Moving beyond the squares: anticipating the debate

On July 3-4, the LSE will jointly host a seminar with openDemocracy on the impact of the movements in the squares from 2011 onwards. Do they contribute to the democratic renewal of our democracies and if so how? A conversation.

Marlies Glasius Alex Sakalis Armine Ishkanian
29 June 2015
beyond squares


A shot from "Municipal Recipes" - a short film on the new political, square-based movements in Spain. Watch the full film here.

Alex Sakalis: Have you kept in touch with the people who were your main interviewees for Beyond the Squares? What has been happening to them?

Armine Ishkanian : We started the project in January 2013, doing field work between April and August/September of that year, and we’ve continued to keep in touch with some of the people we interviewed, and up to date with what’s going on. There are many rapid recent developments and academe tends to move more slowly.

Rosemary Bechler: For the people involved in these social movements since 2011, what do you think are the particular turning points in the intervening period? Are there particular landmarks?

AI: It varies depending on whether we’re talking about Cairo or Athens or Yerevan, but what we have seen in various places is that there has been a shift towards institutionalisation, a moving forwards whether it involves new types of NGOs, joining parties, or creating new political parties in recognition that just protesting is not sufficient  if you want to have a wider political or policy impact.

RB:  So these were developments that took place at the national level…Were there also different types of local initiatives developed beyond the squares that interested you?

 AI: There has definitely been this marked change at a national level, but local institutionalisation has also occurred. We saw this already happening in Athens, where numerous solidarity groups emerged from Syntagama Square, already after 2011. And that local dimension continues to develop. In London, what we’ve seen again coming out of Occupy and out of the wider anti-austerity movements is precisely a localisation of the struggle, but alongside these questions that are posed about what you have to do about wider national developments.

In Yerevan for instance, just last month there was the creation of a political party called Civil Contract and within that party there are now activists who are engaged, who are quoted in our work and had very sceptical views of political parties two years ago. Through a process of engaging in civil society or local struggles they have come to a realisation that if you want to have a wider impact you need to--and this is not a word I’m particularly keen on—but you have to ‘scale up’ your efforts.

Marlies Glasius: Yes. But I do think it is important to mention Cairo as the odd one out.  In fact, when I was speaking to people in May 2013, the economy wasn’t in great shape and there was massive discontent, but nonetheless it felt like a time of great possibility, politically. Things had been ripped wide open and at that time a lot of the people I spoke to were also beginning to get involved in founding political parties.

Now, of course, Egypt has come full circle and the environment is more oppressive than it ever was, so I think in some ways Cairo, Egypt is the odd one out in terms of context. Of course there are huge differences between all the contexts, but that is the one where full-scale nasty repression has had a devastating effect that is obvious and visible.

RB: Are former activists in Egypt debating this difference, would you say? Or is this something you can see only from the outside?

MG: Well, let me start with a disclaimer. I haven’t stayed very much in touch with the activists I  interviewed in Egypt. However I do have a colleague, Vivienne Matthies-Boon, who is an Egypt specialist who has gone back there quite a few times, and her story is really quite disheartening, because it is not only about state repression. You could retreat back into your own lives and still have a sense of solidarity under state repression, but of course in Egypt, there is also a story of polarisation, splits in the movements that the new government has succeeded extremely well in exacerbating, driving apart the forces that were together. My colleague is writing a book that looks at the consequences of counter-revolution from a personal, psychological perspective, and she talks of the trauma of betrayal and so on. So yes, a very depressing story, but not one that is occurring for the first time.

RB: To return to this question of institutionalisation – is it also the case that mainstream institutions, maybe in response to these movements, but more probably due to internal dynamics and challenges of recruiting support in more diverse societies - have also moved some way towards feeling that they have to be organised differently from the perspective of popular representation and involvement?

AI: I wouldn’t say that organised institutions, whether that is civil society, NGOs, trade unions or political parties were necessarily completely unaware of the levels of discontent reflected in these uprisings and movements when they occurred. But they have gained a greater recognition since. However, that  recognition hasn’t necessarily changed the way that they engage with movements or the activists involved in them.

On one level, we find that there are connections, but they tend to be below the radar or informal. On another level, the NGO representatives I have spoken to say, “ Well, we don’t really know how to engage with them”, or, “We don’t necessarily know whether we want to engage with these movements because engaging with activists can mark you out as being too radical, from the perspective of government. And that could be problematic.” There is this sense that NGOs in particular feel they are between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they may share some of the views of the activist groups and want to draw attention to those issues, but if they get too close they are seen as radical anarchists. On the other hand, if they are too close to government or not voicing these issues, they are soon enough accused of having been co-opted and completely sold out.  So they are in a difficult position.

That said, looking at some of the examples that I’ve been involved in where there has been an attempt to work together, either through a coalition or a looser partnerships, I wouldn’t say there are many successes as yet. They are very different in terms of the ways they work. With political parties finding a modus operandi is even more difficult because of the hierarchical nature of these organisations, which is more the case even than that of NGOs. Some of the party political leaders I have spoken to have said, “Well, why don’t they contact us?”  “Why don’t they engage with us instead of them waiting for us to engage with them?” They don’t really understand the nature and the looseness of the way these groups function.

MG: I second that. I haven’t seen much in the way of synergy. We’ve seen some kind of low-level instrumentalisation at the time when the activism was at its height.  After that, it is the activists that are asking themselves, “Should we engage more?”, “Should we become different?”,  “Should we adapt?” Not the other side.

RB: What sort of instrumentalisation?

MG: This example isn’t actually born from our research, but I had an interesting experience here at my own university where we had a bit of a rebellion and the main university building was occupied for five weeks or so. At the time of the occupation, parliamentarians would come in to talk to the occupiers and have a photo opportunity with them, that enabled them to tweet that they’d been there. But that was kind of the end of it.

AI: I can give you an example from London. I won’t name the organisations or movement involved. But it was around a campaigning issue, not related to the elections, and the activists were approached by the NGO who said, “ Let’s work together to draw attention to this issue.” The activists agreed and they began to work together and to draw a lot of media attention. But once this NGO  received funding to hire a specific campaign manager on that issue, the dynamic began to change and the activists began to feel marginalised. They weren’t being included in some of the strategy meetings because the campaign manager then began to build a coalition with other NGOs. There was a strong sense of, “Now we don’t need them any more because we’ve reached some requisite level of media attention.”

These relationships of course do develop over time, but I agree with Marlies that there is a level of shallow instrumentalisation and it is problematic. It leads the others to conclude maybe too prematurely, “Oh well, we just won’t work with established NGOs next time.” In Yerevan, for example, some environmental activists  decided to create their own NGO which has a more radical, political outlook than the existing environmental NGOs in the coutnry. They say now, “We have created our own NGO which will be different.” But whether or not it will be different in the long term remains to be seen, because in terms of how organisations function, the NGO model isn’t necessarily well suited for translating out and communicating the wider political demands that are being made.

RB: The whole issue of representation is important isn’t it? These movements expend a lot of effort on achieving consensus and involving everybody in decision-making. We have just published an article that points to a contrast in the most recent Spanish elections between the relative failure of Podemos in its aims in the regional elections and the great success in the municipal elections in certain towns when they got together with a variety of other forces. So maybe some of these institutions do have to change to accommodate some of the reasons why the square movements, such as 15M erupted in the first place?

AI: When we interview the people involved, everyone is very keen to emphasise  that they are speaking only for themselves. Their opinions, their views, do not represent the views of others. Even within a particular group. So, the question must arise - how do you progress from that statement of opinion to a more formal or structured form of struggle? I don’t know as much about Podemos – Madrid wasn’t one of our field sites. But if we look at least at what I have seen so far in Yerevan, this Civil Contract party is not a traditional leftwing party by any account. Precisely what it is trying to do is to tap into some of the horizontal structure that exists within civil society and to say, “ We’re not going to have a hierarchy. Everyone is going to have an equal voice in shaping the agenda.”

Because it was only created a few weeks ago, it is impossible for me to say how it will develop and what impact it will have. But I do think that the issue of representation was very much on the minds of those who were protesting, precisely because they felt that their concerns and their views were not being represented. They were in the squares because they didn’t feel that their issues were being tackled by the institutionalised political parties, the trade unions etc. So it is very difficult. If you’re so angry about that, do you go back to that same system? This is the struggle that you touch on, with Podemos.

MG: It’s also a matter of scale. When we look back at our interviews and what they were saying about democracy, you can see this very big push against the model of national-level representation through elections. I think political parties can perhaps embrace some different structures and be much more responsive at the local level. There are concrete historic examples of that. But to my knowledge there are no historic or current examples at the national level. I think there is just a fundamental impossibility in having horizontal participatory decision-making within a national, parliamentary party.

AI: It’s not going to work.

MG: Then there is the additional challenge of transnational movements and supranational power. Some of the forces that are ranged against the substantive policies that come out of the square protest--social justice-type policies in particular--are transnational, supranational. So there is that as well. If being horizontal and participatory is already impossible at the national level, then how do you take on supranational forces?

AS: Which of the arguments made in your original report do you think will continue to be discussed in the seminar we are having this week at the LSE?

MG: I very much stand behind our conclusion on the commonalities between all these very different movements, despite the great differences in apparent outcomes so far. I do think that the commonalities between so called ‘western’ and ‘non-western movements’ have been under emphasised, and I would continue to explore the implications of that thesis.

On our thoughts on the generational aspect of these movements, we did see in all these protests people of different ages, so we didn’t make a strong claim on this. We can perhaps talk about a generation of people that is thinking about decision-making. For example, it has become clear that the Occupy methods of participatory decision-making, using hand movements, is something that has become very widely diffused. So, it’s more of a generation thinking about decision-making than a generation of, say, 25 yr olds.

AS: What do you hope the invitees will bring to the seminar?

MG: Their last few years of reflection! Yes, we have continued to be in touch with some of them but this affords us a moment to stop and look back, and to see whether the commonalities that we recognised are still relevant. My own research has moved in a slightly different direction to look at authoritarianism and authoritarian states. I am looking at the Arabic world, but also at China and the Hong Kong protests which have so many connections with the phenomena we were looking at earlier.

AI: The people I have been in touch with in extending our invitations to this week’s seminar are very keen to engage. There is this sense they want to continue a conversation and to be involved. At the same time in the conversations I have had with some of the people we interviewed, there is a sense of disappointment and fatigue. That euphoria, that expectation, that existed a few years ago has depleted as they didn’t make the strides that they thought they would make. They want to re-evaluate their role and position and their own kinds of activism and participation. So I think there’s a willingness to keep talking about these issues.

RB: Is there a particular interest, would you say, in having a transnational conversation?

AI: I think our participants do want to see what’s happening in other countries and to compare it with their own experiences.  But there is little in terms of a sense of connection to a wider global network.  A certain amount of sharing of slogans or perhaps repertoires of action, such as the occupations, doesn’t amount to strong cross-country transnational connections.

MG: I agree. That was a strong and interesting finding. Interviewing people in Yerevan and Athens and Cairo who were not English speakers meant that we avoided selecting the people already likely to be in those networks. There is mutual knowledge, and there is inspiration but usually no actual, strong networks. I saw a very interesting instance of a failure of transnational communication when a Greek participant in one of our earlier events was trying to convince an Egyptian participant that they should never get into bed with any sort of party in power because they would end up being manipulated and left powerless. The Egyptian didn’t see it that way at the time, and he went down the path that proved he probably should have listened to the advice from Greece. The Greek vision has proved to be so very correct.

RB: How much has the accusation of being “politically clueless” let to that kind of demoralisation, fatigue and disappointment that you mention?

MG: Very much so. This is bound to happen with this sort of prefigurative politics—that’s the academic word for it – given its obsession with internal democracy and doing democracy better and hearing what everyone has to say. That lays them wide open to being accused of cluelessness. It is of course a failure on both sides to understand each other, or even to want to.

AI: But all of us are expecting change to take place too rapidly. We need to take the longer-term view. Those activists involved are not alone in thinking, “Well, if everything doesn’t change yesterday then that’s it - these movements have no meaning.” But look historically at the civil rights, women’s rights movements in the world and you can see it takes years if not decades.

Some of the political science literature is beginning to turn its back on these movements too quickly: “Oh, they didn’t matter. It was just a lot of grumbling.” But that neglect might prove somewhat problematic. These movements emerged for deep-seated reasons at a particular political moment in time and it is very important to see how they have developed since then.

MG: Because a major part of the agenda for many of them was to democratise society, this is necessarily a longterm project. A lot of these movements were concerned about their family, their school, the neighbourhoods, not just about the national political scene. So there is a lot to be getting on with.

RB: Armine, would you take us through our guest list for the seminar so we can encourage readers to take an interest in the event and in our coverage of it on openDemocracy.

AI: It is structured around three round tables and intended to facilitate a lot of discussion, initially among the people who are on the panels of the roundtables and then within the wider audience. The first roundtable is focused on looking at where the academic research on these movements is. In the past five years, a lot of academics have been writing about the protest movements and it’s important to understand what we know and what might be missing from our research agendas. .

The second roundtable of the day will bring activists together who are working in very different ways and different contexts. This is where people are invited from across the world to compare their experiences and where the questions you were asking Marlies and I earlier about transnational commonalities can hopefully be addressed. Where do they see some of the shared challenges? Do they have shared demands? We have talked about three key demands around social justice, dignity, democracy. Is that still important?

And finally, the third roundtable of the workshop will  focus on whether these movements can have an impact on wider policies and processes. It is important to look at where they have had impact and the challenges or the obstacles that they face. Here, I think, not just the panellists will participate but also the wider audience many of whom have been involved in struggles themselves and will want to contribute. I suspect that the third roundtable of the day may be of particular interest to donors, not those specifically funding this workshop, but in general, who have provided support to civil society strengthening programs over the past two decades, and who want to contribute to democracy building. Have their hopes come to fruition or changed? Look, for example, at particular regions in the former socialist countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union, and it is hard to argue that all the investment in civil society democracy-building has had wonderful results. So this raises important questions about the relationship between civil society and democracy.

Overall, the aim of the workshop is to look at the challenges of democratising politics and to think about the role of different actors in that process. Already in this interview, we’ve talked about the relationships between activists and NGOs and political parties and this is something we want to tackle on the day with the help of people coming from very different positions and very different countries and regions. I hope we will have a very fruitful discussion.

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