Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

No Future But Now


From nearly the first moment of my arrival in Greece on October 5, I was met with the greatest of hospitality — a hospitality equal parts warmth, solidaristic egalitarianism, and a generosity of spirit and materiality.

My hosts asked if I could get myself from the airport to their two-month-old “nonpolitical” cooperative grocery. It’s a welcoming yet small self-organized space on a street with lively foot traffic, meaning that people often walk into the shop not only to buy locally produced and delicious foodstuffs (such as fresh olives and almonds, or about the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted) but also to mingle and socialize. That sociability extends itself to almost anyone else who walks in, such as me, and then often spills out onto the two cafe tables outside for conversation and coffee.

Those who self-manage this project/shop — a group of ten folks, but only four who staff the space — contribute some of the products from their families’ farms; those products sometimes boost a label with the grocery store’s name, meaning sometime like “chance meeting” and/or “stopping by chance to chat.” Other products offer a hint of politics, though the shop is clear that this is not a “social movement space” but came out of ideas of how to weather the economic “crisis,” or what they increasingly see as the new permanent, worsening condition in Greece. The distinction is made so as to be true to their principles, and not confuse projects more explicitly aimed at revolution and those allowing people to get by, with relative solidarity and ethics intact (and from a US anarchist viewpoint, not spark endless debates about “selling out,” etc.) But some other labels offer a whiff of politics, such as honey jars with artwork by Clifford Harper, or bars of soap that explain, in Greek and English, that the soap is a way to battle unemployment and depression — their own, but also as inspiration for others needing to do the same.

Similar to the majority of anarchist spaces, this not-anarchist grocery is all volunteer. But it aspires to pay those who keep it going — in a year or so. Nearly all of them are unemployed, and not be choice. One studied for a particular field, and tried to practice it for two years; they could indeed “work,” but for much of the two years, never got paid, and they told me that in the field, that’s become the status quo. You work for almost nothing, or nothing, except to stave off despair. During those two years, they moved back in with their parents (“it makes you feel a sense of shame”) and made ten euros a week (“you use that to drink coffee or beer at a cafe every evening with friends, because otherwise you get too depressed”); now, they work many hours in this grocery during the day, again for no pay, and have gotten a job in a bar at night (“cafes and bars are the one place you can make money, because of the fact that everyone goes out for coffee or beer at night to deal with depression, even if they don’t have enough money for it”). Another grocery collective member, who also works many hours in the shop, has been unemployed for seven years; same for pretty much all the others. Even if they have a job, paychecks get cut; I’d hear from the person hosting me in their apartment later on my first day that they have work, but their wages were recently cut by 30 percent, with more cuts to come soon.

Yet the instant I arrived at the grocery, everyone ran out to meet me, asked what I wanted to eat or drink, and quickly brought me an espresso, brushing off any notion that I would or should pay for it — despite my efforts. They eagerly and proudly showed me around the space, and just as eagerly answered all my many questions. And they especially spoke of the hope, despite their despair, of their coop grocery and the many other “self-employment” ideas springing up, out of increasing necessity. Such projects aren’t intended as anticapitalism, but as a bridge of sorts, as “survival pending revolution,” in the best case, or in the far worse one, fascism/barbarism. As supplying dignity and solidarity via self-organizing, even if that’s the main source of sustenance at first.

The collective at this grocery are far from special in terms of their narratives of no work and no pay. It’s actually much more difficult to find someone here in Greece who has a job; it’s actually much more difficult, too, to find someone with a job who has not gotten an enormous pay cut or simply hasn’t gotten paid in months or years (a sort of unemployed employment). Rare is the person who tells you they have a job and make enough money.

Ask anyone here, and they’ll gladly tell you their particular story, with a warmth and generosity that is strikingly at odds with their pain. And they’ll tell you no matter what walk of life them come from, whether they are one of the many anarchist comrades I’ve met or the random strangers on the street or in cafes.

A person under thirty years old usually comments on how young people are experiencing a 50-50 chance of unemployment. Others will explain that older men who have had jobs for years, and saw those jobs as defining of self, are now sinking into misery and frequently suicide, or out of boredom and necessity, are going to pick up their kids after school (something, in this far more traditionally gendered society, that women typically did). They’ll also gladly tell you their views on the crisis, and most will tell you it’s clear now that it is no crisis at all but rather the new permanent condition, and one they all say will get much worse very soon. And won’t get better again.

Even as they are sharing their stories, they are sharing their hospitality and solidarity. An old friend invited two of us over to his house for lunch yesterday; his partner lost her job six years ago, they had one child some five years ago, but can’t afford another now (“maybe after the crisis,” said as gallow’s humor, because this friend is not optimistic about such an end to the crisis); and he received about a 20 percent pay cut in his “permanent” job. Yet they made us a huge meal of many dishes, beer/wine, coffee, and dessert, and lavished us with welcome — a warmth that will not give up, crisis or not.

The depth of how people look out for you when you’re a visitor to their spaces and cities brings new qualitative dimension to the phrase “culture of resistance.” The impoverishment of most people in Greece will not, it seems, impoverish their ethic of hospitality and warmth. Not that some people aren’t profiting off of this crisis; of course they are. Not that others aren’t using this moment to “self-organize” for fascist aims; that too. But the many networks and projects and spaces of self-organized and almost “organic” solidarity are remarkable, especially in light of what’s being day by day taken away. Everyone will tell you their stories of job loss, financial loss, loss of dignity, and most will at some point mention, almost in a whisper, “I’m depressed. We’re all depressed.” And then they’ll yet again extend a hand of a hospitality that feels egalitarian, in that it’s done in a way that says, “This is what we humans do for each other; it’s nothing special.”

The culture of resistance is a culture of maintaining one’s humanity.

I write these words from a cafe that I’ve come to three mornings now in a row, on my three days in Thessaloniki for the second part of the “Three Bridges” Mediterranean Anarchist Meetings. They cafe is called “iheart,” and the two women who are making the coffee have already gotten to know me in that way where they said “espresso, right?” when I walked in today. They are all smiles and warm, in that way that an “iheart” cafe in the States would train and compel employees to be.

This morning, one of the two cafe-worker women came up to me, asking me why I was here, if I was a tourist or whatever. I said “for the Balkan anarchist gathering,” because there are huge posters for the event all over town, and as in Athens, circle As spray-painted on thousands of walls. But it was instantly clear she didn’t know what I was talking about, so I instantly changed course, talking about how many of us are meeting to talk about how to do person-to-person solidarity projects, such as “solidarity clinics” or “refugee houses,” as response to the various crises. She lit up; she’s heard of those, yes, and yes, understood how such direct face-to-face ways of caring for each other were crucial.

“I finished university last year, but there are no jobs for me or my friends,” she offered, and then told me how even with this job, she has to live with her parents. It’s not what she wants. “There is no future here, here in Greece. Every young person like me is leaving, going north, hoping to find a life there. I grew up here; I don’t want to leave. But there’s no future.”

There are so many variations-on-a-theme of “no future” across the globe at this moment in history. Displacement has many faces. One commonality is that all those many displaced persons — the majority — are increasingly being marked and treated as disposable, “given” choices that are no choices at all. The great migration going on is a “great transformation” in capital and state, policing and racism, and is not great at all for most of humanity. And it’s not going away; humans are being made to “go away.”

I come back time and again to a conversation between an older anarchist and many young ones a couple years ago. The younger anarchists kept explaining to the older one all the manifold ways they have “no future.” They kept saying how they doubt they will live to be older people at all. After an hour or so, the older anarchist asked them, “Why do you even care about doing politics? Why do you organize at all?” Each and every younger anarchist smiled broadly: “Because we can make this world so much better in the time we have left.”

We can see this world and each other as home, community, neighbors, extended chosen families, welcome guests, new comrades and friends, worthy of dignity, no matter where or who we are.

If I have gleaned nothing else here — and I have and am gleaning much — it is that it’s actually possible to still remember we are human and act from that simple fact. Such as those anarchists doing “Chai Not Borders” in a park in Belgrade, bringing hot tea and hot soup to share from about 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. with those temporarily “self-housing” themselves in a tent city as they flee war zones to find what they hope is a future, but more likely will be another kind of war zone. Over tea, everyone talks, swap stories, holds each others sorrows, and for a short time, makes each other less vulnerable. Or those handful of anarchists opening up squats in Paris for some 300 people so far, many of them refugees, and then co-living as equally responsible housemates.

There are many more such stories, but all are about how people in their everyday lives with other people are doing their best, often with the least, to share hope against hopelessness, hospitality against inhospitable social conditions; we can indeed be human, against and across the barbed wire of cruelty quickly trying to cut us off from ourselves and each other.

* * *

Note: please excuse any and all typos, and try to make sense of what I’m trying to say in spite of them. I’ve limited time and wifi during my limited time in Greece, and am writing too quickly.

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, street art of resistance, Athens, October 2015.)


One comment on “No Future But Now

  1. Pingback: Better Selves Are Possible | Outside the Circle

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This entry was posted on October 15, 2015 by in Dispatches from Life, Dispatches from Rebellious Spaces, Uncategorized.
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