eipcp Policies
12 2011

The Pitfalls of Volunteerism

The Production of the New, European Citizen in Greece

Katerina Rozakou

Katerina Rozakou


A weak Greek civil society?

From 2002 to 2004, I conducted fieldwork on voluntary groups assisting refugees in Athens, Greece. My research took place amidst growing concerns and discussions on “Greek civil society.” The dominant view expressed was that “Greeks do not volunteer” and voluntarism is “not as developed as in the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian societies,” just as “Greek civil society is poorly developed” and “weak.” These statements were expressed by social and political scientists as well as by politicians, and reflected a long-lasting discussion concerning the character of Greek society and the Greek state.

The “weakness” of Greek civil society is attributed to the dominance of clientelism and patronage and the vertical, rather than horizontal, incorporation of the social spectrum to politics (Mouzelis 1995). It is considered a symptom of the imperfect modernization of the country and the result of pre-modern political and social organization that stands as an obstacle to the civilizing process of Greek society and politics. Whereas civil society is an ideal directed to the “common good,” Greek people do not seem “predisposed” to act collectively in organized forms of sociality for purposes that go beyond their interest. That explains the fact that workers’ syndicates and professional associations are considered one of the flourishing fields of an otherwise “poor and undeveloped” Greek civil society.

Nevertheless, such statements tend to ignore informal modes of sociality and forms of action that do exist in the country, but do not fall into the normative definitions of civil society. Collective forms of action grounded in the principles of solidarity and disinterestedness do traditionally exist. Such collectivities are characterized by fluid, open and anti-hierarchical forms of relations.

However, it seems that “subversive modes of sociality” as I name them, often contradict with dominant civil society discourses in the country and the particular visions of modernization and Europeanization of Greek society that they entail. As an example, I present the case of a voluntary group’s resistance to initiatives toward the professionalization and institutionalization of their activities, attempted in the spirit of dominant EU and Greek state policies and discourses that have emerged, particularly since the 1990s.

The volunteer as the new European and Greek citizen

The period after the 1990s was a flourishing era of political optimism regarding the expansion of the European Union and EU values. It was also a very productive period concerning civil society discourses in the EU. Volunteering in particular, as a central facet of civil society, was promoted through legislative acts and subsidies. Declaration 38 of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) was one of the first that made explicit reference to “voluntary service activities” and their contribution toward the establishment of social solidarity. Moreover, the “European Voluntary Service,” an initiative of the European Commission, was implemented in 1998 (Decision 1686/98/EC of the European Parliament and the Council) with the purpose of promoting the mobility of “young volunteers” (18–30 years) among EU state members. Young people enlisted in the travel project and lived in other European countries in order to offer voluntary work in the setting of an organization. In addition, 2011 has been declared the “European year of voluntary activities promoting active citizenship.”

On the EU level, volunteering is discursively produced as an essential element that fosters social solidarity and democracy, and embodies EU and state citizenship. It is “an active expression of civic participation which strengthens common European values such as solidarity and social cohesion.” “Voluntary activities increase civic participation and can help foster a sense of belonging and commitment of citizens to their society at all levels – local, regional, national and European” (Official Journal of the European Union, 22/1/2010). In the context of EU expansion, particular emphasis is given to nations that are becoming eligible for EU membership and the enhancement of local civil societies through flows of EU subsidies and projects.

Since the mid 1990s the concepts of kinonia politon (civil society) and ethelontismos (voluntarism) have frequently appeared in both public discussions and theoretical analyses in Greece. They can be traced to parliamentary seats and legislative texts, newspaper columns, agendas of political parties, academic conferences and debates. These discourses do not exist in a vacuum; instead, they interact and inform one another. Intellectual works are incorporated on the level of government decisions, state and EU policies are interwoven, whereas the agendas of rival political parties employ the same vocabulary but with different political content.

The vision of the modernization and Europeanization of Greek society was brought to the fore with greater intensity than ever before by the Kostas Simitis’ social-democratic government (1996–2004) widely known as eksinkhronistes (modernizers) and Evropaistes (Europeanizers), that had a distinctly European orientation (Lyrintzis 2005). It was not the first time that the state itself was becoming one of the major “importers of ‘modernization’ in Greece” (Voulgaris 2006). One of the key political goals of the Simitis government was the entrance of Greece in the European zone of Economic and Monetary Unity (EMU) and the country’s inclusion in the eurozone. The government also attempted to implement a number of reforms in public administration, education, health and social welfare.

Simitis’ government came to embody the “modernization” vision as part of a Greek version of the third way political agenda. It endorsed the strengthening of “civil society” and the promotion of “voluntarism” through legislative frameworks and the establishment of relevant organizations and ministerial departments. The aim was to include civil society organizations in the formation and implementation of public policies, especially in social welfare. During that period, a number of ministerial departments and organizations were established with the specific aim of enhancing Greek civil society and volunteering: the “Department of Voluntarism” in the Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity (1998), the “Committee for NGOs” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1999). Through ministerial departments, EU and Greek state subsidies were channeled into “certified” local voluntary associations. At the same time, the General Secretariat for Civil Protection by the Ministry of Interior and the General Secretariat for Youth by the Ministry of Education started organizing training seminars for volunteers.

Relevant scholarly activities flourished and the literature on civil society in Greece has grown extensively in the last years and has expanded to public discussions, newspaper articles and public events (Mouzelis 2002, Makrydimitris 2002, Sotiropoulos 2004, Sklias and Chouliaras 2002). The vast majority of relevant studies adopt normative definitions that consider the phenomena as values. Such discourses reflect the long-standing conflict between “tradition” and “modernity” of Greek society (Diamantouros 2000).

Both in the EU context and in the setting of modernization and Europeanization, reforms adopted by the “modernizers” (the government as well as social and political scientists) in Greece during that period discursively constructed voluntarism as the epitome of “European citizenship.” The emergence of “civil society” and “voluntarism” discourses echo the diffusion of new modes of governmentality in Foucauldian terms (Foucault 1991) and the production of the new European and Greek citizen. They are processes of crafting subjectivities and organizing sociality.

A growing institutionalization and professionalization of voluntarism emerged and a vast and diverse body of experts as well as social and political scientists became involved in the production of what constituted (and what did not) “voluntarism” and “civil society.” Such multi-level processes were implicated in the production of the ethelondis (volunteer) as a self-governed subject and an active politis (citizen); as a model of participation and behavior engaged in practices of altruism; as the embodiment of the “new European and Greek citizen.”

Voluntarism was also constructed as the epitome of civil society. This particular formation actually refers to a professionalized activity – that involves training, duties and obligations and is administered by a body of professionals, mostly social workers and an institutionalized, structured sociality – that falls into a system of positions and rules. Experts train volunteers on the new context of sociality and action. They initiate them into new modes of relatedness, ones that overcome “traditional” ways of interaction and action. Such normative definitions of “civil society” tend to ignore the existence of informally organized social groups. Modes of sociality that do not fit into the “civil society” definition and “modernization” idea are thus discarded as pre-modern. However, such informally organized ties in fact predominate and actually inform contemporary civil formations.

Subversive socialities: Exarcheiotiki parea

When I was conducting fieldwork on voluntary associations with a leftist political background, one of the matters that constantly arose was the “lack of structure” and the weakness of the participants in adopting organized schemata of action and relatedness. The conflict was particularly reflected in the clash between two conflicting modes of sociality summarized in the opposite notions of silloghos (association) and parea (companionship) – Exarkhiotiki parea (companionship of Exarcheia) in particular – and the pending transition from the second to the first that never seems to take place (Rozakou 2008). The debate between the two models of sociality, conceptualized in the notions of the silloghos and the parea, reveals a backlash of the normative form of governmentality characteristic in “civil society” projects directed from top-down. It expresses the opposition to the production of the citizen in terms of a self-regulating self-governing subject. It opposes the substitution of social welfare with voluntarism and the transference of state duties to non-state actors. It is also a response and subversion to neofileleftherismo (neoliberalism), where neoliberalism is perceived not as an analytical concept or simply the depiction of market economy, but as a lived experience and an indigenous notion that has penetrated the discourses of everyday life (Greenhouse 2010). It is noteworthy that the lack of structure and professionalization did not affect the activities of the group of volunteers I studied. They were very active in aiding “sans papiers” and asylum seekers in Athens, providing them with supplies (food, clothes and blankets), accompanying them to hospitals and public services and forming lasting relationships of solidarity with them.

The volunteers with a leftist political background whom I talked with, strongly oppose the production of subjectivities in the setting of the discourses of “experts,” the state and EU policies and intellectuals. Through their resistance, they challenge not only the state but also broader mechanisms and techniques of power. The contemporary production of the “volunteer” conflicts with the anti-statist tradition of the left and its anti-hierarchical character, and “voluntarism” represents de-politicized consent instead of insurgence and a challenge to state policies. The de-politicized citizen and subject bound to the state and EU machinery and neoliberalism is produced through institutionalization and professionalization.

The constitution of sociality according to the model of the “association” requires a set of “roles,” “rules,” “duties” and “obligations.” It refers to the production of a structured, organized relatedness and to “voluntarism” in terms of “service.” It is closely related to the processes of institutionalization and professionalization of voluntarism, characteristic of the period since the 1990s. Moreover, it defines different fields of activity and incorporates participants in a pre-arranged system of relations. But what is exactly the parea and xarkhiotiki parea?

Exarcheia is a district in the center of Athens with a highly symbolic historical value for the political history of the country. Its immense political symbolism is related to the area’s geographic proximity to the Polytechnic School where the uprising against the dictatorship of the colonels took place in 1973. Since then, the region has been associated with leftist and anarchist political groups and during the last decades it is a frequent locus of political activities and violent clashes between the police and groups of young anarchists; a location for leisure for university students; residence for artists and intellectuals; premises of non-governmental and voluntary organizations that support immigrants and refugees; and an entertainment area with restaurants, clubs and bars. Recently, the political meaning of Exarcheia reached its climax during the riots that followed the murder of a schoolboy by a policeman in December 2008. The clashes between the police and groups of young people then expanded to the rest of the city center and lasted several days.

Exarcheia is, therefore, an area where anti-authoritarian collectivities and subversive modes of sociality activate. Thus, in the volunteers’ words, the title parea of Exarcheia is much more than merely a geographic definition due to the organization’s premises being placed in the area. Parea of Exarcheia refers to an undifferentiated collectivity that is culturally constituted with reference to space. People who reside or hang around in a geographic space carry its substance. Exarcheia, as a geographic and symbolic space, has been historically related to the conditions of post-dictatorship Greece. The area is a symbol and a metaphor of leftist and anarchist political action, and more generally, of a politically constituted way of life (Rozakou 2006).

Exarkhiotiki parea manifests a self that transcends the logic of the market and interest of neoliberal governmentality, and at the same time, the organized and logical self-conscious self that is produced in the setting of governmentality techniques of the political project of the third way. The political aspect of the volunteers’ practices does not lie solely in the fact that they conceptualize their participation in political terms and as a contestation of state and EU policies. It is grounded in the symbolic construction of relatedness and in an anti-hierarchical and anti-bureaucratic vision of society. In contrast to a system of hierarchical relations, parea is a collectivity based on similarity and equality; on emotional friendship and its egalitarian features; on the lack of structure and fluidity; on the negation and transcendence of reciprocity (Papataxiarchis 1991).

Exarkhiotiki parea is the context of an alternative cosmology and a political vision of a society that lacks social hierarchy. Sociality rests beyond and outside of the principles of interest, money and inequality. Subversive socialities are thus entangled with the resistance and challenge toward new modes of governmentality. They reflect alternative citizenships and traditional ideologies of anti-statism.

A time of crises

The case of Greece and the discussion on Greek civil society is particularly interesting in order to decipher relevant discourses on European civil society and the visions of modernization and Europeanization in the so-called “European periphery,” the political projects behind such discourses, and indigenous modes of sociality and social organization. In the current setting of crisis and the rising international interest in Greece, all these issues have been brought to the fore with greater intensity than ever before.

Civil society, and most notably European civil society, reflects an emphasis on social solidarity and an appeal to European values, which seem to be in crisis today. Nowadays, Europeanization is being transformed from a political vision that expresses these values, to a primarily economic goal. Economy is being interrelated to culture and once again, the dominant issue is the deficiency of particular states-cultures to keep up with “Europe.” Insufficient social organization and the “weakness” of local civil societies are considered indications of that deficiency.

The current crisis in Greece is not merely a Greek crisis. And it is certainly not only a financial crisis. It is primarily presented as a cultural crisis and one that has highlighted not only the place of Greece in Europe – its financial, political, cultural and symbolic marginalization – but also the entire character of Europe as a financial, political and symbolic entity. What we are facing today is not only an economic battle, but also a battle over what constitutes “Europe,” and which visions Europe is going to represent from now on.



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With support of the Federal Ministry for Arts, Education and Culture, IA/4.