Can Europe Make It?

Can the bottom-up actions of citizens regenerate democracy in Europe?

The digital revolution has strengthened the ability of large organisations to arrange production in ways that weaken collective resistance, and to control and keep watch on our societies. But those who understand the dual role of this revolution also see possibilities for the regeneration of democracy, while acknowledging the great challenges.

Philippe Aigrain
16 July 2014

This is the first of a series of articles we are publishing this summer from Eutopia Magazine – ideas for Europe. Eutopia sets out to create a place for European citizens to analyze the issues most relevant to their future by openly debating them with authoritative voices in each field.  So we have great pleasure in introducing you to their work, starting with this contribution to the European ‘commons’ debate.


The democratic crisis

The fact that citizens of democratic regimes criticise the failure of those regimes to reach their stated objectives, and even doubt their ability to do so at all is part of democracy itself. That's no excuse for ignoring the depth of today's global crisis of democracies, and the particular intensity of this crisis in Europe.

Despite democratic processes such as elections and parliamentary votes, there is a widespread feeling that our societies are governed by a small group of people among whom economic, media, and political interests are used for their own wealth and benefit.

Even though the digital revolution has made it possible for more and more activities to take place without monetary transactions, most political thinking is dominated by a narrow economism. 

Non-market production and exchanges are at best ignored, in most cases considered as temporary market failures to be overcome or eradicated by various means. Production and distribution models have been installed that fail to spread the benefits of technological progress among all, that is to share both work and free time.

Many people are pressured to accept low-paid menial jobs or stigmatised for receiving benefits and appearing to be unemployable, albeit in non-existent jobs. Though real professional achievements are more and more on a group basis, stressful managerial environments based on individual performance indicators are widely imposed. The organisation of cities, commerce, work or media takes freely usable time and turns it over to consumer-driven activities instead of creative and social ones.

The urgency of ecological reform is stubbornly ignored in order to protect unsustainable industrial and consumption models and short-term profit.

Several more or less consistent lines of analysis have been proposed to find ways to overcome this democratic crisis. The first concentrates on the oligarchic evolution of our ruling classes – the increase in inequalities and the way in which the interests of a new group of the hyper-rich are serviced.

The second describes our societies as post-democratic, and pays more attention to institutional processes and the role of managerial techniques in the destruction of the social and democratic fabric.

A third line emphasises the dual role of the digital revolution, strengthening on the one hand the ability of large organisations to arrange production in ways that weaken collective resistance, and to control and keep watch on societies; and on the other hand the development of new abilities in individuals and groups to develop critical thinking, to coordinate, innovate and put in place concrete alternatives.

Thinkers who adopt the third line of analysis are more optimistic about the possibility of the regeneration of democracy, even though they acknowledge that the challenges it is facing are great.

The response of citizens to the democratic crisis

Marking a new relationship between citizens and politics are activism and advocacy for internet freedoms and rights in the digital sphere; the much more widespread use of internet-mediated political action in the Iranian, Syrian, Spanish and Turkish uprisings; and the commons movement in Italy and more generally in Europe.

These differ profoundly from the anti-globalization movements of the end of the twentieth century and from the single issue movements led for instance by NGOs in the environmental, social or gender domain.  This difference can be summed up by looking at three interrelated aspects: decentralisation, a new relationship between the individual and the collective, and a combination between political struggles and the direct construction of alternative ways of producing and sharing.

The new movements are rooted in the personal expression of individuals, but they are by no means individualist in the neo-liberal sense. They aim to develop communities based on friendship, shared interests, practices or neighbourhoods, and whose products are under commons statute.

They may include trade, but only as one activity means among many others. They are characterised by the participation of individuals in several communities or activities. This involvement might take the form of participation in activities rather than formal membership or affiliation.

Each community relies heavily on computer networks and digital media for expression and coordination, and for the activities themselves (be it software, internet activism, digital culture, or local exchange systems).

The achievements of these movements are impressive, well beyond the limits normally faced by pressure groups, according to Colin Crouch. He stresses the fact that single issue NGOs gain local victories by putting ‘their’ issues on the agenda, but fail to achieve real change by overcoming the obstacles a post-democratic world faces.

In contrast, the new social movements appear much more powerful and attractive, with their combined aims of radical political reform and the building of a better daily life. Not only do they score victories such as the rejection of the ACTA treaty in the European Parliament or the outcome of the referendums on water management in Italy; they also build new technology such as free software or open design, and they create new participatory processes with new mechanisms such as zero-interest loans between individuals, and participatory financing based on donations.

More generally, they regenerate the autonomous production and exchange of goods, services, culture, and knowledge.

However, they also face obstacles that result from the dilemma of how to position themselves in relation to the centralised political and economic power.

Limits to democratic regeneration and new paths

The economic and social constraints which we can see embodied in existing policies are the first obstacle for movements that try to revisit options for the development of our societies. These constraints might be the domination of finance in the overall economic system, the domination of older media and advertising in representations of what is desirable, the inertia of production and consumption models, the town planning and social organisation of cities and the resulting constraints on time for most individuals, etc.

These obstacles have been identified in Stefano Bartolini's Manifesto per la felicità or Juliet Schor's Plenitude, in which they advocated public policies and changes in individual behaviour to overcome these difficulties. Despite the looming ecological crisis, and the devastating social cost of maintaining the status quo, the changes needed for a new system appear out of reach to many.

The attractiveness of refocusing our societies on knowledge and cultural sharing, on collaboration rather than war-like economic competition, on information-based rather that energy-based activities, on quality rather than cost appeals to those who are already engaged in such related practices. However, too many still think they have more to lose than to gain in making such a change, even though their social situation, their self-esteem, the sense of meaningfulness of their life deteriorates.

Such obstacles could be overcome in time, as more and more people drop out of the dominating economic and social system to various degrees and experience the benefits of the new practices.

However, such a gradual scenario is made unlikely by the attitude of the present post-democratic leaders. They describe any attempt at radical reform arising from the new social movements, and the related criticism addressed at their policies, as yet another form of populist demagogy. 

Rather than trying to create new coalitions with these movements (the post-occupation movements in Spain, the beni comuni movements in Italy, the internet freedom and knowledge sharing movements in many European countries, the relocalisation movements in agriculture and production, etc.), they stigmatise them and create a more hostile regulatory framework for them.

It seems that they would rather face real populist xenophobia in the hope that it will convince people to keep supporting them rather than opening the door to radical reform.

These external constraints must not hide the fact that the grassroots ‘reboot’ of society also faces internal obstacles, and in particular the difficulty of participants in agreeing a core reform platform. They reuse or develop interesting collective deliberation tools, from the signs-based practices in the Acampada or Occupy Wall Street movements, to internet-based decision-making tools such as Liquid feedback.

However, these approaches have proven inefficient when it comes to developing new ideas. In Spain, a mixed approach has appeared that seems more promising. The 15 May 2011 movement was made possible by earlier work on designing a policy platform. Its later development included an interesting interaction with proponents of radical reform policies in the intellectual sphere.

Networks such as Partido X made extensive use of digital technology to develop their proposals and submit them to comments by a wider public. The policy which resulted fed the programme of Podemos and some other movements which obtained significant success in the European Parliamentary elections of May 2014.

Overall, the jury is still out. Will the stubborn application of economic status quo policies leave no other possible change open than the development of regressive xenophobic and authoritarian regimes? Or will a sufficient number of humanist and progressive policy makers understand that their duty is to empower those who have already tried to build another future?


Further readings:

Kempf, Hervé, L'oligarchie ça suffit, vive la démocratie (Paris: Seuil / Points, 2013)


Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty-first Century  (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014)


Crouch, Colin, Post-democracy  (Cambridge: Polity, 2014)


This article was first published on Eutopia on June 26, 2014.

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