Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, made us all aware of disaster capitalism—”the rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock”—which has occurred across the world, from Pinochet’s Chile to post-Katrina New Orleans.
But what about examples of people creating practices and institutions other than capitalism in societies that are reeling from shock, what we might call disaster noncapitalism?
We certainly saw many examples during the First Great Depression in the United States, of which King Vidor’s long-overlooked film is the best cinematic account.
More recently, beginning in 2000, Argentine workers recuperated more than 180 enterprises, thus creating thousands of jobs, forming a broad network of mutual support among the worker-run workplaces, and generating many community projects.
And now, of course, we have Greece’s solidarity movement, which unfortunately has received much less attention in the run-up to Sunday’s election than the fears stoked by those who want us to believe continued austerity is the only option.
Yes, Greece is a dramatic example of at least some aspects of disaster capitalism, the way a country can be pummeled into submission in order to maintain the privileges of a tiny minority at home and abroad. But it’s also an example of its opposite—of how people are willing to band together, in the worst of circumstances (with soaring unemployment, declining wages, and Draconian cuts to government services), to invent new kinds of economic institutions.
The Peristeri health centre is one of 40 that have sprung up around Greece since the end of mass anti-austerity protests in 2011. Using donated drugs – state medicine reimbursements have been slashed by half, so even patients with insurance are now paying 70% more for their drugs – and medical equipment (Peristeri’s ultrasound scanner came from a German aid group, its children’s vaccines from France), the 16 clinics in the Greater Athens area alone treat more than 30,000 patients a month.
The clinics in turn are part of a far larger and avowedly political movement of well over 400 citizen-run groups – food solidarity centres, social kitchens, cooperatives, “without middlemen” distribution networks for fresh produce, legal aid hubs, education classes – that has emerged in response to the near-collapse of Greece’s welfare state, and has more than doubled in size in the past three years.
“Because in the end, you know,” said Christos Giovanopoulos in the scruffy, poster-strewn seventh-floor central Athens offices of Solidarity for All, which provides logistical and administrative support to the movement, “politics comes down to individual people’s stories. Does this family have enough to eat? Has this child got the right book he needs for school? Are this couple about to be evicted?”
As well as helping people in difficulty, Giovanopoulos said, Greece’s solidarity movement was fostering “almost a different sense of what politics should be – a politics from the bottom up, that starts with real people’s needs. It’s a practical critique of the empty, top-down, representational politics our traditional parties practise. It’s kind of a whole new model, actually. And it’s working.”
The many successes of disaster noncapitalism in Greece are one of the reasons Syriza has a good chance of winning tomorrow’s election.