Two facets of Solidarity: "tangible" and "symbolic"

Despina Biri

 The need to strengthen solidarity structures as a barrier against the onerous terms imposed by the impending new memorandum has been stressed by many. This strengthening sometimes presupposes, sometimes not, the ideological alignment of solidary individuals with Syriza and the Greek government. Taking as a starting point some presentations from the «Democracy Rising» conference, organized by GCAS (Global Center For Advanced Studies) in Athens, it would be useful to delve further into the meaning given to solidary action by solidary individuals themselves, and to the ideological connotations that this action may have.

Let us begin with the presentations made during the conference concerning extensive anthropological studies carried out on solidary structures in Greece during the years of the crisis. The speakers (Dimitris Theodosopoulos, Heath Cabot, Andromachi Papaioannou, Theodoros Rakopoulos) discovered that the politicization of action and in-kind provision cannot be presumed. They also stressed that solidary individuals themselves often avoid making their solidary action a part of their political or partisan identity. A question that came up in all presentations made during the session concerns the relationship between state and solidarity structures. Some solidary individuals maintain that they are ideologically opposed to the provision of aid by solidarity initiatives that in effect replace the state. At the same time, they recognize that there is a serious humanitarian need which cannot be met by existing state structures, particularly at times for crisis. Their action is therefore filtered through this tension between the ideological and the practical.

 This is something that must be seriously taken into account by a government that seeks not only the contribution of solidary structures in combating the humanitarian crisis, but also aims to reinforce their activities. Another remarkable aspect is the fact that many solidary structures do not accept monetary but only in-kind contributions. This makes state reinforcement of these structures by the state more complicated,  as in-kind contribution requires operation coordination in order to detect deficiencies, redistribute goods and economic surpluses, and so on. If the goal of state reinforcement of solidary structures is to lessen –to a small extent– state obligations in these types of operation, this matter must be reexamined immediately. Following the situation in Pedion tou Areos, the state can no longer claim that it is able to respond rapidly to needs that arise, especially when compared to the solidarity movement.

To go back to the conference, following the presentations outlined above, during which it became clear that solidarity does not always have a clear political connotation, but rather focuses on tangible provision of aid to those in need, justified as «I could be in their position, too», the discussion that followed, on the topic of solidarity movements of the Diaspora and «neodiaspora» was perhaps surprising in using a different definition of the term «solidarity». (Geographic) distance between solidary individuals and those affected by the ills of the memoranda makes tangible solidarity more difficult, except in cases of monetary or in-kind collections to be sent to Greece. Yet most of the actions organized by the international Diaspora is not so much concerned with in-kind provision, but with the publicizing and the almost Gramscian codification of the experience of the people (let us not forget that a large majority of contemporary migration from Greece is made up of young highly qualified people, working mainly at universities). The term solidarity, therefore, is defined in the international context as support to the people and the government of Greece, mainly using symbolic or verbal means: organization of demonstrations in support, publication of commentaries by solidary individuals, and the building of broad international alliances. As such, diasporic solidarity networks act as peculiar tools for publicizing the Greek crisis internationally.

How can two so very different things be described using the same word? Historically, the term solidarity stands for both. The difference lies in the means used to achieve a level of support, whether tangible of symbolic, to a group or groups which may be affected by something with which those standing in solidarity disagree with; at this juncture this may be the memoranda, the unofficial refugee camp set up in Pedion tou Areos, the – now abolished– ype III high-security prisons, to mention but a few examples. Looking at the history of social movements it is clear that both forms of solidarity are equally important in the achievement of goals, whatever these goals may be.

We therefore need, now as much as ever, both "tangible" as well as "symbolic" solidarity. Part of ourselves wishes that changes had already taken place, yet we know that nothing will change unless we or others like us do it. So we carry on and we try to organize ourselves, to work together, to make the state monolith understand that solidarity requires immediacy and empathy with the other. We are fighting to meet minimum needs and we cannot even do that. But what can we do? One way or the other we are going to become truly solidary. Besides, with the impending memorandum, solidarity is more essential than ever.
Despina Biri is a researcher working in health care.

First published in Greek on "Enthemata" of the newspaper "Avgi", 9.8.2015.
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