Sevi Chondrou invited us to come to Athens, so we did. Two citizens of the world living in Devon, flying to Akadimia Platonos to deliver a workshop that turns Plato's political philosophy on its head and is inspired by the work of a Chilean economist. An edgy, ironic scenario for a post to finish up 'international week' on the Social Reporters blog.
Sevi is an economist for a local district authority and was working with Max-Neef's ideas when she stumbled across our workshop back in May. After a few emails and Skype sessions most of the details and dates were set. Inez and I would deliver the workshop the last weekend in November, hosted by Chrysostomos and Girgos from the very cool European Village cooperative, and George and Maria from Transition Akadimia Platonos. Sevi would put us up. We'd never met, but it felt like a family affair from the very beginning. That feeling carries through. This is what solidarity feels like, I think.
We were coming to deliver our workshop and our costs would be covered, however we weren't coming to 'teach', but rather to share some ideas and tools that might be useful. And to bring back what we've learned from this experience, too. There is no substitute for this kind of face to face, shoulder to shoulder interaction. There is no more powerful medium for innovation to arise, take hold, and to spread. And if we're building a movement that aims to be a learning network, there should be more of it amongst and between groups engaging in this kind of work, whatever its name – Transition, relocalisation, Occupy, or the many flavours of 'new economics'.
It was a powerful experience to be in the place where the dialogue and democracy were born, to explore together with our sisters and brothers ideas and tools for making us more effective, active citizens. Austerity, oligarchy, and an emboldened, xenophobic right-wing are big issues in Greece, and looming in the UK, and elsewhere. While those issues are in the foreground here, they also form part of the global political economic complex responsible for global warming, biospheric destruction, rising economic inequality, diminishing democracy, etc.
Plato talked of rule by the best, of grooming the elite for their roles as Philosopher Kings, who, with well-trained knowledge of the good, would naturally choose the good. This self-serving notion, in one form or another, rationalises the mastery of the few over the many, and has done so since his time whenever such rationalisation is required. It lies at the heart of the problem. By passively abdicating our own agency, to experts, our betters and bosses, elected and appointed 'leaders', marketers and their brands – this is the shadow aspect of the problem – we are complicit in the shape of our own enthralment.
The antidote is active citizenship, or the Philosopher Citizen, if you prefer, which requires acceptance of collective responsibility for this mess, (we in the 'West' get, for the most part, the governments we allow,) self-empowerment by schooling ourselves about the problems and possible solutions, and energetic engagement with each other, using the tools and crafting the projects that will/may lead to change in the structures of our economic and political systems. Is there another option?
When we convened on our first day, participants told of their experience living with austerity, high unemployment, a corrupt government, the rising potential for violence, and so on. Some were upbeat, but over and over we heard about the fear, anxiety, anger and hopelessness that was consuming the culture and occupying the thoughts of the participants daily.
By the second day, many said their negative feelings had turned and that they could see the pathways for action and change. I'd like to think this was because of our charm and our brilliant workshop, however I think there's a simpler and more profound explanation. As Rob Hopkins wrote in his recent book, and as Hide Enomoto points out in his post the other day about what's happening in Japan, there is real power in doing something. Sometimes that something can be as simple as holding a space for people to consider together their own power to act.
These people who convened with us in a beautiful pottery studio overlooking Akadimia Platonos came from all over Athens, and some from hundreds of kilometres away, too. Some were activists and community organisers, and some were simply fed up and looking to get 'activated'. Some were employed but many were not, at least not in the traditional sense, and many considered themselves entrepreneurs. Many already had progressive projects going. Some hatched ideas during the workshop that they are taking forward, such as the energy cooperative that the Transition Akadimia Platonos gang cooked up. They told of a rising number of projects sprouting all over Greece, including a 'people's park' in Athens – a car park that had been occupied and turned into a real park with playground and garden.
With radical austerity policies, 27% unemployment, diminishing respect for the law, the situation in Greece is very bad and may yet get worse. A portend of what may be in store elsewhere? What about here in the UK where the effect of massive cuts to the safety net and local authorities have yet to be felt? What keeps the masses of people from rising up? Those little voice in our heads that tell us that change isn't possible, not in our culture, not here, people don't care, won't care, I'll be alone, and so on – they're the same in every country in Europe and they can be overcome. For as bad as things are getting, people are rising up. 'We are the earth's antibodies', as Paul Hawken says. We're democracy's antibodies, too. And there would be no fitter place for democracy to be healed.
Images: The ruins of the Agora, behind locked gates, keeping banker's hours; Needs and satisfiers exercise; Acive citizens mapping out their future; Our friends in Athens.