Digital Backyards Forum Sandcastles of Democracy: Worldwide protest movements and new forms of organisation

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  • Sandcastles of Democracy: Worldwide protest movements and new forms of organisation

    I hope that this essay with my mostly armchair insights will contribute to the debate on new forms of organization. Mostly armchair they are, but they are also supported by a bit of street pedagogy that I’ve been exposed to while helping organize spatial justice and anti-ACTA protests over the last couple of years here in Zagreb. Still, I need to say, I’m no political nor economic expert, rather an observer and pass-time commentator, so please take whatever I say with a lot of reservation.

    I was asked to try to keep to the concrete and exemplary in my talk. And while in this somewhat summary, synoptic and speculative intervention I cannot do complete justice to that request, I’ll try to run slides during my expose with data and events that you all will be able to easily recall. I was told that the technical limitations do not allow us to continue with a Q&A session after you’ve seen this talk, but I hope that I’ll make myself clear enough to provide at least some take-away for the debate that you’ll have the opportunity to conduct later in the panel.

    And, one last thing before I start, I want to thank to Berliner Gazette and Krystian for putting together this great event. I regret for not being able truly participate in it (we all know that the real action happens in the foyer after the talk), but I am deeply thankful that the organizers have entrusted me the opportunity and responsibility to monopolize your attention for the following 10 to 15 minutes.


    Over the period of last two years we have seen waves of mass protests, discontent of citizens, civil disobedience and all forms delegitimation of political structures across the world. The events in Madrid, Tunis, Cairo, Bahrain, Athens, New York, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Zagreb, in streets and squares all over the globe, all – to my mind – share some of the same root causes, although they are differently played out depending on the respective political situation in their social contexts. Also, they all, in my mind, share some of the same consequences and demands as to what the popular democracies in the future should and are going to be.


    Let me start with the root causes. There are three. First, the global economic integration in form of the free trade, relocation of world’s industrial production and rise of financial markets has made the national economies less manageable and more susceptible to the ups and downs of the global economy. Second, the falling rate of profit since the energy and ensuing economic crisis of 1970s and the constant fear of the flight of capital has put the pressure on public administrators in charge of national economies to deregulate the conditions for capital, dismantle the historic gains of labor in welfare protection, impose austerity, allow inordinate disparity and concentration of wealth, and effectively channel the work of public administration and public finances toward the task of creating a conducive environment for capital and maximizing profits. Processes of integration have put additional strain on public administrations by limiting their ability to wield instruments of economic policy.

    Third, this has lead to the decoupling of the economic means from the political ends, the political means from the social ends whose balance was at the core of social democracies in the Western capitalist world. In concert with some other processes, that I’ll soon elaborate in more detail, these developments of the capitalist system have fundamentally undercut the legitimacy of representative liberal democracies – the very same representative liberal democracies that have served as the globally hegemonic model of popular democracy since the breakup of socialist states in the end of 1980s.

    While this last root cause might seem to be relevant only to the liberal democracies of the West, the political reactions to the hollowing-out of the hegemonic model of representative liberal democracy in the West is symmetrical with the political upheavals in other parts of the world, where demands for political transformation come as a consequence of some of the same economic processes and are opening up to the same political question: what forms are the popular democracy and political representation going to take in the future and how can we bring back the political management of economy in line with the progress of society.

    The political unrests against the long-running autocracies in Egypt or Tunisia were triggered and conditioned by the prices of food and the social disparities that are the consequences of the integration and exposure of these societies to the world market. And while people don’t want to be represented by the autocrats who are willing to plunge them into poverty in the process of smoothly integrating their society into the world capitalist system, it is clear that the contemporary capitalism does neither tolerate well the representative liberal democracy, the very same political system that for the longest period it hailed as its natural companion, a habitat where it could best thrive.

    The creation of conditions of stark economic disparity that the capital needs for the concentration of social wealth in profits instead of welfare, does not go well with the purported political equality that liberal democracies aspire to. Thus, the democratization of these societies won’t happen without the redefinition of political representation. Just as the recoupling of the economic development to the equitable social progress won’t happen without the redefined processes of political deliberation. The forms of democracy to come are essentially tied to the transformation of the economic system.

    While I don’t have the time to go into the historic analysis of economic root causes, for the purposes of discussing what the building blocks of the emerging forms of political democracy might be and where in the current crisis of liberal representative democracies they are might emerge, I’ll still try to analyze at more length how the hegemonic model of liberal representative democracy is being hollowed out.


    As the primary reason for the crisis of legitimacy of the old form of political representation through political parties and parliamentary elections, I see the historic process of last forty years whereby the traditional political parties saw their social constituencies and bases such as labor associations, trade unions, traditional societies become uprooted, eroded and hollowed out by the processes of socio-economic transformation – through modernization, mobility, relocation of manufacture, flexibilization of labor, increased precarization of work force. Where political parties formerly had to go to their constituencies in order, on the one hand, to get approval for their political strategies and, on the other, to have broad bases of supporters who could help get those plans implemented into the everyday life, now they have nobody to go to. Their words are no longer anchored in the forms of life and social reality nor are their political activities result of the broad bottom-up will-building processes inside the party ranks. Political parties no longer have their political base to speak to, but rather the target audiences and volatile public opinion that they have to convince into supporting their political agenda.

    In the course of this transformation from the party as a social process to what could be called the party as a media project, transformation that also goes by the name of Berlusconism, we are then left with two effective political loops between the social field and its elected political representatives. The first loop is that the politicians are forced to make ambiguous political statements and contradicting promises that change as the flux of liking and disliking, inclination and disinclination by the audiences seated in front of their TV or computer screens changes. Thus political process becomes a balancing act of affective politics, a zero sum game where statements don’t need to be followed upon by acts, but rather by new statements. Affects need to be followed upon by new, stronger affects. This results is a new type of populism, one where affective politics is completely dissociated from the political action and completely captured in the drive towards being affected in ever new ways.

    The second loop in the context of this rearrangement of liberal democracy comes from the fact that political actors need to counterbalance the unstable flux of affective liking and disliking in order to hold themselves in power, to secure their public presence and their financial support. They still have to produce stable strategies outside of the sphere of mediatized statements addressing audiences in front of the screen, and in order to do so they are resorting to strategies that try to avoid the participation of public altogether. They seek alliances with private interests, entrepreneurs, investors, public personalities, publishers, etc., etc. The populism goes hand in hand with cronyism, and this is not just a coincidental development, but something that is structurally tied together.

    Speaking in the context of debate about new forms and tools of communication, here we must observe a paradox: while we live in the times of internet-assisted radical democratization of public speech, where everybody can talk to the global most public, and in the times when the public sphere is becoming inundated by commentary and political statements, we can observe that the domain of political power increasingly becomes dissociated from communication, ultimately receding from the public sphere and becoming more discretionary than it ever was.

    When it comes to trying to subordinate economic processes to the social policy, these misdevelopments of political representation then work hand in hand with the limitations of the institutions of political system in the post-national economic context. The very notion of national economy in terms of instruments of economic policy available to individual states has a much more limited meaning and operative application from what it used to have in a much less integrated world system. This is particularly the case in smaller and dependent economies of the periphery. For instance, the Croatian banking system is nowadays 95% foreign owned and the economic system is deeply dependent on Euro as savings and transactions are frequently done in Euros. And while the financial sector has been bubbling up, the industrial sector has been run aground.

    The maneuvering space is very limited and the national economy – the notion that still holds high currency with, for instance, post-keynsian economists when they make their case against austerity – often doesn’t do justice to those limitations. Particularly in the current dynamics of economic crisis, where decisions have very uncertain outcomes, the political class is primarily heeding the opinion of economic experts, who are themselves not too sure what the consequences of individual economic policy decisions are going to be. Under the pressure to urgently find solutions for the slumping economies, the political decision-making process has become uncoupled from its rootedness in social decision-making processes and from larger deliberation over the general plan or direction of development of the society.

    This has lead to a situation where currently the dominant political interpretation of the crisis has become one of the profligacy of the state, implying that societies are leaving beyond there means and that the public spending needs to be cut, and not one of the wastefulness of private debt generated by financial institutions. This political paralysis is even more exacerbated where international political integrations and their inherent juridical-administrative rationality, such is primarily the case of European Union, have progressively curtailed the capacity of nation states to act effectively with instruments of economic policy to preserve or bolster national economies and their social systems. Now the solution to economic crisis and its dire consequences on social policy requires developing institutions of democratic decision-making and social policy at the level of integrated European Union area. Otherwise, the economic will continue to decouple from the political and the political from the social.

    Thus, the crisis of legitimacy has now been laid bare and radicalized by the current crisis of economic governance. Given the nature of economic integrations, the national economies have become ungovernable within the confines nation states that are still the effective framework of democratic decision making. Political decision makers are now increasingly doing the juggling act of attending to the highly uncertain work of crisis management, while catering to no other constituency than more than ever volatile and disoriented opinion of mediatised audiences. And this is a highly critical and potentially explosive moment that could see a redefinition of democratic processes, their transformation into their populist other or even an restauration of more autacratic and only nominally democratic systems of governance.


    So, this being the problem of political representation in liberal democracies, what are the ways of addressing them and resetting the democracy? The recent waves of protests have spawned a number of new forms of political organization that in themselves have a constitutive democratic claim – they are not just a protest, a demand for a different democracy, but they are in themselves already a different democracy, a form of life in common, shared care for collective being in becoming. While in many instances they did not articulate their demands or these demands varied in their normative claim, in their best moments they were and are an autonomous political process that is effectively, although maybe only temporarily transforming the existing political circumstances. They polarize the larger political sphere, and even their own ranks, demonstrating what political options are viable and what political options are not viable to break the impasse and provide solutions to the problem of decoupling of the economic from the political and the political from the social. General assemblies, occupations of public space, struggles for common resources, and practices of mutual support for food, housing, culture, knowledge between citizens, are all deeply critical of the pathologies of the current political system and are normative statements as to what are the building blocks of the democracy to come.

    If I would have to break those down, and I don’t have much time left, to elaborate any of those individually, those building blocks would fall into three categories:

    I. Decommodification and resocialization of means of subsistence, independent of capital – this would include:
    – remunicipalization of public services;
    – collectivization of care in cities;
    – autonomous, p2p infrastructures;
    – participatory budgeting;

    II. Economic democracy – this would include:
    – participation of labor in the control of production;
    – reform of taxation policies and redistribution of social wealth;
    – deproletarization through guaranteed income;
    – resocialization of production through large-scale public planning and public projects;

    III. Redemocratization of representation,
    – recoupling of expertise and participatory deliberative processes;
    – desintegration of international associations or democratic reintegration of associations.

    To conclude, the recent period of protests falls squarely into the period of deep economic recession in most of the world’s advanced economies, and it is this economic crisis that has precipitated the crisis of political representation. This double crisis is both evidenced in the street occupations around the world and the electoral successes of bottom-up political initiatives such as Pirate Parties. A ‘No’ to political representation whatsoever, or opening up of the existing processes of representation to the non-professional, non-savvy, non-expert members of the society who are members of a party that is nothing but the political base and no professional superstructure, are but two dismissals dealt to the existing system of political representation. A ‘No’ to political representation through parliament based on political parties and participation exclusively through the electoral processes. General assemblies, occupy encampments with their own organization of everyday life and social care, chaotic pirate party assemblies of internet folk, hacktivists and old-school social activists. Those are all experiments at redefining the political representation and its rootedness in the social processes. Be they able to continue or be they just a passing phenomenon, ultimately they should be understood as just that – social experiments and tentative attempts in creating the building blocks of a new democracy.

    This essay has been delivered as video lecture at the international conference Digital Backyards, Berlin on October 20th 2012. A German translation of its first part has been published in the Berliner Gazette under the title Im Sandkasten der Demokratie.

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