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.