Amid much hype, the inaugural meeting of Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, DiEM25, took place recently in Berlin. Spearheaded by the Greek ex-finance minister for Syriza Yanis Varoufakis, the event brought together a broad range of personalities from political leaders and activists to thinkers and academics to share and discuss their visions for a different kind of Europe. A Green assessment of the event.
What is the DiEM25, and what does Yanis Varoufakis want it to be?
No flags. No branded materials. At the Volksbühne theatre in Berlin, there is not even a poster announcing the event. An academic conference would at least have some of those. As the “Democracy in Europe Movement 2025” is launched, the only branding available are sets of tiny, very stylish pins of two red arrows forming the Fast Forward-icon on a VCR player. They look expensive and exclusive, and I only see two sets being handed out to speakers. I don’t get one. I am only here as an observer.
For, being the preparation towards the launch of a movement, you would expect a bit less elitism at the three workshops preceding it. The space is nice, the “Red Salon” of the Volksbühne, with luxuriant red drapes, gilt lamps and a nice view of old Mitte. The room is packed, though, which makes it a bit uncomfortable, with maybe 150 – 200 people sitting through six hours of interventions, with very little actual exchange. Sitting in the back row, we are faced with a cavalcade of speakers, all giving their input, sticking to tight time limits, and basically not being able to build on what had earlier been said, out of necessity to deliver their own messages. Since the set-up is that of an inwards-facing square, it is about a third of the time that we can’t even see the faces of the speakers who all sit in the innermost circle.
Still, for being a quite classic, broad, Left event, things feel undogmatic; even friendly. The first three speakers of the first workshop all extend their good wishes to “Greens and Social Democrats”, underlining how important it is to have those join up. I pick up none of the classic signs of any tendency trying to dominate or control the proceedings, until much later in the day. And even then, it wasn’t any classic Trotskyists with coordinated interventions, but rather a team around internet activist Jacob Applebaum. When the second person in a row ends their statement with a perfectly rehearsed “Free Edward Snowden, free Julian Assange, free Chelsea Manning”, then you are dealing with a Trotskyite mind-set and practice, if not political content. This, six hours into the workshops, is the first time I lean back and feel real political alienation from the process.
So what is revealed by the welcome given to “Greens and Social Democrats” by the introductory speakers? Well, obviously the voice speaking is that of the Left, asking allied movements to form join up in a Popular Front against austerity.
The missing left
Behind the image of a unified Left there are clearly several wills pulling in different directions at the DiEM25. The ones absent are as relevant as those present. And ever-present is Yanis Varoufakis. He is the one providing the context, the moderation, the introductions, the closing statements, always in the role of a conduit. He is the very image of compromise and collaboration. When someone complains of anything, he wants to be seen to be adapting. When opposing views have been presented, he provides the synthesis. But never is the phrase “the Unified Left” mentioned, the ill-fated electoral protest he supported against his previous master, Alexis Tsipras.
Syriza is not present. The one governing Left party, the structure on which Varoufakis built his presence, is totally absent at the Volksbühne in Berlin. And while it is impressive to have gathered various vice-mayors, even mayors, of rebellious cities around the continent, there is a gaping hole in the line-up: that of the only national government that the Left could claim for itself.
No wonder, then, that the Greens (and Social Democrats) are so welcome. They, in the end, will be providing an audience when some of the curious Left have drifted away. Left.
In the workshops, there is another voice missing: Toni Negri, author and grandee of the autonomous movement, has left Berlin early. He joined a book launch and reportedly was hanging out with the activists at the Blockupy-meetings the weekend before, but has claimed health reasons to leave for Paris. His sharp temperament does not get tested in practice this time, which is a pity. Maybe Negri, of all the speakers filling their 2-minute time-slots, would have had some words on the actual state of the political Left.
The first of the workshops, where Negri is missing, has the title “Our fragmenting Europe” and is set to diagnose the situation we are in. The most concrete proposal that came out in the session is that of a network of “rebellious cities”, with the Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, Gerardo Pisarello, drawing the attention of all cameras when he introduced himself. The electoral victories by Podemos-aligned but independent alliances in Madrid and Barcelona, along with a host of other cities in different parts of Europe, are certainly a practical form of a backbone for potential movement politics in times of crisis.
The other earthquake of 2015 is equally present: the re-drawing of political conflict lines by a strong refugee movement. The strongest calls for a new refugee politics is in the harsh critique of the hidden colonialism in Europe by Franco-Arab film-maker Hind Meddeb. When researcher Sandro Mezzaddra also places the autonomous struggle of a migrant subject as the centre point of Left-wing politics he is correct, but when Jacob Applebaum in the later workshop also declared himself stateless and thus in the centre of also this movement, it starts to feel hollow.
The second workshop goes into the methods, techniques and technologies of movement, with some people promoting their own platforms, others engaging in a “for-or-against” argument regarding the possibility of revolutionary use of Facebook.
As the evening goes on and the third workshop, the “what-is-to-be-done” section of the day, drags on and on without resolution, it feels liberating when the workshops break up and it’s time for the actual live-streamed launch with the big-name speakers. The workshop attendees break up and we join the now much larger audience, mainly drawing on the Berlin dissident left and easily filling up the seats of the main hall of the Volksbühne, even at 12 € per ticket. Many disappointed late arrivals are turned away, and even a part of those who have paid must sit outside the main hall, in sparsely populated rows of seats by a screen showing the proceedings on the stage.
Here, again, there is a disturbing fact, from a journalists’ perspective. The stage is dimly lit, giving a cosy, intimate atmosphere. But that makes it almost impossible to get decent photos without specialist equipment. The live-stream probably works fine, and a whole array of TV cameras hang on to every word, but for the photo-journalists, the evening seems wasted. Again, there is no collective logo to be seen, not DiEM25-branding. Only Varoufakis, and the speakers he introduces. Caroline Lucas, UK MP, is there. When she demands a guaranteed basic income across Europe and a minimum wage in every European country she draws down some of the biggest applause of the evening. The audience roars in their seats. Brian Eno gives a great speech as well, though the more quiet parts are disrupted by someone’s phone going off, repeatedly. He recovers, turns it into a joke. He seems nice and earnest.
The loud Spanish political style of the Podemos-speakers doesn’t work very well here, especially with everyone having to wait for translation, and especially not in the intimate setting of a dark theatre. No: that should be delivered at mass rallies, and only there. When Slavoj Žižek comes on-screen to deliver a pre-recorded message the crowd roars with laughter. The mannerisms have turned the psychoanalytical Marxist into a stand-up comedian, to the loss of all. But when accused rapist Julian Assange suddenly appears on screen to mumble something incomprehensible about “Europe is a country”, that gets too much. I walk out. Most of the audience seems to be up for it, though, and his live-stream-address from an embassy in London draws down big applause. Maybe the anti-imperialist thinking in the crowd really pushes people to think that anyone who sets themselves against the USA is worth supporting. Or that his quasi-Ecuadorian exile and flight have something heroic about them. I disagree. Assange’s speech seems to me a continuation of the only sectarian breach in the whole DiEM25-process. He is the only one fighting Varoufakis for the leadership of their imagined movement.
In order to validate the name, “Democracy in Europe Movement 2025”, especially the “Movement” part, you would expect the logo, the brand or the process to have at least brought someone out into the streets by the time it was launched. But no, that has not happened, yet. And until it does, it remains a discussion club. Largely a nice one, though very male-dominated, with about a fifth of the participants at the workshops being women, probably about a quarter of the workshop speakers; and finally, a very consciously corrected 50 – 50 by the main launch event. A very white discussion club. A very academic discussion club, simply based on who was invited to formulate the movement. Those are challenges a movement could overcome, by being out in the streets, out in the communities, out in the lived realities of people. But this – this, unfortunately, does not feel like a movement.
So, what is DiEM25 good for?
As Caroline Lucas says, there seems to be no reason for Greens to fear the platform or network as it does not require anyone to give up their pre-existing identities. By joining this speaking club, we will not become less Green, simply because there seems to be no dynamic forcing the identity on us.
In giving a recognisable face to a voice against austerity, DiEM25 can be good for Europe as well. And it certainly is already good for Yanis Varoufakis, who happens to carry the face that is recognisable. His lecture tour being extended ad infinitum seems to be one certain consequence. And why not?
Finally, the political consequences also seem to be there. Some areas, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, where local Left (and Green) movements are weak could certainly benefit from the name recognition that Varoufakis brings, a bit like Tsipras helped the Italian Left in in the 2014 European elections. Something similar for 2019 certainly is in the minds of some of the DiEM25-organisers. And their main challenge lies in the likes of Lucas, or the equally great Katja Kipping, chair of Die Linke and first speaker at the evening event. Kipping showed how close a strong Left party can align itself with the project of Varoufakis without any fear, calling for a social Europe on her own merits. Kipping has no need for DiEM25, but will happily accept the stage it provides, with all its flaws.
Finally, one would hope that DiEM25 would not maintain or deepen the divisions in the European Left. The strong pro-European messaging that Varoufakis and the team around him ended up delivering, in their “Manifesto”, on-stage and in the workshops, was a pleasure to hear. It gave a feeling of a new-thinking wider Left that dares to dream, sets high targets and goes in for demands of ever greater union and democracy. That is nothing to scoff at, but the arrival of something that should be celebrated. Something that should not be held to the methods and leaks of the lowest components, but the aspirations of the highest.
Varoufakis is no Lenin – that he showed by thinking Greece in 2015 had the same position in Europe as Greece in 2011: a system-threatening one. But we should not yet deem him nothing but a latter-day Otto Braun, a minister serving only to swept away by historical forces and live in exile ever since, pining for a return to the old. No, there are some more interesting processes in this that should still be followed through.