The road to Europe: movements and democracy

Europe’s crisis is a crisis of democracy. The ‘democracy of the experts’ cannot deliver: representative democracy is incapable of channelling demands in the political system. More participatory and deliberative democracy is needed, as argued in Europe’s public spaces by the movements of ‘ indignados’.
Donatella della Porta
24 August 2011

The urgency of the European crisis has stimulated debate on the ‘The road to Europe’ in the Italian daily Il Manifesto and on a website committed to economic alternatives, Sbilanciamoci. openDemocracy joins this debate, beginning with three opening contributions this week from Rossana Rossanda, Mario Pianta and  Donatella della Porta. We invite your responses both in comments and article submissions:


Another day at Puerta del Sol's square. Elena Buenavista Piedehierro/Demotix. All rights Reserved.

Movements and Democracy


There is no doubt that the crisis in Europe addressed by Rossana Rossanda is a crisis of democracy as well as, or even more than, a financial crisis. Neoliberalism is a political doctrine that brings with it a minimalist vision of the public and democracy, as Colin Crouch demonstrates so well in his Post-Democracy. It envisages the reduction of political intervention to correcting the market (with consequent liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation), an elitist concept of citizen participation (electoral only, and therefore occasional and potentially distorted) and an increased influence of lobbies and powerful interests.

The evident crisis in this liberal concept and practice of democracy is however accompanied by the (re)emergence of diverse concepts and practices of democracy, elaborated and practiced, among others, by social movements. In today’s Europe, they are opposing a neoliberal solution to the financial crisis, accused of further depressing consumption and thereby quashing any prospect for growth - whether sustainable or not.

Austerity measures in Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain have been met with long-lasting mass protests, which partly took the more traditional form of general strikes and trade union demonstrations, contesting the drastic cuts to social and labour rights.

But another type of protest has also emerged, not opposed to the former, but certainly different and more directly concerned with democracy: the criticism to democracy as it is now, and the elaboration of possible alternatives. “Democracia real ya!” was the main slogan of the Spanish indignados protesters that occupied the Placa del Sol in Madrid, the Placa de Catalunya in Barcelona and hundreds of squares in the rest of the country from 15 May 2011, calling for different social and economic policies and indeed greater citizen participation in their formulation and implementation. Before such a mobilisation in Spain, at the end of 2008 and start of 2009, self-convened citizens in Iceland had demanded the resignation of the government and its delegates in the Central Bank and in the financial authority. In Portugal, a demonstration arranged via facebook in March 2011 brought more than 200,000 young people to the streets. The indignados protests, in turn, inspired similar mobilisations in Greece, where opposition to austerity measures had already been expressed in occasionally violent forms.

Accused by the left of being apolitical and populist (not to mention without ideas) and by the right of being extreme-leftists, these movements have in reality placed what Claus Offe long ago defined as the “meta-question” of democracy at the centre of their action.

The indignados’ discourse on democracy is articulate and complex, taking up some of the principal criticisms of the ever-decreasing quality of representative democracies, but also some of the main proposals inspired by other democratic qualities beyond electoral representation. These proposals resonate with (more traditional) participatory visions, but also with new deliberative conceptions that underline the importance of creating multiple public spaces, egalitarian but plural.

Above all, they criticise the ever more evident shortcomings of representative democracies, mirroring a declining trust in the ability of parties to channel emerging demands in the political system. Beginning with Iceland, moving forcefully to Spain and Portugal, indignation is addressed towards corruption in the political class, seen in bribes (the dismissal of corrupt people from institutions is called for), as well as in the privileges granted to lobbies and in the close connection between public institutions and economic (and often financial) power. It is to this corruption – that is the corruption of democracy – that much of the responsibility for the economic crisis, and the inability to manage it, is attributed.

If the centrality of the condemnation of corruption has bent some leftwing noses out of shape (which still sees more anti-politics in the criticism of corruption than in corruption itself), the slogan “they don’t represent us” is nevertheless also linked to a deeper criticism of the degeneration of representative democracy, linked to the failure of elected politicians to carry out appropriate policies.

They are often united in creating the image that no alternatives are available, an image that protesters do not accept. In Spain in particular, the movement has asked for proportional reforms to the electoral law, denouncing the reduced weight given to citizen participation inherent in the majority system (a very pertinent theme for the UK and Italy too), where the main political parties tend to form cartels, and electors see their choices limited (for this reason equal weight for each vote was called for).

Representative democracy is also criticised for having allowed - to use the metaphor proposed by Mario Pianta in his contribution to this debate - the abduction of democracy, not only by financial powers, but also by international organisations such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Pacts for financial stability, imposed in exchange for loans to troubled countries, are considered as anti-constitutional forms of blackmail, depriving citizens of their sovereignty.

Among the proposals for giving power back to citizens are those that tend towards direct democracy, giving electors the possibility of expressing their opinions on the biggest economic and social choices. In this vein, greater possibilities for referenda are called for, with reduced quorums (for signatures and electors) and increased thematic areas subject to decisions through referenda.

But there is also another vision of democracy, the one which normative theory has recently defined as deliberative democracy, and which the global justice movement has elaborated and diffused through the social forums as consensus democracy. This conception of democracy is prefigured by the very same indignados that occupy city squares, transforming them into public spheres made up of ‘normal citizens’. It is an attempt to create high quality discursive democracy, recognising the equal rights of all (not only delegates and experts) to speak (and to be respected) in a public and plural space, open to discussion and deliberation on themes that range from conditions of distress to concrete solutions to specific problems, from proposals on common goods to the formation of collective solidarity and emerging identities.

This prefiguration of deliberative democracy follows a vision that is profoundly different from that which legitimates representative democracy, founded on the principle of majority decision making. Here, democratic quality is in fact measured in terms of the possibility of elaborating ideas within discursive, open and public arenas, where citizens play an active role in identifying problems, but also in elaborating possible solutions. It is the opposite of accepting a ‘democracy of the prince’, where the professionals elected to govern must on no account be disturbed, at least until fresh elections are held. But it is also the opposite of a ‘democracy of experts’, legitimised by output, on which European institutions have long relied.

After the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the euro, calls for this kind of legitimation, which appeal to the capacity to produce economic successes, apolitically and on the basis of specialist skills have gradually reduced. They are now crumbling under the disastrous results of European policies in the current financial crisis, and the unpopular attempts to impose neoliberal solutions to the crisis. Up to 90% of citizens in Spain and Greece express their agreement with the indignados. European citizens believe less and less in the road of the past.

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