Walking through Athens can be a bit distracting, the skyline dominated by the Acropolis, and in certain districts stumbling over archaeological ruins at every turn. Awe inspiring to think of this being the birthplace of democracy, philosophy and academia. Quite appropriate then to be heading for one of Athens’ universities to attend the RIPESS congress and take part in workshops, panels and presentations from a variety of academics, students and practitioners all interested in developing and promoting the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE).
Set in a green campus, bougainvillea and jasmine climbing the walls and citrus trees casting shade, people were gathering around a local food co-operative’s stand to get coffees and pastries, having exchanged their euros for ‘Coopernicus’ the local currency of the congress. The congress was entitled UniverSSE, and the space theme was continued throughout, all the rooms named after planets, with a black hole as the registration and information point and the Milky Way as the networking zone. The first session I attended was an EU-wide panel of participants who all run educational programmes on the SSE. What was common to all of the panel members was that they were all conscious of the fact that they were fighting against the dominant paradigm in each of their countries, and even in their institutions, to increase awareness and knowledge about economic systems that offer an alternative to neo-liberal systems. The second session I attended was an interesting discussion of different EU organisations’ experience of introducing or developing Fair Trade in their countries. After exchanging my Coopernicus for a delicious lunch provided by another local food co-operative, it was time to network with congress participants hailing from over 20 EU countries and to find out about the different activities they are involved in. From Finland to Bulgaria, Portugal to Cyprus, the range of participants was enormous and equally their involvement in many different aspects of the SSE covered everything from housing, influencing policy, food waste, managing the commons within the SSE, to digital commons, financing the SSE and alternative models of education.
One panel I attended was around the challenge of SSE in particular socio-political conditions, and focussed on ex-Eastern Bloc countries where as one participant described it, “when we use the word ‘social’, for most people it’s a dirty word.” They argued that what is needed is to rephrase the idea of the economy because “we are still not outside the logic of buying and selling”, and it is necessary to ask how we live together without exploitation, stating that “there is no radical rupture in society: the old is always inside the new.” I really liked this idea, as there’s definitely something comforting in the knowledge that we are pursuing something tried and tested and something we know as co-operators works to make a fairer and more equal society. As one participant put it, we need to embrace a new form of socialism or “we are left in the war of everybody against everybody.”