Lessons from the European protests

17 Oct

We’ve posted before on the Occupy Wall Street protests (here and here). This weekend, the call for 15-O protests (Twitter-speak for 15th October, 2011 and named after the 15th May protests in Madrid, dubbed 15-M) saw protests organized across Europe, from Madrid to Rome, London and Amsterdam. A popular graphic shows the scale of these protests.

The ease with which the protests spread shouldn’t be taken at face value. Important specificities remain. For a start, the occupation tactic is not a new one in the present crisis. The moves on Wall Street and in other US cities were preceded by those in Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Syntagma Square in Athens. Over at Lenin’s Tomb, Richard Seymour makes the point that these protests have been dominated by occupations of public places, not of work places, suggesting that people are mobilizing not as workers but as citizens (for an example, see here). Seymour also notes that a tactic is not the same thing as a strategy. The protests have some of the former but much less of the latter.

Given the duration of the European protests, some movements are running out of steam. A feeling of disenchantment was recorded in Madrid this weekend in spite of the high numbers of those out in the streets. Mobilization without a clear message has been a criticism of the protests by the media and by governments but it may be beginning to affect the protesters themselves (see here for a report along these lines on the Spanish case). It might be said about the protests that something is better than nothing and that the significance of the protests is not in their critiques of contemporary capitalism but in their existence. As Sidney Tarrow put it, this is a “we are here” movement. But mobilization in the absence of real gains leads to disenchantment, which itself becomes a material obstacle in future mobilizations.

As far as the slogans of the European protests go, three different strands stand out. One is a protest against the immediate impact of government policies. It is no coincidence that the main protest movements have occurred in those countries whose economies are facing the most serious downturns and government-led austerity measures: Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Protests in Ireland have been more moderate, a reflection perhaps of the self-reliance of the Irish population and its more limited dependency on the state compared with societies such as Greece or Spain.

The two other strands are more abstract: one about fairness, the other about representation. The attack on bankers and financiers reflects a frustrated sense of entitlement: why should so few have so much? This sentiment unites protests on both sides of the Atlantic. The “we are the 99%” slogan of the Wall Street occupation was taken up directly by the protestors on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral in London, UK. In France, this same slogan has been transformed into: “they have more, there are more of us” (Ils ont plus, nous sommes plus). This is less an accurate representation of the distribution of wealth (see our critique here) than a claim about where the interests of the majority lie. The concern about representation is based on the conviction that governments have been captured by the financial elite. The main slogans of the Spanish Indignados have been: “Real democracy, now!” And “no, no, they don’t represent us” (see here for a list in Spanish of the different slogans).

As we might expect from movements that draw on an eclectic mixture of participants, these different demands sit uneasily alongside each other. Demands about improving the current situation are directed at the state and rely entirely on the state to solve today’s problems. Yet the dominant sentiment that governments don’t represent the people any more begs the question of where a ‘people-centered’ state will come from. Richard Seymour puts the cart before the horse, resolving these tensions through the deux ex machina of the Franco-Greek Marxist, Nico Poulantzas. Others ignore them in the hope that the pressure of greater mobilization will force the protestors to refine their ideas. That is unlikely. The lesson of the European occupation protests, from Madrid to Athens, is that occupation is no substitute for a strategy. Transforming the energy of the protests into an understanding of our current situation is today’s challenge.




4 Responses to “Lessons from the European protests”

  1. V. Brandt October 19, 2011 at 2:03 am #

    “Mobilization [without] real gains leads to disenchantment.” Indeed.

    What has been peculiar to me about the OWS movement from the beginning, besides its valorization of process over content, is that it followed on the heels of the UK (and US) Uncut movement, which targets the same problems but with an actual agenda (cf. this article in The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/158282/how-build-progressive-tea-party). In fact, OWS rallies around a 99% figure, which is awfully close to but seemingly unaware of the Uncut groups’ emphasis on “The Other 98%.” Perhaps this has been explained elsewhere, though I’ve seen no mention of it…. In any case, US Uncut (http://usuncut.org/) is powered by a fairly straightforward, easily grasped message and strategy, not to mention savvy graphics. And they have been quite effective, particularly in the U.K. Do you have any thoughts about why OWS started a whole new movement rather than joining in and extending, if need be, the concrete agenda of US Uncut? Do you think it’s because the founders of OWS deliberated wanted to avoid a specific agenda?

  2. The Current Moment October 19, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Thanks for that very useful comment. The parallel demands of the Uncut movement and OWS are interesting. We don’t think it’s a product of any kind of calculation though, or a conscious desire to avoid organizing together or combining political agendas. The Occupy movement as a whole seems marked by a good deal of spontaneity, picking up on public anger about the current economic situation and building onto that a populist rejection of high finance. That other groups have made similar demands or have managed to concentrate the 99/1 claim (or 98/2) into a more focused agenda has I suppose passed them by. There is no overarching method to these protests. Perhaps most generally we can say that they are more marked by the stamp of national politics and national situations than the earlier anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s and 2000s. But they are still at an early stage. Whether they will develop into more conscious political movements will depend those involved and on organization.

  3. V. Brandt October 19, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

    My sense is that this curious mini-history points to a recurring problem for the left, which has, more often than not, been unable to harness its various constituencies into supporting a concrete agenda. The right, by contrast, is fairly adept at silencing intra-group conflicts in the name of specific goals (e.g., resist every proposal of the White House to regain control of it come next election).

    The internal debates within OWS (and the commentariat) on whether there should be specific agenda items or not reflects a deep and understandable discomfort with hierarchy and its tendency to stifle alternative viewpoints, but also a deep and deeply muddled antipathy toward articulating a conception of what we’re aiming for. I believe the latter derives from the classical liberalism’s much-vaunted neutrality toward alternate conceptions of the good, which fails to realize that it is not, in fact, neutral. (By upholding freedom of choice, it is actually instantiating a particular conception of the good, i.e., one that involves the greatest freedom of choice.) But choice is not enough. And now with OWS, choice (a.k.a. a desire for all-inclusiveness) seems to be operating to prevent the kind of organization around specific policy demands that would actually allow it to have a concrete positive effect.

    That this continues to be an issue for OWS beyond its nascency became evident in the comments on Matt Taibbi’s recent article in which he outlined five straightforward, reasonable, and powerful demands for the OWS movement to consider rallying around (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/my-advice-to-the-occupy-wall-street-protesters-20111012). I was surprised at how many of the commenters were against adopting any specific demands at all, as if that would necessarily drain support for the movement. Are the vast majority so ill-informed, so ineducable, so constrained by personal history, that we cannot reason together about what changes need to be made?

    So much for the future of democracy. Where is a good philosopher-king when you need one?

    • The Current Moment October 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

      We certainly agree that one the main limitations of the OWS movement is its reluctance to agree upon a concrete and identifiable set of goals. Indeed, there is a curiously apolitical quality to today’s protests which contrasts with the way in which they are being shaped by specific national contexts. However, we are not so sure that the problem is as generic as you suggest. Rather than being a fundamental trait of liberal political philosophy, which certainly fetishizes choice as an end in itself rather than as a means to realizing a particular conception of the good life, there is a sense in which the temerity of OWS regarding its goals is an expression of a general turn away from a more prescriptive kind of politics. Wasn’t this turn an important feature of the new social movements that began to stamp their mark on politics in the West from the 1970s onwards? It isn’t surprising that movements – conscious of their tenuous relationship to mass publics and tending in any case to think of these publics as bigoted and backward – will struggle with the question of representation. If the OWS movement develops in a way that makes its representative claim more concrete (the 99% claim at present is more of a non-claim given its breadth), then perhaps it will find the confidence to formulate some clear goals.

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