Social Solidarity Enterprises building sustainable micro-economies based fundamentally on giving back to your community.
Eleni Tsaousi, 34, is one of the countless people that have lost their jobs as a result of the effects of the economic crisis that erupted in Greece in 2010. Eleni used to work at a private school in Piraeus, Athens before she was let go. “It was a period for me that wasn’t going very well because, at my age, it is very difficult to deal with the fact that you are unemployed and especially when you are a woman.”
But things changed in her life one year ago. Now, she is an active member of Solidarity Piraeus, a community where she feels creative again. Aside from the evident income losses that losing one’s job entails, there are also social losses that are often less considered as a result of unemployment.
“I fulfil myself with many things here,” Eleni says. She is studying for an English certificate in the classes this community offers, as well as working in their communication department, “I feel useful.”
Solidarity Piraeus is a tangible example of a Social Solidarity Economy (SSE) enterprise in Greece. A whole new economic sector with a long history in grassroots movements, which popularized as a political and economic reaction to government failures since the crisis. This new sector is an alternative way to survive for some and a creative outlet for others, bringing community members together.
As in Eleni’s case, being involved in a solidarity enterprise, or a ‘community’ as Solidarity Piraeus call themselves, can help give someone’s life purpose again, especially an unemployed person. In many cases, these groups have also provided members with economic benefits as well, but profit is secondary to the social gains which can manifest in many different ways.
What is an SSE enterprise?
Solidarity Piraeus is one, but there are hundreds of different forms a solidarity enterprise can take. Big or small, formal or informal, there are just three fundamental characteristics to a well-functioning SSE structure: they are governed democratically; they have a social purpose within their statute, and there are limits in profits distribution.
Under the Ministry of Labor, the Special Secretariat for SSE in Greece, Antonis Vorloou, explains that since SSE enterprises fall neither under the private or the public sector, the government considers them as a third sector. “It’s regulated but it’s not a state-sponsored activity,” Vorloou says.
They can’t be considered in the private sector since they aim is not profit. Any financial gains that is produced within these structures are redistributed within the group for the benefit of all members, which is the ‘social purpose’ aspect.
Within this third sector, the scope of SSE functions is broad, and almost undefinable. From clinics to culture, from restauration to technology, people are creating their own enterprises that are fundamentally based on member solidarity. Within Solidarity Piraeus, they have their own school, a food bank for members, and a clothing exchange service.
Solidarity before the crisis
Solidarity values are embedded into Greek society, based on family culture and a long political history of self-assembly. Christos Giovanopoulos, PhD Researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences, at VRIJE University of Amsterdam, partially credits the current rise in SSE enterprises to these pre-existing conditions.
SSE organizations´year of foundation in Greece, Spain and Switzerland
“This is part of the culture that was there and people were familiar with this culture,” he says, making reference to some of Greece’s most recent demonstrations, such as the wave of University occupations in 1987 and the Syntagma Square movement in May 2011, that mobilized thousands of people to protest the austerity measures in front of the Parliament building.
Sofia Adams is the Project Coordinator in the field of SSE for the Heinrich Böll foundation which has been ‘one of the few foundations with an explicit commitment exploring the potential of social and solidarity economy.’ Adams also purports that, “the crisis has definitely acted like a trigger factor but there are also other factors involved that have to do with a legacy of social and political movements.”
Though the crisis is not a direct cause of the rise in these types of enterprises, there is certainly a correlation between the economic losses of the country and the spike in numbers of solidarity enterprises.
For that reason, it is difficult to tell which is more influential in the rise of SSE enterprises – these cultural characteristics that bread an ideal environment for them in Greece or the economic crisis that pressurized citizens into coming up with their own solutions.
Dynamics of SSE
In 2015, the government noticed the potential for solidarity economy to address social exclusion problems in the country and in some cases, unemployment and poverty. They changed the law with the intention of broadening the scope of structures that would fit under the official SSE domain.
Though this law made it easier for more types of enterprises to access loans from the government to help with starting up, some chose to remain entirely independent of the state. In Greece, the motivations for starting an SSE economy or for being involved in one vary, as do peoples’ philosophy within them.
For some, motivations are more political. “If you have a legal status, you give power to the state,” Giovanopoulos says. “You minimize the freedoms of action. You don’t maximize your potential, you minimize it.”
Christos Giovanopoulos, has a bigger vision for solidarity economies. Not upwards, like most capitalist structures that aim for profit, Christos hopes to see them grow outwards. But this would require a large-scale transformation.
“We have to understand society in a more dynamic way, outside of the preset, kind of class distinctions, sexual distinctions, whatever distinctions. And that´s the transformative power of this experience. You learn that all things can happen other ways.”
Eleni, Kostas, and those at Comeet have used these tough economic conditions to utilize their creative potential. Watch the videos for a better understanding of how some SSE structures in Greece function.