The Potato as a Symbol and Material Necessity
About Urban Gardening in the center of the European Union and the "Back-to-rural-areas" movement in the Southern periphery of the European Union.
In early 2012, there are two contravening trends in Europe of which we are not sure whether they may not, in the near future, come together in their practice and in political discourse; clearly, however, they might. One such trend is the not entirely new, but still trendy "urban gardening" movement, which involves the repossession of urban brownfields, and their re-greening and re-utilization for the purposes of "micro-agriculture" in the urban environment. While urban gardening is often largely carried out by persons of middle-class origins, and hence involves an element of libertarianism, the other trend is rooted entirely in the "realm of necessity". In 2011, initial reports to the effect that numerous Portuguese were moving out of the city and back to the countryside to engage in subsistence agriculture again shocked European public opinion. They were not seeking jobs in the agro-capitalist industry; there are none to be had. Rather, for the first time in West Europe since decades, people were responding to a crisis by cutting their ties to the capitalist market, purely and simply in order to survive.
The crisis has long since left deep scars in the social systems of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain. In Greece, more than half of all young people between 15 and 24 are unemployed – a dramatic figure which is twice as high as it was in 2009. And it is no wonder, considering the fact that the country’s economy is being strangled by the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the “Troika” – the IMF, the EU and the ECB – to the extent that in early 2012, the country’s economic output had dropped by 20% by comparison with 2008. Obviously, planning, producing and distributing one fifth less have had its effects on the labour market – 600,000 jobs have been lost since 2008. The Greeks fear a return to the 1960s and ‘70s, a period ingrained in the memory of the nation as a time of stagnation and repression. Many people are now forced to rummage through waste containers in front of supermarkets in search for food. This was one of the reasons for the suicide of Dimitris Christoulas. In his farewell letter, found in the pocket of his coat after his public suicide on Syntagma Square, he wrote:
“The Tsolakoglou government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state. And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my subsistence. I believe that young people with no future will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma Square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945” (this English translation taken from the Internet).
Dimitris Christoulas used the word “dignified” twice, which justifies the assumption that this concept was central to his perception of the crisis. It is obvious to everyone today that “the” market no longer provides any solution for the European Union. However, in cases of blatant failure of the market – and when has it ever been otherwise? – people automatically resort to concepts of moral economy. In times of crisis, people infected with prejudice have the tendency to seek solutions to their problems by sealing themselves off from outside influences, and to secure their coherence and prosperity by projecting hatred upon others, the presumed “outsiders”. Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front (Front National) in France, scored her greatest successes in the recent presidential election in May 2012 in the in the prosperous surroundings of beautiful Nice. Prejudice, exclusion and hatred are permanent possible answers available to people in response to crises; a different answer may be – but must not necessarily be – a vote for left parties. Left parties are on the rise again in Europe – slowly, to be sure, and starting from a low level, but rising nonetheless. However, beyond these traditional avenues of representative democracy, there are encouraging “praxeologies” which have hardly been noted at all by the parliamentary organized left, but which are achieving breakthroughs throughout Europe.
The potato as both, a symbol and as material necessity
One might say, perhaps not overly seriously, that everything revolves around the potato – the potato as symbol and also as material necessity. It is no accident that a new collective in Munich, founded especially by workers in the media industry, is called the “Potato Combine” (Kartoffelkombinat; Der Freitag, May 31, 2012, p. 7). In early 2012, there are two contravening trends in Europe of which we are not sure whether they may not, in the near future, come together in their practice and in political discourse; clearly, however, they might. One such trend is the not entirely new, but still trendy “urban gardening” movement, which involves the repossession of urban brownfields, and their re-greening and re-utilization for the purposes of “micro-agriculture” in the urban environment. While urban gardening is often largely carried out by persons of middle-class origins, and hence involves an element of libertarianism, the other trend is rooted entirely in the “realm of necessity”. In 2011, initial reports to the effect that numerous Portuguese were moving out of the city and back to the countryside to engage in subsistence agriculture again shocked European public opinion. They were not seeking jobs in the agro-capitalist industry; there are none to be had. Rather, for the first time in West Europe since decades, people were responding to a crisis by cutting their ties to the capitalist market, purely and simply in order to survive.
Urban gardening – don’t talk about it, do it!
The important thing about urban gardening is not only its results – green spaces and organically grown, healthy vegetables and fruits on land devastated by defunct industry; rather, its doing, its action, its activity, are the essential elements of its success. Thus, the goal of the Munich Kartoffelkombinat is “to break down the separation between producers and consumers, so as to feel linked together” (Der Freitag, op. cit.). Peter Linebaugh has coined the term “commening”, to expand the debate around the concept of the commons to include the realm of performance. “Gardening” is what makes urban gardening so attractive to urbanites. In Germany, these gardens first became well-known when refugee women from Bosnia began to provide for their reproduction in this manner in the small German town Göttingen. Although Turkish immigrants in some western German cities had previously used brownfields to produce food, the gardens in Berlin were different: Here, for the first time, the aspect of performance became primary. Not only the “what”, but also the “how” of the (re-)production process was important. The products of the gardens were traded, given away or eaten in common meals. Certainly, the harvest itself was important, but the process of raising it was used in order to create intercultural dialogue between refugees, migrants and the local population. Christa Müller calls this “the practice of a logic oriented not toward utilization, but rather toward provision (Der Freitag, op. cit., p. 6). The garden became a medium for the production of a local community. “For this movement, autonomy means not obtaining higher wages in order to be able to purchase the things necessary for life, but rather the living and testing of knowledge, skills and social networks (ibid).”
It is as if the clock had been turned back: in terms of the crops planted, all are equal in their ignorance. Few urban people really know how to care for plants, other than those in your living room, rooted in granulate. Here is an opportunity for immigrants to contribute their knowledge about farming. The garden thus has a levelling tendency; here, cultural and social capital is being redistributed. More than 130 German cities today have such gardens.
The German urban gardening movement has thus had a few lessons to learn in recent years. Often, the beginning was the “soilless” garden, located in portable crates, and moving from place to place. Perhaps the Princess Garden in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood is the best example of this learning process. Its two founders, Robert Shaw and Marco Clausen, actually wanted to move from one “non-place” to another in order to make the idea of a green city known in Berlin (ibid.). But after three successful years, the actors realized that it would be a shame to break up local social relationships, just in order to move on. That showed that in Berlin too, peasant production, be it capitalistic, subsistence-oriented, or in the form of urban gardening, could produce stable social relationships.
The potato movement in Greece: Strength in unity
In Greece, a new kind of relationship between people and potatoes as had a very similar effect. Reports from crisis-plagued Greece have been coming in thick and fast recently. Many indicate that the fundamental institutions of society have been shaken by the crisis. The Greek family, known throughout Europe for its strong cohesion, is increasingly under pressure, since it is losing its capacity to cushion the effects of unemployment. For this reason, many parents are advising their children to be trained as farmers – back to the roots, as it were. While the parents were part of the first truly urban generation in Greece, today’s young people can see that the model of peripheral European capitalism will no longer ensure their prosperity. The American Farm School in Thessaloniki, for example, has seen record-breaking application rates. Prior to the May 2012 election, Greece’s conservative government promised thousands of urbanites that they would be given land for peasant agriculture. Universities are approaching the back-to-the-land trend from the educational side. The Agriculture Department at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has selected 300 winners from among thousands of participants in a lottery for small parcels of free land. During the next three years, these 300 fortunate ones will be taught how to grow food sustainably and ecologically on their small parcels. Then, the next lottery will select another 300 “apprentices.” The participants in the last lottery will be excluded from participation in future ones, since the University’s goal is to disseminate knowledge about agricultural production as broadly as possible in the region.
These various programmes are to be welcomed; nonetheless, to some extent they are nothing more than an attempt by the old corrupt elites to retain their voter support. However, there are also bottom-up projects which could have the effect of bursting the constraints of the system. Here too, the potato is playing a leading role. Intermediate commerce in Greece is extremely oligopolistic, almost to a criminal degree. Farmers may wait for years for payment – in other words, they produce for nothing – and consumers pay up to 30% higher prices for food than they do in Germany. Then why not simply eliminate the middleman? The Greek potato movement is doing exactly that: with the aid of committed mayors, and also of the Internet, it is organizing direct sales.
According to estimates, some 750,000 Greeks in Thessaloniki and Athens can imagine moving back to the land. Only very few of them can imagine being farmers producing food for sale to the middlemen, and thus being reduced, once again, to an exploited cog in the capitalist system. Right from the start, these new “ruralites” are enthusiastic about organizing their lives and their production in cooperative forms. Even if products are being sold, a societal and nonetheless decentrally organized large-scale experiment seems to be taking place here, in which exchange value is being rolled back in favour of use value. What Europe can expect from the renewed utilization of land by former urbanites with the aid of cooperatives has been visible in southern Italy for years. There, large estates which had previously “belonged” to the Mafia have had to be turned over to civil society groups; they may not simply be resold. This has caused many long-term unemployed young people to move to the countryside to take up cooperative, sustainable farming. There are many reports showing how the arrival of the young urbanites have revitalized local village social structures, and people have started to support each other in their work once again, so that social, non-commercial relationships have been upgraded. Similar results can be expected from the Greek movement.
Ultimately, the question is what these two opposite kinds of potato movements have to do with one another, and how the European left can support them. While the urban gardening movement has largely risen to prominence in the richer, north-western European areas, carried by the alienated children of the middle class in order to provide an escape from feelings of social coldness, the southern European version of “back-to-the-land” is trying to create the basic material foundations for a life in dignity. However, both areas involve a long-term perspective. The ecological, collective raising of crops, and their common use in the centres of hegemonic financial capitalism of the north, shows the possibility of other forms of production, albeit in a nutshell, since no one really believes that a city like Berlin might be fed by the produce of urban gardening. Thus, while urban gardening, too, has its hard material sides, and doesn’t only involve self-realization, the potato movements of the south, born of material need, also have their immaterial aspects, pointing to the vision of a Good Life.
In this respect, urban gardening and the southern European movement “back to grandma and grandpa’s farm”, are part of mass movements which have been understood by the left parties in Europe only to a very insufficient degree, and which, like the Spanish indignados or the Occupy Movement, can show a way out of the crisis. Here, the organized party left has a very simple task: it must work within the parliaments to help secure “the infrastructural and legal preconditions” (Der Freitag, op. cit. p. 7) for these new forms of production.