Reinventing democracy in Europe: introducing the week

The economic and social travails sweeping through Europe can be traced to an imperceptible but seismic shift in the ground of European democracy. This is the takeover and corruption of democratic politics by an amalgam of economic and political elites, a change poorly compensated for by the rise of new forms of democratic protest and resistance.

Ash Amin is Professor of Geography at Cambridge University.  His current writing deals with questions of intolerance in Europe, urban resilience in the North and South, and the challenges of left renewal. His most recent book, Land of Strangers (2012), addresses issues of belonging in Europe, while his book with Nigel Thrift Arts of the Political to be published by Duke University Press in early 2013 examines the reinventions the left needs to lead in order to secure the return of social democracy.  His contribution this week is based on ideas developed with Nigel Thrift in the latter book.

Pep Subirós is an independent philosopher, writer and exhibition curator based in Barcelona. His interests include the uses of art and culture in political life, and the riches and problems of cultural diversity, with special attention to the African continent. Confronting the reality of European attitudes towards immigration, his most recent books, Ser immigrant a Catalunya (2010), and Jane Alexander: Surveys from the Cape of Good Hope (2010), expose the limits and contradictions of European discourses on democracy.

Ash Amin and Pep Subirós first collaborated on the exhibition Apartheid: South Africa as a Mirror (2007). They have gone on to initiate several projects exposing and opposing old and new forms of racism and xenophobia, social discrimination and exclusion. They are co-founders and members of the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe, an informal, supranational network of intellectuals, scientists, writers, and cultural practitioners committed to renew the social, political and cultural foundations of a democratic Europe based on the respect and promotion of human rights and social justice.

For this week’s theme on openDemocracy, we have chosen ‘Reinventing democracy in Europe’

The economic and social travails sweeping through Europe can be traced to an imperceptible but seismic shift in the ground of European democracy. This is the takeover and corruption of democratic politics by an amalgam of economic and political elites, a change poorly compensated for by the rise of new forms of democratic protest and resistance.  The former has reeked of inequality and injustice by stealth, leaving material havoc in its trail, while the latter bristles with popular anger and new forms of solidarity, but with uncertain outcomes.  The eight essays featured this week focus on this neglected dimension of the current European crisis, arguing that a fairer and more equal Europe will remain out of reach until the paradoxes of this dualism are resolved.  The essays originate from a symposium in early May - ‘Reinventing Democracy in Europe’ - jointly conceived by openDemocracy and the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe and hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona

Discussions ranged over the political sources of the current situation, the limits of direct democracy experiments, and began to trace the outlines of a new politics of democratic amplification.  Taking these aspects in turn this week, first the essays offer a diagnosis of the corporatist present - the seizure of politics by the alliance of banks, corporations, and neoliberal governments responsible for the current financial crisis, in a corporatist effort to underwrite their interests at any cost, including the manipulation of representative democracy, the erosion of social protections, and the victimisation of some marginalised social collectives, ideally of foreign origin, as responsible for the crisis.  Thus, on Monday we launched with Claus Offe writing on a finance-dominated post-democracy, Albena Azmanova of irresponsible states and misdirected protest, and Yudit Kiss of the privatization of politics. 

Secondly, the essays reveal the ambivalent nature of popular reaction against corporatism and its exclusions.  Under the radar of ‘formal’ politics thrives a movement for social justice and wellbeing that is participatory, experimental, egalitarian, full of promise.  Europe’s Arab Spring has brought out people from many walks of life demanding a citizen society and open and accountable governance, becoming active citizens and collective subjects in the process, and coming together around all manner of alternative ways of working, living and collaborating.  In the shadows of elite power grows a social commons – physical and virtual – testament to living democracy, as shown by Sandra Ezquerra, Markha Valenta, Ash Amin, Yudit Kiss, and Joan Subirats.  Yet, as a movement of situated struggles and experiments, it is fragmented, dispersed, local, and often fragile and temporary; uneasy bedfellow with an anti-democratic populism that also rails against concentrated power and neglected majorities.  In the shadows, thus, lurks another counter-power, which cannot be dismissed as ultra-right or fascistic but craves – and increasingly gets - mass support for ultimately xenophobic and dogmatic ends, as Jordi Vaquer argued in his Tuesday essay.  This power, with its striking populist rhetoric, appeasement from elites nervous of an electoral backlash, and organised force behind it across Europe, threatens democracy in both its insurgent and representative forms.

A disturbing consequence, thirdly, of the conversion of the political in Europe into an uneven battle between democratic insurgency and authoritarian populism or corporatist elitism, is the hollowing out of the middle ground – the elected, representative and public assemblies where mandates and programmes arise out of the clash of voices and interests, and where victorious settlements are followed up by programmatic but always scrutinised reforms.  While populism and elitism thrive on this hollowing out, for it serves them well, the forces of fair, active and vigilant democracy, wary though they may be of the corruption of the representative system, are compromised by it because they are left without the traditional means of conversion and amplification. 

The experiments and achievements of an alternative society need to add up, to become a common compulsion, for an alternative to a vitiated neoliberal Europe. How this might be achieved is by no means self-evident, but some suggestions offered this week include the effort to revitalise the public sphere through public referenda and campaigns for greater political accountability and transparency (Vaquer), building bridges between the insurgent movements and existing formal channels of anti-neoliberal politics in Europe, be they parties, bureaucracies or parliaments (Kiss), and the urgent need to recover and amplify social arts and affects through which to project and make desirable a future that nurtures and take full advantage of the rich potential of the present (Amin). 

This points us to a magmatic and rapidly expanding movement composed of a multiplicity of autonomous individuals who collaborate in renovating the concept and practice of the commons, a movement that is rapidly extending its best known areas of information, communications and knowledge into a reframing of the relations and processes of production, as well as creating new organisational forms of collective action (Berlinguer). At one and the same time, the movement not only reassesses property regimes as we know them, but the notion of economic value, today dominated by exchange value and the correlative commodification of everything, including the most essential resources for the continuity of human life (Subirats).

A fair and just Europe, in short, requires a radical reinvention of democracy that has in the configuration of ‘the commons’ one of its sine qua non conditions of existence.