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

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - AGORA (Alternative Grassroots Organizations as a Response to Austerity: perspectives from Southern Europe)

Reporting period: 2017-06-01 to 2019-05-31

In recent years the global financial crisis and the consequent austerity measures have triggered protest movements all over the world. In Southern Europe there has been a strong wave of mobilizations directed to defend public welfare provision, with anti-austerity movements characterized by a call for social justice framed in solidarity and inclusion, against the perception of a reduced capacity by the state of addressing citizens’ needs. This low level of trust in institutional politics has triggered the creation of alternative spaces of deliberative and participatory democracy, directed to experiment with different political expressions.

Against this background, a crucial question is whether and how this claim for different forms of democracy has been translated by social movements into the development of grassroots organizational forms that bring increased democracy also into the economic sphere. In order to address this still underinvestigated question, AGORA project will focus on those grassroots entrepreneurial activities that originate from the civil society, in this specific case as a direct expression of anti-austerity movements, and that are characterized by the prevalence of social objectives over profit maximization. Grassroots entrepreneurial activities with a social aim have taken different forms and denominations (social enterprises, social economy, third sector, etc.) and specific characteristics according to the context analyzed. AGORA focused on Social and Solidarity Economy (hereinafter SSE), since this concept focuses mainly on the process of democratization of the economy.

Moreover, SSE organizations have been interpreted as characterized by “a dual dimension”, which is economic as well as political. SSE organizations are engaged in the promotion of social and environmental justice thanks to both the economic and political empowerment of producers, users and workers they support. SSE organizations are meant as alternative organizations to mainstream economy that focus on local territorial and community development, are distinguished by a collective ownership or management of means of production and redistribute surplus to disadvantaged groups and communities. Consequently, they are a way of institutionalizing grassroots collective efforts of finding alternative, inclusive, and participatory ways of providing public goods and services. Furthermore, SSE, being embedded within the broader community, is meant to have a positive impact on the community as a whole and not only on the organizations’ members.

The general objective of AGORA will be to assess how SSE is politically framed by investigating the linkages between social movements and SSE in Spain and Portugal. Specific objectives will be to empirically and theoretically assess under which conditions social movements are conducive to the emergence SSE organizations, and to determine the extent to which social movements shape and influence the economic, social, and especially the political dimension of SSE.

Starting from a social movement perspective, AGORA adopted an interdisciplinary approach, by finding synergies between social movement scholarship, economic anthropology, organization studies and SSE scholarship (which is per se interdisciplinary), with the aim of integrating different approaches proposed by these disciplines.
The in-depth critical analysis of existing literature on social movements and SSE was crucial in order to establish linkages between the two disciplines. This analysis, together with the fieldwork, has highlighted the different aspects that determine the main enabling factors that explain the emergence of SSE organizations in the contexts analyzed; the main characteristics of SSE organizations and their political dimension; the role of social movements in determining the emergence of SSE organizations and in shaping their objectives and organizational forms.
Ten SSE organizations were investigated in Barcelona, as well as three organizations in Portugal, through an ethnographic approach. The research results highlight three main dimensions of SSE organizations (productive, collective and care) and stress that the economic and political dimensions are transversal to these three dimensions analysed. SSE actors are imbued with a transformative vision of society (testified to also by their political activism inside a variety of social movements before and during their permanence inside the organisations) that they transfer into their organisation.
Against this background, conceptualisation and theorisation of SE as a process can benefit from taking into account the contribution given by social movements studies and concrete SE practices. The political dimension of SE, intended as a transformative dimension which is linked to the concept of “transformative economies”, can be better understood thanks to the analysis of the influence of social movements at various stages.
The results highlight that it is starting from actual practices, in these and in other contexts, that the SE concept intended as a process can be enriched and better understood in its political dimension.
Results have been disseminated in two articles (currently under review) and in several international conferences, seminars and a workshop organized at the hosting institution.
The research results contribute to the understanding of the interplay between social movements and SSE organizations in offering alternative socioeconomic arrangements that address unsatisfied needs that neither the market nor the State are willing or able to satisfy, exploring the transformative dimension of these arrangements in terms of constituting alternatives to capitalist and neoliberal discourse and organizations. This study thus offers an original contribution to shed light on the political dimension of SSE, how it is conceived and translated from social movements to SSE organizations. The exploitation and dissemination activities, the participation in international conferences, and the organization of an international workshop have significantly contributed to the project impact. In addition, the activities carried out during the project have reinforced scholarly networks and enhanced synergies between academic institutions and networks.
Finally, the research results constitute the core of two research projects that are currently under development: an ERC Starting Grant Proposal that the researcher is developing and a project on Transformative Economies, implemented together with several Spanish partners, to look for funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and University.
REJIES workshop