Can Europe Make It?

'We are building a strange left': towards a democratic modernity?

Some reflections from Berlin on the launch of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) on 9 February, 2016.

Alexander Karschnia
6 March 2016
DiEM0216.Press conference, Volksbuhne.

DiEM0216.Press conference, Volksbuhne. Arno-image. All rights reserved.Last year did not end well, this year took a bad start: Europe will be facing its test of endurance in 2016, so they said at the beginning of the year. In this doomsday mood, a manifesto appears: 'The European Union will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate!' The deadline is in 10 years, hence the name DiEM25 - Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.

Ten years to change Europe: a powerful announcement! And a rather optimistic outlook in the face of last year's turbulence. The man who initiated the DiEM25-movement knows what he's talking about: Yanis Varoufakis, leftist economist, former finance minister of the Syriza government in Greece and 'Rock Star of the Economy' (Business Insider).

Many have followed every move in the showdown between him and the Eurogroup; the Referendum; the OXI... The 'Athenian Spring' has failed except in one regard — to clarify that T.I.N.A. still reigns: There is no Alternative! After all, the election result should not impede the economic policies that have been accepted by a previous government. That's what Varoufakis was told when he insisted on his political mandate.

Megaphone of the whistleblowers

Reelections followed, Varoufakis stepped down and left on his motorcycle: a Minister no more. Now he's back, on the stage of the Volksbühne at the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz in Berlin. Incidentally, not for the first time. When he shared the stage with Franco "Bifo" Birardi at the end of 2015, the venue busted at the seams (here a video recording). Now again the event has been sold out for weeks.   

Outside, people are queuing in the rain hoping to snatch remaining tickets. On a banner at the entrance someone has scribbled: "Stop Merkel's and Gauck's theatrocraty". When parliaments turn into theatres, theatres have to be turned into parliaments: enter Varoufakis. He is the amplifier, the megaphone of the whistleblowers, as he exclaims: "Speak truth to power". And further: the EU is a "democracy-free zone"! "Democracy in Europe is dead. And we have let her die."

Can liberal democrats put up with this? asks Varoufakis insistently. The spectrum of people around him ranges from the social democrat Gesine Schwan (who ran for Federal Presidency twice) to militant activists of Blockupy, who gained notoriety after the blockade of the ECB in Frankfurt. 

Postmodern version of the dreadful 30's

There is an unanimous agreement: multiple crises exist side by side (debt crisis, bank crisis, investment crisis, poverty crisis, nationalism crisis, migration crisis). But there are mainly two enemies: neoliberalism and nationalism. 'Whoever talks about right wing extremism, should not remain silent on austerity', explains Schwan, diversifying Horkheimer's dictum. Varoufakis is certain that the lack of democracy and the fatal economic policy go hand in hand. According to him, the EU has long been the 'sick man of world economy', who contrarily to China and the US won't recover from the financial crisis, the '1929 of our generation'.

DiEM0216 Session One, Volksbuhne.

DiEM0216 Session One, Volksbuhne. Arno-image. All rights reserved.If we want to avoid a postmodern version of the dreadful 1930's, we need to break through the vicious cycle of austerity, recession and authority: the more austerity is prescribed, the bigger the recession will grow and the more authority is needed by the governments to push through austerity, which in turn will lead to more recession, and so on... But what is there to be done?

The answers to this question strongly diverge, sometimes even within the same party. Dieter Dehm of the LINKE am Morgen called on everyone to stop holding the 'primitive' belief that the crisis can be surmounted with 'more Europe' and instead to opt for the national welfare state. The Federal Chairwoman Katja Kipping on the other hand argued in the evening that 'the Demos cannot be a national one'. Today the alternative is: transformation into a transnational democracy or organized barbarism.

Much remains unclear

10.02.. Day one after the kick-off. Just now I have joined the DiEM movement per mouse click. Much remains unclear. Is DiEM to turn into a political party like Podemos in Spain? A social movement? Or a think tank? The dream of a marriage between capitalism and democracy is over. The dream of a powerful nation-state too, explains Srecko Horvat, the left-wing thinker behind Varoufakis.

DiEM0216.Volksbunhe. Session one.

DiEM0216.Volksbunhe. Session one. Srecko Horvat chairs. Arno-image. All rights reserved.Is there a European dream? A democratic dream? Or is it rather a question about finally waking up? Only one thing is clear: we can no longer accept opacity. 'We are allergic to a lack of transparency'. Citizens become more and more transparent, institutions become more and more opaque.

The European process of decision-making can no longer take place behind sealed doors, as in the case with the TTIP negotiations. A beam of light needs to break through the dark, the documents need to be publicized (as is common at the US FED), the meetings ought to be broadcast in live streaming. This demand could change everything - just like in a mediocre Sci-Fi-Paranoia-movie. Everything remains normal, until a tiny change occurs, a button pushed by accident, and suddenly all hell breaks lose. This simile obviously came from Slavoj Zizek, who promises: 'Stay truthful to your particular demand and things will start to happen.'

We need you like in 1937

DiEM could turn precisely into such a Sci-Fi-movie: is the market the Matrix? Didn't the EU start as a cartel for coal and steel, a kind of OPEC? Will we opt for the right pill? Did the vision of a unified Europe once seem just as utopian as the demand for its democratization? And is it not utopian to hope for the preservation of the status quo, in light of the crisis? As the thought of the Sci-Fi-movie crosses my mind, the evening event starts on livestream. I follow everything from my couch after having taken part in the work groups during the day.

An interesting mix of people has formed around 'Yanis' on stage, almost familiar, even though their outlooks differ greatly: politicians, activists, artists like Brian Eno, virtual revolutionaries like Julian Assange (who joined via video), but also activists turned politicians like Gerardo Pisarello, the first representative mayor from Barcelona, who talks fervidly of a 'network of rebel cities' and who demands international brigades: 'We need you like in 1937.'

DiEM0216.Session 3.Volksbuhne. Marga Tsomou.

DiEM0216.Session 3.Volksbuhne. Marga Tsomou. Arno-image. All rights reserved.This indicates that the notions of democracy diverge widely. This was already clear at the beginning of this long day as Marga Tsomou reported about a general strike that took place in Greece last week. Curiously no one demanded that the government step down. This means: the game is over. No one believes in democracy any more. At least not in its institutional form. The demand for democracy however, is as big as ever.

Ulrike Guérot, (European Democracy Lab) warns of a 'wild democracy' on the streets and squares: Democracy is not only participatory but also a functional organization. Europe needs to become a republic, a res publica. But according to French participants, the citizens of Europe are not equal. During that very night, a law had been voted through in France which will deny civic rights to all those who are considered a national security threat.

DiEM026.Session 2,Volksbuhne. Ulrike Guerot.

DiEM026.Session 2,Volksbuhne. Ulrike Guerot. Arno-image. All rights reserved.

National security threat

That's exactly the message ISIS tries to convey to young Muslims: 'You are not part of the republic.' And what about the millions of refugees who came to Europe last year? Or what about Jacob Appelbaum? A partner of Edward Snowden, 'American by birth, but immigrant by political circumstances', he declared: 'I came to Europe with the promise of democracy.'

Insistently Appelbaum called for a greater social autonomy against the backdrop of omnipresent surveillance. But how to achieve it? Some in the meeting were enthusing about the potentialities of the social media: 'Martin Luther King didn’t have social media, we do!'. Others however, warned of its dangers: 'Even if you don’t use the internet, the internet uses you.'

The Internet as the popular academy for the new movement?

Geert Lovink of the Institute of Network Cultures made clear that the Internet is anything but 'horizontal'. It is a vertical power structure - and it does not belong to us. At the same time, it became evident that activists can learn all kinds of methods that developed with the use of the Internet: organized networks that interact without being physically together. They make us question the left myth of 'unity' and learn new types of openness.


DiEM0216.Sessin 3.Volksbuhne. Hilary Wainwright. Arno-image. All rights reserved.An Italian dissident hits the mark: 'We are building a strange left.' Members of the Green party from France and Hungary, United Leftists from Slovenia, critics of the media from Holland, activist publicists like Hilary Wainwright of Red Pepper or Sławomir Sierakowski of Krytyka Polityczna, initiatives like European Alternatives, the European Movement from Italy, the Transform!-Network (European Network for alternative Thinking and Political Dialog) from Austria, the Right to the City-Movement from Croatia, Alter Summit from Belgium, or Right to Change (equality democracy justice) from Ireland, the veterans of (free thinking for the world) or the media-enthusiasts of, etc. A start into a new democratic modernity?

The economists were talking about cutting debt, about unconditional basic income and about how a New Green Deal can be an incentive for new investors. Others suggested local economies and alternative currencies and evoked the suppressed histories of local communities which support one another through a system of contracts (similar to the Hanse which no Empire dared to attack).

The main problem of the Left

One of the main questions was whether politics should become the centre of attention or whether the economic and social problems should be dealt with first. Isn't it the main problem of the Left not to be able to give a new perspective to the people, now that it cannot promise to raise their salaries any more?

The Right has a simple answer to this: we stop the migration and your salary remains the same. The labour union official Hans-Jürgen Urban (IG Metall) lamented how difficult it was to convince German workers to stand up for their European fellows, as for instance in Greece. The activist unionists’ RIGHT TO CHANGE from Ireland on the other hand were raving about the past labour disputes in Germany, during which the workers supported factory strikes. If the strike succeeded, it started all over again in a new factory.

Just like those factories, the different countries need to support each other: PUTTING THE DEMO BACK INTO DEMOCRACY and this means: Putting feet on the streets! Elections are coming up in Ireland. On 20 February (one week before elections) a big demo will take place: “Show us the support of the European people!”

DiEM0216.Volksbuhne. Session 3.

DiEM0216.Volksbuhne. Session 3. Arno-image. All rights reserved.The activists of the Altersummit, for their part, invited everyone to travel to Brussels on the 24 February where a lawsuit against TTIP will be negotiated in the constitutional court of Brussels: “We need a second Seattle on a continental platform!”

Common experiences

Most importantly, social bonds need to be formed on the basis of common experiences. Reasons for such bonds exist aplenty: 2017 elections are coming up in France and in Germany. While Marine Le Pen of the Front National can hope to become France's first female president, the right-wing populists of the AfD ('Alternative für Deutschland' - Alternative for Germany) have become the third-strongest party in Germany. Furthermore, Germany will be chairing the G20 in 2017.

Therefore the activists of blockupy have decided to relocate their activities to Berlin and have called for an autumn-mobilization with the aim of occupying squares all over Germany's capital and block the 'German Europe': 'the German elections have to be europeanized.' Whether Europe will turn into a res publica or whether a European Commune will develop can probably only be determined in 2025.

But if it is true that 'democracy' has merely been an empty signifier, it is now important to redefine its meaning. Or to revolutionize it. That will be this year's focus of the Jour Fixe Initiative Berlin which started last Sunday with a lecture by Alex Weipert on the 'second revolution' in Germany: the Rätebewegung (council movement) of 1919/20.

Another Europe is possible?

The Rätebewegung failed mainly due to a lack of supra-regional coordination. But this would hardly be a problem today. What we can learn from this period is, that we do not need to choose between Parliament (Party) and plenum (council) right away but that both can - no: must! - coexist.

DiEM0216.Volksbuhne. Session 3 - Mary Fitzgerald chairs.

DiEM0216.Volksbuhne. Session 3 - Mary Fitzgerald chairs. Arno-image. All rights reserved.This is the only way to revive democracy: through gatherings, assemblies, town hall meetings and conventions like this one in the Volksbühne. The Icelandic Pirate Party demonstrates how to do it: in Iceland a new constitution has been written with the direct participation of its citizens. Another Europe is possible? “It’s not only possible, she is on her way – sometimes I can feel her breathing…”


Thanks to Moh Hamdi for translating from the original German, published here on February 11, 2016.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData