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B-Fest Synopsis


The following is a day-by-day synopsis of the events at B-Fest, organized by the Greek anti-establishment newspaper, Babylonia, in conjunction with participation of ZNet and ZNet Hellas contributors.  

 

Mike Epitropoulos, University of Pittsburgh

 

Inspired by the events that took place on the streets of Athens after the murder of a 15 year-old student by Greek police last December, the anti-establishment newspaper, Babylonia, organized a five-day conference/festival from the 27th – 31st of May, 2008.  The event, called "B-Fest," was a collection of both international and Greek voices speaking out against the abuses of the market, the state, and other unjust forms of authority.  ZNet took part in this event, which took place at the School of Fine Arts in Athens, with the participation of Michael Albert, Lydia Sargent, and Chris Spannos, along with ZNet Hellas contributors, Nikos Raptis, Mike Epitropoulos, and Nikos Stylopoulos.  The headliner names included, Howard Zinn, Vandana Shiva, and Noam Chomsky.

 

B-Fest was much more than speeches, however.  It was a gathering of young people, and of people questioning authority from the micro- to the macro- levels in very "horizontal" ways.  The structure of B-Fest included a wide variety of bands, cinematic presentations, workshops, food and drink that afforded participants the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas on interpersonal levels that academic conferences could – and would – never afford.  B-Fest was a cultural cornucopia of free-thinkers and free expression – a rarity in our times.

 

 

On the first night of B-Fest, participants heard anarchist and I.W.W. member, Andrej Grubacic, of the University of San Francisco, speak on Direct Action.  In contrasting Direct Action with Civil Disobedience, Grubacic drew from both historical and contemporary examples, including the murder of 15 year-old, Alexi, in Athens.  An important message that Grubacic got through was the framing of Direct Action and other attempts to challenge and transform society as "terror" by establishment authorities.  In this view, Direct Action is construed as ‘violence’ and the slogan, "another world is possible," is considered terroristic and even treasonous.  Thus, people are subtly forced to accept the status quo.  This is a fundamental part of understanding the common phobias about and reluctance to participate in protest, let alone Direct Action, according to Grubacic.

 

In his contrasting of militancy and activism, Grubacic characterized much civil disobedience as, "mostly ceremonial," whereas a horizontal Direct Action movement in praxis "aims to create sustainable, real decisions."  To truly change society, a revolutionary strategy through Direct Action is what Grubacic calls for.  The goal, he says, is not a political party, but a horizontal network of self-organized institutions, that emerge from the bottom-up, from existing strengths.

 

In his conclusion, Grubacic said that we may, indeed, be witnessing the decline of capitalism, but stressed that we should not fear the ruins of capitalism.  Rather, we must be, "constructively impatient" in our actions, aiming to forge a new society.

 

In the evening’s keynote address, a packed house of young students, dissidents, anarchists, reporters and others gathered to hear historian, Howard Zinn, speak on, "The Value of Political Disobedience."  In a succinct and familiar manner, Zinn challenged the crowd by arguing that if they think that ‘democracy’ is a legal system that comes out of a system of representative democracy – they’re wrong!  He went on to us the US as the example as the ‘best’ model of a modern ‘democracy.’

 

Turning mainstream ways of thinking on their head, Zinn made clear that, for the authorities in society, the problem is civil disobedience, while the main problem for the people is civil obedience; emphasizing that, "obedience is more at fault for the biggest historical tragedies!"

 

After drawing historic parallels between the US and ancient Athens (which he characterized as an, "uncomfortable thought!"), in terms of institutions of representative government, Zinn gave concrete examples of the problem of equating ‘democracy’ with legal systems, including the over four million US slaves that were legal, and the democratically-sentenced-to-death, Socrates, whose crime was speaking his mind in an "open society!"  Zinn spoke of the 40+ million uninsured, homeless, and hungry Americans in a US whose wealth inequality is ‘democratically’ worsening.  Elections and laws then are clearly not enough to bring justice to a society.

 

"The Law" legitimized slavery.  It legitimized labor and civil rights abuses.  It is a reflection of power relations in society, and Zinn presented this in clear and simple terms.  He also made clear that the major social injustices in US history were addressed and rectified only when people organized, struggled, and fought back – not just through the ballot box.

 

Zinn’s call for strategies that include civil disobedience toward the ends of ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’ are grounded in this historic reality.  He made clear that:  

 

  • We cannot depend on established institutions of representative democracy for a new president to bring about a "just society, or

 

  • In taking direct action, we need to understand that ‘weak’ people can affect change against corporations and governments, etc.

 

The reason, he stressed, is that the people with power in government are there only so long as people are obedient.  Zinn said, "…when workers strike or when consumers boycott, the most powerful corporations are weak, and when soldiers refuse to fight, powerful countries fall."  This captured Zinn’s classic mantra of the power of the people, the power of civil disobedience.  He closed by stressing that, "this power is in the millions of small actions in their totality," and that, "engaging in the struggle in and of itself is a victory – making life meaningful."

 

 

In the opening session of the second night, social psychologist, Anna Lydaki, of Panteion University of Athens, spoke on the issue of minorities, focusing her discussion on the burning issue in Greece and Europe of both legal and illegal immigration.  This issue has fueled support for far-Right and even neo-Nazi groups both in Greece and in the rest of Europe.

 

Lydaki laid a foundation for discussion by presenting the basic concepts of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group.’  From this, it was easy to develop the process of labeling and stigmatizing, "the other," and the power of negative labels.

 

Lydaki’s powerful provocations of the audience were in pointing to hypocrisy in the actions and history of the Greeks.  Most sensitive was her pointing out that Greek refugees of Smyrna in 1922 were treated horribly when they came to Greece and were, in many ways, persecuted – only to be romanticized today!  Also sensitive were references to diaspora Greeks abroad, who were sympathetically referred to as, "xenitemenoi."  These xenitemenoi were those who left after WWII and in the 1960s, and for whom a sympathetic culture of songs and folklore abound.  Lydaki asked were these empathetic energies were today, not only for immigrants in Greece, but even for diaspora Greeks and their children of subsequent generations.  The hypocrisy couldn’t be hidden.

 

An passionate discussion on Greek racism and the rise of the far-Right ensued, with many voices searching for meaning in this multi-dimensional phenomenon in Greece, Europe, and the world.

 

In Thursday’s keynote address, Michael Albert laid the foundation for his Parecon talk with a presentation entitled, "Capitalism" Crisis and Social Inequality."  Albert opened this scathing critique of capitalism by asking, "Why are we in a ‘crisis’ now?" noting that for years millions die of starvation, are homeless and unemployed, these were never considered ‘crises.’  It is only when profit rates are threatened and exposed that we are all in a state of panic and ‘crisis!’

 

Working from the classic concepts of power, alienation, and greed, Albert presented many contemporary examples of the workings of modern US capitalism.  Economy, culture, the political system, and social relations, he noted, are equally important as brute force.  As he said in reference to an example of war, "… a capitalist never picks up a gun to defend capitalism … most soldiers and police are working class."  Thus, to invoke international law on the part of the US would legitimize international law – which, in turn, would open the doors for others to use it against US provocations and atrocities.

 

This line of critique took us to Margaret Thatcher’s famous mantra about capitalism, "There Is No Alternative (TINA)!"  Michael Albert developed the magnitude and power of TINA by the powerful classes through simple, down-to-earth examples.  "Deep down, everybody knows that everything is broken," The argument is that TINA is so effective that, as people become more aware or conscious, they don’t want to hear about it.  The idea is that challenging anything is a waste of time.

 

Because of this, Albert argues that our task is to focus on what we want and how we should we go about getting it.  He rhetorically asked,

 

                   "Why does a movement about changing the world ignore

                   how to change the world?  … If you think you can change

                   the world, it is incumbent on you to speak in ways that most

                   or all people understand."

 

This reasoned, across-the-board critique left many in the audience reflective and fired up; a lively Q&A ensued and went into the early hours of Friday morning.

 

 

Friday’s B-Fest discussions took on a ‘green’ theme, beginning with the afternoon workshops on urban space, energy, and ecofarming.  Organic, homeodynamic and traditional farmers came together to discuss global trends in agribusiness, EU and Greek agricultural policy, and how to practically challenge many, current troubling trends in these arenas.  Great emphasis was given t to bottom-up agricultural policy and action, as was the case with farmers involved with seed ownership, the Terra Madre and Slow Food movements.  At the conclusion of the afternoon workshops, participants enjoyed a variety of organic foods and wines.

 

The evening’s first formal presentation was "PARticipatory SOCiety – Urban Space & Freedom," by ZNet’s, Chris Spannos. This talk linked the themes of urban crisis and social control with urban and rural space relations and proposals for sustainable alternatives.  Chris’s entire talk is available on ZNet at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/21529.

 

Vandana Shiva was slated to present the keynote talk of the night, but due to illness, she was unable to attend.  I did my best as one who is familiar with her work, and who uses her materials in my courses on political ecology and development, to fill in for her.  The title of the talk was, "Society & Nature."

 

I proceeded to summarize Vandana Shiva’s latest and classic arguments on the links between society and nature and their real-world consequences in the context of ‘globalization.’  In particular, I focused on her book, Earth Democracy, in which she emphasizes human-scale, bottom-up approaches to challenging mainstream versions of ‘globalization,’ with what she calls Living Democracy, Living Cultures, and Living Economies – all based on anthropocentric principles.  I also took care to present the basics of her emphasis on the ecofeminist movement.  The talk can be found online: http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/21786  

 

The main theme in the Q&A this night centered on a debate over non-violence and violent confrontation.

 

 

Saturday, May 30th‘s full evening started out with yet another full house which gathered to hear Greek labor activists, the Italian academic, Franco Berardi, a.k.a. "Bifo," and British anarchist, Martin Lux.

 

The introductory roundtable of the Greek labor activists discussed working conditions and labor policy in Greece.  This was a crucial backdrop to much of the analysis and discussion of the December riots in Greece, which were triggered by the murder of 15-year-old, Alexi, by police in the Exarcheia district in downtown Athens.  

 

In Greece, they informed us, part-time, public sector work (seasonal, contractual, etc.) is increasingly the most significant category of employment.  This, along with "Wild West" private sector employment, characterized by increasingly part-time and contractual employment, reinforces the threat of unemployment as the most important weapon of capital – and the clientelistic state.  For Greek youth this means that they are increasingly under conditions of contingent labor:  they are excluded from unions and have been overtly attacked from the conservatives and the far-Right wing – leaving the youth largely unemployed and uninsured.

 

The Greek Left has largely proposed state solutions to these problems, from the mainstream union, GSEE, to the Communist Party’s PAME, and the state’s policy proposals.  In effect, the labor activists argued, that this "divided labor" and "statist Left" is a major problem.  Further, they argued that the "working class" is increasingly divided and unorganized because of: 1) the inability to organize actions and programs, and 2) the notion of, "There Is No Alternative (TINA)" is taking hold.  For these reasons, many frustrated workers begin buying into the arguments of big business and mainstream parties.

 

British anarchist, Martin Lux, next took the stage and gave a fiery overview of contemporary British street reality and of the political landscape in the UK.  Lux cited three specific crises that are fueling social discord in the UK:  1) the banking crisis, 2) the crisis of confidence with the police, and 3) a more general crisis of legitimacy.  He correctly predicted the first-ever victory for British fascists in the June 7th EU Parliamentary elections, which he says is largely driven by anger and fear in the population.

 

Lux characterized the British working class as, "disillusioned," stressing that much of the street violence, anger, and fear is not a ‘political revolution,’ nor is it ‘for jobs.’  He further characterized the Left there as, "…bankrupt, useless, pathetic, and miniscule."  The vacuum, he argues, has fueled gang warfare, violence, and nihilism.  The absence of a legitimate Left, he says, has pitted extreme Right-wing groups against extremely violent middle-class youth, anarchists, and religious fundamentalists.

 

In his most provocative prediction, Lux foresees an unexpected, extremely violent social upheaval in Britain within the next 2-3 years that will be populist, yet will take people by surprise.  He feels that some revolution – either from above or below – is necessary.

 

With a sharp contrast in style, Italian academic, Franco Berardi – a.k.a. "Bifo" – followed Martin Lux in discussing the current economic crisis and alternative frameworks and modes of resistance.  Bifo quoted US Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, who said of the current global economic crisis, "what’s happening now is far beyond our understanding."  Bifo said that he believed Geithner, and that it was probably true.  Bifo, however, argued that what we are experiencing is not an economic crisis, but rather the final stages of the collapse of capitalism.

 

He developed the idea that this will not be a ‘temporary’ condition because it isn’t only economic in nature.  He spoke of concomitant ecological and psychic crises around the world.

 

Bifo joined with those who critiqued outdated Leftist critiques that fundamentally pit labor against capital, and the process of exploitation.  He argued that it is precisely the contingent nature of labor in contemporary capitalism – what he called, "…the black, dark hole of social life today …" – that no longer obliges capital to buy labor value.  Instead, contingent labor allows capital to buy fractions of labor time.  That is, time without people, rights, desires or needs.

 

To illustrate the contrast, Bifo gave the classic 20th century example, wherein labor would organize and go on strike to fight for better wages and working conditions.  Today, he says, "labor doesn’t exist."  Instead, people are a, "constellation of time."  Big business runs on the precept, he said, of, "…if you don’t give me your (labor) time, I’ll call another cell phone, and see you later!"  So, rather than the old system of consensus creating and sustaining power, now power is based on despair!

 

Given this framework, Bifo says that we cannot count on a ‘labor-led revolution,’ because labor is no longer human, or even based on humans.  Because of this, he took issue with Martin Lux’s anarchist approach, and asked, "…what’s the use of [his] violent conflict? …to what end?"  Bifo did agree with predictions of increasing fascist, far-Right aggression and other social protests across Europe in the near future.

 

Europe‘s central problem, according to Bifo, is the autonomy of EU central banks not the classic capitalist problems of consumption, exploitation, etc.  Because of this, he argues for the destruction of this oppressive financial power in daily life, stating that the era of ‘growth’ and ‘development’ capitalism is over.  The challenges are those of communication and what he calls, "…a contagion of happiness," which entails a concerted effort to diminish the significance of money.

 

"This isn’t the overthrowing of the system, but we are obliged to create ‘non-temporary autonomous zones.’  It was precisely these spaces and modes of social organizing that were the center of discussion in the Q&A session that followed.

 

Next, the audience filled the amphitheater to watch a special, video-taped presentation from Noam Chomsky to the participants of B-Fest.  This was a highlight for many in the crowd and discussions ensued in the cafes and hallways.

 

ZNet’s Michael Albert closed out the evening with his second keynote presentation on Parecon, picking up where he left off from his earlier address.  The packed room listened intently as Albert developed two central values of Parecon – Diversity and Solidarity - to begin the presentation.  Michael Albert’s Parecon presentation to B-Fest can be viewed in its entirety at www.tvxs.gr/v14407 .

 

 

Andrej Grubacic took the stage to open the last night of B-Fest on Sunday, May 31st, with his presentation of, "The Anarchist Movement in the Balkans: Yesterday and Today."  In this fact-filled talk, Grubacic argued that today’s Europe is based on "anti-Balkan" foundations, which fear free-thinking and free-acting people.  He prefaced this argument by noting that Western commentaries have long characterized the Balkan people as, "of the most savage on Earth."

 

Politically, Grubacic explained that Balkanization occurs from above and from below.  Balkanization ‘from Above’ aims at eliminating regional memory of the anti-authoritarian struggles in the region’s history, while ‘from Below’ it is the idea that it is possible to peacefully coexist in some form of federation.  In his own view,  Grubacic sees ‘Balkanization’ as a model of alternative, decentralized modes of autonomous living.  This, he says, is at the core of, "political Balkanophobia," by elites.

 

The ensuing Q&A session was a lively exchange of theory, history and praxis among anarchists of various stripes, anti-authoritarian and libertarian socialist activists.

 

Michael Albert presented, "Against Political Parties," to close out B-Fest.  Using the December riots in Greece as a proxy case, Albert proceeded to critique any notion of over-reliance or ‘reification’ of the electoral path to true social change.  The  electoral path, he said, "… is problematic, but we don’t entirely rule it out."  Illustrating his position, he used the examples of the 2000 US Presidential bid of Ralph Nader, that of Brazil‘s Lula, and finally of Chavez in Venezuela.

 

Albert likened the problem of electoral strategy with the excitement of protesting and rioting in the streets for a few days or weeks, and then getting tired and going home.  This was fundamentally a critique of strategy, which he brought home by saying, "If you’re not busy being born, then you’re busy dying!"

 

What is important, according to Albert, is keeping aims and process clear, so that people or the movement don’t evolve into any form of elitism or ‘Leninist/corporate capitalist’ hierarchies.  The characteristic of a good political program is one which, at each stage, increases your support and increases the people’s participation.  And, because ‘societies’ aren’t a single phenomenon, Albert insists that conscious efforts to include social movements with representation and participation from people from across society – women, minorities, youth, etc. – is centrally important.  In developing this stance, he explicitly challenges orthodox Marxist tendencies to over-emphasize class.  The question becomes, "how can we have autonomy and solidarity?" he said.

 

Albert argues that subsuming everyone under one, single banner doesn’t work, and rather demoralizes people from across the spectrum.  Thus, a vision of Participatory Society that integrates all of these issues could build solidarity and unity.  Fundamental to this project, too, is how we treat each other.  Says Albert, "sectarian, hostile behavior inside our social movements is a worse problem than police!"

 

Hand-in-hand with these group efforts is the importance of our individual attempts to make our political ideas part of our identities.  This is the fuel of believing we can win – "daring to struggle and daring to win," said Albert.  It includes getting frustrated and tired, but persevering, he said.

 

In the end, those that attended and participated in the B-Fest activities were enriched by the diversity of ideas, people,  and spirit that were present.

 

"The December riots were not the answer,

They were the question."

 

– spray-painted on the wall @ B-Fest

 

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