If the Greek experience of the past two years shows anything, it is that conventional Left politics, even with massive electoral support and control of the government, cannot prevail against finance capital and its international allies.  European creditors continue to force Greek citizens to endure the punishing trauma of austerity politics with no credible scenario for economic recovery or social reconstruction in sight.

Greek edition of “Think Like a Commoner”

After the governing coalition Syriza capitulated to creditors’ draconian demands in 2016, its credibility as a force for political change declined. Despite its best intentions, it could not deliver. The Greek people might understandably ask:  Have we reached the limits of what the conventional Left can achieve within “representative democracies” whose sovereignty is so compromised by global capital?  Beyond such political questions, citizens might also wonder whether centralized bureaucratic programs in this age of digital networks can ever act swiftly and responsively.  Self-organized, bottom-up federations of commoning often produce much better results.

Pummeled by some harsh realities and sobered by the limits of Left politics, many Greeks are now giving the commons a serious look as a political option. This was my impression after a recent visit to Athens where I tried to give some visibility to the recently published Greek translation of my book Think Like a Commoner.  In Greek, the book is entitled Κοινά: Μία σύντομη εισαγωγή).  Besides a public talk at a bookstore (video here), I spoke at the respected left Nicos Poulantzas Institute (video with Greek translation & English version), which was eager to host a discussion about commons and commoning.

Re-inventing law for the Commons, David Bollier from Institouto Nicos Poulantzas on Vimeo.

In my talk, I suggested that the Greek state might wish to re-imagine “the economy,” politics and law by considering what commons could accomplish (and are accomplishing), and how state policies might support commoning. Since the left cannot necessarily advance its larger agenda of social justice, fairness and human rights through the state – subservient as it is to neoliberal circuits of global power – it should entertain how the commons might open up some new solution-sets.

To that end, I discussed the promise of relocalized food and agriculture systems; the potential of re-imagining city policies and programs as a commons; the advantages of academic commons to more efficiently generate and share scholarship and scientific knowledge; the power of open source software and open design and manufacturing; the ecological wisdom of traditional agricultural, forestry and fishery commons; and the ways in which law could decriminalize and support commoning, moving beyond many pathologies of bureaucracy.

At the macro-scale, a commons-based economy could also help a country escape the massive inefficiencies, ecological costs, predatory behaviors and corruption associated with the conventional economy — while generating new forms nonmarket provisioning and socially legitimate political power.

I was told about medical care commons that have sprung up in Athens in recent years.  Staffed by volunteers and donated/low-cost supplies, the system is a desperate social improvisation to help people meet basic medical needs at a time when public hospitals turn people away.  The system has become a respected alternative system for medical care, engaging people as real human beings and not as mere “clients” or numbers. When patients don’t use all the pills they are given, for example, they return them, so someone else can use them. A kind of social solidarity has emerged. Supplies and personnel are obviously limited, but some aspects of healthcare have been reinvented as flexible modes of human caring, escaping the economic and social logic of conventional healthcare.

Of necessity, Greeks have established other commons as well – for food, housing and fuel.  There are active efforts to make Greek academic research and data more available as a commons, going beyond the logic of open platforms.  A Greek hacker community, the Libre Space Foundation, has even built the first open source satellite and ground station network – UPSat and SatNOGS — from readily available and affordable tools.

These are the sorts of initiatives that the traditional left may regard as interesting, but not politically significant. I think that is a huge mistake. In that gap of understanding lies the potential for inventing a new type of climate-friendly, socially just economy and political culture.

At this moment of transition, therefore, when the commons seems to be acquiring new traction and visibility in Greece, I am thrilled that my book Think Like a Commoner is now available there.

I wish to thank George Papanikolaou and Andreas Karitzis for their role in organizing the translation of my book, and Efstathiou Anastasio of Angelus Novus Editions for publishing and promoting the Greek edition.  My thanks also to two commons scholars, Antonis Broumas and Stavros Stravrides, for graciously sharing their thoughts on the commons at the bookstore event.  A salute, too, to the Nicos Poulantzas Institute for hosting my talk.

For any readers of Greek, here are a few press interviews with me and reviews of my book – in Epohi; in Avgi, a collective blog (and here); in efsyn; and in Left.

Even though it was cold and blustery — Athens in February! — I had a great time, including a visit to the Acropolis and Agora. Next time: longer discussions, a day at the National Museum, and a visit to Greek islands.

Cross-posted from Bollier.org

Photo by stevegarfield

2 Comments The Greek Left Takes Stock of the Commons

  1. AvatarKeith

    What we saw in Greece, was not ‘conventional Left politics’ and that one statement shows a lack of understanding of what is happening in Greece and across Europe.

    Nor has the credibility of Syriza declined, it has completely collapsed.

    There is now a disillusion with politics.

    The rare exception, widespread support for Yanis Varoufakis who was not prepared to betray his fellow countrymen.

    Now in Greece we have a puppet government of the EU. Akin to the Viche Regime in France during WWII. There are EU officialis in every ministry.

    In conversation with Greeks, they draw parallels with WWII, they see their country under occupation.

    We have a fascist undemocratic, big business cartel, a junta without the uniforms, dictating to an empire.

    Across Europe corrupt socialist parties.

    In Poland and Hungary, fascists in control.

    A fascist on the edge of Empire in Turkey.

    In Romania, a corrupt government, with the people demanding it be overthrown.

    Spain and Greece, radical progressive parties formed, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece.

    These are not conventional parties of the Left. Nor is Labour were Jeremy Corbyn and the new membership demanding change to have their way.

    Greece dared challenge the EU. For that Greece had to be destroyed to set an example to others. ECB, in what was possibly illegal action, destroyed the banks to bring Greece to its knees.


    Support for Syriza has melted way following the betrayal of the Greek people.

    I have paid three recent visits to Athens one pre-Syriza, the other two post-Syriza.

    The second visit, I talked with people about setting up cooperatives as a way to move forward, seizing control of local Town Halls.

    I have had similar discussions in northern Spain, Tenerife and Cyprus.

    As I write, in conversation with Cyprus.

    IN UK slightly different, a corrupt Labour Party, rotten to the core, with a new radical leader, supported by the membership, but undermined by a corrupt faction that controls the party and parliament.


    As with all empires, EU is crumbling on the fringes. When collapse comes, it will be rapid.

    That is why we must be planning now for that change.


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