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New Solidarity Initiatives as an Important Ground for Building Transformative Politics: a conversation on Solidarity Economy Praxis in Hungary

LeftEast’s Mariya Ivancheva interviews Zsófia Ádám and Andrea Czerván of the Solidarity Economy Center in Budapest: “Our ultimate goal is to support the growth of a solidarity economy ecosystem, by which we mean a network of economic initiatives – with as few resources leaking out as possible and fulfilling as many needs as possible – that prioritizes the reproduction of life and the well-being of communities over profit, and operates in a socially and ecologically sustainable, democratic way.”

LeftEast’s Mariya Ivancheva interviews Zsófia Ádám and Andrea Czerván of the Solidarity Economy Center in Budapest

– Could you please tell us a bit more about the Solidarity Economy Center and the Solidarity Action Group, since when are the two entities in operation, what are the main activities, methods and goals, and where do they converge or do different activities? 

The Solidarity Economy Center (SEC) started its work in 2018. We have around 15 active members who have previously worked together in the College of Social Theory (TEK), the public working group Helyzet, the community around the community centre Gólya and other cooperative projects. We aim at facilitating, supporting and connecting solidarity economy initiatives in Hungary. Our ultimate goal is to support the growth of a solidarity economy ecosystem, by which we mean a network of economic initiatives – with as few resources leaking out as possible and fulfilling as many needs as possible – that prioritizes the reproduction of life and the well-being of communities over profit, and operates in a socially and ecologically sustainable, democratic way. At the moment we have three main types of activities. First, we do research and promote the idea of the solidarity economy. We just published a special issue of the journal Fordulat on solidarity economy in the world, in Eastern Europe and in Hungary. Second, we provide financial, legal and strategic consulting for solidarity economy initiatives. And third, we build connections between different organizations to strengthen economic collaborations and facilitate the creation of new models in areas we consider of key importance. We have four areas in which we work on model projects now: cooperative housing; renewable community energy; sustainable, locally embedded food production and consumption; and union-coop collaborations related to housing and the needs and burdens connected to care work.

The Solidarity Action Group (SAG) is a broader platform that was organized in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, bringing together members from 12 left organizations, including SEC. Its aim has been to analyse the crisis and its management, to point out concrete community- or movement-based solutions as inspirations, and start similar initiatives on the ground. In spring 2020, based on collective research and writing, SAG published a series of articles on the independent left portal Mérce on challenges and opportunities related to the pandemic in the areas of economic policy, wage work, care work, housing, food, climate change, obstetric care, and violence against women. Since then, members of SAG have been working together in working groups, the largest of which became a main platform for organizations working on food sovereignty in Hungary.

Source: Kettős Mérce Blog

– The care working group of SEC recently conducted research with a union of social workers on members’ reproductive workloads in child care and elderly care. Can you tell us a bit about the research and the findings?

This research is the first step of our care-related model project. We started working on it in May 2020 in collaboration with the Trade Union of Social Sector Workers and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest. We start from the insight that care work, both paid and unpaid, is undervalued and made invisible in the capitalist system so that profit can be maximized. The state provides insufficient services, while market services deepen inequalities in terms of whose care needs are met and how care is provided.  On the one hand, the salaries of care and social workers’ is very low. On the other hand, caring for children, people with disabilities and the elderly mostly takes place in households, and is mainly done by women. In our projects we would like to bring the community aspect into this picture in two ways: to find and create solutions together for the community’s affected members’ needs, and to put pressure on employers, the state and local governments to acknowledge the importance of care work and provide the necessary resources for bottom-up solutions.

In this model project we work together with the Trade Union of Social Sector Workers which provides advocacy for social workers working in homeless shelters in Budapest, which are maintained by the capital city’s government. We first mapped workers’ care responsibilities and needs with the means of an online survey and individual interviews. Not surprisingly, workers who also care for children or elderly relatives are extremely overloaded. We found out that in terms of child care, everyday logistics, the lack of affordable extracurricular activities and sleepaway summer camps bring on the biggest challenges, and are further complicated by the 24-hour shifts. Caring for elderly relatives seemed an even bigger issue. There is a lack of public discussion about caring for the elderly: although it poses great difficulty, affected workers have not even thought about getting help and had no idea what kind of help could come into play at all. Now we would like to facilitate a so-called participatory interventionist research in which a group of affected workers and other members of the community work together to contextualize the problems around care work, further map care-related needs – for example through online surveys, group discussions and forums -, find and evaluate possible solutions, and bargain for the necessary resources vis a vis the employer or the state. The Trade Union of Social Sector Workers just started negotiating a collective agreement with the employer. They aim to include the concept of a family-friendly workplace into the collective contract. The research will contribute to elaborating this concept with the involvement of as many workers as possible. We are in contact with care work communities who can also provide ideas and help in realizing them, for example mothership centres that provide a community space for mothers with small children and promote mutual help and the sharing of resources, or an alternative learning and community centre for vocational students in one of the outer districts of Budapest.

– SAG published a series of articles on housing, wagework, climate change, food chains, women’s work, obstetric care and violence against women during the pandemic. Can you speak a bit of the main problems emerging in each one of these fields? (Where) do you see these issues connected?

The current regime in Hungary sustains external and internal capital accumulation through stepping up the externalization of crisis effects on the population. While support directed to reproductive needs has been scarce (with minimum and hardly accessible support for those who lose their jobs, carework pushed on households, and hospitals left with insufficient equipment), the government used the state of exception created by the crisis to further cut labor rights, introduce new regulatory and monetary support for greenfield industrial investments, to protect big business in key sectors of state-supported domestic capital development, modify the constitution to cement the privatization of public money through foundations, and step up political investments in church foundations and representative real estate property. While the government’s crisis management has primarily served to save capital from crisis-related losses, and to secure the privatization of public wealth by its state-supported oligarchy, the pandemic made the growing signs of a reproductive crisis more visible, especially in terms of healthcare and care work. Meanwhile, in the wake of the pandemic we saw a wave of organic mutual help initiatives which reinforced the role of everyday solidarity solutions that serve as a buffer against effects of the broader process of crisis. Our idea behind this series was that this fact might have created a greater receptivity for community solutions and the fight for change in general.

In terms of wagework, like elsewhere, households with little savings, people working with short-term and flexible contracts or in sectors badly hit by the crisis – like in tourism or the restaurant industry – were faced with the strongest challenges. We saw an influx of new unemployed to newly booming courier services, which inspired our work, together with the Gólya Cooperative, in starting a cooperative courier service. The government used crisis governance to introduce an even more strict version of the “Slave Law” regulation that aroused large-scale protests two years ago, while its support for workplaces was reduced to a strongly limited version of the German Kurzarbeit. While workers and unions found it hard to resist anti-labor crisis policies, the importance of essential services and resistance by advocacy organizations active in such fields (like those of teachers, nurses and doctors) became highly visible and gained significant popular support. 

In the last 10 years a housing crisis has been developing in Hungary, primarily due to the fact that new housing could only be acquired by households with middle to low incomes through mortgages, and to a spike in real estate and rental prices since 2015. The effects of the pandemic-related lockdown put the housing of those who lost their jobs in danger, while for many who rented out an apartment to tenants, this became the only source of income. For those who needed emergency housing, like potentially infected health and social workers, workers who had to leave worker’s hostels, students evacuated from colleges, people living in homelessness, or women who are victims of domestic violence, the consequences have been even more dire. In respect to this situation, we argued for a system of housing cooperatives and supporting state policies that could work towards taking housing needs out of the market, as well as for more short-term steps that could ease the pressure on those who suffer most. 

The capitalist economic system is only capable of continuous growth if it treats nature as a cheap resource, which it accomplishes, for example, through the continuous expansion of industrial agriculture. It destroys both natural and social ecosystems and generates cataclysms such as the current epidemic. During the lockdown, our food system, which is based on long supply chains, nearly collapsed, and a huge amount of small scale farmers were ruined because they lost their usual forms of supply. With several food-sovereignty organisations in SAG we tried to take political advantages offered by structural problems coming to the surface. We strengthened the cooperation in our network and started a branch of new projects, among others a food cooperative which connects consumers in the city with farmers in the countryside.

We identified the care crisis as one of the main problems, which also got more visibility during the first wave. The amount of reproductive and care work done mostly by women within the household has increased, while the majority of wage jobs in essential services were also being done by women: the majority of health and care workers, salespeople in grocery stores and pharmacies are women. At the same time, domestic violence and porn consumption have grown significantly. Obstetric care in Hungary is characterized by physical violence, the disregard of the will and pain of birthing women, against which women’s organizations, for example the Respectful obstetric care! movement co-authoring the article on this topic, have long been mobilizing. During the crisis, pregnant women had to give birth to their children without their partners and with unknown professionals, against plans they had previously agreed upon.  

– What does this series bring to the debate around these issues and the advancement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Hungary?

In terms of debates in the international left, we found that our findings were reflected in other diagnoses and calls that appeared during the same time. The recognition of the primacy of reproductive needs, the foregrounding of essential services, and the idea that new solidarity initiatives surfacing in face of the crisis are an important ground for building transformative politics have been general convergence points on the left internationally. In terms of debates within Hungary, this series served to bring together a new platform of green, left and feminist movements, serving to create a common understanding and political imagination with regard to the broader horizon of the climate crisis.

– What has been your strategy of diffusion and public engagement of the issues raised, now that everything is online? How are these findings going to be used and what are your main points of action and public intervention from here on?

Actually, in Hungary life turned back to “normal” during the summer, so many of our activities like discussions with union members, the organization of a new consumer cooperative by the SAC food working group that SEC facilitated, or a new collaboration with a solidarity economy initiative in Pécs, were carried out offline. Most of our projects at SEC have been evolving despite the pandemic circumstances – the main exception is a national meeting of solidarity economy initiatives which we had to postpone to next year. The communication campaign for our Fordulat issue was indeed turned into an online one, but we put an emphasis on thematically or locally specific release events that foregrounded issues that our discussion partners were working on in practice. In general, we are in a process where we primarily build direct practical collaborations that also help to build further organizing capacity. We are not in a situation where general public communication could be translated into mass actions – and in the lack of an existing organizational and material base, even if such a reaction would happen, it would not have the chance to make a lasting impact. Therefore, for the task realistically at hand, the work that we have been able to do was more or less sufficient – less so, of course, now that numbers are record high and the introduction of a new state of emergency makes personal meetings impossible. But this is a temporary situation. 

Zsófia Ádám studied philosophy and literary studies. At the Solidarity Economy Center she deals with the areas of cooperative food production and consumption and of care in a trade union setting.

Andrea Czerván studied gender studies. At the Solidarity Economy Center she works in the care working group to promote community involvement and organizing in terms of care needs and responsibilities.