Amid a worsening economic crisis, a look at the protest movements that are struggling against austerity could be described as a two-speed.Europe An expression abused by economists and political scientists talking about the different levels of economic productivity and political integration of European countries, it also captures well the distance between countries where protest movements have won the approval of a majority of the population, and others where they continue to be in the minority.
On the one hand there are Spain and Greece, which since 2011 have seen an impressive citizen mobilization and in which the force of the movement is blowing wind in the sails of Left parties, like the new-born Podemos in Spain and the remodeled SYRIZA in Greece, which are now in for a chance of government. On the other hand there are a number of countries such as Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain, where the protests against austerity are far from representing the majority support that has been secured by the indignados in Spain and the aganaktismenoi in Greece.
Spain has undoubtedly been leading Europe in the social movements stakes in recent years. Since the birth of the indignados in May 2011, the country has experienced a high level of protests. From the “citizen tides” against government cuts to the campaigns against housing evictions, to a flourishing of associations, alternative media and grassroots legal campaigns against corrupt politicians. It is in this context of the awesome strength of social movements that we have to read the spectacular growth of Podemos, now the no. 1 party according to the opinion polls, as well as the development of local initiatives such as Ganemos in Madrid, Guanyem in Barcelona, participatory civic lists, through which movements directly seek local government power, without the mediation of any party.
Greece follows close behind. After the occupations by the aganaktismenoi (“outraged” in Greek), the country has seen the emergence of various protest actions against cuts to public spending, new forms of local associations, campaigns of solidarity with migrants and factory occupations. The relationship of the movement with SYRIZA is more problematic than that of the indignados with Podemos, as SYRIZA is more classic party, more bureaucratic. But even in this case the reason for the electoral growth of Alexis Tsipras’ party, likely to win early elections in 2015, is the result of broad consensus that the movements have been able to create in a country massacred by austerity policies.
Far behind are all other European countries, where the “movement of the squares” were killed in the cradle, as happened in Italy with the debacle of October 15, 2011 or have made little impact, as in Great Britain, where the Occupy movement was much weaker than the US cousin. To be sure, signs of activity in these countries are not lacking. In Italy, the strength of the movement for housing, the large turnout for in the the CGIL protest on 25 October and in the strike on November 14, offer some hope.
In Germany, Blockupy, a group that has launched several protests against the European Central Bank promises to spoil the party for the opening of the new headquarters of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. In Britain, the People’s Assembly in recent years has reconstructed the left front against austerity. In France, the “classic country of the class struggle,” according to Marx, has in recent years witnessed major protests like the one in 2006 against the European Constitution, but the movement against the economic crisis has proved to be surprisingly weak, although in recent days we have seen union mobilization targeted against budget cuts ordered by a deeply disappointing Socialist President Francois Hollande.
What is still missing in these countries, even in those where the protest movements seem to be more active, is the spirit of the people, in a positive populist meaning, something which allowed the movements in Spain and Greece to win the approval of a majority of the population and create the basis for a conquest of state power.
Instead of innovating practice and language in order to capitalize on the growing dissent of large segments of the population, we continue to cling to tradition, as if 2011 and the Occupy movement never happened. Or we resort to the antagonist political tactics adopted by the anti-globalization movement or we stick to the traditional union procession. Practices that mobilize different sectors of the organized left, be it independent or institutional, but that are unable to reach mass of unorganized and unrepresented, the impoverished middle and working class, the new poor that dot the landscape of the great recession, and could become the basis of consensus for the Right.
The reasons for this movement in Europe of two speeds are varied. Spain and Greece, the leading countries for the anti-austerity movement, are not surprisingly also the the ones where the social effects of the crisis have been felt more explosively, with a quarter of the population and half of young people out of work. In other countries, the effects of the crisis have been experienced in more slowly and moderately, either because the impact has been cushioned by a more generous welfare state like France and Britain, or due to a better economic situation such as in Germany, or because household savings have been used to temporarily limit social problems, such as Italy.
However, the gap between Spain and Greece and the rest also has to do with political and cultural issues. In Italy the burdensome presence of groups inherited from the anti-globalization movement is one of the factors has hindered the emergence of a indignados-style movement. But to move from a defensive attitude to ambitious majority, in Italy as in other countries, there lacked a resource that is at the basis of the birth of the indignados in Spain and in the aganaktismenoi in Greece. It’s one thing summed up the ambivalent Spanish word ‘ilusion’, often used by Iberian activists to explain the spirit of the recent protests; it means at the same time “illusion” and “enthusiasm” for the things to come. It is this that we need to defeat the resignation and invent new forms of protest at times of economic and social hardship.