A great variety of urban grassroots movements in the two big cities of Athens and Salonica claiming the public space, defending free and green urban spaces and, of course, actively pressing (or even making in practice) more, claiming sustainable mobility via bicycles, public transport or pedestrian routes, establishing squats and social centers throughout these cities. In the latest years this movements have become pretty powerful and coordinated, contesting the decisions of the rulers and demanding to take and put in practice the decisions that they themselves take. Certainly, anti - hierarchy and direct democracy are also here widespread and acknowledged.
· A grassroots movement fighting against the production of electricity by coal and claiming a generic Energy Planning concentrated on our needs and in harmony with nature. The movement is called "Citizens for Energy" is spread throughout the country with nation - wide coordination and is based on the principles of anti - hierarchy and direct democracy. Through activism and mass struggle the movement has succeeded in getting the Minister of Development to promise gradual abolishment of coal and other non - clean sources of energy but still there is a long way before Greece adopts a pro -environment Energy Planning (energy production in the country is still based on coal).
· Lately a massive farmers' movement blockaded all central roads of Greece and even invaded Athens in a struggle that superficially had to do with more subsidies but deeply concerned the general survival of the farmers and the urban population, painfully suppressed by intermediary monopolies and price determinations. Even though farmers' unions are still dominated by sectarian political parties, which destroy solidarity among them and have guided them into losing all political battles for the last 20 years, the latest movement gave birth to an anti - bureaucratic and direct democratic farmers' initiative, which competes with the political parties and demands a re - invention of the relationship between farming and nature. The initiative had its first nation - wide meeting in February and everything shows that it will hopefully open new perspectives in the struggle of the farmers of Greece.
· Since over and/or bad use of water has nation - wide dramatically decreased its supplies, while heavy industry and farming have played decisive role in its contamination, the sovereign power of state and capital attempt to violently control the fresh water reserves of the country (i.e. river diversions, dams etc). This has given birth to peoples' movements demanding control over the waters of the places they live. These movements try to coordinate their actions and change the existing conditions. The major movements toward this direction are the movement against the Acheloos River diversion and Arachthos River Protection Committee.