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Re-imagining Europe: re-imagining democracy

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People across Europe are critiquing the morality of the political and economic system. Globalisation has helped to engineer an empty democracy, with political-economic processes depoliticised and decisions made by experts. And what of the European dream? “Whoever can understand it, that is ‘the movement’." A Subterranean Politics roundtable discussion.
Tamsin Murray-Leach
8 October 2012

This discussion was hosted by OSI-Brussels (Open Society Foundations), on June 21, 2012. The initial report of the Subterranean Politics project was launched before an invited audience of policy-makers, civil society and journalists on June 21 at The Social Platform (Platform of European Social NGOs), Brussels. Following a presentation by Professor Mary Kaldor and Dr Sabine Selchow, a session was held with the contributing field teams, beginning with two questions: whether the current protests were due to austerity measures or indicated a deeper crisis of representative democracy across Europe; and how, practically, could Europe be reframed so that it became a democratically contested political space?

Is it possible to re-imagine Europe, collectively? One of the key findings of the initial research into Subterranean Politics is that there is very little confluence between younger activists in the newer protest movements, who are concerned primarily with national and/or systemic global issues, and those activists and intellectuals debating the future of Europe. This round-table brought together the Subterranean Politics field teams with a small group of intellectuals, policy advisers and activists: an opportunity to ‘reframe’ Europe and the crisis discourse, and stimulate future debate on Europe. The following were present: 

Mary Kaldor, Professor of Global Governance, LSE ( openDemocracy columnist); Sabine Selchow, Fellow, LSE; Sean Deel, LSE (London field team); Paolo Gerbaudo, American University in Cairo/now Kings (Trans-European initiatives field team); Jody Jensen, ISES (Hungarian field team); Louisa Parks, EUI (Italian field team); Geoffrey Pleyers (Trans-European Activists field team); Jordi Vaquer (Spanish field team); Rana Deep Islam (Stiftung Mercator); Catherine Fieschi (Counterpoint); Heather Grabbe (OSI-Brussels); Wojtek Kalinowski (Veblen Institute for Economic Reforms); Péter Krekó (Political Capital Institute); Armin Langer (Hungarian Garlic Front); Gian Giacomo Migone (University of Turin); Virginia Mucchi (Avanti Europe!); Mike Richmond (The Occupied Times of London); Ferran Pedret Santos (author of When the Unexpected Happens: the 15M and the Left ); Florent Schaeffer (Initiatives Pour an Autre Monde); Mike Sabbagh (The Occupied Times of London).

The economy, stupid? 

Prompted by the findings of the report, which indicated that, despite the prevailing emphasis on the economic crisis, the protests were ‘all about politics’, the roundtable began with this assertion. Some reluctant to lose the economic critique, initially disagreed: it may not be the economic crisis that is creating the protest response, but it is born of an economic paradigm, which is equally an economic and political project. This, added Mike Richmond (The Occupied Times of London), leads to a suffocating commodification of life – and part of the raison d’être of the Occupy the London Stock Exchange camp, to cite just one of the 2011 protests, was to provide a concrete alternative - to answer the ‘there is no alternative’ economic message coming from the political elites; ‘Power is with finance, not with politicians’.  Geoffrey Pleyers (Trans-European Activists field team, University of Louvain) was also keen to point out that to focus on the present ‘crisis’ is misleading, since the problematic economic model that has engendered it has been in place long before the current disruptions, while Ferran Pedret Santos (Spanish solidarity lawyer, author and activist) added that the present situation is simply highlighting the weakness of this model, particularly to those in manual labour roles who are suffering the most; that the current state of the economy is a ‘social corrosive; and a brutal awakening from the illusion of prosperity.’

Sabine Selchow (lead researcher, LSE) responded that no-one was arguing that the economic situation is not involved; rather, it is not a frustration with the financial situation in and of itself that has been causing the protests. So, for example, a recent German survey which showed that 80% of Stuttgart protestors were happy with their own financial situation, also showed them frustrated with politicians and the political system. Gian Giacomo Migone (University of Turin) also refused to attribute responsibility solely to finance, adding that in Italy the frustrations of the unemployed are ‘economic, yes, but political in terms of power’ – politicians who show a complete lack of understanding or willingness to address the limited ‘options’ of the young are a major driver.

Authority and the credibility gap

This latter factor, the sense that politicians are out of touch with the populace, was brought up again and again. Despite the fact that ‘the crisis has strengthened those who engineered the crisis’ (Migone), this lack of understanding was not necessarily attributed to malice, but rather blindness, wilful or not. As Migone put it, politicians ‘have let down their own children’. It was noted that even though Keynesian economics had been making a comeback on the academic side along with other alternative models to unfettered neoliberalism, policy makers appear incapable of acting upon such recommendations. It was not a particular stripe of politician that was felt to be the cause; in the United States as well as in Spain, noted Jordi Vaquer (Spanish field team, CIDOB), the protestors felt ‘betrayed by their own’; in other words, by politicians on the left in whom those protesting had retained some faith. It was agreed that both politicians and the media appear ‘10-15 years’ behind popular sentiment; an example given was the response to topics discussed on the UK current affairs television programme Question Time, where ‘tweets tackle issues in a way that the politicians [on the show] do not; the media and politicians are not responding to reality.’ (Richmond). Similarly, Pedret Santos asserted that in Spain the debates occurring in squares across the country were years ahead of political debates: ‘not even radical politicians understand what’s going on in the squares.’ But it is not only that politicians are not responding; discussants believe that we are witnessing a demise in both the old ways of doing politics, and political parties themselves, even as new independents – particularly populist-based ones – rise. Pedret Santos believes that many of the current political parties in Spain may not exist in a decade; furthermore, that those political forces stepping up to take their place, particularly on the left, cannot even really be called movements, let alone be neatly split into parties. “It’s more like a new political climate – whoever can understand it, that is the ‘movement’” (Pedret Santos).  

Catherine Fieschi (Counterpoint) cited studies by Demos in which it was found that popular sentiment in fact goes further than a frustration with politicians, but includes ‘a real hatred of elites, and broader than elites – deference no longer smooths the way’. This crisis of expertise, she believes, leads to a crisis of institutions, which in turn presents a very deep rooted challenge to democracy. There was a general consensus on this; both linked to the general frustration with politicians and beyond. Migone added that at the elite level, for many politicians, democracy seems to be a minor concern; do they sense that political power is on the way out, supplanted by unbridled finance?  According to Pleyers, we are witnessing the structural limitations of representative democracy. Globalisation has helped to engineer an empty democracy, with political-economic processes depoliticised and decisions made by experts. And as Pedret Santos noted, the institutional architecture of our current democratic institutions is based on fragile assertions when it comes to both  legitimacy and representation. Now, at both the European and the national level, these assertions are being seen to be false.

However, Pleyers suggested, as with his observation that the economic model that lies beneath the current crisis has been present for many years, perhaps it is not that the state of democracy now is worse than it has been in the past, but rather that there is presently a bigger gap between the realities of life as lived and the aspirations of citizens; that new technologies allow people to see how others live, while the markets sell dreams and distant possibilities. Is what we are witnessing now a desire for the deepening of democracy – the next step in the history of the democratisation of democracy? Pedret Santos noted that in Spain there are many actors working for exactly that: the creation of the substance of democracy. A real democracy, argue the Real Democracy Now group, for example, should not only recognise equals, but should create equals; and the minimum requirement of a democracy should be that citizens can negotiate their own lives. Instead, the reality is that European democracies do feel less democratic than in the past, as people are being dispossessed of the welfare state – of the equality of the European dream. However, Pleyers responded with a caveat for pan-European reactions: current reactions to the state of democracy do depend on the national context: for example, in France, citizens believe that there are still viable political alternatives, which is why so many vote in their elections. 

The generational aspect of the current crisis, and of reactions to the crisis, was also much discussed. The public sentiment, as Migone put it, is that the younger generation is a ‘screwed generation’: a generation leaving higher studies without the prospect of any job, in many cases, let alone a permanent one. But others, particularly Vaquer, were keen to point out that although yes, many of the protestors in Spain, like those before them in Portugal, are part of this generation that have ‘been left out in the cold’, it could actually be hindering progress and change that this generation is so ‘victimised’ in the press. Historically, it is not the worst economic situation that any generation has ever faced, and nor is it actually the younger generation who are the most vulnerable in the face of austerity cuts, but rather those aged 40 and above, who are losing jobs and benefits and less likely to be hired on short term contracts. He argued that the constant reproduction of the stereotype of the ‘screwed generation’ paints neither an accurate picture, nor an empowering one, and that a more accurate reframing of the generational situation was necessary – one that, for example, includes the many older people across Europe taking part in various protests, who are routinely ignored in a mainstream media that often portrays activists as young and unemployed. 

When is a crisis not a crisis?

This need to reframe the crisis became particularly obvious when there was any discussion of the ‘so-called movements’ or protestors themselves. ‘So-called’, because it was agreed that these protests and actions were the result of fluid, shifting collective actions, rather than easily definable movements as such. As the activists from The Occupied Times of London were keen to point out, ‘Occupy is not something to pin hopes on. The media always presented it as something much bigger than it was …but Occupy is really nothing. It doesn’t exist. It’s an umbrella….’ Their point was that, like so many of the other actions of 2011, Occupy was primarily about providing both a physical and mental autonomous space for debate, and an alternative to the neoliberal vision of society presented as de facto, not a cogent movement aimed towards a specific goal. ‘The protests are a symptom, not an amazing new thing; but they are a way to explode some sacred cows’ (Richmond). Some present, notably those involved in policy planning and making, expressed frustration that the protests, particularly the Occupy protests, seemed to lack focus, arguing that without specific demands and targets, little could be accomplished. But the response again brought up the importance of frames and reframing. This is not really about outcomes; it is about the process of creating these alternative models, noted many of the activists and academics present, echoing one of the major findings of the report; it is a reaction against the disempowerment of political agency and ‘an attempt to short circuit this whole [neoliberal] way of thinking’ (Mike Sabbagh, The Occupied Times of London), as more and more people ‘lose fear’ and are ‘able to point out the contradictions of the current social and economic functions’ (Pedret Santos).  

Selchow questioned if, in such a context, one wanted to use the traditional civil society approach to finding solutions, that is, to take an agent-centred approach of goals and targets. Or is it time to move beyond this, to examine the sociology behind the current eruptions, the emotions underlying the protests, and in doing so take steps to shift the public discourse? Even by calling it a crisis, she noted, we put ourselves in a frame, one of loss; yet if we look at it differently, as many of the protestors are attempting to do, perhaps we can see more positively; perhaps there is much to be gained, not lost? [Note: the country reports support what was said in the meeting; for example, in the London interviews, activists were very reluctant to specify ‘targets’ of their actions, but rather wished to create a discourse of alternative futures]. 

Reframing is key, for example, in the activism of the Hungarian Garlic Front, a satirical group based in Budapest. Armin Langer, one of the founders, claimed that ‘most protest is boring – you go on a march, go home, go to bed, and there is no consequence … we’re not a mock party, but a group of artists, intent on highlighting the ridiculousness of current politics. Protest is subjective, as is art.’ Pleyers emphasised this rise of what he dubs the ‘way of subjectivity’ in activism; his research shows that whereas in the 90’s and early part of the current century, activists appeared to have more faith in working through NGOs and other institutional channels, at the present time there is a shift to an attempt to live the type of futures that they are campaigning for, in order to ‘break down the illusion of prosperity and bring back the idea that something else is possible’. 

Along similar lines, the bubbling up of emotions – both negative and positive – in subterranean politics was frequently raised. Jensen asked why the crisis was almost never discussed as a moral crisis, pointing out that Hungary has been suffering through economic and political crisis for at least the past twenty years; what is new now, she believes, is that people are critiquing the morality of the political and economic system, a critique that is found across Europe. She also put forward the rise in mental health issues alongside the rise in inequality across Europe as an indication of systemic decay, an opinion echoed by Sabbagh and others. 

Populism v. people’s sovereignty 

The concurrent rise in populism was also discussed, as yet another symptom of the decline in faith in political institutions, and an example of the bubbling up of emotions of fear and anger. Subterranean politics may also be of a populist nature; like those on the left, these so-called movements both operate primarily below the mainstream radar, and not necessarily as movements per se, but often very isolated groups, groups which may be local, national, regional, international and/or global, and are far more complex than a single national nomination would convey. Paolo Gerbaudo (Trans-European Initiatives team, University of Cairo/Kings) argued that you could also see traces of ‘majoritarian populism’ in the subterranean politics of the left, with the protests of 2011 displaying both a strong national and popular character. He believed they had been framed primarily as national movements, with ‘the people’ uniting against corrupt institutions; however, others were keen to point out the solidarity with other nations also evident at the protests, and argued that while populist politics are inward-looking and exclusionary, the ‘sovereignty’ called for by the anti-austerity protestors is a sovereignty with and of the people, not one of states and politicians. In other words, while the protestors studied in the Subterranean Politics report were campaigning in the name of either their communities, the good of society or ‘the 99%’, and not necessarily for their own livelihoods, ‘global technocrats and populists are in a sense mirror images of each other: both in the service of interest groups’ (Jensen).

With populism comes a rise in both xenophobia and Europhobia, and the concern at the roundtable was that if the left does not start providing a way out of the current quaqmire, this can only worsen. Given that the findings of the report indicated an almost complete absence of debate on the future of Europe at the subterranean level, the second half of the discussion moved from the causes of the crisis and the responses it elicited to the need to reframe Europe, and in doing so to find practical ways to reinvigorate either the current union, or a new formulation of regional cooperation. 

Part II: Reframing Europe

The first step, it was suggested, was to honestly critique the current state of the European Union and other regional bodies: Europe as Fortress Europe, for example, with Frontex allegedly responsible for 16,000 migrant deaths a year; Europe as a weak, unrepresentative union, in which nobody takes political responsibility, which has no mandate (at Rio+20, for instance). Rather than acting as a defence against the damaging elements of globalisation, Europe can be seen as their agent; power can be seen to lie with the market, in the corporate capture of Europe. Described as a ‘weed’, the European Parliament was viewed as strangling other methods of engaging with citizens at a political level; while ‘the very DNA’ of the EU, its technocratic nature, though designed to reconcile vastly divergent interests, ends up excluding public debate. ‘To those of us who are older,’ noted Migone, the Commission represented the unified pact, the future. But it’s actually just a surrogate for what is needed.’

At the same time, European civil society can be seen as a failure, with very few transnational protests and demonstrations occurring and very little press coverage given to European alternatives. While the European Social Forum has lost its legitimacy, there is a dearth of new platforms for trans-European action. Virginia Mucchi (Avanti Europe!) noted that despite efforts to organise, ‘the Euroskeptic narrative is so easy; the pro-European, technocratic narrative so boring’ – or, as Gerbaudo put it, ‘organising for Europe is so unsexy compared to Occupy’;

Yet there were responses to these critiques, responses that suggested less that the critiques were wrong, but rather that the relevance of Europe is not sufficiently championed, either by the mainstream press, or amongst those campaigning for systemic reform. Florent Schaeffer (Initiatives Pour un Autre Monde) argued that to say that European civil society is failing is to ignore the many connections and vast experience that have developed over the past decade amongst European activists; that despite the lack of apparent impact of their actions, numerous side effects and long-term effects have resulted, seeds of change sown over the past decade that are only now coming to fruition.

The baby and the bathwater

Others pointed to the positives of membership in the EU, and the need to make visible practices that already exist but which are barely recognised: regulations on sustainability, for example, have been progressive compared to the regulations of individual states, and EU standards on transparency are setting the bar globally. Europeans could also be made more aware of situations in which national citizens have used the EU to hold their governments to account, such as in the case of anti-corruption efforts in Bulgaria.

Echoing the UK section of the report, Gerbaudo pointed out that protesters ‘are part of the Erasmus generation … we are witnessing the freedom of the hybrid citizen, which is very powerful.’ Over 700 million people with experiences of European democracy surely added up to a huge resource for public debate on its future, and it was suggested that in order to engage European citizens in such a debate, more could made of European identity: for example, Europe remains the least unequal region in the world. The belief that inequality is not only immoral but inefficient is one that could be championed as a European value, behind which Europeans could rally. And such values added up to the post-WWII promise, if not the current reality, of the ‘European dream’: a Europe of decent wages, social insurance and social solidarity. This European dream can be seen as a flipside to the possibility – with rising successive waves of populism and the increasingly inward-looking attitudes of many European states and citizens regarding the economic crisis – of the Balkanisation of Europe, and the bloodshed that could ensue.  Europe, or at least the idea of Europe, has much of value, it was suggested – but where is this communicated? Nowhere.

No more business-as-usual

Again, it was suggested that a large part of the task ahead lies in reframing. There is a need to reclaim Europe from the current (neoliberal) frame that has been imposed by business interests and free market politicians, and, indeed, to make visible the fact that the large transnational corporate entities can only be dealt with at the regional level and above – and that it is ‘developed’, post-industrialised Europe that could take the role in setting an example on regulation. Vaquer argued that as the triangle of society, government and business is currently so skewed, a productive path would be one that repeatedly attempts to break the alliance between government and business until the triangle realigns – following the example of the Indignados or UK Uncut, say, who consistently target corporations directly, rather than the state. At the same time, alternative business models, such as cooperatives and sustainable ‘green’ businesses, can provide a positive angle to reframe what is expected of the role that business plays in the triangle. 

It is important to aim for public recognition that there is political responsibility behind ‘Europe’; that it is comprised of policies voted for by national governments, not by a faceless EU. To insist, as some of the media and politicians do, that Europe is in danger of ‘collapse’ is not only unrealistic, noted Vaquer, pointing to all the independent European bodies beyond the monetary union, but negative and counterproductive. The idea that there is no hope in a crisis is very dangerous, added Pleyers, leading to a ‘just blow it all up’ mentality; therefore, it is necessary to remind or inform ‘ourselves and others’ of the existence/promise of the European dream, of what we might want to defend and the positives that have resulted from regional cooperation, rather than simply to throw the baby out with the problematic (neoliberal?) bathwater. Perhaps, Heather Grabbe (OSI-Brussels) suggested, if the future of Europe is currently defined as the future of the EU, we need to put the EU to one side – to start from a veil of ignorance, and ask what kind of Europe people want: then bring these ideas back to bear on the union. 

And maybe Europe as a group entity is not alone in needing reframing; Pedret highlighted the movement in Cataluña to build a federal republic, claiming that it’s time ‘to stop pretending that the nation-state, which is so twentieth century, has solutions.’ Could this apply beyond the Spanish situation? At the nation state level, protestors have brought attention to bear on the very structure of the political system, which is something that has not occurred in European nations for some time; yet it is still seen as boring to discuss the structure of the EU – even though national politics are infused with decisions made in the EU 

Key to reframing is offering alternative visions of the future: in political debates on the relationship between Germany and Greece, suggested Migone as an example, one element left out is the positive economic opportunity that the undeveloped south has to offer the north; whether you agree with development along those lines or not, an entirely different frame could be used. Yet generating new visions will not suffice. ‘We need to ask not just what an alternative looks like, but what can practically be done,’ noted Mary Kaldor (lead researcher, LSE). Finding areas for reform, and particularly specific issues and policy areas on which reform campaigns could be hung and supporters rallied, is essential in convincing wider publics that another Europe is possible.

To this, there was a plurality of responses, from focusing on and repairing the weaknesses of what is already unified – such as electing a president of the European Commission, for example – to specific campaigns around which coalitions could be built. One such rallying point suggested was the issue of immigration; a ‘broken promise’ that could be symbolic of a Europe held to account, which would bring in matters of human rights, sustainability and political engagement. However, there were fears that this could backfire; that for EU politicians to appear ‘soft’ on immigration would cause an even greater loss of support. Another idea was to champion and strengthen the principle of best practice: to establish which member state had the most successful approach to a particular issue, and then work to make it the norm. ‘What has never been proposed at the EU is social harmonisation,’ noted Schaeffer; debates on best practice would go some way to rectifying that.

European social security was a further diversionary tactic: a pipe-dream, perhaps, but certainly as an idea one to counter the focus on economic crisis, which, as Vaquer noted, ignores real social and cultural problems and obscures the connection between money and politics. Though perhaps not as straightforward in pan-European terms, debt was seen by some as another potential rallying point, as it both affects so many and points to deeper systemic problems with the current economic model.

Specific single-issue actions to engender public debate at the European level were also suggested, such as a campaign to enact the Tobin Tax and and/or to reinstate a version of the Glass-Steagall act – perhaps brought about using the tool of the new European Citizen’s Initiative. 

But all these top-down initiatives need to be accompanied by work at the grassroots, it was agreed: it is important to champion local [social economy] innovators, pointed out Wojtek Kalinowski (Veblen Institute), who are already showing concretely what alternative futures could be. This needs to be presented not merely as a ‘green economy’ within the existing economic framework, but rather a recognition that the movement for degrowth, local alternatives and Common Goods is one that is both realistic and practical (and already being put into practice in South America, for example) – not as merely an idea on the lunatic margins, as it is currently viewed by the majority. Citing the example of the successful Million Programme in Sweden, which saw that number of homes built in a decade, Pedret added that it was important to attempt to engineer interstitial change, both at the local and European level: ‘a little change here and a little change there can develop into an unstoppable dynamic’.

But it is one thing to float ideas, and another to see them implemented. Kalinowski suggested that although the existing pro-European networks are fairly institutionalised, it might be possible to engage in dialogue with these movements in an attempt to reframe both their debates and goals, transposing ‘best-case scenarios’ into more low-key ambitions for re-imagining Europe, one issue at a time. He noted that this might not lead to radical change, ‘but would make these pro-European networks more useful for the rest of society.’ And although some of the activists made it quite clear that they did not want to engage with mainstream politicians and political processes, which appeared to them ‘corrupted by neoliberal ideology’ and liable to put activists in a box of their own framing, Migone insisted that one should not underestimate the weaknesses of the dominant discourse; rather than worry excessively about the mainstream co-opting the alternatives, one should rather take a more radical approach and attempt to co-opt the mainstream. Many of the discussants, like Vaquer, saw hope in the current paradigm shift. ‘We appear to be moving from one world system to another. In the gap created by this shift, the individual has a lot more space to move: no longer confined by the old structures, not yet conditioned by the new.’ 

Coopting the mainstream: going viral

Although Fieschi, for one, was quick to argue that a large part of the reimagining process is acknowledging that ‘we are in Second Modernity; the point is that we can’t say what the future will be’, there was a general consensus that the plurality of future visions and potential solutions is a strength, not a weakness. ‘A pre-set blueprint is not the way forward’, noted Pleyers; rather, we need to continually ask what the future(s) might be. And although Mucchi saw as problematic that fact that even where there is willingness at the level of trans-European civil society, it has been gathering widespread, enduring support that is proving to be difficult, it may be that traditional coalitions are not the way forward; rather, alliances around specific topics have the potential to go viral. There are many ways of opening up the debate on Europe, noted Pleyers, ‘and we should do all of them. It is not ‘another world is possible’, but ‘other worlds are possible’ – or rather, a world in which many worlds are possible.’

What can a world in crisis learn from grassroots movements?

For many communities, this is not the first crisis they’ve faced. The lockdown feels familiar to those who have years of experience living and organising in the face of scarce resources and state violence.

So it’s not surprising that grassroots and community activists mobilised quickly in response to COVID-19, from expanding mutual aid groups and launching creative campaigns to getting information out to women at risk of domestic violence.

What can the world learn from these movements to get us through this crisis – and help us rebuild a better world?

Join us on Thursday 2 July at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT for a live discussion on these urgent questions.

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Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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