Crisis as Opportunity: Time to Rhithink Our Futures

As 2012 drew to a close I embarked on a three-month research project across Portugal and Spain in search of both understanding of and solutions to the unemployment crisis our generation is currently facing across Europe.
Youth unemployment in both Portugal and Spain is as high as 50%, whilst in the UK it is predicted to hit 1 million in 2013. In many ways the situation looks bleak and it seems there is no solution but to carry on struggling and fighting against each other for the lowest paid jobs as the economic recession continues.
However what my research has shown me is that amidst this depression and despair, seeds of hope are being sown, young people are standing up by refusing to accept this reality and expressing their hopes and desires for what new ways of working and living could look like. Projects and processes are beginning and slowly as the old system collapses a more beautiful one is emerging.

As I travelled through Portugal and Spain I came into contact with more and more inspiring young people, who when all the odds were against them were no longer willing to accept that they have no future, but instead asserted that it was the system of work and consumption they were entering into that needed to be challenged, changed and replaced by something different. This was being done in so many different ways; people had created social movements to campaign on issues such as basic workers rights and free transport, formed creative hubs for art, music, and activism, set up social centres that offered affordable food and drink, consultation on how to resist housing evictions and avoid paying debts, free classes in media, design, salsa, yoga and singing, squatted buildings to create free schools and universities where people could teach each other as equals without a cost, created cooperative cafes, bakeries, bookshops, publishers and bars where workers took equal responsibility, equal pay and equal control. Neighbourhood assemblies had set up timebanks and social currencies, people were learning to live without money and instead through sharing gifts and skills, after finishing university groups of students had decided to take to the land, to learn to be self sustainable and ultimately to live in ways more aligned with the environment, animals and each other. The people and projects I came across inspired me immensely, taught me that anything is possible, gave me a deep understanding of the strength and power of human kindness and sharing and ultimately filled me with the hope and knowledge that there is a way out of this mess, that we can create the world our hearts know is possible.

I return to the UK carrying this knowledge and experience inside me and embracing this new year ready and determined to be part of creating a more equal, just, fulfilling and sustainable way of life for our generation in the UK. Amidst the sense of directionlessness, hopelessness, and meaninglessness that I feel so strongly surrounding myself and most people my age that I engage with I know it is possible to find new ways of working and living and I know that they can be so much better than what we have now.

With this is mind I want to share with you the project I am now beginning. My vision is a strong one that I am going to dedicate all my time and energy to making happen, at the same time it is completely open to new ideas and people and I invite you to be part of making it a reality.

The project is entitled “Generation with an Alternative Future” and has the overarching aim of creating new more sustainable and fulfilling ways of living and working. Working: as equals, doing what we love, for the benefit of many rather than the profit of a few. Living: in a way that connects us more with each other, our environment and the community around us.

The project will manifest itself in both a physical and online space. The physical space will comprise of a cooperative business and a social centre. The cooperative business will facilitate its members to work as equals doing what they love, the form it takes will depend upon the skills and interests of those who create it, however its function is to generate enough income to sustain its members and the project. The social centre will aim to create a space that supports the wider community and allows us to explore new ways of living and creating that rely less on monetary exchange and more on gifts of time and skills. It will do this through forming a free social hub for music events, art exhibitions, workshops, classes and a meeting space to support local groups and campaigns.

The online website will be a way to engage with the project outside of its physical location, as well as a space to share new initiatives, ideas or experiences as a young person growing up in this world of increasing unemployment and degrading work amid so much intensive and disruptive change.

As of February 2013 I will be moving to London to begin the process of making this project a reality. I have vision, motivation, ideas, and a small amount of funds but in order to make this project happen I need people, space, ideas, skills and additional funding. If you would like to be part of this project or can support it in any way please email me: rhithink@gmail.com

I wish you all the best for the year ahead, and look forward to seeing what potential change this year can bring.

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Special Report: Strike in Barcelona

Just over one week ago on the 14th of November there was a European wide strike taking place against austerity measures and cuts in Spain, Portugal, Greece, France, Italy and Belgium as well as other countries. As expected, the media coverage on the strike in other parts of Europe, such as the UK, that were not participating, was limited and narrow in its reporting and analysis. Therefore as I actively participated in the strike in Barcelona I feel it is important to write and share just one account of what the strike was really like on the ground and the reflections and lessons I took from my experience.

The first thing to say is that unlike the strikes I have experienced in England, in Barcelona a general strike is 24 hours and includes stopping all transactions of selling and consumption, not just the activities of public workers. This meant that the strike engaged a larger percentage of the population, as well as action beginning from the chime of midnight so by the time daylight arrived a lot had already been achieved. I happened to be staying in a squat with a group of students from one of the universities in Barcelona, so it is important to highlight the activities and questions I engaged with come from that specific perspective. So down to the details….

Even before the official strike began, the students occupied the university, something that to be seemed to be surprisingly easy. The university officials and security cooperated, and within a few minutes the students has taken over the space and were in control of who entered into the building. An important aspect of this occupation is that in Spain as in Greece, after the history of dictatorship, universities are safe havens from the police. This allows students to carry out activities in the city knowing they have a safe space to return to, this empowered the students to engage in many different actions throughout the night. But first an assembly was called, to discuss and plan actions for the next 24 hours. This assembly was incredibly relaxed and straight forward in comparison to most assemblies I have experienced. Of course there were still voices that spoke more than others, but it was a given that this assembly was ran by consensus without hierarchy or leaders, and secondly that there was no unnecessary forcing of consensus and agreement on issues that did not need to be agreed by all. People presented the different actions happening all throughout the night, there was a contact person, and if you wanted to join in you could go and do it, if not that was your decision. This allowed people to engage in the type of action they wanted and facilitated multiple decentralised actions occurring throughout the night.

On the strike of midnight, many joined one of the pickets in a particularly radical neighbourhood. This involved blocking the roads, and encouraging businesses still open to close and participate in the general strike, as now it was past midnight and the strike had begun! Another group went out into the city to take action against the banks, graffiti, smashing the cash points, and lighting fires were the main methods of sabotage. As dawn began to draw near, bins were set on fire and thrown in front of the metro entrances nearby (which were closed and with no people inside) following this action was a very close escape from the police, who had been observing the action in an unmarked car and chased the students right up to the entrance of the university building, after which point they could not pass, but did remain outside for the next four hours blocking any further action during the night. Another larger university nearby had been surrounded by police vans the whole evening to prevent them from carrying out any activity.

As 6am arrived we prepared to sneak out of the side entrance and join the pickets of another very active neighbourhood. As we ran through the streets to join the picket, there was excitement and energy running through everyone’s veins, there was a feeling that today the city is ours, and guess what we are going to do whatever the fuck we want! As the students ran they sang and chanted, every road we went down the bins were pulled into the middle of the streets to block access, every bank was smashed and graffitied.

The morning neighbourhood picket was an interesting experience that made me reflect on many different things. The first thing to note was the strength and organisation of activists in the neighbourhood was clear, these people were dedicated, experienced and had grown in size and influence exponentially since 15M movement last year. The second thing that amazed me was that really most of the shops were closed! From big to small, they knew that it would not be a good idea to stay open on the day of the general strike. Those that were faced quite harsh consequences ranging from shouting, expropriation of goods, smoke bombs and graffiti. Many of the students and I questioned and had issues with the level of violence within these activities. On the one hand I could see that this fear and aggression was effective in the sense it did make the shop owners close, and probably decide not to scab and go against a general strike next time. On the other hand, I thought it was approached very aggressively and without a basic level of respect that all people deserve. In my opinion they could have endeavored to at least begin with a positive and constructive dialogue, before carrying out aggressive acts straight away. For me the important thing is to unite not divide people, and true lasting change will only come from a place of solidarity and support, not fear and resentment, this is what makes people vote for the right wing parties that repress movements and enable businesses to stay open.

After the pickets there was a large rally in a central square of the neighbourhood, with fireworks, a very moving speech and people of all ages, from children to the elderly, parents to the youth. This was a very empowering and wonderful moment to feel the strength of this form of activism within the neighbourhoods that has grown so strong in Barcelona and across Spain. After this we began to move towards the centre of the city, again people blocking the roads and defacing the banks as we went. Interestingly the police followed quietly behind in their vans, without reacting as multiple illegal activities were carried out. This surprised me, and when I inquired as to why this may be some said it was because they had been told to behave as elections in Catalonia are coming up, others that they would not dare to confront so many people in the daylight, another reasoning was that across the city people were doing far more illegal activities and that this was nothing in comparison.

Gradually we joined with pickets and demonstrations from multiple other neighbourhoods across the city and began streaming into the centre. A funny moment occurred when we passed a large German bank that had boarded up its windows in anticipation of their destruction, someone commented on the irony of this, as they were the only bank that could afford to do so, all the Spanish ones had been destroyed by midday! Coming down the Gran Via one of the central commercial zones of Barcelona, I experienced another moment of joy and empowerment, I could not believe it, as we walked down this road, all of the shops were closed, H&M, Zara, McDonalds, Tiffany’s etc etc and there were no cars on the road. No one was selling; no one was buying, wow what an amazing sight! We sang and danced down the road, my mind became filled with all the possible things we could do in the city, if only we stopped with this bullshit of consuming. We walked past a rally of public workers, a gathering of “Iaioflautas” an incredible group of elderly activists that remember the decades of fascism and were there to support the struggle of this generation, taxi drivers on strike came streaming past, with their families in tow, beeping their horns. Everywhere you turned there was a different group, a different demonstration and it was wonderfully overwhelming.

At this point we took a few hours rest in the quiet of the university, which of course was closed with no staff or students to be seen. Many of us had not slept or eaten the night before and needed to recharge. We cheered as people reported the news of other activities across the city, lorry drivers had blocked distribution warehouses with blockades of burning tires, workers had occupied a runway at the airport and stopped planes from leaving, factories across the city were closed.

At 5pm it was time to be back on our feet as two large demonstrations were starting at 6pm. One with the more traditional trade unions, another with the more radical anarchist unions, people from neighbourhood assemblies, 15M, the black bloc. The familiar chant of “A, Anti, Anticapitalistas” began to fill the air, and soon we were thousands moving through the streets. The march was calm and fairly uneventful for several hours, firecrackers went off every now and then, but things remained placid and the police stayed well back. However at a certain point, and I am still very unsure if this was the official march or not, one looked to the left down a hill and saw thousands on the street against police lines, it was very hard to see what was happening but a group of us decided to go down and check it out. It was clear from the second we got down there, that the atmosphere here was very different and things were about to get violent. Protesters were actively provoking the police, expressing their anger at the police that are protecting a state that is cutting all the necessities they need to live, and trying to get a reaction. I decided I did not want to be in this space, that for me at that moment this was a step too far. I don’t mind pushing past police lines when it is for a desired aim such as taking over a government building, or occupying a bank. However I did not want to engage in clashes with the police just for the sake of it, and I felt that the aim of the strike and shutting the city of Barcelona had been successfully achieved. However by the time I decided to take myself out of the situation it was already too late. The police had responded to the provocation now there were police and rubber bullets flying everywhere, I had lost everyone I was with, and the only option was to run. However in a matter of minutes the streets had become a small warzone, smoke everywhere, alarms going off left right and centre, sirens blaring, police cars blazing. Eventually I managed to get out onto a main street and breathe for a few seconds. I have to admit I felt very scared, I didn’t know the city, I had lost all the people I knew, the Spanish police are renowned for their brutality and the conflict was quickly expanding across the city, to the point where even an innocent tourist may get swept up in the fighting. Eventually I rang a friend and together we found shelter in another friends flat until it all subsided a few hours later.

Around 10pm the fighting and the strike was over. I met up again with the friends I had been with when the violence with the police broke out. One girl had been hit by a rubber bullet, but not too badly injured and everyone was safe and sound. They had decided to stay and fight the police. I asked them why, and an interesting conversation ensued. “I had similar initial doubts to you” one friend said, “but then I thought about what the police represent as the oppressive arm of the state, and also about the future that is to come. This repression is not going to go away, as we resist the injustice of capitalism and try to challenge the system it is only going to continue, and to get worse. This is practice; we have to learn how to face the police on the streets. Look at Greece, now they are learning the tricks and tactics of the police, how to resist, retaliate and gain some victories.” I wanted to resist this opinion, to fight for and believe that it is possible to win this struggle without such violence, that we should focus our energy on creating alternatives, on creating a non-violent cultural shift towards a better world. However the very real context of Spain at the moment, as well as the not so distant experience of the Spanish civil war, of trying to live autonomously and fight the fascists in Barcelona, and of eventually losing and facing years of dictatorship is hard to argue against. I think coming from the sheltered context of Britain it is hard to conceive of or imagine what this reality felt like. This really made me think and question; is a different kind of revolution really possible? One without violence and repression? Where we just focus our energy on creating the new, on transferring peoples capacity and ideas into non-capitalist production? Or will these alternatives eventually be suppressed if they become a threat to the state and capitalism? Will there really come a point when I have to decide whether to resist or submit?

Filled with adrenaline and exhaustion we headed back to the squat, singing chants from the strike as we went. I felt happy and amazed by the extent and magnitude of the strike, 1 million people had taken to the streets in Barcelona, the next day a union said 76% of the population had participated in the strike. For just one day I had experienced what it felt like to be in a city where I didn’t feel alienated and powerless, but where I felt connected to people and with our ability to create change. For me the strike was both a positive and frightening experience, one that left me with many questions, but also one that left me with the knowledge that we do have the capacity to stop and challenge the system and hopefully next time it will be for more than just one day.

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Madrid: Dreams Becoming Reality

Madrid is a city full of activity and inspiration; from protests to strikes, social centres to urban gardens, the creation of cooperatives to the occupation of houses, banks and hospitals, here things are constantly moving forward and something new happens every day. It is also a city where I strongly felt the clashing of two different worlds, of hyper capitalism next to poverty, of pockets of awareness and change in the midst of the mindless machine of the modern city. I experienced this when leaving a social centre and seeing a McDonalds right in front of me, or speaking to a group of families that had been camping outside of a bank for 15 days protesting their housing eviction, and around the corner walking past vast queues of people waiting to have their cds signed by some celebrity singer, bedazzled by music and flashing lights. This schizophrenic reality, where wealth and poverty, oppression and resistance, exist right next to each other, has long been the norm in countries across the ‘developing world’. However this was the first time I had experienced it in Europe, and felt the effects of moving so quickly between the world that makes me feel despair and the world that makes me feel hope. For me this gives a clear indication of the severity and state of the crisis here in Spain.

The people, projects and movements I interacted with in Madrid were well organised, used radical and non-hierarchial methods of decision making and were technologically savy, creating and deploying a number of new and non-corporate internet communication tools, as well as knowing how to manipulate those that currently exist and get a topic to trend on twitter within 5 minutes. Above all I felt the confidence and joy within this movement very strongly. People were empassioned and motivated, constantly and joyfully active, because they knew and had experienced their collective power and ability to create change through the successful 15th of May and Indignados movements that began in 2011.

Whilst in Madrid I interviewed people from many different movements such as 15M, Youth Without Future, Democracy Real Ya, CNT (an anarchist union that was very active in resisting facism and self organising during the Spanish Civil War) as well as various collectives and cooperatives. Through these interactions and interviews I learnt a key lesson in relation to my question: how do we begin to solve this crisis of youth unemployment in a constructive way that leads us towards creating the post capitalist reality that I and many others across the world are craving for? The lesson I learned was that as youth unemployment is integrally linked into the broader capitalist crisis with its unsustainable economy, debt, housing, education, food production, culture and break down of community, trust and communication, the possible solutions to youth unemployment must reflect the interconnected nature of this problem and be linked to and nessled within wider networks of struggle and resistance.

Therefore if you take the idea I am working on as one possible solution to the youth unemployment crisis; namely that we as the next generation need to come together and find new ways of working, living, producing, creating and consuming through self managed projects, businesses or cooperatives. Projects where we are in control of our future, work as equals without exploitation and towards overcoming the multiple problems this world faces instead of creating profit for the few. Then these projects need to be supported by and linked to other networks pushing for the same goal of political transformation and economic self manangement and democracy.

Let us take a concrete example from Madrid to illustrate how this may work. Traficantes de Suenos (Traffickers of Dreams) is a publishing cooperative that is collectively run and owned by its workers and produces political, alternative and educational books. The way Traficantes de Suenos has been successful for so many years is to be linked into wider solidarity and alternative economic networks. For example to gain the initial capital needed to start up the business it may have gone to a banking cooperative in Madrid that gives loans without interest, secondly the cooperative is linked to political networks and groups within the city, such as social centres, self managed cafes, bookshops or community schools who will buy books from them, thus supporting their business. In return Traficantes de Suenos may charge lower prices for projects with little incone such as a community school, however it also offers a large social space that different collectives can use to hold meetings and events free of charge. It also puts on debates, discussion and reading groups, which in itself creates spaces for learning and exchange that help educate and build the movement. On another level the people that work at Traficantes de Suenos may also be part of a consumer group that supports local and organic food producers, furthermore the money they make from working may not neccessarily be enough to survive in the capitalist system and so perhaps its workers also participate in the local time bank, where they can get anything from someone to fix their computer, a massage, an english lesson or a dance class for free and from mutual exchange and participation in the time bank.

What this example illustrates is that it is possible to begin building alternative and autonomous socioeconomic networks that enable us to meet our basic needs and find fulfilment outside of the capitalist system. Furthermore to do so in a way that is based on human relationships, mutual support and trust and not on exploitation of people and the planet, or on debt and war. Many people within the 15M movement that came out of the occupations of the squares have moved towards this form of politics, as they realised that those in power were not going to give it way, and instead they would have to create their own networks that actively take the power, resources and energy away from the capitalist system. An exciting characteristic of these alternatives is that they can also be antagonistic and challenge the current system as well as creating the new reality in its place. For example in occupying a social centre you challenge private property and create free and open spaces for culture and exchange, in deciding to spoil your ballot you show your distain for the political system but also create new processes of democratic decision making in your neighbourhood, in boycotting multinationals you decide to buy locally, creation and destruction can happen simultaneously.    An exciting example of this, that is just beginning here, is the idea of ‘economic disobedience’ this entails people refusing to pay the part of their taxes that goes towards debt, war and the senate (equivalent to the English House of Lords) and instead putting this money towards new cooperative projects. What is great about this idea, is that its not saying I won’t pay this money because I don’t want to contribute to society, but that I will not put my money towards these destructive and undemocratically decided things, instead I will put it towards the creation of real public spaces and services, towards the creation of the commons.

Madrid has taught me that any solution to youth unemployment needs to be linked to the neighbourhoods, communities, social movements and struggles that surround it. That solutions are not just about youth being in control of their future, but also about connecting to and building solidarity with others in situations of crisis and need around them. What I have experienced here, has shown me that through this process people have began to realise that what really exists behind money is us, people with time, ideas, skills, hearts and minds and that if we share that them, if we share our ability to create and produce, there is no for bosses, for capitalism, for money because all the power is in our hands. Those of you who are cynical will roll your eyes and say that phrase I love so much, “how unrealistic” but the truth is people here are turning those dreams into reality, and it is in fact very realistic, if only we believe in our power and ability to make it happen.

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Granada: Leave, live or create?

Spain! Spain comes as a shock to me, the moment I cross the border I notice something different. In comparison to Portugal, this country is bigger, more industrial, the pace of life is faster (although still Southern European style), the coffee is stronger, and shit everyone is speaking Spanish at the speed of light! I am going to have to start learning this language very quickly!

I start my research in the Southern city of Granada, and wow Granada is a city that is an absolute joy to be in. It is small and green, the air is fresh but the weather is hot, it is surrounded by the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains and is full of history, culture and students (60,000 out of a population of 200,000). It is also a city in which, compared to many other European cities, it is possible to live a very fulfilling life off very little. I inform you off this, not only to rub in what a great and inexpensive life I am living here in the sun, but because this context is very relevant to the responses to youth unemployment I have found here in the city. Highlighting the point that there is not one solution to this crisis but many, and they will vary greatly depending on the reality they are situated within. 

The reality in Spain is that youth unemployment is above 50%, and in more general terms 1/4 of all Spaniards are unemployed. The reality in Granada and Andalucia is that this figure is as high as 70% is many rural villages and poor neighbourhoods within the cities. The reason for this is that Andalucia is primarily a province of agricultural production, meaning there is not much large scale industry within its cities, and since Spain joined the EU the region has been subject to the EU´s vicious ´Common Agricultural Policy´ which actually pays local farmers not to produce, to keep the market open for other large scale European producers and to multinational companies such as Monsanto. This means that currently a large amount of the land and the market is not controlled by or accessible to local people and producers. Within the Andalucian countryside there has been much resistance to this, an inspiring example of which is Marinaleda, a town that occupied and reclaimed land which the community now works on collectively as a cooperative. (For more info http://www.marinaleda.com/ or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marinaleda,_Spain in English)

However within this context let us turn to look at the reactions of youth to such high unemployment in Granada. From my research I noticed three core trends.

The first and most prominent was to leave. I spoke to many students inside the university, and when I asked if their friends had found jobs here after finishing university, they laughed and said of course not. Almost all had decided to leave, and not just Andalucia, but Spain. They had gone to England, Belgium, Germany, China, Japan and were generally either teaching English or working very mundane jobs such as washing dishes.

The second response was to stay here and live off practically nothing. Similar to Portugal, it is almost impossible for youth here to claim unemployment benefits as most of them will never be able to find a stable job for a year, after which they would be get unemployment benefits but only for a maximum of 2 years. When shocked I would ask, “well how are you managing to survive?”, they would look at me like it was obvious, and say “its easy around here”, leaving me without much explanation. This group of people seemed to have quite a relaxed and blasé response to unemployment, as it really is the norm here, and slowly I began to learn the tricks of the trade. For housing people either squatted abandoned buildings, pieces of land or lived in the caves (this may sound odd, but there are many caves in the mountains surrounding Granada that are actually very nice places to live- they are warm in the winter, cool in the summer and have the best view across the whole of Granada. Most have been turned into fully furnished homes). To eat most people ´recycled´ food from bins and restaurants and seemed to have quite amiable relations with the workers and owners. If this failed there were always the soup kitchens that offered free food. For entertainment somehow people always seemed to have a couple of Euros for a beer that they gained through playing music on the streets, making crafts or perhaps selling weed, and this city is full of free and fun things to do such as concerts, film showings, discussions or juggling in the park whilst watching the sun set over the Alhambra. This life seemed like it was still a struggle, but people were joyful and free and many said they were much happier than when they were in the system of work, money and rent.

The third and most interesting response for my research were the political groups and projects dotted across the city that were trying to create alternative ways of living and working. 

During 2011 Granada was part of the wave of protests and occupations of the squares that swept across the whole of Spain, and still many groups born out of this movement continue to work in the neighbourhoods on fighting housing evictions and other injustices within the city. There is also an exciting new student movement that is gaining momentum to resist the huge cuts to the university and the increasing neoliberalisation of education. However to me, activism in Granada seemed to be more focused upon creating something new than taking to the streets. 

These projects were multiple and diverse in their composition and I will outline a few examples as I feel contained within them are ideas and inspiration. A first example is a group of unemployed youth that came together to create a cultural centre which would host concerts, art exhibitions, English lessons, communal meals and political discussions, creating a common space for many to share and express, as well as a small amount of income for those involved in the organisation. Another example is a group of young designers, translators and writers who were beginning to form a new publishing cooperative, whose aim was to translate and publish alternative and political texts for reading and education at low costs. In a different area there was a food cooperative, that provided employment for a few, and inexpensive organic, local and democratically produced food to many. Larger examples range from alternative social currencies such as Timebanks which aim to de-centre capitalist exchange through exchanges without money, to ´Cooperative Integral Granada´ a group that is aiming to provide all its basic needs such as food production, health, housing, education and transport in a cooperative way, this idea is already much more advanced in other areas of Spain such as Catalonia.

All these projects were in their beginning phases and knew they had a long road ahead of them. Many were choosing the model of the ´cooperative´ as the alternative as within it are the values of equality and economic democracy, as well as a stable legal structure, but all were working towards a common political goal: to create a new way of meeting their needs, and of living a joyful existence together, as this current system was no longer enabling them to do either.

For me Granada has been a city full of calm, joy, beauty, alternatives and inspiration. A place that made me think deeply about how exactly I want to live, and in what way I want to resist this system and create change. Tomorrow I get on a bus to Madrid to continue my research there and to join the people protesting on the streets and face the Spanish police! Wish me luck, and stay tuned for the next post…

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Portugal: The beginning of something new

Portugal is a country full of beauty, abundance, humor and tranquility. A country full of natures paradise, melancholic fado and latin joy. A country that was once a powerful colonial empire, yet now finds itself a mere dot in global politics. A country that once controlled and exploited and now finds itself manipulated and powerless and the hands of what is known here as the ‘Troika’, which refers to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank and the European Union.

The current situation in Portugal as you may have heard from the news, is very bleak. Together with the Portuguese government the Trioke is enforcing austerity measures on to the people of Portugal without any democratic consultation. These measures come in the form of policies that the government must agree to in exchange for a $78bn bailout from the Troike. They include privatization of state services such as water and electricity, raising VAT in restaurants from 13% to 23%, cuts in government staff and wages, and most shockingly a policy that will increase employees social security contributions from 11% to 18% whilst simultaneously cutting the same tax for companies by 6%. This policy is seen very clearly by the population as “robbing the workers to pay the bosses” and triggered the biggest protest seen in Portugal since the fall of the dictatorship in 1974.

Within this context I arrived in Lisbon just in time to experience a very intriguing and useful event in the city: ‘Festival Avante’ a cultural and political festival put on by the Communist Party of Portugal, who still maintain a large political presence within the country, taking between 10-17% of the vote consistently in elections. This was a fascinating experience for me, to see such a huge event combining political discussion and incredible music from different genres across Portugal, as well as a brilliant communist anthem that would play at random moments throughout the festival and draw all the people together into a joyous collective dance which made me feel like I was in a different era, but that I ended up joining in with by the end. It was also a brilliant way to kick-start my research. Although many of the talks were a regurgitation of the traditional communist rhetoric I have experienced with frustration in many parts of the world, namely along the line of ‘the solution to this crisis is to join the party’, what was brilliant was that most of the youth I spoke to there shared the same frustration with this line of politics, that does not change the structure but just asks you to vote for a different party, that is without empowerment, without joy, without inspiration, without real change, and were searching for something new, for a different way to do politics.The connections I made here led me very quickly into the alternative political scene* within Lisbon which I will breifly outline to you.

(*Here I am refering to people and groups with left wing political beliefs, who are enacting forms of social change that are more autonomous and horizontal, and outside the traditional party structures)

Lisbon is a beautiful and calm city, without the hustle and bustle, pomp and grandeur of other European cities. Instead its beauty is to be found in the old neighborhoods cascading down its mountains like flowers, in free jazz and acrobatics in the park, in a sunset across the sea, on an old tram ride through the streets, or in subtle corners and crumbling buildings. The alternative political scene has a similar resonance. The network of groups is small yet full of beauty and life, the people and spaces that comprise it are hidden and calm, yet dedicated and growing. Some groups have existed for a number of years such as RDA69 a small social center that holds people’s dinners, bike workshops, cultural events and political discussions or the Transition Network that is working upon building sustainable community alternatives in urban and rural environments. However over the last year, this political scene has grown immensely and has become a large and radical presence in Portuguese political action. From the ´15th October Movement´ to the ´Indignados´, both inspired by movements in Spain in 2011 these groups have occupied squares and mobilised large demonstrations throughout 2011 and 2012, including most recently the huge demonstration I participated in on September 15th, that was the biggest protest Portugal has seen for 30 years. The form and scale of this political action is something not experienced by, and therefore very inspiring for the young generation of Portugal.

Connected too and playing an important role within this political context are new and exciting movements against unemployment. Unemployment is by no means a new issue within Portugal. Many people I interviewed had been without long term contracted work for around 10 years and unemployment has been an issue sicne the beginning of the 2000´s. However it significantly increased with the financial crash in 2008, and has been growing over the past few years with unemployment now as high as 20% or 1.3 million people. Unlike in Spain and Greece, the popular response here has been slow and dominated by the unions and traditional left with calls for an increase in the minimum wage, or battles to keep jobs within government employment, however there has been very little focus on the unemployed (those who are cynical will speculate that this is because the unemployed have no money to give to the unions). Out of this frustration new groups have emerged outside of the traditional doctrine and structures, mainly Precarious Inflexives (Precarious Workers) and Movimento Sem Emprego (Social Movement for the Unemployed). These are the people and the groups upon which my research has been focused. My analysis was gained from participation in meetings, collective actions, individual interviews and through friendship. I will breifly outline these movements, nefore moving onto outlining some of my thoughts and analysis.

MSE are the movement with whom I spent a lot of time and became very close too. It is comprised of people from many different ideological backgrounds, but all with a commitment to create a space for and to fight for the rights of unemployed workers, in different and creative ways outside the party structures. The group is diverse, open and growing, with campaigns focused upon gaining minimum rights for the unemployed, creating a space for the unemployed to share and communicate with one another, gaining free transportation for the unemloyed, and ultimately to form unemployed workers unions to fight collectively for the right to work.

Precarious Inflexives has a different approach and is more focused upon gaining rights for those within precarious and flexible work. They have set up a very trendy space in the centre of Lisbon, which acts as the organisation headquaters, a space for political discussion and film showings, as well as a bar, a library and a music venue. This movement is a lot more linked to the Bloc Esqueda, a left wing political party, and has had a big influence over Portuguese politics since its inception.

An important and key difference between these groups is their class composition and anlysis. MSE is comprised of people who are living in a much harder reality of unemployment with limited ways out and has a very strong class analysis within their politics. The people who make up Precarious Inflexives are from a wealtheir ´cultural professional´ background, their situation is by no means easy, but currently their basic livlihood is not threatened to the same extent as many in MSE and therefore they can engage in more artistic and cultural forms of resistance.

So within this reality, what were my findings and observations? What were the patterns and trends?

Firstly the Portuguese government offers very little support for the unemployed, and makes it very difficult to gain access to social security. If eligible a person will get around €400 a month, which is almost impossible to live off if you have to pay rent (there are no housing benefits here). But to be eligible in the first place you have to have worked in a permanent contract for over a year ( which is not a conceivable reality for most people in Portugal and means anyone coming straight out of education will not be able to access unemployment benefit). Once you have the unemployment benefit it is difficult to keep and only lasts for a maximum of two years. Therefore, as most people I interviewed were young and had not been able to find formal work sicne they left education, they did not have access to this benefit, and instead were living at home and surviving from what little their parents could manage. Another core strategy I observed was migration, and obvious option being migration to other more prosperous European countries, less obvious was migration to ex-colonies such as Brazil and Angola, and to rural areas and family farms. Both complete reversals of the norms of migration to colonial countries and urban centres. Finally many were trying to remain in academia and research for as long as possible, these will be the lucky, the connected, the most educated, but all were aware that this was not sustainable in the long term.

Futhermore, what was my analysis of the social movements? What is the potential for solutions and positive change to emerge out of the crisis here in Portugal?

For now the social movements and groups struggling against unemployment are focused upon growing in number and influence, in raising awareness of the issue, connecting people together, and mobilising to fight against the government for their rights. What is positive is that they are doing this is new and creative ways, outside of the traditional structures, with openess and awarenss to new forms of activism and change. However in my opinion another element needs to be brought into this struggle. Alongside the fight against the violence and injustice of the government and the importance of gainning basic rights for unemployed and precarious workers is the creation of the new. Using the collective power and energy created by this crisis not just to fight for the old, but also to create new solutions and alternatives. To say yes we want work, but not just the crumbs you hand down to us, we want work that we create, that we are in control of, that we enjoy, and that is not just for the profit of a few but for the benefit of many.This in no way comes with the argument that the government is repsonisible for this crisis and for providing for the basic needs of the people, but from the realisation that if we don´t start creating the new reality we want out of this chaos now it will continue to get worse and worse. It comes from seeing that there is an opportunity in this mess.

Portugal is in an exciting new phase of political action, and this should not be underestimated, every person I spoke to, from young people in the park, to a middle class business man I hitched a ride with is aware of this crisis, is angry about it, and thinks radical change is needed. After being asleep and disempowered for many decades, Portugal is waking up and beginning new process of social change, and this often starts with the fight, with the anger, with the no. However I hope that this will progress into a yes, into a form of politics where people realise their collective power and begin to create alternative ways of working, interacting and living in the here and now, in a way that both challenge and inspire.

The potential exists here in Portugal, there are both mass social movements fighting the government in the cities, and small communities creating alternatives in rural areas. In my opinion these two struggles need to be brought together if truly radical and long term change is to occur. This movement needs both the energy, strength and numbers the social movements manifest, and the inspiration, ideas and new realities the communities are creating. For me the problem of youth unemployment creates the perfect space for a synthesis of these two, as within it, it holds thousands of young, creative, active, inspiring people that have the potential to simultaneously challenge the old and create the new.

 

 

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First Footsteps in Europe

So my exploration of the possible alternative futures emerging from youth living in this crisis across Europe begins with a journey overseas.

For the next three months I will be living in a city within Portugal, Spain and Greece respectively. The aim in each city will be to map the network of groups and individuals, communities and movements within the city, to see how they are connected, to understand their context and to find the spaces where dissent and creation are surfacing.

I am hoping to gather and collect people’s stories, experiences and struggles. To find out about their life situation and how the crisis is affecting them, how they are coping, how their relationship to work and the world is changing, and ultimately what space for change they can see.

The reason I have chosen Portugal, Spain and Greece as the places to begin my research, is because it is here where the crisis has hit the hardest, where youth unemployment is the highest, where people are experiencing the most brutal side of capitalism. I personally think that as we can no longer continue to live in a system based upon infinite growth, as we exist on a planet with finite resources, and therefore that this is only the beginning of a crisis that will get much worse, across all of Europe. For me this means it is very important to be learning from others experiences, to better inform ourselves to cope with what is coming, and further to create positive new ways solutions out of it.

I was recently at a talk put on by Occupied London, a collective that have created a blog to give updates on the Greek crisis, from the people involved on resistance in the streets, in English. One story and message from the talk stands out strongly in my mind. A man who had just been in Greece for the past few months was talking about community’s resistance to their electricity being cut off in the middle of a freezing winter when they couldn’t pay their bills. It had started with a letter to the mayor, and quickly progressed to an occupation of the companies headquarters as well as people blockading homes to stop cuts offs, and skills shares on how to self connect to the grid. In this instance the community had come together to ensure their basic needs came before the profit of the company. However in other areas, this had led to stealing and fighting, to divides between the haves and the have nots and to a weakening of the movement through betrayals from members of the community to the company. It is important to remember he said, that in times of crisis it can go either way, communities can be brought together, connections strengthened, their power realised, positive solutions emerge. Or it can tear them apart, lead to competition, violence, destruction and fear. It is important you learn from us, so you can decide and help shape which of the two realities you want to see emerge from your crisis.

This is why I am making the first steps of my research, my investigation, my action within these countries. To learn from people’s successes and failures, from their trials and tribulations, to see how to best facilitate emergence of new and positive solutions to youth unemployment in the UK, before the right take over with their destructive and competitive rhetoric and fear mongering.

I am excited about the lessons to be learned, the people I will meet, the stories of inspiration and despair, the possibility of sharing and bringing back what I have learnt to conversations and projects in the UK, and the possibility of becoming part of a new network of European youth that are acting in solidarity with one another to create the future we know is possible.

I will be updating this regularly with stories, experiences, reflections and analysis along the way.Please share your thoughts and feeling on them as and when.

Rhiannon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Generation with an Alternative Future

I am tired of hearing again and again that we are the graduates, the youth, the generation with no future. To me it makes no sense and the reality is in fact quite the opposite.

I look around me and on the one hand I see the people of my generation, both friends and strangers, with ideas and time, with energy and passion, people with hopes, desires and dreams, people who are ready and willing to make a change, to do something with their mind and bodies in this crazy world.

On the other hand I see the environment in which we are becoming adults, the reality the meets us when we finish school or university; a reality dominated by corrupt politicians and power hungry corporations, by greed and competition, by empty rhetoric and soulless consumerism. Within England I see a government that is privatising the provision of our basic needs such as education and healthcare, that is bailing out the banks whilst discriminating against its most vulnerable, that is increasingly infringing on our freedom of speech. On a global scale I see an economic system that is based on infinite growth, something which is impossible on a planet with finite resources, that in its pursuit of profit above all else is creating poverty, unemployment, exploitation and environmental destruction on a scale never seen before.

Which, I ask, is the problem in this reality? Which has no future? Us? The next generation of human beings? Or the economic system that surrounds us? Which gives us more hope? Which gives us the most capacity to enact change?

I recently applied for an internship at a charity in London that was set up to challenge the idea of youth being apathetic. Its work involves facilitating and supporting youth in schools to set up project on issues they care about, so they can actively feel and experience their power and ability to create change. One hundred and fifty people applied for this internship, there were only four places. Now what seems crazy in this scenario is that at a time where youth within this country are actively being discriminated against and are being pushed into an increasingly powerless position, with the tripling of university fees and planned cuts in housing and benefits for under 25s. One hundred and fifty people (just in this one example, I’m sure there are many others) are out there ready and willing to work on supporting and empowering youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, albeit for far less than minimum wage, yet because this thing called a ‘job’ does not exist now only four will do so. Again let me ask the question, what exactly is the problem in this scenario? The one hundred and fifty people that want to dedicate their time to challenging youth apathy, or an economic system that does not value and support such endeavours?

Let us look at another scenario. The Independent recently reported that there are now forty-five graduates applying for every graduate job in the UK, which means that one person gets the job, whilst forty-four don’t. Now the blame in this scenario is immediately placed on the individual, both by the person themselves, and society and the media around them. This often makes people feel worthless, stupid, disempowered and depressed. The focus is always what could I have done differently? Why am I so incapable? Was I not witty enough? Professional enough? Not profit motivated, not inspiring? How can I pimp up my CV… more unpaid ‘work experience’ that I can’t afford, a masters that I can’t afford?

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against personal improvement and development, nor am I in any sense implying that every person who applies for a job is good enough to get it, but you do not have to have done a degree in maths to work out, that no matter how much we self improve there simply aren’t enough jobs, there will always be those left without, and graduates are by no means at the bottom of this pile. Surely then these are the wrong questions to be asking. The question then becomes what is wrong with this economic system in which there simply aren’t enough jobs? And in my personal opinion youth unemployment is only the tip of the iceberg.

So, onto the more exciting and inspiring part, because yes you sigh, we all know the situation is fucking bleak, we do not need to read an article to be told that. So here’s some suggestions, the beginnings of a conversation, and hopefully of action, upon how we can turn this situation around, and actually regain control of our lives, of our futures, of this worlds future in fact.

Firstly we need to stop competing with each other for all these underpaid, uninspiring internships and jobs that most often we do not enjoy, most often do not enable us to do what we are really passionate about, and most often merely direct our time and energy into creating more money for a few people that quite frankly do not need more. Where, perhaps, we may ‘get our foot on the ladder’ we are frequently used as free labour, or paid less than minimum wage by companies that have profits of millions. 

Secondly we need to start looking at what we can create by collectively coming together. So, for example, instead of these forty-five graduates or youth competing against each other for these jobs, they start to come together and cooperate and work out what new, innovative and exciting projects, social enterprises, business proposals they can come up with. Imagine what could be created if you brought together people with such a diversity of different skills and forms of knowledge; a mechanical engineer, politics student, biological scientist, carpenter, film maker, historian, electrician, mathematician, artist. They may invent something new, or come up with a sustainable transport system for a whole city. The possibilities are endless, but currently all this creative potential is going to waste.

Through this process, a few things happen. Firstly we begin to reclaim control over our capacity to create, over ourselves, over our future. Whilst we beg for shit jobs, the companies, the government, the economic system holds us ransom and holds the power. But guess what all those things need to continue- US. So what happens when we regain control over our ability to do and produce, we have control over the nature and dynamics of the economic system, we are calling the shots and deciding what we want to do. We reclaim the time, the space, and collective imagination to begin to consider some fairly important questions about work and its nature that are frequently and surprisingly overlooked.

The experience of being an unemployed graduate over the last few months, led me to ask a series of questions. It started with the simple considerations of well what do I want to do? Who do I want to work for? Where do I want to work? Who will actually employ me? Shit how the hell am I going to live? How am I going to be able to do what I really care about?

This very quickly progressed to me starting to question and deconstruct the whole idea and nature of work, and ask; ok well actually why do I want to work? What is the purpose of work? What is fulfilling about work? What influence do I want my work to have? How much do I want to work? Who do I want to work with? And so the list goes on. Considering work is what we spend most of our waking lives doing, to me it seems quite crazy that most of us have never asked and also have very little control over the answers to such questions.

So here’s a few of my answers to these questions, and please ponder upon and share your own. For me the point of ‘work’ is threefold: firstly I need to meet my basic human needs so I can survive, secondly I want to do something I enjoy with my time, something I am good at, something that inspires me, and allows me to feel creative and useful, to feel alive, to feel meaning. Finally I want to contribute positively in some way to my community, to society, to humanity, to this earth, depending upon what scale you want to take it to.

For me this has become the starting point. Not the question of ok how do I get a job, because that limits me to the current reality, to the current economic system, in which fulfilling those three priorities is very unlikely. So instead of searching for jobs, I will search for people, people who have similar values, questions, hopes and dreams. People who also want to regain control over what it is they put their energy towards and choose to create, that want to find ways to collectively meet our basic needs, create meaningful work, and start to find solutions to the multiple environmental, economic and cultural problems our world faces today.

And although I will be the first to admit this is a personal endeavour, I am an unemployed graduate and am searching for a new and creative way out of this mess, I think it also has the potential to have much wider impacts.

You see we are living in a period of crisis, and for me crisis opens up space for two things, destruction and creation. It can lead to death, despair, struggle and pain as it currently is, but it can also lead to new ways of thinking and acting, to positive and inspiring solutions and to new ways of life. For me this crisis opens up the space for us to challenge and reject the system in which we have grown up in, to say a system based on such violence, such greed, such destruction, such exploitation, does not have a future. But we, we do, we want to find new ways of organising our society to meet our needs, new ways of relating to each other and the world around us, new things to direct our time and energy into, things that are more just, more sustainable and more humane. And I would like to invite you to join me in both imagining and creating these alternative futures.

 With love and hope,

R x

 

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Welcome

Dear friends,

Welcome to my blog. It is a space to discuss and share thoughts and feelings around the issue of graduate and youth unemployment. From personal stories to political analysis, articles from friends far and near to observations and articles written throughout my research into this growing crisis across Europe, I hope this will be a space for learning and reflection, to find inspiration for action, as well as to know you are not alone in whatever experience you may be going through.

I will be inviting various people as well as myself to write on this blog, but please comment, praise, criticize and analyse and if you have anything you want to share please email me at rhithink@gmail.com.

Stay tuned… More is on its way soon :) 

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