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Alternative Grassroots Organizations as a Response to Austerity: perspectives from Southern Europe

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Investigating economic alternatives offered by civil society

Since the economic crisis of 2008-2009 and the ensuing austerity, there have been signs of growing organised public discontent with the established order. The AGORA project investigated the conditions under which political engagement also results in real economic alternatives.

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Some scholars, such as Prof. Donatella della Porta, an Italian political scientist, have argued that trust in institutional politics has declined over recent years as a result of the perceived inefficiency and instability of the current economic system – accentuated by the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Furthermore, it is argued that civil society has responded to the perceived unfairness of the global economic system by more readily expressing disapproval, for example with the ‘Occupy’ movement. Against this background, the ability of representative democracy to provide solutions to citizens’ needs, alongside increasing levels of inequality, has been questioned. The EU-funded AGORA Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship project analysed the various conditions which enable the development of Solidarity Economy (SE) movements. The results highlighted the three main dimensions of SE organisations – productive, collective and care – that explain their formation and success.

Social movement perspective

AGORA adopted social movement theory, a branch of the social sciences, to investigate the political dimension of SE organisations and explain their transformative potential. SE organisations have explicit economic and social (and often environmental) objectives. They involve varying degrees and forms of cooperative, associative and solidarity relations between workers, producers and consumers, and practice workplace democracy and self-management. “They are instructive to study because they identify real-world alternatives to current structures and adopt them to try to build a fairer society. They imply a different way of looking at reality where social relations are based on reciprocity and commonality,” says Marie Skłodowska-Curie researcher, Dr Michela Giovannini. Dr Giovannini studied SE organisations active in different fields of activity such as education, food provision, housing and health services in Spain (Catalonia) and Portugal. As well as conducting semi-structured interviews with some of the members, participant observation for some specific events, along with document analysis, were also undertaken. “A key finding was that the political dimension of SE organisations manifests itself as a search for what it means to live together in a democracy. It is also about control of public spaces to allow experimentation with new forms of economics and politics, built from the bottom up,” says Dr Giovannini. Aside from often being a pragmatic and local response from communities under social and economic stress, another explanation for the upsurge in SE organisations was found to be in the opportunities they offer to consolidate social identities, through the exchange of practices, ideas and symbols. A tradition of strong formal and informal networks (for example for non-monetary exchanges), as well as a historical legacy of civic engagement, also lend themselves to the formation of SEs as the researcher found exemplified in the Catalan region.

Expanding the scope

The next stage for the project will be to further reinforce research networks around the topic. One future approach under consideration is to expand this exploratory study into other European and Latin American contexts, which will help further develop the theoretical underpinnings of the research, alongside provision of material to assess the policy implications. “I think it is becoming increasingly important to highlight, understand and support SE organisations. Not with top-down interventions but with co-designed strategies where activists and practitioners come together with institutions to design more equitable policies. It was really inspiring to see so many passionate and committed young people involved in finding alternatives,” says Dr Giovannini.


AGORA, solidarity economics, democracy, non-monetary, networks, social movement theory, austerity, civil society, social identities, activists

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