'Voices from the field' is a section that wants to shine a light on the empirical research we set up in Commonfare and the extraordinary wealth of its findings. Voices that rise here belong to the unemployed youth, precarious workers, freelancers, migrants we have met in Croatia, Italy and The Netherlands, which are the three pilot countries around which this research project takes shape. Here you can also hear the voices of all the people who are joining forces to build up bottom-up welfare experiments based on social cooperation and mutual-aid practices in these three countries and all over Europe.
For this inaugural letter, we would like to give voice to our participatory spirit by inviting our three local organizations – Center for Peace Studies in Croatia, Basic Income Network in Italy, Museu da Crise in The Netherlands – to share their reflections about their paths, their approach to researching, the local context in which they live and work, and what Commonfare is about to them. Our pilot organizations are in fact the first participants of this project as their political agenda, in its diversity and because of its diversity, reflect both our goal to grapple with the heterogeneous character of precariousness in Europe and the interdisciplinary, action-oriented method whereby we are working together.
Here are their voices:
Center for Peace Studies (CMS) is a civil society organization. We work at the nexus of public policy research and advocacy for the promotion of peace, anti-discrimination and socio-economic equity; we support individuals and initiatives in these goals at the grassroots level. The organization emerged from an initiative of volunteers dedicated to peacebuilding in war-torn communities in the mid 1990’s Croatia. Today, it continues to provide peace studies and education, and serve the most vulnerable population groups including refugees and asylum seekers, while also monitoring, reporting and contributing to public policy and debate. The primacy of the current economic model has spilled over into every sphere of life so that it is impossible to discuss issues of social justice without reference to the economic paradigm which systematically exploits the socially vulnerable and the distribution of resources across a population.
For us, the use of digital technologies as they pertain to labour and the economy is a new field of work. In the past, we have been eager and effective in using the democratizing and mobilizing potential of information technology for organizing people, ideas, social movements, protests and for informing the public on public policy issues –that is, for collective social and political activism. However, recently we encountered the possibility of utilizing digital technologies for organizing economic activities and activism. For example, while using social media to raise awareness about the plight of refugees, to collect and organize volunteers and humanitarian aids, CMS also utilized a crowd-funding campaign to raise capital for a social enterprise staffed entirely by refugees and asylum seekers who provide catering services of their local foods for the Croatian public. In this way, digital technologies facilitate organizing on a social level, and advocating on a policy level.
From the perspective of a civil society organization as ours, deeply committed to citizen education, the most relevant aspect for connecting people’s needs with their empowerment is the act of expression: collecting individual experiences, shining a light on the fact that they are in fact a collective narrative, that these individuals are not alone in their struggles, whether financial, social or otherwise, and then organizing and inspiring individuals to stand behind the collective narrative to demand for their unmet needs to be addressed, their identity recognized, and their collective voice heard. From our perspective this is the most relevant aspect of these digital practices.
A successful platform would be one that serves the needs of a community. If the platform can become a resource that will impact positively on the quality of life of those living in precarious conditions in Croatia, and in particular if it can be used to help individuals organize into collectives, to expand networks of social support, and be a launching board for alternative economic communities, we would feel that we have been successful. One way in which to ensure this success is to include the target groups in the design of the platform throughout the project, and to make sure that their priorities supersede our own opinions about how the project ought to look or unfold.
Basic Income Network Italy (BIN) is a bottom-up association born in 2008 to promote initiatives, debate and pressure in favour of the introduction of a basic income in Italy, a country in which any kind of anti-poverty income exist. BIN operates autonomously inside Italian social movements (the so called civil society), in the attempt to create a bridge between the latter and political institutions. The combination of local activities, existing social policies and bottom-up initiatives is fundamental in our philosophy and methodology.
Along this line of thinking, we acknowledge that in Italy there is a long “underground” (in sense of “non academic”) tradition in conducting research in term of “co-research” and Action Research. Storytelling, inquiries, analysis of “best practices” are part of our story, the story of Italian social movements. From Workerism to the ’90-’00, we tried to analyse the main changes in valorisation processes and labour governance. Often –we have to admit– this has not brought to strong political results. That is the reason why it is necessary to implement this huge background in empirical work by involving the social subjects that most feel the weight of austerity policies and social control. From this point of view, the research of new communication and free technological tools is necessary. We have a great opportunity: tech to the people!
From our point of view, the building of a potential alternative platform, as Commonfare.net, plays a strategic role nowadays in the European context. It represents a hard challenge to develop a different framework of the welfare system. Each single country context and experience is quite relevant to build a digital transnational European environment. Since technology is not neutral but a tool, and every tool should be challenged according to its final target, we need an in-depth knowledge about the social situation of the different countries. For BIN, the participation to Commonfare is an opportunity to reinforce co-research activity in some metropolitan areas and renew social contacts with local alternative experiences.
According to our perspective, two are the key factors which can bring to the success of this project. First, building of a community of potential users able to meet with one each other, even if living in different countries, unified by the necessity to test autonomous initiatives in term of welfare needs. Second creating a bridge among the already sustainable and successful best practices of bottom-up welfare. The more we have good communication skills not only at the institutional level but also and especially at the informal level, the higher the probabilities of success. The great risk is the fact that the different consortium nodes would perhaps need some time to get know one each other better.
Museu da Crise (MdC) is an international, ongoing social art project initiated in 2011. It offers an artistic challenge to the poor market-mindset and the hegemony of the financial sector. We collaborate with various social groups to construct new narratives that redefine the social, cultural and economic ideologies on which Europe has been founded. MdC explores the potential of domestic strategies and parallel economies, which have a strong presence in contemporary society as counter movements, by expanding these strategies from the private to the community sphere. We want to liberate the basic human needs from the whims of the free market and make them freely accessible to all; even in times of crisis. The main objective of MdC is to “museumify” crisis and to turn it into a concept of the past.
Our approach to digital technologies is instrumental. We often work with the notion that the actual world is just one of many possible worlds. It is not a fact that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds. Other real, concrete, autonomous worlds exist, but are distinguished from the actual world simply by standing in no special, temporal or causal relation with it: we just do not exist in these other possible worlds yet. As a project, MdC directs the human abilities of invention and imagination towards bridging the gap between the actual world and the incomplete, projected, desired possible world in order to create an authentic space. Oftentimes we use new media and digital technologies such as for instance augmented or virtual reality to achieve this goal.
Following this perspective, we think that we have to really embrace the bottom-up methodology, or none of this will work. We should not be afraid of “emptiness”. Maybe we have nothing to show at this point, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. When you show up with something already made and well thought out, you also castrate the creativity of the people you want to involve. Emptiness is an important element to stimulate creativity. We have to be open to “the other” and not fall into the trap of walking the beaten track. We have to be open to other ways of working and thinking, and acknowledge that these are just as valid as ours and on an equal level.
To us, interdisciplinary teams, bottom-up practices, co-creation, etc. do not constitute a complex design approach, but our daily practice. This way of working has a long tradition within the socially engaged art practices. In the past, we have worked with architects, designers, philosophers, sociologists, political scientists and, above all, communities, with all the qualities, characteristics and professions represented within them, such as construction workers, cleaners, refugees, teachers, housewives, managers and the unemployed. In our opinion, the role of art is to reflect on the context of a specific political, social or economic reality. For us, the biggest challenge will be working with official institutions such as local government. In the past, we experienced a different rhythm and different ambitions.
We want to “museumify” crisis and turn it into a concept of the past. We have a great opportunity: tech to the people! Because individuals are not alone in their struggles, they are a collective narrative to demand for their unmet needs to be addressed, their identity recognized, and their collective voice heard.