From the Indignados in Spain, to the anti-fracking protests in the UK and Romania from the anti-austerity movement in Greece to the Occupy protests in 951 cities worldwide, citizens around the globe are on the march.
The Struggles of Our Times
“We are the 99%” – Slogan of the Occupy movement and quote of the year 2011 (Yale Book of Quotations).
From the Indignados in Spain to the anti-fracking protests in the UK and Romania, from the anti-austerity movement in Greece to the Occupy protests in 951 cities worldwide, citizens around the globe are on the march.
Many popular movements have been gathering momentum, often in response to government corruption, massive construction projects imposed without consultation, or damaging social and economic policies. These struggles, generally played out between people and authorities have varied origins, contexts and results; they also come in various shapes and sizes, from demonstrations to sit-ins, creative flash-mobs, festive rallies or long-term installations on the contested area.
Moreover, the social mobilisations which form part of the most recent wave analysed here, are often faceless in that they are reluctant to let a well-defined leadership emerge from their ranks; they are politically aware with an evident taste for symbols and spectacular actions; they’re (social) media-savvy and conscious of the nature of the current cultural hegemony; and they aim for non-violent resistance – even though this can often be a real challenge and even a problem. But above all, they’re not limited to the mediated sparks of outrage: they’re concrete and physical.
Theirs is the politics of the anti-politics.
Though they may reject all political affiliation, they’re nevertheless fighting political battles, in the name of justice and democracy, or in favour of a clean, well-preserved environment. Beyond their specific scope and demands, these campaigns lay claim to the right to a decent standard of living in a society that takes their voice into account. This is what leads to the stunning mobilisation of disenfranchised middle classes (Gagyi).
Reclaim the Space
Natural or urban, the environment has become a major battlefield for these movements. From oil-drilling in the Adriatic Sea to the over-exploitation of forests in the north of Sweden, from contested highways in the Balkans to the disruptive high-speed rail-track in Italy’s Alps, there are too many examples of local communities witnessing their environment coming under imminent threat.
In this edition of the Journal, we present other, yet very similar examples of mobilisations triggered by ever greedier extractive industries and reckless infrastructure projects. Massive toxic gold mines in Romania (Craciun), and in Greece (Blionis), the potentially devastating threat of shale-gas fracking in the UK (Young and Lander) – which also looms in Poland, Germany, France or Romania – and the illegitimate seizure of agricultural land to make room for an outdated, useless and disproportionate airport project in France (Jadot) have given rise to determined and enduring opposition movements.
In Turkey, it’s the fate of the trees of Northern Forests (White), being destroyed to make way for massive bridge and airport projects, driven by the megalomania of an increasingly authoritarian government that prompted the Gezi movement – whose political legacy was still strongly felt in the outcome of the latest Turkish elections. And in some cases resistance has gone one step further from protest, to the search for an alternative, like urban gardening in crisis-hit Greece (Kolokouris), or efforts to reclaim the street in the name and by the means of art (De Cauter).
Beyond their specific scope and demands, these campaigns lay claim to the right to a decent standard of living in a society that takes their voice into account.
Reclaiming Power: The Politics of Anti-Politics
In a radicalised political climate dominated by regressive and unsustainable solutions, alternative aspirations are viewed with suspicion and fundamental rights seem to be increasingly under attack. In the face of these threats, the conflict transcends the political arena. Citizens stand up to defend the common interest, whatever the risks might be – and these can be extreme: death for Remi Fraisse while protesting a contested dam in Southern France, police violence in Istanbul, and prison for Italian writer and journalist Erri de Luca on the Val de Susa protest, just to name a few cases of sometimes violent state-sanctioned repression. Yet the tenacity of those leading these movements has proven to be willing to face up to these risks, and often such disproportionate responses have only served to inflame popular anger and rally more people to the cause.
So why do they trigger such brutal reactions from the authorities, even in democratic countries (Burballa) and how do these reactions end up reinforcing the very struggles they seek to put down (Bové)?
Environmental mobilisation and social struggles (Duarte, Baumgartner) share a common defining feature: reclaiming power and sovereignty over your own life. The messages may be diffuse and might vary according to the national political context, but there is one global message emerging from the crowd: democracy and justice for the masses! For the 99% that the system has failed – and not just for the few who happen to be in control of the major political and economic leverage (Schick).
Find the Connection
For a political party, it’s highly difficult to connect with movements that view the present political system as a whole with suspicion and see it as the “prime mover” of most contemporary evils, such as corruption, financial irresponsibility, economic warfare, growing inequalities, environmental disasters, and so on…
Feeling powerless in the face of these ills, a ‘democratic fatigue’ has set in, out of which has emerged the demand for an overhaul at the highest level, from the fringes of the system. A system of which Green parties around Europe are judged to have now become part.
The Greens have always pledged to transform the system from within, blowing the winds of change inside the often distant and impenetrable democratic institutions, up to the government. But walking the tight rope of political responsibility, and sometimes overstretching from crucial and constructive realism into plain conformism, they might sometimes lose sight of this.
In their preoccupations and methods, these movements share the very political DNA and history of green activism: pacifism, self-management, cooperatives, a search for alternatives to capitalism, etc. In spite of a generational change, slogans, goals and even some structures remain (Fraser). Thus, social movements must serve as a reminder for the Greens of their specific radical and militant roots, to help them reconnect with these roots, and thereby reconnect with themselves (Reintke).
Finally, connecting these struggles (Mouffe) is the next challenge for the Greens in Europe. Linking the local fights at European level, is crucial not only for the morale of the activists, but also in order to make the stakes politically visible. Reaching a critical mass is essential for allowing a comprehensive alternative to emerge.
The Green parties of Europe may have a historical opportunity to replenish the exhausted legitimacy of political movements and offer these fighters what they need most: a positive outcome as a path towards the alternative, fair and sustainable world they aspire to live in.