Tag Archives: protests

The Occupy Effect

25 Jan

In an earlier post, we commented on the difficulty movements such as Occupy Wall Street or Indignados were having in influencing the course of electoral politics. In Spain, in spite of all the protests in Madrid and other parts of the country, elections late last year saw the return of the Right to power after a campaign where its leader, Mariano Rajoy, pointedly avoided setting out anything like a detailed economic plan. In Italy and Greece, protests coincided with the replacement of elected governments by technocratic administrations rather than with any lurch to the left or any real change in austerity-based politics.

This may now be changing. Recent campaign speeches suggest that these popular mobilisations have begun to shift the terrain of representative politics. In France last weekend the Socialist Party candidate, François Hollande, in a keynote speech, made a point of targeting the world of finance. Two moments of his speech took on a confessional, intimate tone. I shall let you into a secret of mine, he said, clearly trying to differentiate himself from the current incumbent of the Elysée palace: “it is people that interest me, not money”. And a little later, with the same confessional tone: “let me share with you who my real enemy is… It is an enemy without a face or a name; it governs without being elected… It is the world of finance”. Hollande’s proposed policies to disable this “enemy” were in line with what has been suggested elsewhere: to isolate the speculative activities of banks from their commercial lending; to introduce a comprehensive financial transaction tax, not just a tax on the trading of stocks; to set up a public ratings agency at the European level and to renegotiate the EU fiscal pact so as to make explicit its growth model. Hollande called this a pact for responsibility, governance and growth.

In Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, given yesterday to Congress, the same themes were apparent. Invoking much of the Occupy rhetoric about the 99% versus 1%, Obama argued for a fairer, less unequal US society. He endorsed the Warren Buffet idea of raising taxes on the most wealthy and dismissed any claims that he was engaging in class warfare, calling these policies common sensical rather than partisan (see here for the Guardian’s write-up). The Republican primaries have similarly been taken up with the same themes. One of the problems faced by Mitt Romney is that he not an industrial magnate or oil man but gained his wealth through finance, making him the target of people’s anger at Wall Street and at bankers. The battle with Gingrich has been focused on tax with Romney forced to disclose his tax returns. Romney’s fight-back after his defeat in the South Carolina primary has been to highlight, under the banner ‘Newt Gingrich cashed in’, the payments received by Gingrich from the mortgage brokerage company, Freddie Mac.

If recent political mobilisations have indeed given this current economic crisis its political narrative, it is worth asking what this narrative is. So far, it is mainly an ethical critique of contemporary capitalism. Critics of finance take issue with the unscrupulous actions of bankers and hedge fund managers, their conspicuous wealth, the brazenness of new inequalities. In its place, Obama, Hollande and others call for a return to more traditional values where money matters less than people and the common good. There are obvious limits to such a critique. A defining feature of capitalism is its systemic nature: it is based upon a set of social relations that are more than merely the accumulation of individual intentions. Without uncovering the specific set of social relations that are the basis of today’s financialized capitalism, invocations towards a better, fairer society will only breed disappointment as changes fail to appear.

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.


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.




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