Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Reclaiming Dignity


In this world of state, capital, and cops, most everything is being stolen or restolen from us. Here in Greece, austerity via the EU, wealthy global elites, and mega-financial institutions is stealing (back) wages, pensions, jobs, public spaces and infrastructure, health care, and more, and it’s only going to get worse and worse as the days and months go on.

This grand-larceny of material theft is, in no small way, stealing people’s dignity. Politicians are trying to downplay the statistics, but suicide is commonplace among people in Greece these days — so much so that everyone seems to know someone who has taken that route of late. Dignity is stolen by the loss of things that one needs to live; but it’s also snatched by the loss of hope, but the dehumanizing impacts of austerity, when one’s very worth is put into question.

At a time when people in Greece and across the wider Balkans have less and less materially, stealing back dignity — social and personal — is not only deeply political; it is deeply empowering. It becomes a way of asserting that culture and humanity are resistant — are resisting — in ways large and small.

For instance, there is a profound culture of hospitability here in the Balkans. It is a defining feature of interactions and who people understand themselves to be, and want to be. No matter that my various hosts and new friends have no jobs or have had their wages cut to near nothing; they share what they have, including their warmth.

During most of my too-short (but absolutely precious and perfect time here, thanks especially to the hospitality of my dear friend Pavlos Stavropoulos), I’ve wanted to buy a clementine from one of the many open-air farm markets stretching for kilometers down neighborhood streets, or covered “old world” type food markets covering several city blocks. Each time, the person behind the mountains of fruits and vegetables smiles broadly and waves their hand at me, upside down and pushing outward toward me. I didn’t understand at first due to the language barrier. Yet when they kept waving, and then starting making a face that said “please, take it; please; it’s a gift,” I understood. These farm stands, in all probability staffed by people not getting paid or whose pay has been cut (as I’ve learned, many “businesses” are “voluntary” simply in hopes of someday making a little money and to stave off depression), are barely scraping by. But one piece of fruit, to a stranger, is one piece of not losing one’s culture of hospitality and, at the same time, asserting one’s dignity against a new phase of capital that commodifies “dignity” as something only some can purchase.

This goes far beyond the one-on-one, face-to-face level, though. Happily, from my Turtle Island vantage point, anarchists here seem to weave it intentionally into their self-organization and solidarity efforts.

When huge amounts of people now forced into the category “refugee” initially poured into Slovenia on their hard trek northward, anarchists there were some of the first — or maybe the first — to think to offer mutual aid at the borders. They did an enormous fund-raiser, and with the money, bought all sorts of supplies that those fleeing war might need. But they also understood that much of their solidarity efforts were about meeting and listening to those seeking refuge, and supporting their own forms of resistance along the way as well as what they themselves desired by way of material aid. “No Border” work was about social relations and dignity first and foremost.

As one anarchist from Slovenia explained, when they Red Cross arrived, it had a lot of deodorant, which was much desired due to the hardship of not being able to care for one’s body well on such a journey. Yet the Red Cross only thought that females were considered with smelling nice and looking nice. The anarchists freely gave out deodorant to anyone who wanted it. And as was explained to me, after hearing that men really wanted to shave, anarchists brought along tons of razors. Aside from the mere sexism and heteronormativity of the Red Cross and other NGOs, they didn’t see that feeling “human” because one was able to shave, for instance, was equally important to eating. When all is lost and left behind, with an uncertain and scary future ahead, dignity is something one can grasp and hold as their own. The anarchists in Slovenia got this; yet as one of them told me, it’s because they too are aspiring to retain the Balkan culture of hospitality, alongside their anarchism — their dignity.

For this is the even more poignant undercurrent of dignity here: anarchists more often than not, at least the libertarian/social anarchists I’ve been around, see themselves as human beings sharing struggle and life with other human beings, not “anarchist” and “refugee.” That’s the best kind of generously gifted and collectively reclaimed dignity of all. It’s something that we should all aspire to practice, if we have any hope at all of surviving and battling the bleak, undignified conditions trying to break our very “souls” and selves.

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

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2015 by in Dispatches from Life, Dispatches from Rebellious Spaces.
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