(by Simone Perotti)
“We’ve got to work out a way to live without money, at least a little money as possible. Enough is enough”. I look up, and look at him. Sorry, what was that? “That’s right. It’s time to put an end to living with money as the centre of our lives. I used to produce sound tracks, spot ads, music for movies. And I was also the director of a very important cultural centre.
I was doing rather well, even with the recession in full swing. Then four years ago I decided to give everything up to live a different life, because my family was not enough, there was a whole world out there, a whole society, and I needed to do something different”.
I listen to Mario Strofalis with my jaws dropping, somewhat bewildered and taken aback. I thought I was coming here to the centre of Athens to meet a voluntary activist with ideas on music for everyone, someone who was helping musicians in difficulty. But I find myself with a forty-five year old with deep sharp eyes, who is a little naïf, if you like, but with an intelligent face, who definitely has an aura, and is above all a downshifter who gives me a victory sign, and speaks to me of a new aggregation model. “I said to myself: ok, I’ll put ten free concerts on the plate. Let’s see what happens”.
For years I have been thinking that the word “free” expresses the concept of the future. Where everything has a cost but only money has value, and therefore counts for nothing. “I want to build another economy, not an alternative one, but one which can exist with the real economy”. That’s what he means then.
Two years to plan, another two to take action. “We are a group of five hundred, the hard core, consisting of musicians, performers, actors, people from the film industry, people of culture. We have a following of two thousand of what I call supporters, who I have to convince each and every time though”. Strofalis has gathered musicians, who were the first victims of the recession, that no one was paying anymore, around the Athens Art Network, and convinced them that, considering that they had nothing, they might as well play in the squares, abandoned parking lots, in the streets, everywhere. Free of charge. “When you do things something always happens, even things that can earn you something. But you have to get up and do something, something new, to create a new society”. This very real utopia led to the Athens Garden Festival, Little Paris, and many other spot actions and street performances, in which the performers, and the public were involved. “If I let you play, if I start a dialogue with Italy, Spain and France to create international platforms, that give you visibility, and allow your music to be heard, isn’t that better than a paralysis, or ending up as a waiter?” Yes, but then how do you put food in your mouth? I find myself asking the same questions people were asking me, life is strange, isn’t it?. “By bartering. Music for potatoes, artisans who barter work for food, vegetable vendors who barter lettuce for services. My dream is of a world that is organised without money, but through bartering. And according to a minimum, and very conservative, estimate, this can be done for more than forty percent of costs. All you need is good organisation. Method and concreteness”. Naif but also level-headed, even if the theoretical mechanism would appear to be somewhat weak. If I understand this clearly, everything originates from the recession, and thus from necessity.
But what about the economic recovery, if it happens? He looks less cheerful, and almost frowns. “In that case, I hope the association will live on, that it doesn’t all die out. I am certain that something will remain, because it is right”. Good for you Strofalis, a somewhat weak reply, but the only possible reply, the only right one.
“The secret of a great national bank of time. People who live with very little, only what is strictly necessary, and then barter the rest, giving something for what they receive, and making available what they know how to do. Pushing money in a corner, so as to stop being slaves of money”.
What did they say to you when you pulled these downshifting ideas out of the hat Mario? “They obviously attacked me. They accused me of being a bourgeois who was laying down the law but whose back was covered. Above all the left-wingers. But they know that I am right. Does anyone else have a better, immediate idea for the future, for something structural? I don’t think so”. I agree with him of course.
“The city hides a treasure …” And what does that treasure chest hold, Mario? “People! People are the treasure, they are not simply enslaved consumers. Their talents are the treasure!” If he carries on like that, he’s going to move me.
“The Mediterranean holds a treasure, which is in the rich and mixed identity of this part of the world. The Mediterranean culture is the treasure. You can’t get away from that. I know that the reaction is slow. But there is no alternative”.
And what if a musician finds work, what does he do, does he abandon you? Don’t you think that things that are done simply because you are in need, are weak, that they should be chosen on a different basis? “Yes, of course, but if we create opportunities, if we try to come up with ideas, and then realise those ideas, autonomously, one needs to see what is better, which work offers more chances, more opportunities. Don’t you agree? It is a question of quality, of merit”. You need to have the right ambition: something which is giving you nothing today, could become important tomorrow, and lead to something else. “When we have the opportunity of performing with someone who pays us or offers us something, we certainly don’t refuse! Perhaps just one Euro of the ticket goes to the association, after paying all the costs, but it’s better than nothing! The truth is that the real added value is the energy that we are creating, this is the strength that makes me say that we will succeed in creating a new world and a new economy”.
You do know that it’s difficult to get people to change their habits, don’t you, Mario. You can’t change an army of consumers by snapping your fingers in time with jazz. “I know. That is why we have to involve other associations, and create a network with other countries of the Mediterranean. And we are doing all this even for the benefit of capitalism”. What was that?!
“Certainly. Capitalism can survive if it comes to terms with the reduced earnings that lie ahead. It just has to come to terms with this, better something than nothing. Without coexistence everything will explode, and the Western world will be done for. And that means goodbye to capitalism, consumption, shopping, credit cards. They will be forced to understand that the social system cannot last like this. This is a revolution, but a forced one”.
This analysis seems a little shaky. Capitalism loves breakdowns, it loves a default, it loves wars. I think that Mario does better as a dreamer than as a macroeconomist, but I have to admit that we need more dreamers in the world, so I vote for Mario. He then says something with which I agree in full: “And what’s more, we are not very good at protest actions, demonstrations. What you think must not come from what you say or shout, but from what you do”. Well done.
I ask him what he thinks about the decisions of the Greek government to sell beaches, islands, immense and protected territories, if his movement, his association, is taking action against this. He certainly seems to condemn this, but quite coldly. He doesn’t say much about the environment. His association is entirely metropolitan, it deals with immigrants, the unemployed, all those who since the problems started have developed the antibodies of fascism. “It almost seems that they have done it on purpose” Done what? “Creating all this inequality, this unbalance. In order to generate and produce fascism and intolerance. When we created Little Paris, in other words a part of the city with a project, where something happens everywhere, all the time, with the involvement of tens, hundreds and thousands of people, we managed to do something which had never been done for the district. And in this way we stonewalled the fascists. Concretely, in a positive manner, without clashes, pacifically, laying the basis for something which is far more ambitious”.
We have lunch together, and tell each other a great deal more. He has nerve, this Mario Strofalis, he has good ideas, which are perhaps a little naïf, and perhaps not corroborated sufficiently by an intellectual structure and process, but they are real, and sound, and you can bet your bottom dollar they will have an impact. This bar is a home from home for Mario, everyone knows him. The bartender tells us that the recession is very bad “Do you see? All those people sitting there at those tables?! No one pays, we mark everything up in a notebook. One day, maybe, they’ll settle the bill”. Greek is moving, in time with the recession.