Subterranean Politics in Europe: an introduction

140 x 80 SP.png

In a study of Europe’s “subterranean politics,” Mary Kaldor’s team at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working with partners across Europe, has examined both new political parties and public protests, finding that all of these phenomena share not only opposition to austerity, but also extensive frustration with politics as currently practised. This week, the team reported on their findings.

Sabine Selchow Mary Kaldor
12 October 2012

‘Let’s join Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy in saying:

this is not our crisis! We will not pay!

We are not having it! Enough is enough!

Help us make sure that on October 13, in every street, in every city and in every country, the world will hear the sound of change.

Let’s make a GlobalNOISE!’


Next week will be a week of global protest known as #Global Noise that will culminate in a worldwide march on October 20. In openDemocracy this week, we report on the findings of a study undertaken across Europe about ‘Subterranean Politics’. Subterranean Politics does not only refer to Occupy. It also refers to all types of political groups, initiatives, events or ideas that are not usually visible in mainstream politics across the political spectrum.

What is striking about Occupy is its resonance. This is one of those rare moments in history when subterranean politics ‘bubbles up’ to the surface. Actually the current demonstrations, protests and occupations are probably less joined up, more localised, and not even bigger than similar phenomena our research has tracked over the last decade (gcsknowledgebase.org). But what is different about the actions of 2011 and 2012 is the way they have struck a chord with mainstream opinion. This can be seen most dramatically in the rise of non-mainstream parties like the Pirate Party in Germany and Sweden, Jobbik in Hungary and New Dawn in Greece, the 5 star movement in Italy or Respect in Bradford, England. The term wutbürger (angry citizen) in Germany became the word of the year in the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (the authority on the German language), while the term indignados (the indignant) was coined by the Spanish press to describe the protest movement in Spain, identifying the protestors with the best-selling book Indignez-vous, written by the nonagenarian French resistance hero, Stéphane Hessel.

Indeed what was so significant about Occupy London was not the existence of the camp – after all there have been camps before like the Climate Change camp or the anti-war camp in Parliament Square and indeed many of the protestors were veterans of these camps. Rather it was the debate that was generated inside one of most establishment British organisations, the Church of England, so much so that the camp led to the resignation of two high-ranking officials as well as a chaplain, as well as the interests expressed by the general public. Passing bankers donated money and the protestors were invited to write articles in mainstream newspapers including the Financial Times.

In our research project, we set out to find the currents of opinion or new political initiatives that have the potential to prevent Europe from falling apart. We followed a dual strategy. First we set out to map initiatives for reforming and transforming the European Union – our findings from this part of the project can be accessed here. Secondly, we investigated a variety of social mobilisations and collective activities that we call ‘subterranean politics’ in order to find out what they are about and how they relate to Europe through seven contextual studies – four national studies (Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain), one global city (London) and two trans-European studies (one focused on trans-European grass roots initiatives and one focused on anti-austerity movements).

The articles in this week’s openDemocracy special edition report on the findings of our different studies, and begin with Jordi Bonet Marti’s update on the post-15M mobilisation currently taking place in Spain, and two overviews: Geoffrey Pleyer’s survey of European progressive activism; followed by Tamsin Murray-Leach’s reportback from a round-table which met to pool research and extend the discussion, hosted by OSI-Brussels (Open Society Foundations) on June 21, 2012, and entitled, ‘Re-imagining Europe: Re-imagining Democracy’. On Tuesday they are joined by David Budde’s analysis of the new ways of doing politics that challenge established notions of parliamentary democracy in Germany today, and Sean Deel’s welcome to the first transnational direct democratic tool in history - the European Citizens' Initiative. Jody Jensen helps us pick our way through Hungarian protests that are one week anti-government, pro-European, the next week pro-government, anti-EU on Wednesday. How does this fit the emerging pattern? This is followed by Donatella della Porta, Lorenzo Mosca and Laura Parks, who show how in 2011 the demand for politics over markets, a key message in the Occupy and Indignados movements, also informed Italian protest more widely; and Sean Deel and Tamsin Murray-Leach finish the week looking for European identity in London’s global city and finally finding it.

Meanwhile, in this introduction, we spell out our four main findings:

It’s about politics not austerity

The first, and perhaps most important finding is that what is shared across different types of protests, actions, campaigns and initiatives is extensive frustration with formal politics as it is currently practiced. The terms ‘angry’, ‘indignant’ or ‘disappointed’ are an expression of this frustration. The German case study is particularly interesting in this respect. German society is far less affected by austerity measures than other European societies: its economy has recovered relatively quickly from the financial and economic crisis and it has experienced continued, albeit slow, growth and prosperity. Yet, despite the relatively positive situation in Germany, there is a striking public display of subterranean politics in Germany just as in other European contexts. There has been a wave of protests against infrastructure projects, such as in Stuttgart, Frankfurt/Main and Berlin; these protesters, so-called ‘Wutbürger’ (angry citizens), object to the lack of the transparency in the planning process and to the absence of citizens’ participation. The case of Guttenplag - a website through which activists revealed that the Defence Minister Karl Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg had plagiarised his doctoral thesis - shows the concern with corruption among the political elite, which was also apparent in the protests against President Christian Wolf. Squares have been occupied all over Germany just as in Spain and Greece. Not to forget the Pirate Party’s success in recent regional elections.

But even in other European contexts, which are much more affected by austerity than Germany, those who have engaged in the activities we have studied cite concern with the failures of democracy as the reason for engagement and protest rather than austerity per se.  For instance, the 15-M Movement in Spain, which triggered the spread of Occupy in Europe, was not simply a reaction to austerity policies. Rather, it was inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square, as the symbol of the Arab Spring. This concern with politics, that is, the general frustration with current political practices, was apparent in the symbols and the slogans that were used in the 15-M Movement including the widespread use of Egyptian flags and slogans such as ‘Apolitical? Superpolitical’, ‘A Cairo in each neighborhood’, and ‘It isn’t the crisis, it’s the system’ (Spain Study).

Indeed, what is so remarkable about our research is that a deep disappointment with the political system as such was found in every single one of our case studies, even though there was little connection between them. ‘There’s a lot to be said about frustrations with political processes’ Martin from Occupy LSX told us, ‘this is a screwed up system in terms of allowing people to have a say, policies for the common good, informed debate [and] critical media coverage,’ (London Study).

Statistical data on trust in government and political parties collected by Eurobarometer supports the contention that it is frustration with politics that motivates the protestors and resonates with a wider public. Among European countries, 62% (Germany -lowest) and 80% (Spain and Italy-highest) of their respective populations tend not to trust their governments, while 78% (Germany-lowest) and 86% (UK highest) tend not to trust political parties.

It’s about democracy but not as usual

The frustration with the political elite and the lack of participation is something that is shared both by populist movements and by what might be described as more emancipatory movements and initiatives. The difference is that the latter try to pioneer their own forms of participation and to develop new techniques of dialogue and democratic practice. Our second finding is that there is not simply dissatisfaction with a particular fault within the (formal) system of representative democracy, but with the nature of what has come to be practiced as ‘democracy’ more generally. ‘They call it democracy and it isn’t’, was one of the slogans among protesters in Spain (Spain Study).

A striking conclusion from all the case studies is the importance of the subjective experience of participating in politics in a new way, of reconstructing democracy out of one’s own actions. Pleyers (2010) describes this type of politics as prefigurative action; the attempt to practice the kind of democracy that the participants imagine. This has been the primary attraction of Occupy, which experiments with forms of participation like daily assemblies and consensus decision-making and insists on horizontality and leaderlessness. This experimentation was pioneered by the Spanish movement and copied all over Europe, as well as in other parts of the world. Several German interviewees, for example, stress that it was videos of the Spanish Assemblies on YouTube that motivated them to join. ‘My heart was beating. I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying but I thought: awesome! They meet in a public square and they talk to each other.’

The 2.0 culture

Our third finding has to do with the role of the Internet in recent public displays of subterranean politics, or, more precisely, with the ethos of web 2.0. The growing relevance of the Internet in everyday life, especially social networking applications, such as Facebook, and micro-blogging sites, such as Twitter, is undisputed. But much more important than the widely documented use of various online applications as a tool for networking purposes is to understand the role of the Internet, more precisely, the ethos of web 2.0, as a ‘cultural context’ that evolves from, plays back into and is manifest in contemporary subterranean politics and its actors. David Gauntlett nicely explains the nature of web 2.0: instead of being about ‘searching and reading’, as was Web 1.0 with its static web presentations, Web 2.0 is about ‘writing and editing’ (in Moore and Selchow 2012). In this sense, web 2.0 is not simply about specific technological innovations and applications but about an ethos of how to ‘do things’. It is about ‘the disappearance of the signature’ (Pierre Levy quoted in Lister et al). That is, it blurs the distinction between authors and readers, bringing about the notion of collective production and reproduction.

It is this ethos that turns out to be a salient feature of subterranean politics in our case studies. First, there is of course the preoccupation with Internet freedom and open content as issues of debate that are more or less explicitly present, as in the case of the Pirate Parties, the various occupations and, of course, the hactivist group Anonymous. But secondly it is also evident in broader organisational forms. The Germany Study uses the concept of ‘swarm intelligence’ (see article by David Budde) to describe collective action based on horizontality, replaceabilty and leaderlessness that is characteristic of both online activism and the occupation of squares.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is the preoccupation with process - inclusion, accountability and transparency - that is often more important than specific demands. The new movements are often criticised for their lack of political prgrammes but the absence of a specific demand need not be dismissed as a shortcoming; rather it is a manifestation of a different, 2.0 culture that (potentially) transforms (the idea of) politics and the nature of political actors and that is about processes rather than outcomes.

Europe is invisible

Our fourth finding is that Europe (or the European Union)  does not play a relevant role in the debates and protests that we have studied. In the few instances in which it is ‘visible’, it tends to be regarded as part of the problem as much as part of the solution. While many of our interviewees regard themselves as European in terms of life experience, Europe as a political community or a public space only seems to exist for a small ‘expert’ minority. In interviews, the subject of Europe rarely came up unless explicity raised. This does not mean that there were no expressions of solidarity beyond borders or that protestors were only concerned with local and national issues. On the contrary, the slogan ‘we are all Greeks now’ to be found on many protests is an indication of concerns beyond the local. The Spanish study emphasises what it describes as the multi-scalar character of the movement – global (with links to Chile), state, regional and local.

When the question of Europe was explicitly raised there were very different answers both according to generation and according to cultural context. The older generation still see Europe as a peace project, while the younger generation take Europe for granted but criticises the neo-liberalism and bureacracy of the European Union. Those who who live in formerly authoritarian cultures such as Central or Southern Europe were also more inclined to favour the European Union as a guarantee for democracy.


Dominant political discourses are shaped by a focus on economic and financial concerns. Our study suggests that solving the Euro-crisis will not be a solution to the crisis of Europe. And vice versa, it may not be possible to solve the financial crisis without addressing the political crisis. Europe will only become visible within subterranean politics by becoming the subject of a political debate, by being problematized. If we accept the finding that public displays of subterranean politics are manifestations of a political crisis, rather than a response to austerity policies or the economic crisis, and once we understand that these concerns are not simply about faults in the formal structure of representative democracy but about a profound re-imagining of politics and democracy, which comes out and plays back into a distinct culture (of the internet), then it is possible to propose new ways to open up Europe. Europe has to be linked to a new notion of ‘democracy’ – to establish itself as a creative space to re-imagine democracy.

The current ‘resonance’ of subterranean politics, the ‘bubbling up’ of political forces  into the mainstream can have both negative and positive consequences. There is a real risk that if Europe remains invisible, perceptions of the European Union will be captured by populist parties, who already stress their euro-scepticism. Such euro-scepticism could easily appeal (reluctantly perhaps) to those who do not debate and discuss Europe but nevertheless have inchoate notions of Europe as a neo-liberal bureaucratic project in which decisions are opaque and undemocratic. But at the same time there is an extraordinary opportunity to reconstruct democracy on a trans-European scale by building on and taking seriously subterranean experiments. Perhaps next week’s #Global Noise could be a start of a new process of reimagining democracy.


Moore, Henrietta and Selchow, Sabine (2012) ‘Global Civil Society and the Internet 2012: Time to Update our Perspective’ in: Kaldor, Mary, Henrietta L. Moore and Sabine Selchow (eds). Global Civil Society 2012: Ten Years of Critical Reflection. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different 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