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Crafting the Volunteer:
Voluntary Associations and the Reformation of Sociality
Abstract

Narratives of volunteerism and civil society that emerged in Greece in the beginning of the twenty-first century echoed the modernization and Europeanization visions of Greek society that were proliferating in that era. Public discourses as well as state and EU policies endorsed a model of sociality that included volunteerism and was associated with the production of the new European and Greek citizen. Forms of public sociality, such as voluntary associations, thus constituted laboratories that produced subjects. The reformation of sociality and the invention of volunteerism were embedded in various civilizing projects. At the same time, a certain “lack of volunteerism” was broadly attributed to a general understanding of Greek particularity. This article proposes an alternate perspective that considers new and older forms of public sociality in relation to their cultural formation, where the flourishing of solidarity initiatives in contemporary crisis-ridden Greece is not considered a paradox, but rather the expression of the reconfiguration of the social and its potent political content.

Volunteerism and the reformation of public sociality

In February 2015, the municipality of Elliniko-Arghyroupoli in Athens declared the creation of a Γραφείο Εθελοντισμού (Office of Volunteerism), the formation of a μητρώο (registry) of volunteers, and the establishment of a σώμα (body) of volunteers. The new mayor, supported in the recent elections by New Democracy and PASOK, decided to place the Office of Volunteerism in the same building that the previous Syriza-supported municipal authorities had allotted to a local κοινωνικό συνεταιρισμό (social cooperative). The mayor’s plans were met with negative reactions from συλλογικότητες (collectives) that have been active in the area since the beginning of austerity in Greece. Accusing him of exploiting local citizens’ selfless motives, these collectives [End Page 79] were juxtaposed with the proliferation of αλληλεγγύη (solidarity) initiatives, such as συλλογικές κουζίνες (collective kitchens), κοινωνικοί συνεταιρισμοί (social cooperatives), δίκτυα χωρίς μεσάζοντες (anti-middlemen networks), κοινωνικά στέκια (social haunts), κοινωνικά κέντρα (social centers), and κοι-νωνικά ιατρεία και φαρμακεία (social clinics and pharmacies), among others.

The division between official volunteerism endorsed by the mayor and solidarity materialized by these collectives echoes different ideologies of disinterestedness. On the one hand, the mayor’s project reflects the official construction of the volunteer as a Greek and European citizen, as well as the institutionalization and professionalization of voluntary work that has been taking place since the end of twentieth century. On the other hand, the formation of these collectives is grounded on alternative forms of public sociality that challenge the imposed institutionalization and emphasize open loci of relationality and mutual support. Informal forms of public sociality are grounded on alternative modes of relationality and on visions of laterality and egalitarianism. The division thus echoes the conflict between the neoliberal production of subjectivities and local understandings of sociality that are incompatible with it.

A decade before the emergence of the Greek crisis, Greece was a country under rapid change and optimism. The middle classes were proliferating amid a steady economic growth. Construction activity was growing both in the private sector and in public works. In 2000, the new Athens metro rail system was put into operation, and in 2001, the new international airport, Eleftherios Venizelos, was inaugurated as part of the construction of public works for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. In 2002, the drachma was withdrawn to be replaced by the euro. These are some of the material aspects of the transformed urban environment under the then dominant visions of modernization and Europeanization. Greek modernization was more than ever at the heart of the public debate both within the context of the European integration process and because of domestic conditions in the central political scene. For two consequent election cycles, the PASOK governments headed by the technocrat Costas Simitis (1996–2000, 2000–2004) embodied and were defined as “modernizers,” emphasizing the European direction and the convergence of the country with Europe. “As a vision and a process” (Borneman and Fowler 1997), Europeanization at the time fueled public discourses and policies from above. Greece openly declared—and at the same time claimed—its European, Western, and modernist orientation. However, this optimism about the progress of Greek society was shaded by traits considered deeply rooted in the Greek social and political system. In an evolutionary schema which echoed the structural and cultural disadvantages of Greek society towards advanced Western societies, these traits were often referred to as “Greek particularities” (Rozakou, Gara, and Giannitsiotis 2013) or “Greek exceptionalism” (Rakopoulos 2014). It is precisely in this historical and political context that “volunteerism” and [End Page 80] “civil society” became key symbols, encapsulating various civilizing visions of Greek society. Obviously, public sociality (Avdela, Exertzoglou, and Lyrintzis 2015) and volunteerism were not completely new phenomena, as a rich body of historical works on charity illustrates (Theodorou 1992; Korasidou 2000; Varika 2004). However, in the period under examination here, volunteerism acquired a systematic and generalized character, as well as a new political significance. Volunteerism—or, rather, its underdevelopment—became an “issue” and the “volunteer” a political subjectivity that symbolized Greek modernity. Voluntary associations—either already existing prior to this discovery of volunteerism or created at the time and partially supported by subsidies from the Greek state and the EU—and their promotion and normalization became the object of policies. Such forms of public sociality were laboratories where the moral production of the citizen took place. The institutionalization and professionalization of εθελοντισμός (volunteerism) entailed the crafting of the volunteer as the new European and Greek citizen. The volunteer emerged as the epitome of the modern citizen, a disinterested subject working voluntarily for the common good. Voluntary associations in Greece at the turn of the twenty-first century demarcated how participants should act as democratic (Greek and European) citizens in a civilizing process of relationality (see also Anderson 2008).1 These projects, nevertheless, were neither merely top-down initiatives nor fixed projects, but rather grassroots and works-in-progress. Their character was pedagogical as much as experimental (and I thus refer to them as laboratories) and acquired shifting meanings from the people who participated in them. The moral production of the citizen was polysemic and drew upon the historical and cultural context of relationality.

Based on fieldwork between 2002 and 2007, as well as ongoing research since 2012, I explore forms of public sociality based on the principle of disinterestedness and how they relate to the production of volunteerism. The crafting of the volunteer as a Greek and European citizen that climaxes in the beginning of the twenty-first century is differently received by volunteers in a large humanitarian organization (such as the Hellenic Red Cross [HRC]) and by participants in a small, local voluntary organization (such as the Voluntary Work Athens [VWA]). The first case reflects the harmonious coexistence of humanitarianism with the official production of volunteerism, whereas the second one constitutes a direct challenge to it. This subversion stems from the ways in which people relate to one another, the meaning of relationality and the broader cosmologies on which it is grounded. In the last part of the article, I suggest that the outburst of solidarity and the reconfiguration of the κοινω-νικό (what has been termed as the social) in crisis-ridden Greece can be traced in this latter cultural formation of sociality that challenges official versions of volunteerism. Collectives, citizens’ initiatives with a formal (institutional) or informal character, adopt the term κοινωνικό (social) in order to identify [End Page 81] themselves: “social haunts,” “social centers,” “social groceries,” “social health clinics,” “social kitchens,” and “social pharmacies.” The κοινωνικό (social) in Greece under the crisis embraces diverse activities and forms of public sociality and delineates spheres of disinterestedness, solidarity, and subversion to the state. It seems that the “social” has become an all-encompassing notion that conflicts with the disdained “political.” As many of these initiatives are spatially grounded in local γειτονιές (neighborhoods) (see also Arampatzi and Nicholls 2012), the “social” that is being evoked constitutes a sphere of social relationality that has a potent, localized element. It is interrelated to a variable landscape of anti-austerity socialities from below, where spontaneity (Dalakoglou 2012; Leontidou 2012) and informality (Rakopoulos 2015) prevail. Both notions are politically significant principles of sociality that—very similar to the landscape described in the VWA (Voluntary Work Athens)—contravene the professionalization and institutionalization of volunteerism.

Crafting the volunteer

At the turn of the twenty-first century, states in diverse places of the world established distinct legal frameworks that aimed to regularize volunteerism and voluntary associations (Hadzi-Miceva 2007; Ogawa 2009; Muehlebach 2012). These regulations reflect the growing official interest in volunteerism, its enhancement, and the moral connotations of its construction. Anthropologists researching the construction of volunteerism have related it to the neoliberalization of social care and the formation of a new “responsible citizen” in different contexts: from Chile (Paley 2001) to China (Fleischer 2011), Italy (Muehlebach 2012), Japan (Knight 1996; Ogawa 2009), and the USA (Hyatt 2001). Such studies draw upon Michel Foucault and bring to the fore—correctly, in my opinion—the formation of the volunteer as a new moral citizen, a responsible subject oriented toward the common good. Contrary to dominant approaches of neoliberalism as antithetical to the principle of morality, ethnographies speak of moral authoritarianism as being at the core of neoliberal reform. Zones that stand outside of the logic of market exchange and individual self-interest and areas of social interaction which are grounded on disinterestedness and giving are not only compatible, but in fact essential in the formation of this neoliberal subject (Muehlebach 2012). Other studies even refer to a new “volunteer subjectivity,” which establishes a novel relationship between the state and the citizen (Ogawa 2009).

The construction of the volunteer includes processes of subjectification that rest on technologies through which populations are governed by institutions and multiple agents, nexuses of knowledge and science, and self-regulatory practices of discipline and care of the self (Foucault 1991). The [End Page 82] subject produced in advanced liberal democracies is a self-governed, self-regulating subject, governed through freedom rather than force (Rose 1996). Technologies of self-government, discourses of empowerment, and the interweaving of market and private interests with the state fall into these new techniques of governmentality (Foucault 1991; Dean 1999) deployed by the state, NGOs (Barry, Osborne, and Rose 1996; Burchell, Gordon, and Miller 1991; Ferguson and Gupta 2002), individuals (Rose 1996), and even private companies, such as in colonial rule (Ferguson and Gupta 2002). In many cases, the dissemination of power does not amount to a decrease of state sovereignty, but rather to the emergence of indirect and informal practices of governance on supranational and local levels. The state itself distributes social welfare tasks to non-state actors, often keeping the role of the coordinator of such functions. This apparent “degovernmentalization” of the state (Barry, Osborne, and Rose 1996, 11) signifies an even increasing “governmentalization” of society (Sharma 2006, 22) in terms of the diffusion of governance in everyday life. Self-regulatory technologies of government are directed at the middle classes, who, especially in the case of welfare volunteerism, are asked to become both active, self-regulating citizens and agents of governance toward diverse categories of populations. Volunteers become involved in altruistic practices in the name of democracy and citizenship (Paley 2001, 4).

Processes of governing are embedded with different and often conflicting meanings and political projects (Kipnis 2008). In order to illuminate this obscure landscape of the “interpretive, institutional and relational makings of the present” (Greenhouse 2010, 2), an insight into the micro-level of everyday life and into the participants’ point of view is necessary. A study of the participants’ interpretations shows their agency, and they are therefore reconstituted as more than the objects of processes of subjectification; they are creative constitutors of meanings. It is through these interpretive trajectories that change, subversion, and resistance emerge. In addition, volunteerism as a disinterested activity of citizens-subjects draws upon existing cultural materials and values and does not emerge in a vacuum or merely as the result of top-down policies (Muehlebach 2012). As I have argued elsewhere, contemporary forms of public sociality, such as voluntary associations, are grounded on culturally informed ways of relationality (Rozakou 2008). They may thus conform to or challenge the increasing regularization of volunteerism and the ways in which constructs of citizenships relate to it. Similarly, Andrea Muehlebach highlights the creative compatibility of Catholicism, the Left, and the neoliberal project of volunteerism in Italy during the same historical period (2012). In the cases that I study here, I explore such compatibilities, as well as the conflicts between neoliberal projects of volunteerism and the cultural formation of sociality in Greece. [End Page 83]

“Greek people do not volunteer [though they should]”

Greek policies on volunteerism follow the aforementioned pattern but are fragmentary and often remain incomplete. The production of volunteerism is embedded in the setting of social, economic, and political transformations that took place at the end of the twentieth century in the country. According to the dominant view, “Greek people do not volunteer,” and volunteerism is not “as developed as in the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian societies” (Sklias and Chouliaras 2002, 18), just as “Greek civil society is poorly developed” (Mouzelis 1995) and “weak” (Mavrogordatos 1988). Instead of asking if civil society and volunteerism exist, I here attempt to deconstruct the relevant narratives. Hence, “civil society” becomes an object of inquiry: in tracing the “idea of civil society” (Hann and Dunn 1996; Comaroff and Comaroff 1999) that emerges particularly since the 1990s and the construction of volunteerism, I explore different visions of Greek society and creative technologies of crafting subjectivities and citizenships (Rozakou 2008). Civil society as a “civilizing mission” (Hearn 2001, 352) has become a key metaphor of modernization and Europeanization and has been introduced to often conflicting ideological projects. Thus, volunteerism in Greece may seem nonexistent and civil society “weak” (Mavrogordatos 1988; Mouzelis 1995), yet at the end of the twentieth century, this lack and underdevelopment became a problem that policies, surveys, and public discourses addressed and sought to resolve.

The “Panhellenic Volunteerism Expo” was initiated on the occasion of the United Nations’ proclamation of 2001 as the “International Year of Volunteers” and has been carried out annually since then (retitled in 2005 as “Volunteerism Feast”). In dozens of pavilions, various organizations are hosted: religious and environmental organizations, associations for the rights of children or animals, associations for people with disabilities, disorders, and illnesses, organ and blood donors clubs, associations in support of prisoners, people with disabilities or addictions and dependencies, as well as municipal services, ministries, and governmental agencies. Apart from the expo celebrating and promoting volunteerism, the 5th of December, “Global Volunteer Day” (for Economic and Social Development), is also celebrated in public events. “Global Volunteer Day,” which was designated in 1985 by the UN, was much later officially established as “Volunteer Day” in Greece according to law 2646/98. Both occasions are settings where the official construction of volunteerism takes place. The expo, sponsored by ministry departments (the National Youth Institute of the Ministry of Education, the Department for International Development Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the General Secretariat of Youth, among others) and the municipality of Athens, reflects the growing institutionalization of volunteerism in the last few decades. Besides its institutionalization, volunteerism is defined by its growing professionalization and [End Page 84] its production in terms of service. Pedagogical procedures, specialists and scholars attempting to evaluate its growth, state and EU policies, subsidiary flaws, legal and bureaucratic frameworks, and so on form a complex web of interrelated processes and agents. The methods and principles of volunteerism are systematized and depicted in volunteer training seminars run by voluntary associations and state agents, such as the General Secretariat for Youth and the General Secretariat for Civil Protection. Volunteerism is governed by rules and conventions embedded in clerical jobs; it entails the supervision of experts; it includes educational processes and degrees of specialization. Instead of the transformation of voluntary activities to professional categories and specialized professions in social care that takes place in postwar Greece,2 volunteerism in the last few decades has been marked by the professionalization of unpaid and disinterested work. This is a form of labor that neither follows the principles of a commodity economy, nor can it be measured in terms of economic gain.

Since the mid-1990s, the concepts of κοινωνία πολιτών (civil society) and εθελοντισμός (volunteerism) have appeared often in public discussions and theoretical analyses in Greece. They travel from parliamentary seats and legislative texts to newspaper columns, agendas of political parties, scientific conferences, and academic debates. These discourses do not exist in a vacuum; they interact and inform one another. Intellectual works are incorporated on the level of governmental decisions, empirical studies on volunteerism are funded by the EU, and state and EU policies are interwoven, as the agendas of rival political parties frequently employ the same vocabulary but with different political content. The establishment of voluntary associations, training seminars for volunteers, ministry departments and organizations, state and EU subsidies and “a world of projects” (Sampson 1996), along with a vast and heterogeneous body of ειδικούς (experts) and social scientists, forms multilevel processes implicated in the production of the εθελοντής (volunteer) as a self-governed subject and active πολίτης (citizen). The volunteer becomes a model of participation and behavior engaged in practices of disinterestedness. Notions of citizenship, democracy, modernization, and Europeanization are embedded in this flourishing, vague, and often conflicting landscape.

The turn of the century was an 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. Volunteerism, in particular, 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 [End Page 85] the mobility of “young volunteers” (18–30 years old) among EU state members. Young people enlisted in the project moved to other European countries and were financially supported with EU funds in order to offer voluntary work in a local organization. In addition, 2011 was declared the “European year of voluntary activities promoting active citizenship” (emphasis mine). On the EU level, volunteering is discursively produced as an essential element that fosters “social solidarity” and “democracy,” embodying EU and state citizenship; it is “an active expression of civic participation which strengthens common European values such as solidarity and social cohesion” because “[v]oluntary 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 2010, 17). In the context of EU expansion, particular emphasis was given to nations that become eligible for EU membership and the enhancement of local civil societies.

Literature on civil society in Greece grew extensively during this period (Makrydimitris 2002; Mouzelis 2002; Sklias and Chouliaras 2002; Sotiropoulos 2004), and the discussion extended to newspaper articles, campaigns, workshops, and other public events. The discussion even spawned a new journal devoted exclusively to the public promotion and debate on μεταρρυθμίσεις (reforms).3 Numerous attempts were made to evaluate the attitudes of the public toward volunteerism (Panayiotopoulou 2003) and participation in voluntary associations (Stasinopoulou 1997; Panayiotidou 1999; Polyzoidis 2006). The Athens Olympic Games in 2004 was also a crucial event in the history of development of volunteerism, as it boosted discourses on volunteerism through campaigns and public events. There are two problems with such studies, however. The first one is methodological, as the studies engage in an uncritical equation of voluntary with nongovernmental organizations, focus on official and institutional discourses and aspects, and fail to explore the participants’ point of view. The second problem is that the vast majority of these studies adopt normative definitions and consider the phenomena under study as values. This is not the first time that political and social sciences have adopted normative assumptions and definitions of social phenomena, nor the first time that they have been involved in political projects (Lyrintzis and Papataxiarchis 2013).

The state itself has been one of the major “importers of modernization” in Greece (Voulgaris 2006, 29), as a number of policies regarding civil society and volunteerism demonstrate. This remark applies particularly to Kostas Simitis’ social-democratic government, commonly described as εκσυγχρονι-στές (modernizers), which also had a distinctive orientation toward Western European civil society. The Simitis government signals a transition from the “populist” to the “modernization” period of PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), although “‘modernization’ remained an abstract and ill-defined [End Page 86] scheme” (Lyrintzis 2005, 251). In particular, the Simitis government came to embody the “modernization” vision as part of a Greek version of the “third way” political vision.4 Moreover, it promoted volunteerism and a reinforced civil society through legislative frameworks and the establishment of relevant institutions.5 Such measures and a number of related structural and official initiatives aimed at coordinating and financing the activities of non-state actors; in fact, they echoed the neoliberal diffusion of state activities to nonstate agents and the emergence of indirect modes of governance. As one of the employees of a ministry committee explained to me during the first years of its function, the principal objective of such formations is the πιστοποίηση (certification) and the formation of μητρώα (registries) of non-state organizations. Both terms constitute mechanisms of power in the context of the EU. On the basis of these registers, EU and state subsidies would be distributed to voluntary associations that would subsequently be accountable to the Greek state and the European Union.

However, several scandals were revealed by the press regarding the subsidies that NGOs have received from Greek ministries. In 2012, the Samaras government released detailed information concerning the distribution of thousands of euros and the funding of dubious organizations, further amplifying the public distrust of such formations (Ravanos 2012).

Hellenic Red Cross

In his short speech, which seems to be the product of instantaneous improvisation, the president of the Hellenic Red Cross, Andreas Martinis, welcomes honorable guests—representatives of the state and the church—to the annual Βασσι-λόπιτα (New Year’s-cake) cutting ritual in 2004. He then greets the members of the board of directives, employers, and volunteers. He addresses the latter as “my dear girlfriends,” even though male volunteers are also present. The president refers to the history and power of the organization and outlines its activities in the past year and key instances where it assisted the state in handling a sudden environmental or humanitarian disaster. He becomes emotional, and his voice trembles as he states that, despite shortcomings and the “war” that he and the HRC personally face,6 he will continue to work unselfishly for the organization and the “ideal of the Red Cross spirit.” The volunteers move their chairs in order to have better view of him and applaud when his speech is over.7

The president had already been head of the Hellenic Red Cross (HRC) for two decades. A doctor himself, at the time of the event he was also the powerful director of the new hospital, Henri Dunant, inaugurated in 2002. Following the historical pattern of national Red Cross societies established at the time, the HRC was founded in 1877 upon the initiative of Queen Olga as an association aiming to provide medical services to war victims (Royal Decree, 27 June 1877, FEK 44, 197). [End Page 87] The HRC later expanded its activities to both times of war and peace. According to the fundamental principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Red Cross worldwide aims to “alleviate human suffering” (Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement 1986, 3–4). At the time of my fieldwork in the beginning of the 2000s, the HRC was the largest nongovernmental organization in the country, with more than 600 paid employees and 5,000 volunteers. The association was funded regularly by the Greek state,8 along with subsidies from the EU. Moreover, its income also included a vast—almost mythical and certainly undefined—estate property of endowments and the annual Έρανος (collection), in which volunteers asked the public for financial support.

The HRC has traditionally been a close collaborator of the Greek state, supporting it in instances of national need and allotting its volunteers in public events (such as the Olympic Games in Athens 2004). The close, though not always unproblematic, relationship between the organization and the Greek state9 is not a Greek particularity but a feature of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies globally. Despite the fundamental principles of neutrality and independence, the Red Cross has always had close bonds with governments (Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2003, 155), as is often the case with NGOs (Fisher 1997).10 In the last few years, the question of whether Red Cross societies are governmental, semigovernmental, or nongovernmental entities seems inconvenient and hard to answer, as Gwendolyn C. Shealy notes for the American Red Cross (2003, 1). The significance of the question and the need to differentiate between “governmental” and “nongovernmental” agencies reflects two major transformations in the character of these forms of public sociality. On the one hand, it speaks volumes of the broader governmentalization of society that I already mentioned above, and on the other hand, it underlines the need to differentiate these realms of public sociality and activity from the state.

The cake cutting ritual depicts key features of a bureaucratized, stratified, and gendered sociality. The distinction between members, volunteers, paid employees, and board members reflects the parameters of a hierarchical sociality divided into complex administrative bodies and levels of participation. Sociality was informed by this bureaucratic framework and produced through established rituals and meetings which enhance the volunteers’ sense of belonging in a reified entity. A new volunteer was initiated to the organization through a complex set of stages and rites of passage with high symbolic importance. Through pedagogical practices, she was initiated and became accustomed to the regulations and the principles of voluntary work and participation in the organization. Traditionally, the HRC has been a setting of public sociality for κυρίες (ladies), that is, middle and upper class, middle-aged women, who delved into practices of disinterestedness out of reified gendered properties, such as αγάπη (love) for their fellow human and their country. In [End Page 88] the beginning of the twenty-first century, more women from the lower-middle classes joined the organization as volunteers, mostly middle-aged housewives or older women who had retired from their clerical jobs. The HRC volunteers’ activities expanded to home visits to elderly and sick people, visits to hospitals, orphanages, and asylum seeker reception centers, among other activities.

I am sitting with Christina at the table in her home garden in the countryside, forty kilometers from Athens. The recorder sits among plates and glasses from the lunch that we just shared. She is a vegetarian, so our meal includes mostly vegetables. Around us and under the table several dogs and a cat are demanding our attention. Christina is about forty years old and a volunteer at the Social Welfare Division of the HRC. She retired from her job a few years ago because of a serious illness, and she lives alone with her own animals and the sick stray dogs that she looks after.

“I always had an idealistic picture of the Red Cross. One of my favorite books is a very old edition of A Memory of Solferino. … As a young girl, I used to read this shabby little book several times and cry. My mother used to own it. I don’t even know why and how this little book ended up in our home. … I was crying when I read these awful scenes … dead people, amputees, blood, they were transferring them with carts.

Christina’s narration of her reaction upon reading Henri Dunant’s narrative echoes the powerful, emotional effect of humanitarian aid workers’ accounts. (On the act of reading such accounts and the labor that such reading performs, see Slaughter 2011). Moreover, it resonates with the humanitarian production of volunteerism as support for the suffering human. Dunant’s description of the Battle of Solferino (Dunant [1862] 1986) is full of scenes that depict the brutality of war and concludes with the agonizing plea for the formation of organizations that would specifically address care to injured soldiers.11 More than a century after the establishment of the Red Cross and the materialization of Dunant’s vision, women like Christina, who read his memoir as young girls, still became volunteers in the organization. Dunant’s vivid descriptions produced affective reactions to the readers, who felt “the pain of the other” (Sontag 2003); these women felt the need to alleviate the pain of their suffering συνανθρώπους (fellow humans) (see also Malkki 2015). The “Red Cross spirit” was found in various heroic (and historic) female figures: in nurses who stood by national armies and hospitals; in women who altruistically offered their services to soldiers and their country; in volunteers who—like soldiers—faced a heroic death in the battlefield as the result of hardship and overwork. Current HRC volunteers still refer to these women and attend rituals in the imposing halls of the organization, surrounded by the portraits of such mythical figures.

Humanitarianism in the setting of the Red Cross was an apolitical version of altruistic assistance to the πάσχων συνάνθρωπο (suffering fellow human). [End Page 89] The religious background of the organization, reflected in its emblem (Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan 2003), was also traced in a religious understanding of the human as a category grounded on a universal principle of common humanity beyond religion, as well as national, ethnic, or other features. The establishment of the Red Cross in 1863 inaugurated the emergence of “modern humanitarianism” and a historically specific understanding of the “human” and “humanity” as a “set of individuals and of individuals as equivalent to each other, each deserving of moral recognition” (Calhoun 2010, 34; emphasis mine). Contemporary humanitarianism is closely linked to war, and Henri Dunant’s vision itself is primarily aimed at protecting injured soldiers and humanizing or “civiliz[ing] warfare” (Redfield and Bornstein 2011, 14).

HRC volunteerism is historically characterized by its well-trained volunteers. Thus, the professionalization of the activity, along with its production in terms of υπηρεσία (service), was not something novel. In that sense, it fits well in the institutionalization and professionalization of volunteerism that was promoted at the turn of the century. Educational processes such as volunteer training seminars, conferences, and supervision of voluntary work contribute to the production of the HRC volunteer and the ethical making of the modern citizen. Women who participated in the HRC at the time of my fieldwork identified themselves as εθελόντριες (volunteers), and at HRC events and rituals, they proudly wore the uniform of the division in which they served.12 HRC “humanitarian volunteerism” is intimately related to a feeling of national duty. The Ερυθροσταυρίτισσα (Red Cross Volunteer) embodies the ethical production of a woman who is crafted through θυσία (sacrifice) and προσφορά (offer) to her country. In early twenty-first century, the HRC and the model of public sociality connected to national duty and gendered attributes were compatible with the official construction of volunteerism as an altruistic offer.

Currently, HRC faces one of the hardest times in its long history in Greece. The organization is practically bankrupt, and its employees have not been paid for several months; Henri Dunant hospital has been taken over by a private health services company; the HRC’s former powerful president has been arrested twice between 2013 and 2015 and has been blamed for the organization’s debts to the Social Security Foundation (IKA). Since 2012, the HRC has not carried out its annual Έρανος (collection) because of the negative public image brought on by the media coverage given to its financial scandals and the instability of the organization. Since 2013, court orders have appointed consecutive boards of directors to HRC, but none has stayed in power for more than a few months. Despite these conditions, some volunteers continue to do voluntary work in their usual settings and represent the HRC in public events and the established biannual military parades. However, they feel deeply disturbed by the devaluation of the organization, and some of them even feel exploited by the corrupt heads of the hierarchy. [End Page 90]

Voluntary Work Athens

Takis Rigatos is a man in his forties; grey-haired and restless, he is constantly on the go. During our first meeting in 2002, he is wearing an old, worn out t-shirt from a concert that Voluntary Work Athens (VWA) held several years ago. He always carries a torn, thick address book, where he keeps all his meetings and contacts. Although he does not have a cell phone, he seems to be on the phone constantly, asking the owner of the offices for an extension in rent payment, planning some kind of meeting, or organizing an event. All these arrangements are based on personal contacts, and you may hear him talk with his interlocutors in a friendly and informal tone.

In the mid-1990s, Takis was part of a group of people who visited Kurdish refugees from Iraq who were temporarily settled on the outskirts of Athens. Sporadically, Takis’s group offered blankets and food, but primarily they tried to develop some kind of relations with the refugees. This initial group later took the official form of a Mη Kερδοσκοπικό Σωματείο (nonprofit association, as is the legal term). VWA was founded by a group of φίλοι (friends), γνωστοί (acquaintances), and σύντροφοι (comrades). Several years after its establishment, most of the initial members had left VWA or were inactive in it. A few of them had founded new NGOs, and others worked professionally in relevant fields of social welfare and policy. New people had arrived, mainly volunteers in their forties and younger people from the middle classes: teachers in elementary and secondary schools, owners of small family businesses, self-employed professionals, and many university students in social science departments. The activities of VWA included Greek language lessons to immigrants, visits to psychiatric hospitals, the operation of a refugee shelter, and visits to refugees’ squats in the center of Athens (Rozakou 2012).

Although VWA cannot be depicted as a left-wing group in strictly political terms, most of the people who participated in it shared a similar political background that constantly re-emerged in their narratives and defined the ways in which they conceptualized their participation in and practices with the group. In fact, the association of VWA with Takis Rigatos was considered as some kind of guarantee for the ideology of the group and the methods adopted. Not only was he one of the founders of the group, but he was also a regular member of the board of directors. Although he no longer participated actively in any of the voluntary groups, he often took part in their meetings. Everybody knew him, and he practically knew all the volunteers. Takis Rigatos was the ψυχή (soul) or the ζωντανή ιστορία (living history) of VWA, as volunteers repeatedly said to each other and to me; both expressions highlight the personified character of this form of an association. He made his living as ειδικός (expert) in matters related to volunteerism. He had been in charge of a group of volunteers for other [End Page 91] NGOs and was an official trainer for new volunteers on behalf of state and non-state entities.

However, to argue that Takis was merely making a profit out of the institutionalization and professionalization that he had come to embody and support would be inaccurate and simplistic. Takis frequently took care of the economic burden of VWA himself. Not only did he pay (from personal funds) for the operating costs, such as office rents and electricity bills, but he covered almost all other expenses that came up. Moreover, he did not lead a lavish life, and his income was limited. He was considered by the volunteers and people who met him as an idealist, even though, occasionally, they might oppose his vision. For the volunteers, he was the embodiment of the long-lasting tradition and values of the Left. Takis was a representative case of the emergence of brokers of the civil society project in Greece—a body of experts and at the same time idealists who emerged from the transformation of social movements into NGOs. They took on the part of the agents involved in the crafting of new subjectivities and visions of society. They were products and producers of processes of Europeanization and citizenship. But, most importantly, they interpretively intervened and conceptually redefined such processes, often introducing a subversive element to conventional discourses.

The case of VWA is exemplary of the transformation of political action and participation in political parties and informal groups to voluntary organizations that took place at the turn of the century in Greece. Furthermore, it reflects a series of interventions and policies from the EU and the Greek state that have been implemented particularly since the 1990s. In the first years of its function, VWA received subsidies from the EU, a fact that led to the recruitment of several young and mostly inexperienced professionals—social scientists, psychologists, and schoolteachers—who were placed at the head of the voluntary groups. Such financial flow led to the institutionalization of the practices of this informally organized group of people and its transformation from a group to an association. VWA thus expanded its field of activities and became eligible for more subsidies from the EU. However, in the years that followed, subsidies from the state, the EU, and private corporations became a matter of constant internal debate and conflict. Most volunteers were very skeptical and overtly opposed to any kind of external funding. Gradually, VWA turned into a purely voluntary formation since the termination of EU projects in which the group participated signified the end of the contracts for all paid staff.

Several months before the Olympic Games of 2004 in Athens and as volunteerism campaigns amplified, a countermovement to Olympic volunteerism emerged: δεθελοντισμός (involunteerism). Extra-parliamentary leftist and anti-authoritarian groups, activists, as well as volunteers and NGO members situated themselves against Olympic volunteerism through slogans like the [End Page 92] one that decorated VWA’s notice board: “Γίνε εθελοντής για των αφεντι-κών τα δις” (Become a volunteer [and serve] the bosses’ billions). Apart from denouncing voluntary work in a setting of a commercialized and competitive spectacle, such as the Olympic Games, these critiques were addressed against the national attribute given to volunteerism. Furthermore, volunteerism for VWA participants entailed a potent political content and constantly challenged state policies.

According to the association’s memorandum and articles, official leaflets, and public announcements, VWA sought to constitute a setting for the formation and enactment of νέος (new), μαχόμενος (militant), or κοινωνικός (social) εθελοντισμός (volunteerism). This “new volunteerism” drew upon concepts traced in the ideologies of the Left, the notion of αλληλεγγύη (solidarity), and active participation in governance. It emerged after the symbolic and material collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and signified the transition from traditional participation to political parties and groups to new forms of political action toward the state. “New volunteerism” was juxtaposed to traditional charity, a notion that alluded to forms of sociality and modes of action considered as obsolete and bearing class connotations. Moreover, this “new volunteerism” is organized in the setting of an institutionalized sociality, governed by rules and conventions, subjected to a set of hierarchical relations and the supervision of various experts, and it includes training procedures and levels of specialization. Volunteerism is taught. The μέθοδοι (methods) and αρχές (principles) of voluntary work are depicted in training seminars and organizing meetings. Volunteerism is defined in terms of υπηρεσία (service), and the recipient is subsequently depicted as εξυπηρετούμενος (served).13 Social relationships with the recipients of volunteerism are mediated through specific norms that regulate human interaction. These terms constitute part of the vocabulary of “new volunteerism” and are transferred as part of expertise in training seminars, conferences, as well as in the interior of the organizations. Moreover, they derive from international processes and the transmission of knowledge. “New volunteerism” and its conceptual constitution indicate the diffusion of EU policies and policy language to non-state actors. It encloses the ideologies of Europeanization and relevant civil society discourses. As a political struggle against social exclusion it is a form of civic participation that aims to improve and change society. Finally, it is an act of solidarity toward psychiatric patients, immigrants, refugees, minority groups, and other populations that are placed at the περιθώριο (margins) of the Greek state.

Strangely enough (especially if one considers the name of the organization), participants in VWA rarely adopted the term εθελοντές (volunteers) to identify themselves.

During a training workshop, Takis asks the gathered group to express their expectations from the seminar. Maria, a 35-year-old woman who has been [End Page 93] participating in VWA for three years, stands up and writes on the blackboard: “to become a good and humble volunteer.” All participants laugh. Maria is far from the image of a disciplined person, and she does not view her participation in the same way as volunteers in other contexts do (such as the HRC, whose image of the Ερυθροσταυρίτισσα depicted above projects these two features of goodness and humility in their ideal form). Her sarcastic comment was a direct challenge to institutionalized and professional voluntary work. Maria did not perceive her participation in VWA in terms of υπηρεσία (service), but rather as a form of resistance against the state and an overt challenge to immigration and asylum state policies. In fact, Maria did not even accept the classification “volunteer.” By reacting against their portrayal as such, VWA participants directly criticize the prospect of (what they define as) the νεοφιλελευθερισμό (neoliberalism) of volunteerism, of the normalization of public sociality and disinterestedness. Maria’s comment is indicative of the internal dynamics among the volunteers (who, as mentioned above, rejected this label), as well as a confrontation between the people who participated, the members of the board of directors, and Takis himself, who embraced a professionalized version of volunteerism. Before solidarity became an all-encompassing notion in Greece under the current crisis (Rakopoulos 2014), this group had already embraced an experimental sociality with refugees (and other populations) and had engaged in alternative ways not only of offering support to them but, primarily, of instituting egalitarian and lateral relationships. The group was not only at the margins of the more formalized NGO model of civil society, but rather was a pioneer of what was to come with the expansion of solidarity in Greece several years later.

Despite the fact that VWA’s fluidity and informal character gave one a sense of instability and the eminent termination of its activities, the association is still active, though with limited activities and no bureaus. Since most members did not fulfill their financial obligations, VWA was forced to abandon its offices as its finances dwindled. A few VWA members continue to take part in the organization’s activities, and volunteers still run a self-managed shelter for male asylum seekers, whereas other volunteers have taken up new initiatives that flourish in contemporary Greece, such as forms of alternative financial undertakings (for example, a cooperative restaurant), associations for LGBT or pedestrian rights, reclaiming public spaces, and even conventional political attempts, such as standing as candidates in municipal and regional elections. What VWA reflects is not the resilience of the “association” but of a field of public sociality which is in flux, constantly under transformation, and hard to depict in institutionalized terms. It is an exemplary case of an open arena of relationality grounded on the principles of disinterestedness, spontaneity, and anti-hierarchy. Contrary to volunteerism as “service,” entailing duties and [End Page 94] hierarchies embedded in a work ethic (such as the humanitarian volunteerism of the HRC) or promoted in the construction of volunteerism in the 2000s, VWA participants proclaim unmediated relationships driven by spontaneity as a politically significant principle of sociality. Organizations such as VWA and other informal groups and initiatives are active nowadays more than ever. Settings of open and fluid public sociality have emerged all over the country, bringing to the fore the key political significance of the social in crisis-ridden Greece.

Reconfigurations of public sociality in crisis-ridden Greece

In the previous two sections, I referred mostly to an era of economic growth, a prosperous period for the middle classes, an era of neoliberalization reforms in public administration, education, health, and social welfare, as well as a period when modernization and Europeanization were keywords in the central political arena. Volunteerism was then an ideal of civil participation and disinterestedness that required promotion and enlargement. As a core element of civil society, it stood metonymically as a civilizing mission aimed at Greek society. Voluntary associations were laboratories for the production of the new European citizen, a subject driven by disinterestedness, one who worked for the common good.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we face a much different social and political landscape. The Greek crisis caused the rapid impoverishment and violent decline of the middle classes. The central political scene is undergoing rapid changes, and traditionally strong political parties have lost their legitimacy. The top-down civilizing project of volunteerism has collapsed with the demise of the middle classes. The volunteerism project nowadays seems outdated and belonging to a different era. So too do the modernization and Europeanization visions of Greek society. From a keyword in central political and public discourses, modernization has become an obsolete concept with an indigenous meaning that is related to the culpable political system before the crisis. Europeanization also sounds like a bad joke in a setting where the reinvention of “Europe” is grounded on a novel (yet not so new) marginalization of its peripheries (Herzfeld 1987). In a country that is considered traditionally pro-European, Euroscepticism has lately expanded to a broader span of societal groups (Clements, Nanou and Verney 2014). Volunteerism from above never captured the popular attention in Greece, and institutionalized volunteerism remained poor. And yet, although the volunteerism project as depicted in this article seems outdated in crisis-ridden Greece, there is considerable increase in solidarity initiatives. What prevails in contemporary Greece is the alternative model of volunteerism that VWA represented: a field of fluid and open sociality that contravenes the professionalization of volunteerism. [End Page 95]

The construction of volunteerism that has taken place since the 1990s can be related to official attempts to regulate public sociality. However, these projects largely remained incomplete and had limited popularity (even to some volunteers themselves). Scholars have held tight to their interpretations based on certain “Greek particularities” that posed barriers to people’s participation. Nevertheless, the Greek crisis severely challenged these assumptions, since it has fueled diverse and multifaceted citizens’ initiatives, such as the “antimiddleman movement” (Rakopoulos 2014) and social health clinics (Cabot 2015), which have been so extensive that they have even been depicted as indicating the “expansion of social solidarity” (Sotiropoulos and Bourikos 2014), or even the emergence of a “new civil society” (Kavoulakos and Gritzas 2015).

When VWA participants denounced the label “volunteer” and described their activities in solidarity terms, αλληλέγγυος (solidarian) as a noun was still in limited use. I believe that most of them would feel comfortable in this alternative depiction that goes beyond the institutionalization and professionalization of volunteerism. The radicalization of solidarity in crisis-ridden Greece has led to the diffusion of the “solidarian” from anarchist groups to broader and more variable forms of sociality and areas of activities (Rozakou, forthcoming). Moreover, it is compatible with the vision of society and the political production of sociality that VWA participants embraced.

A set of open questions emerges. How is sociality reformed anew in the contemporary historical circumstances and how does it acquire new political meanings? Which are the historically informed ways of relatedness and cultural repertoires upon which these new forms of public sociality draw? And how do they actually transform them?

Katerina Rozakou
Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of Crete and University of Amsterdam
Katerina Rozakou

Katerina Rozakou is an anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. She has published articles on volunteerism, civil society, humanitarian aid, refugees, and immigrants. She has co-edited with Eleni Gara the collective volume Ελληνικά παράδοξα: Πατρωνία, κοινωνία πολιτών και βία [Greek paradoxes: Patronage, civil society, and violence] (Alexandreia, 2013) and is currently preparing an ethnographic monograph, entitled Socialities of Love and Solidarity: Voluntary Work with Refugees in Early Twenty-first-century Greece.

Acknowledgements

Research for this article was conducted as part of the project “Forms of Public Sociality in Twentieth-Century Urban Greece: Associations, Networks of Social Intervention and Collective Subjectivities” (Coordinator: Efi Avdela, University of Crete) under “Thalis: 10.74.11.03. Reinforcement of Interdisciplinary and Interinstitutional Research and Innovation” for priority axe 10, NSRF. I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies for their careful reading and useful comments concerning this article and Neni Panourgiá for her detailed remarks and editing.

NOTES

1. I here draw upon Sally Anderson’s work (2008) on voluntary sports clubs for children in Denmark that, according to her, delineate a sphere of “civil sociality.” Anderson explores the [End Page 96] construction of volunteerism as part of a civilizing process (in Norbert Elias’ terms [Elias 1978]) and a “foundational schema of Danish democracy” (Anderson 2008, 202).

2. As Efi Avdela demonstrates (2013), the Associations for the Protection of Minors in postwar Greece gradually transformed from voluntary associations to a profession.

3. The journal Κοινωνία Πολιτών (Civil Society) is published by the NGO Παρέμβαση (founded by Nicos Mouzelis and other Greek academics, journalists, and public figures), which aims to promote the development of civil society in Greece.

4. In Greece, the “modernizers” were inspired by Anthony Giddens’s “third way politics” (Giddens 1998), which proposed the renewal of social democracy as a way between traditional socialism and neoliberalism. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Nicos Mouzelis was one of the public intellectuals who endorsed the third way and modernization visions. But Mouzelis also criticized it and initiated his own “alternative third way” that retains established divisions, such as those between the Left and the Right (Mouzelis 2001). Mouzelis particularly stresses the importance of a reinforced civil society as part of the third way vision (2001, 98–99).

5. Diverse ministries established departments on volunteerism: for example, in the Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity (Article 5, Law 2646/98), the “General Directorate for International Development Cooperation—Hellenic Aid” of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Article 18, Paragraph 1, Law 2731/1999), and in the (then) Ministry of Interior (Law 3013/2002), the “System of Volunteerism for Civil Protection” of the General Secretariat of Civil Protection. Ministry departments organized training seminars for volunteers in the fields of welfare services, natural disasters, and environmental issues. As part of the same civil society endorsement, the “Citizen in deed” of the Ministry of Culture was founded by the Karamanlis government as an “independent state organization” (Law 3390/2005).

6. During the first period of my fieldwork, the organization’s board of directors was under trial, accused of using HRC property in order to create a new foundation, the Henri Dunant hospital.

7. All blocked segments that appear in italics are based on field-notes and are thus written in the ethnographic present tense. All names used, apart from the president of the Hellenic Red Cross (who is well known), are pseudonyms in order to protect the anonymity of my interlocutors.

8. Since the 1980s, the HRC has allotted two hospitals to National Health System (Koryialeneio-Benakeio and Asklepeiio Voulas); in return, the HRC is directly financed from the state budget for the total amount of 12 million euros (Law 3627/2007, Article 3).

9. Greek governments in the past have intervened with the governance of the HRC, attempting to put the organization under their control. In a two-volume self-portrait of the organization, Xenophon Pantazidis refers to the appointment of a governmental commissioner by Ioannis Metaxas in 1939 and the corresponding reactions (Pantazidis 1987, 222). More recently, in 2013, the Greek government appointed a commissioner to the organization and interfered with its administration, following the demand of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), which threatened to remove the Greek society from its body on account of the HRC’s mismanagement and its failure to meet its financial obligations to the ICRC. On a brief and fragmented reference to the relation between the HRC and the central state, see Divani 2014, 421–451, where the author admits her account is limited because access to Red Cross archives is restricted. On the political role that the HRC played especially during the Civil War in the παιδουπόλεις of Queen Frederica, see Hassiotis 2013, whereas on the HRC’s presence on exile islands and even testimonies of its participation in torture, see Panourgiá 2009, 146.

10. The principle of neutrality that is so prominent in the Red Cross has been severely criticized, especially with regard to the organization’s refusal to take a stance against the Holocaust (Hutchinson 1996); in the 1970s, this neutrality even led to a rupture within the organization that resulted in the emergence of Médecins Sans Frontières (Redfield 2013). [End Page 97]

11. On 24 June 1859, the biggest and most brutal battle in the Second Italian War of Independence took place between the Austrian and the French-Sardinian army near the village of Solferino. Henri Dunant, a Swiss entrepreneur who was traveling in the area, witnessed the terrible events on the battlefield and together with other travelers and locals assisted the wounded soldiers.

12. Voluntary work in the HRC is organized in three σώματα (divisions): Nursing, Samaritans, and Social Welfare.

13. Alexandra Bakalaki (2008) makes similar observations about a voluntary association that supports the poor in Thessaloniki during the same period.

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