By Christos Giovanopoulos
Infrastructures & democracy
Infrastructures are often portrayed as an objective economic-material entity that embodies a process of order and control which organizes the social fabric. In that sense infrastructures are conceived as the domain within which the social contract is materialized in forms of modern industrial production and State governance. In other words, infrastructures can be seen as the material embodiments of social antagonisms and correlations of power and as such as perpetrators of the dominant mode of social relationships and organization.
In that sense any rupture on the infrastructural functioning, which we call infrastructural gap (IG), challenges the existing social contract. Much more so when this gap has been resulted from both the (still unfolding) economic-political crisis and the agency of social movements and innovative grassroots activities. More specifically citizens experience the deregulation and decline of “hard” (large scale) and “soft” (social services) infrastructural provisions as interference in the citizen–state relationship. Thus, IG emerges as a challenge of the entire socio-political paradigm.
With “soft” infrastructures we mean mainly the infrastructures that relate with the basic and everyday needs of social reproduction and welfare. On that field in post-2011 Greece we have experienced the emergence of a novel paradigm of grassroots collective action to counter a severe crisis of social reproduction. A proliferation of self-organised practices and peer to peer relationships that are simultaneously a reaction to the failure of the top-down established infrastructural paradigm and an energetic, and from below, contestation of its operating logic that led to an outburst of social innovation.
Such grassroots mobilisation and resourcefulness has created numerous, polymorphous and autonomous self-managed structures and spaces in the fields of food (without middlemen distro networks, solidarity food-banks and kitchens, self-organised community gardens), health (self-organised solidarity clinics and pharmacies), education (solidarity schools), housing (anti-foreclosures campaign, refugee solidarity accommodation), alternative economy practices (time-banks, barter economy networks, alternative currencies), self-managed workers’ cooperatives, to name but the most known examples.
The wider ecosystem of this grassroots social and solidarity economy has produced a new infrastructural realm that moves beyond the traditional understandings of both “hard” and “soft” infrastructures and the relationships they entail. It does so by proposing models for social participation that merge elements of civil grassroots action with new forms and networks of economic activity mingled with new technologies. In other words, far from being just a response to crisis and austerity it nurtures spaces of exercising democracy and of democratizing the (social and material) means of life-production.
In that way such ecosystem participates and intervenes in the broader setting, debates and antagonism of the emerging and transformative motifs of economy [e.g. sharing (rental) economy, social solidarity economy, cooperativism etc.] and forms of public life and polity [e.g. smart cities, participatory (radical) municipalism etc.]. It manifests an active agency in constituent processes of the new environments of/for infrastructural production, citizenship and democracy.
Thus, in the context of a deficient infrastructural capacity of the market-state model to maintain its grip on citizenship or subjectivity construction, these emerging people-driven infrastructures play a significant role in the renegotiation and shaping of the relationship between infrastructural technologies, political institutions and citizen participation. Something that is reflected in terms such as infrastructural citizenship. Such examples, far from regarding marginal processes or the Greek specific social context, confirm larger shifts in response to this crisis, apparent in the lingo of various governments’ and international entities’ (such as the EU) or in notions such 'Participatory Society’ (NL) or 'Big Society' (UK).
What will we examine?
In the frame of the grassroots democracy - infrastructures relationship, infra-demos will deploy and utilize the notion of infrastructural participation. It will research theoretically and empirically the forms and functions of these newly emerging techno-social “hybrid agoras” (as both market-places and forums) and their potential to reconfigure larger democratic practices and institutions.
More specifically my research will focus on citizen-managed solidarity economy infrastructures. On novel practices that cover the gaps produced by the crisis (but not alone) in soft infrastructures, and which act as paradigms that invite the society to take over roles traditionally covered by the State and/or the market.
Some basic questions that will be asked are:
1) What are the consequences of the IG in the various fields of social reproduction and how do people respond to this? How do they perceive their contestation with the established infrastructural paradigm?
2) In what ways new forms of social participation, ideas of commons and practices of cooperative and solidarity economies are employed and/or merge with novel digital technologies in the production of currently relevant socio-technical infrastructures?
3) Given the IG, what are the relationships among “soft” infrastructural action and social innovation/participation? Can they formulate a sustainable and scaled up infrastructural paradigm without sacrificing their horizontal, decentralized and self-managed organizational structures? What kind of demands and actions (policy) and means and instruments (technologies etc.) can make viable such option?
4) To what extent the emerging social relationships and modes of collective organizing (self-management, assembly based decision making, decentralized and localized networking etc.) can be embodied and reproduced by the development and use of infrastructural instruments and networks?
5) In the light of these innovative and hybrid socio-technological engagements what new forms of infrastructural publics and subjectivities are created? What are the theoretical and practical redefinitions of the society-infrastructures relation?
infra-demos’ theoretical contribution in the conceptualisation of infrastructures is based in the understanding of infrastructures as hybrid entities embedded in active social relationships. This allow us to perceive the infrastructures (hard or soft) as sites of socio-material innovation and as socio-economic networks that spring from self-organised political action. In that context infra-demos aims to display the potentialities held by society’s collective intelligence (for technological and institutional innovations) to articulate participatory forms of “infrastructural citizenship and governance” vis à vis the infrastructural gap.
Entangled with such challenge infra-demos aims are:
a. To address the relationships between infrastructures and innovative socio-technological forms of participation.
b. To outline the traits and implications of a new socio-technological realm that is shaped by technologies of social participation related on practices of commons, sharing and solidarity economies and
c. To define the domain where this emerging ecosystem operates and the infrastructural and institutional (policies) frameworks that it creates for ‘infrastructural citizenship and governance’, beyond the state – private - civil society triptych.
Thus infra-demos will investigate the social dynamics and will assess the constitutional and economic capacities, along with the theoretical potentials, of such activities towards building societal resilience and transformative policies.