The protests and representative politics: like ships in the night?

24 Oct

The Current Moment watched this weekend as a desultory Occupation/We are the 99% demonstration marched past on Amsterdam’s Rokin avenue. The numbers were small, the slogans diffuse and the chanting sporadic. The poignant quality of the march was summed up when one protester, alone as everyone around her walked on quietly, tried to get a chant going. “We are the 99%, we are the 99%…”. But no one joined her.

Such first impressions notwithstanding, the protests have attracted attention around the world. They made the cover of The Economist, no mean feat. But a curious feature of the protests is that as the media interest in them booms, their electoral fortunes dwindle. Will these protests eventually reshape the world of representative politics or will they crystallize as a form of anti-politics, eschewing elections and party platforms?

The results at present are mixed. Take Germany, for instance. One important recent development was the adoption by Die Linke of a party program (for a draft of this program in English, see here). A feature of this new Left party in Germany (set up in 2007) was its absence of any clear program, preferring instead a set of “orientations”. Its party congress this month was held in the German town of Erfurt – famous as the town that gave its name to the Social Democratic party program of 1891, a key document of the Marxist Second International. The message of Die Linke to its critics was that it was no longer an eclectic mixture of Leftists but a coherent answer to the questions being raised by demonstrators across Europe. As Die Linke firmed up its party program, its electoral fortunes have waned. Only a few weeks prior to adopting its program, the party lost heavily in local elections in Berlin. After a decade of sharing power with the Social Democrat Party (SPD) in the capital, Die Linke lost almost two thirds of its support.

We see similar trends in Spain and in France. The Spanish Indignados have led the street protest movement, pioneering the public square occupations and inspiring the more recent Wall Street occupation movement. And yet, as the Spanish protestors have grown in number, electoral politics in Spain have moved in the opposite direction. With the parliament dissolved on the 26th September and elections set for the 20th November, polls put the right-wing People’s Party far ahead of the incumbent Socialist Party of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. In early October, the PP’s leader, Mariano Rajoy, was polling at 15% ahead of Zapatero.

In France, the elections for candidate of the Socialist Party in next year’s presidential election were marked by the success of the most determinedly left-wing candidate, Arnaud Montebourg. Having popularized ideas such as “de-globalization” (= protection) and openly arguing for far greater regulation of the financial sector, Montebourg won 17.19% in the first round of votes, far ahead of the 2008 Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royale (who got only 6.95%). With such a score, Montebourg was able to decisively influence the second round results by supporting François Hollande on the basis of his willingness to control the banks (see here for Montebourg’s reasons for supporting Hollande). Looking at the second round results, however, the dynamics were different. Martine Aubry attacked Hollande for being “weak” (la gauche molle) and put herself forward as a more robust and radical alternative. Her attempt at courting the left of the party failed and a more centrist, more moderate Hollande won. Radicalism in the street protests has not yet, in France, found its way through to the Socialist Party leadership.

The ongoing protests are influencing the terms of political debate in Europe. The freedom government leaders have to manoeuvre at the European level is shrinking, especially in Germany as the Bundesdag exerts control over Chancellor Merkel’s negotiation strategies. But whether the protests will engage directly with representative politics is less clear. Much of the protest movement is organized around a critique of the political class. Until it sheds its rhetoric of anti-politics and tries to win support by proposing its own alternatives, the protests will struggle to transform their rhetoric of “we are the 99%” into the reality of a political movement able to mobilize majorities and transform society.


4 Responses to “The protests and representative politics: like ships in the night?”

  1. scott October 24, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    I see your point, which has some force, but I also wonder how helpful it would be for the protesters to engage too closely with a political system that seems calculated to tolerate only a limited range of policy options, all of them favoring the elites. In this sense, it may be quite rational to be anti-politics because “politics” as currently practiced has excluded to an almost farcical extent for the last two years any consistent discussion in the public sphere of the staggering amount of economic pain inflicted by the crisis and the moral imperative to ease that pain and to punish those responsible for it. I agree it’s a line-drawing or timing issue, but there may be some value in continuing to mount increasing expressions of public rage at the elites that may make them more malleable or receptive to specific proposals. Right now, essentially no one in politics or the media has said that we need to be doing anything fundamentally different, so what’s the point in making specific proposals now that these gatekeepers will just denigrate and sneer at? The gatekeepers themselves need to be attacked, ridiculed, and made to feel a fear of being held accountable that has been wholly absent. Until these protests started, the dominant discussion was not about any of these issues but about how much austerity the rest of us should be forced to suck down. The protests have already changed that, and I see iit as worthwhile for at least a bit longer to engage in the time-honored classically “political” tactic of demonizing your opponents in the public sphere as a means of intomdidating them into giving you what you want.

    • The Current Moment October 25, 2011 at 7:26 am #

      We certainly agree that the protests have the had the effect of transforming the ongoing economic and financial crisis into a political event, rather than just a catastrophe to be managed by bankers, traders, regulators and civil servants. The protests have managed to expose the way policies rest not just on expertise but on key choices about who should benefit and who should not, and more generally about how society is run. All of this has come without engaging directly in representative politics or providing any clear set of demands or alternatives to the status quo. But absent a political strategy, I think that is about as far as the protests can go. And there is something spineless about drawing attention to issues but only in a way that demands that existing political parties take note and act accordingly. We tend to think that if you really want things to change, then you have to try and do it yourself. And that means building a movement, with a clear set of goals, that is itself the agent for change. A final point is that there is no sense in which the existing political class has “excluded” a broader discussion of the current crisis. That discussion is lacking only because there is no one pushing it hard enough. Changing the terrain of the debate is about collective action. Behind any fixed set of boundaries to a discussion are groups of people with specific interests. Political debate is narrow today because mobilization has narrowed so much. As that changes, we should see new ideas developing.

  2. Jacob Richter December 4, 2011 at 2:16 am #

    Without a radical program there can be no radical movement.

    Without a revolutionary program there can be revolutionary movement, either.

  3. MichaelExats August 29, 2017 at 1:28 am #

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