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Vasilis Kostakis

The Real Question of the Referendum: The Enclosure of the Greek Commons

Being a typical academic, allow me to begin with a definition: the commons is a term used to describe shared resources (such as land, water, air, culture, science, infrastructures) in which each stakeholder has an equal interest.

The devastating enclosures of the English commons, between 16th and 19th centuries, has been labeled as the “revolution of the rich against the poor” by the eminent political economist Karl Polanyi. They forced peasants into the labor market and the factories of the industrial revolution and “marked the beginning of a worldwide process of commodifying the land, ocean, and atmosphere of the earth”.

So, what is the relevance of the loss of the English commons with the imminent Greek referendum?

Much discussion has been taking place around the meaning of a question posed in a relatively technical language. To put the matter bluntly, I would like to argue that the real question of the referendum is whether Greek citizens approve or disprove the enclosure of their commons. The proposed changes in the pension, taxing, labour and insurance systems are supposedly aimed at ensuring that Greece can service its foreign debt. However, these are not the biggest perils although they fill most of the pages of the notorious document the Greeks are called to approve or disprove.

In short, on page 17, the creditors suggest that Greece irreversibly privatizes its airports, harbors, railways, water supply and sewerage companies, energy infrastructures and public power corporations, motorways, post offices, thermal springs, cultural treasures and other properties  (seaside land, marinas etc). These are assets which we have inherited or jointly created and, instead of delivering them intact or even enhanced to the next generations, we are called, under the pressure of an economic collapse, to sell them off to the rich. In addition, no hybrid forms of public-private partnership are explicitly mentioned (for instance, OTE, a profitable telecommunication public-private corporation, is to be entirely privatized).

Conditions in Greece today are not only reminiscent of those in Germany in 1933, as Prof. Sachs writes, but also of those in 16th-19th century England and Wales. Another revolution of the ultra-rich is taking place and the endgame playing out between Greece and its creditors might be only the beginning of a new global wave of enclosures.


Vasilis Kostakis is Senior Research Fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance (TUT), longtime collaborator of the P2P Foundation, and member of the CommonsTransition Team.

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  1. Christian Holata

    Send all the Greeks you know information about viable cooperative socioeconomic alternatives to our broken monetary system and capitalism. Only if people know about real solutions there can be any positive development.

    “Sacred Economics” is a beautifully written book about one viable cooperative alternative. You can read it for free online and it’s also available in the Greek language. Feel free to share …

  2. The question and the answer of the referendum …cannot coexist in the same universe! (paraphrasing Daglas Adams).

    The answer was that Greeks do not accept the kind of Europe current eurozone financial institutions and political elites are framing. As general as that and in no more concrete terms. Any effort to make it more specific, even after the referendum has taken place, is partial and manipulative.

    Greeks responded to a phase of negotiations, to public statements, to efforts to frame the outcome to political terms dictated from elites profiting from the Greek crisis, to a remotely managed banking system, as well as other personal perceptions of the phase of the negotiations, and the shoot (the answer) was declared an “off-side” before it reached the goalpost.

    But the IMF has, now, withdrawn its support to unilateral profiting and increasing imbalances in Europe, which would heart its own profits. The game is not finished. Personal perceptions of Greeks of the situation and the impact of the referendum are as diverse as before.

    Especially trying to narrow down what is at stake to a single perspective, as this article does, is undemocratic. Referendums (even as badly framed as this one), capture diversity of ideology and personal aims, in a single outcome, but they are not answering to a single question.

  3. Vasilis


    Thank you for your comment.

    If your critique concerns the title of the article, I fully agree with it. After this essay was published, a second thought was that the phrase “the real question…” did not correctly reflect my thesis. As it was proven, it was provocative and attracted attention, however, “the most important stake…” or something similar would arguably be more appropriate.

    If your critique concerns the body of the essay, I do not fully agree with it. The argument of the post is that most, if not all the “reforms” that troika’s proposal contained were more or less reversible in the long term. In contrast, the demand to held a clearance sell of Greek people’s common property has irreversible implications (the “irreversibility” aspect is explicitly stated in the document). In a nutshell, the article does not try to “narrow down what is at stake to a single perspective” or to deal with “personal perceptions of Greeks of the situation” rather to highlight the irreversibility of a certain list of proposals (from a historical perspective).



  4. Hi Vasilis,

    Thank you for your answer. I was referring to the title of the article, but since you don’t endorse the actual title, I will go into commenting your basic premise, as you present it in your comment.

    The argument of economists, which I endorse subject to limitations I will discuss below, is as follows: Greece had a bubble of public spending in the years toward the crisis, which was unsustainable; the path to managing the mountain of debt that resulted, goes through the fire-sail of public assets, or else the public infrastructure and social state preserved on borrowing during the bubble will have to be demolished. The cost of the pre-crisis unsustainable borrowing is the loss of potential fair returns for public assets.

    Now, I agree with this approach, though it is insufficient to address the full scale of Greek problems, only under significant limitations. Greece, I agree with you, should not shell off basic public infrastructure, like water supply or not retain a significant presence of the public sector in telecommunications and power industry. Nevertheless, it can profit from opening these markets to private sector participants. It can also shell the rights to airports, significant ports, trains, etc, for modest time-frames, say 50 (or even 70) years. All this will allow for basic preservation of a social state infrastructure that also needs a lot of restructuring, to stop being unsustainable.

    In other words, your claim that there is an attack to public property and the commons, which I agree there is, is so single-sided in its posture and presentation that does not endorse the superiority of social state infrastructure that needs to be maintained, in the face of an already present humanitarian crisis.

    Of course, there is also the banking system, which will supposedly consume the first half of the expected gains, which cannot be bypassed without a Grexit. I am a huge proponent of Grexit. In fact, I believe it is inevitable. But all this discussion on the banking system is much too involved to open up here. The only thing I need to point out, to you and the community advocating for the commons, is that a fundamental, top-importance part of the economy that should be in the commons and has never been, is the money supply, which is historically has been private and on interest, simultaneously imposing implicit (and explicit) public guaranties, like the private bank capitalization that has repeatedly taken place in Greece. In that field, which has been the means of creating the bubbles everywhere and enslaving peoples, now threatening their commons, you have a lot to learn from Positive Money and the report commissioned by the president of Iceland on a sovereign money system with 100% reserves, to nationalize the money supply and remove the circular dependence of public borrowing from a private banking sector, which has to be saved by the taxpayer.

    1. To make clearer, when I refer to social state infrastructure (although this includes water), I mostly refer to health and education. Thus, I find it acceptable to shell the rights for water supply in big cities for 50 years, for significant returns and under strict terms for the return of these rights to the public, provided the returns of such a deal could be used to support public education and health, during their restructuring to become sustainable.

    2. Vasilis


      Thank you for your reply which is mostly in line with my own understanding. However, allow me to clarify that, at the current state of affairs, I am not necessarily against “opening these markets to private sector participants” as you write. But selling the rights or, perhaps even better, create public-private partnerships is one thing, and privatising and selling the public property off is another. And the new “strategic plan” is clearly for the latter.



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