Food autonomy at a time of capitalist crisis
: a participatory video inquiry into Thessaloniki's autonomous food initiatives

  • Christabel Buchanan

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This study explores the decentralized struggle for food autonomy at a time of capitalist crisis. The analytical lens of Food Autonomy places a particular focus on the significance of (and tension between) individual and collective emancipation from hegemonic forces of the capitalist state, analysed in respect of self-governance and economic democracy. Autonomous Food Initiatives are self-governed experiments instigated by hardship and a desire to break dependency on systems of state or market power (middlemen dominance, capitalist market antagonism, bureaucracy, repression). This activist research was conducted by a 9-person community-academic researcher team using participatory video. It endorses reflective action in economic experimentation in Greece’s alternative food systems, with specific historical state context, urban-rural dynamics, and considering the crisis as a unique moment for social change amidst the harshest austerity in contemporary political history. As experiences of capitalist crisis and distrust of liberal democracy intensify globally, the findings will have relevance to food activists in other contexts. The third chapter discusses post-capitalist political theory including the tensions between collective and individual action. In chapter four, I present the participatory action research methodology and the central use of participatory video – combined with semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and participatory mapping. The team collectively conducted 78 interviews and 9 workshops/collective film screenings during five cycles of research. I then unpack the tensions in autonomy which are exaggerated by crisis, including the effect of hardship on individualism, antagonism between consumer and producer, and the incremental burden of experimentation. Solidarity Intermediaries, which cut out formal middlemen, when confronted with these tensions, tend to fragment or adopt a mode of introvert decentralization – a term developed throughout the thesis-, as opposed to networking. The development of the idea of introvert decentralization, through anecdotes and perspectives from participants, highlights the disabling nature of the capitalist State, and the consequences of this for self-governance. The effect of anti-authoritarianism on the creation of and adherence to new collective agreements in self-governed initiatives is a notable focus of this chapter, touching upon issues of lack of trust, leadership formation, and rumour-mongering. In the sixth chapter, I focus on how these self-organised initiatives deal with difference and conflict, and discuss the main implications for realizing economic democracy. Structural and cultural differences, when glossed over in an attempt at egalitarianism, hide tensions rather than confronting them, feeding antagonism and unacknowledged informal hierarchies. Here, I develop Young’s (1986) categories of difference for a social context shaped by austerity, debunking the commonly held myth that Greek people are unable to collaborate. Finally, I present a first-person reflection on the extent to which participatory video flattens power asymmetries, and fairly represents diverse perspectives in social situations. PV, I resolve, can unintendedly exclude female participants, thus reproducing inequality in representation along lines of structural oppression. I also discuss how participatory video should not be viewed as a tool for representing ‘what exists’ in polemical settings where disagreement manifests in multiple versions of the ‘truth’. This casts doubts on the value of video in all contexts. Overall, this research aims to contribute to movements in the project of autonomy, despite the growing burden of crisis and the contradictory and shifting legal-social-economic context.
    Date of AwardJan 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorMoya Kneafsey (Supervisor), Michel Pimbert (Supervisor), Irene Sotiropoulou (Supervisor) & Colin Anderson (Supervisor)

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