Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Illustration: Cressida Knapp
Privatisation and the nature of the state is moving to the centre of the struggle against austerity in Greece. The troika of the three key lenders to Greece – the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank – is trying to speed up the sell-off of the country’s public goods and resources by putting them in one holding company to be auctioned off in quick succession. The Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (TAIPED), as this company is pompously named, might as well be an auction house advertising an ‘everything must go’ clear out: ‘Greece for sale. Real estate bargains, profitable companies going cheap.’
Resistance to this handover to the corporate market faces a challenge. In 2011 a reputable polling company found that 75 per cent of Greeks believed privatisation was necessary; in 2012 it was down to 62 per cent but still well over half the population – including more than 40 per cent of Syriza voters. These same polls, however, indicate a point of vulnerability for the troika: water, the one issue on which a majority opposes privatisation. And it is on this issue that resistance is beginning to gain momentum as TAIPED announces that bids for the two state-owned water companies will be invited before the summer for sale by October.
Water privatisation has proved to be a source of fatal vulnerability for governments bent on privatisation. In Latin America victories for water as a human right, against governments assuming they could sell it on the global market, have contributed, for example, to the downfall of right-wing governments in Uruguay, in the late 1990s, and Bolivia, with the Cochabamba ‘water wars’ of 2000.
Already the strength of practical commitment to water as a common good is beginning to prove awkward for the EU members of the troika on their home ground. For example, French president François Hollande’s encouragement to French water companies to start bidding for Greek companies is hardly convincing when the municipality of his own capital city is reporting efficiency savings of £30 million in the first year through bringing water back into public hands, after managers discovered private water companies extracting extortionate profits. Paris’s ‘remunicipalisation’ is part of a trend across Europe. In Berlin, too, private contractors have been dismissed.
Germany is also the source of a direct intervention against the troika’s insistence on privatising water. At the end of February, the president of the association of public water managers in Germany wrote a strong letter on behalf of the country’s public water supply and sewage companies to the European Commission president insisting that, according to the EU’s own directive on water stipulating that water is ‘not an article of trade’, ‘the supply of water, sewage water disposal and water management cannot be privatised’.
The first initiatives in Greece towards politically decisive resistance over water have come from the country’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. Here the preliminary steps towards privatisation in 2007 were slowed down in part through the resistance of the water workers’ union, which staged a four-day hunger strike during the city’s international trade fair. The first tenders were eventually announced in 2009 and again the union – which, unlike most unions in Greece, had determinedly maintained its autonomy from all political parties – responded with a 12-day occupation of the company’s main building.
The reputation that the water workers’ union established with activists in Thessaloniki has proved to be a foundation on which today’s growing campaign has been able to build. Union president George Archontopoulos says that in 2009 he used to invite himself to neighbourhood groups to put the arguments against privatisation. Now, he says, ‘they are always asking us to come to them and there are many more of them.’
‘We spent more than six months trying to convince them that we act as citizens and not as workers who are afraid of losing our jobs,’ he continues. ‘The truth is that they were testing us and we didn’t know! As you know, there is a lot of mud, sometimes rightly, thrown at public servants and there can be a lot of corruption in trade unions.’
The union helped to overcome this generally negative attitude to public servants by taking a militant line not only against privatisation but also against corruption, price rises and the growing number of water cut offs. It was not surprising, then, that the new energies and convergences stimulated by the occupation of Thessaloniki’s White Tower square in 2011 should lead to discussions between the indignados and the water workers.
From this came ‘Initiative 136’. The idea is that if every water user bought a non-transferable share, ‘the public could own the water company through a system of neighbourhood co-operatives of water users coming together through a single overall co‑operative’. €136 is the figure you get from dividing the €60 million for which the company is to be put on the stock market by the number of water meters in the city.
‘It would, in effect, be a public-public answer to the troika’s public-private partnership,’ explains Theodoros Karyotis, a founding member of Initiative 136 from Thessaloniki’s social movements, who has also been involved in supporting the workers of the city’s Vio.Me factory during their occupation and now their self-management of production.
George Archontopoulos describes how ‘the idea first came out of a press conference during the earlier struggles. To reinforce the argument for keeping water public we divided up the stock exchange price by the number of water users to show how the public could buy shares and keep the company in public hands. With the indignados we turned this the idea into a practical campaign.’
In reality, the practical impact of Initiative 136 has been more in its propaganda power – illustrating vividly how water can be managed as a common resource ‘without relying on either private companies or the existing state,’ as Kostas Marioglou, another water workers’ leader put it. Although co-ops have been formed in eight of Thessaloniki’s 16 neighbourhoods, and the city’s municipal council has given it a unanimous welcome, people simply cannot afford the one-off €136. And municipalities hardly have the money to keep going.
‘We are under attack on every front,’ declares Theodoros Karyotis, having just returned from a 20,000-strong demonstration against the gold mining operations of Eldorado in the nearby Kavakos mountains and the vicious police repression of anyone, including school children, suspected of protesting.
But the organisers of Initiative 136 are not giving up the practical project. They are discussing now with the influential European Public Water Network about finding the funds to turn the public-public solution into reality. ‘It’s no longer a Greek issue. It has become an emblematic issue for the European movement,’ explains Karyotis. ‘If the privatisation is not defeated, it will be a real setback for the return of water to the public, which is happening everywhere else.’
At the same time as pushing ahead with finding the funds and legal structures for the co-operative, all those in Initiative 136 spend time building a wide coalition against privatisation. ‘We are working on two legs. The broadest possible alliance against privatisation is the first leg and exploring a means of direct socialisation as the alternative,’ says Theodoros Karyotis.
‘We must unite against privatisation,’ emphasises Kostas Marioglou, ‘and be able to debate the best way to manage water for the common good.’ For alongside the unity there is a heated debate on Initiative 136. ‘Why should we buy what we already own?’ argue many in Syriza. ‘The problem,’ says Karyotis, ‘is how do we stop privatisation? Lobbying, protesting on its own, does it get anywhere? Initiative 136 is in one sense fighting them on their own ground, exploiting a loophole, but this is making it difficult to stop us, if we have the funds and we have the popular support.’
‘The target is common,’ insists George Archontopoulos, who stood in the elections for Syriza, ‘even if we shoot from different directions. Let’s surround the target!’
Meanwhile, a water movement developing across Attica, the region of Athens, is converging on this same target, the imminent threat of privatisation. Like the water that it is defending, a flow of campaigns is gathering force across the municipalities of Attica and from the port of Piraeus to the largest working class residential suburbs of Athens.
A determined driver behind this is an interesting and outward looking new grouping of water workers for the EYDAP public water company of Athens. It calls itself SEKE (‘participatory unity movement’). Vasilis Tsokalis, a founder member of SEKE., describes its origins during the elections for worker representatives on the EYDAP board.
‘Suddenly last year this new organisation came together, from the left and centre left, independent of the two old parties. We wanted to get rid of the existing board members who’d been there for over ten years; one a member of PASOK and the other of New Democracy,’ he explains. ‘They had been catastrophic actually, working with management and the political parties, saying they were against privatisation but doing nothing.’
SEKE immediately won 17 per cent of the vote. ‘But we knew we could become stronger through taking action with others fighting privatisation and for a management of water in the common good,’ says Tsokalis. SEKE made contact with Save Greek Water, and together they set themselves the task of convincing all 45 municipalities to support a commitment to public water.
Vasilis Tsokalis says emphatically: ‘This is a citizens movement.’ Theodoros Karyotis stresses the importance of the ‘autonomy of our movement from all political parties’. Their insistence comes from a history in which independent civil society has been suffocated by the two main political parties. But it also comes from a positive sense of emancipation from the hierarchies, dependencies and pervasive forms of domination associated with a state operating through clientelism.
In the past, many public servants privately tried to work outside this culture but now this individual refusal is turning into a collective creation of an alternative way of engaging with politics. In the powerful wake of the protest movement of the past two years, the flourishing of self-organised collaborations such as Initiative 136, SEKE, the factory occupation at Vio.Me and more are all evidence of this.
Nadia Valvani, Syriza MP and member of its economic committee responsible for privatisation policy, sensed this in the rise of Syriza during the first elections of 2012, when the coalition’s vote rose from the 4 per cent it obtained in 2009 to 27 per cent.
‘There was something deeper than political sympathy,’ she remembers. ‘At gatherings in people’s houses I sensed a kind of emancipation process. There were people there who were not especially left who wanted to change their whole way of life and see an end to the clientelist relation to politics. They came to us for a way out. They want to participate, not just to vote. If I hadn’t lived through this, I wouldn’t have been convinced.’
This emancipation also releases productive capacities. An engineer in a responsible position with EYDAP, Antigoni Synodinou, observes the ‘huge amount of wasted talent’ under clientelism; as a trade union leader, George Archontopoulos describes how ‘workers opinions and information are ignored’.
In other words, people are describing an economic force: social creativity, stimulated and nourished through co-operation and mutuality. Conventionally it is termed ‘social capital’ and tends to be used to encourage networks of social cohesion to cope with economic hardships, without challenging structural inequalities. More radically, with transformation in mind, this same social capacity can be understood as the productive potential of democratic, participatory economics, including in the organisation of the public sector.
The polls on privatisation imply that such alternatives are essential to changing public opinion, for the same people who view privatisation as a necessity also believe that it benefits foreign multinationals and does not benefit consumers. This indicates that their view is more to do with hostility to the existing state, a state already bent towards meeting primarily private interests. The problem is the absence of any awareness of alternative management of public services and common goods.
Members of Syriza’s economics committee are attentive to the importance of the initiatives autonomous of the coalition – from citizens and workers as citizens – for developing convincing and practical alternatives. In a forthcoming book, Crucible of Resistance, one of Syriza’s economic spokespeople, Euclid Tsakalotos, points to the formative importance of debate in the early years of Syriza on ‘governmentalism’. The conclusion meant Syriza not only supported social movements but also ‘learnt from these movements about the nature of the alternative’.
Syriza’s leadership see this ideal of supporting and learning from autonomous movements at the same time as aiming for government as a central challenge as it prepares to turn from a coalition to a party. Andreas Karitzis explains: ‘Syriza is dangerous because it combines those two elements, governability and the strong connection with the social movements fighting the government. The strategy of the government is to force us to decide. I am hopeful because Syriza members, whether more revolutionary or more reformist, recognise that there is no solution if we lose one of these elements.’
If the coalition against water privatisation in Greece, simultaneously resisting and experimenting with alternatives, develops its momentum, it could mean that the troika’s attempt to sell off water will again prove to be a fatal move by the political class.
Athens will be hosting the Alter Summit on June 7-8. www.altersummit.eu
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.