Dissent, Protest, and Revolution: The New Europe in Crisis
Protest and Political Ideology: Implications for European Politics
Much of this paper focuses on understanding how and where the protestors in Europe emerged, while withholding normative understandings of the protests as a whole. At some point, following a brief historical understanding of the phenomena present, the question must be asked: What does this mean for political science and European politics as a whole? What if social democracy in Europe really is in jeopardy? How are we to react? This paper argues in favor of the sentiment of the protestors, if only in spirit. Europe faces an economic crisis and the left-right divide of politics within Europe threatens to undermine social democracy. This section considers the growing reality of democratic collapse in Europe and its possible contributors, followed by a concluding discussion of the efficacy of Protest as political activism.
The Rise of the Right
Globalization may bring prosperity, but in Europe it has its discontents. Multiculturalism works within the ideal of the European Identity narrative of the EU, but the political reality reveals a disturbing trend in Europe: the rise of xenophobic politics and the extreme right. Europe, more than any, should not need reminding of the danger of political extremism that takes nationalism and racism as conjunctive values. The allusion here to fascism is not some misplaced scaremongering, but an intentional reminder of the potential for social-democratic collapse in Europe. The trend in national European politics is increasingly right leaning, and not in the centralist conservative manner many associate with right wing politics (especially in America). Richard Wolin agrees in his essay “Ghosts of a Tortured Past: Europe’s Right Turn:”
[F]ar-right parties threaten to take European politics in a very different direction: one that harbors affinities with the authoritarian national populist trends that predominated during the 1930s (2011).
There must be a consideration, then, of the causes and consequences of this growing possibility.
Not all of the disaffected workers blame politicians for the bad economy in Europe. As examined in the case of the London protest, many have turned to right-wing parties that employ strict conservative reactions embodied in the English Defense League. London is not alone. The 2009 European parliamentary elections, amidst the Greek debt crisis, witnessed a rise in the extreme right. According to Wolin, “authoritarian national-populist candidates from a wide variety of nations—Slovakia, Latvia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, France, and Italy—surged” as Europe and the EU faced impending economic crises (2011). The rise of the Tea Party in the United States may not be an isolated incident of new right conservatism. The evidence in Europe confirms a growing trend in response to globalization and the discontents that the current protestors are demonstrating.
The difference, however, concerns the new right and its ability to capture the reigns of democratic governance through elections. European conservative parties have begun to exploit the xenophobic attitudes of many to gain an electoral advantage, a political ploy that used to be merely a facet of ultra-right parties, not mainstream political discourse (Wolin 2011). Political ideology is in part turning towards racist nationalist parties like the British National Party, which recently gained its first representation in Strasbourg (Wolin 2011). In France, Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front is regaining electoral popularity with startling success (Wolin 2011).
The Austrian Freedom Party, a notoriously xenophobic movement gained an “alarming 27 percent” of the vote in Austria’s most recent elections (Wolin 2011). The rise of right parties is a reality, not a threat. Fear of others can be the first xenophobic move in the economic blame game. Why are there no jobs available? The easy sound-bite political answer is immigrants, even if those “immigrants” happen to be EU citizens themselves.
One further example paints the most depressing figure for European social democracy. As Wolin explains, “Following the sound defeat of Labour in the May 2010 British elections, social democratic parties now hold the reins of power in only two major European nations: Spain and Portugal.” This paper has already commented on the economic situation in Spain, with increasing unemployment. Yet the rest of Europe has lost national party control to increasingly conservative and euroskeptic parties. In part, this resembles an interesting parity with the ideas of the protestors: electors seem to be dissatisfied with the political situation as it stands. Unfortunately for Europe’s political future, that has led to the rise of right wing extremism. Remember from the Italian fascist movement, fascism does not necessarily deny the welfare state. In Italy, welfare spending rose from “6.9 percent to 20.6 percent of all state and local tax receipts” under Italian Fascism (Payne 1996, 475).
Fascism is ruthless in its ability to turn inward nationally to win the support of the general populace. Its controlling nature hinges on the inside/outside distinction. Hitler in many ways won over electorates by promising economic development, jobs and massive social spending while also maintaining a radical xenophobic discourse. This illustrates the paradox of the fascist movements. Though the likes of Mussolini and Hitler sought dictatorial power and “aspired to destroy the liberal political system (or more exactly, its residues) and to introduce a peculiarly apolitical style of militarized politics, they were nonetheless constrained to function in large measure as a regular political force within liberal or semiliberal political systems” (Payne 1996, 467).
The contemporary extreme right copies the same model, though not with the same obvious intentions like that of the National Socialist or Fascist Parties. Instead it operates within a xenophobic notion of who gets the benefits of the welfare state, the very same criticism of globalization that occurs within the protests studied here. If that political discourse results in an isolationist and ultra-nationalist discourse, the threats are obvious. Winning over the social-democratic system would be the first stepping-stone. As of now, Europe has but two social-democratic majorities left. What would accompany the collapse of the EU need not be left to imagination, but a startling reminder of its own history following the collapse of the League of Nations.
The Split of the Left: Impotence and Radicalism
The nature of politics and dissent in Europe may be as perplexing to the supporters and politicians of social democracy as the ‘vague’ calls of the protesting students. The “substantial electoral breakouts” of right wing parties are as disconcerting for this author as they are “bewildering” for social democrats (Taylor 2008). The denial of that growing reality by centrist democrats resembles equally their “ridicule [of] the new left as irresponsible populists with a simplistic view of democratic politics” in their destructive effect (Taylor2008).
The left of Europe, the founders of the idealism of the European narrative, has been increasingly split between the “new left” of generation Y and the old-time democrats. The Ni-Ni name calling of a young generation of unemployed citizens has distanced politicians from the populace, and the pessimism of protestors seems increasingly justified. Robert Taylor argues, “Few of them are treating the growing left movements seriously enough” (2008). The Left also seems content to adapt coalitional positions to keep itself in power. These consist of “of alliances between center-right and so-called ‘liberal’ parties” (Wolin 2011).
Though the stubbornness of liberal parties in Europe certainly contributes to the problem at hand, the possibility that the radical left may also threaten social democracy is apparent. The “surprising tenacity and advance of more radical movements” to the left of liberal parties, though unsuccessful thus far in creating better democratic conditions, has undermined the electability of social democracy (Taylor 2009). Anarchist, Communist and even some more extreme socialist parties undercut centrist democratic parties when they disavow the political system itself.
Though some of the European protestors retain an element of that apolitical attitude, radicalists remain only a sect of the protests. Radicalists, though often deemed impractical, do exhibit a list of explicit demands. The critique of protest movements comes not in their radical nature, though many have begun to turn radical as in Italy. Instead, social democrats criticize the protestors for being too broad and unwilling to engage the complicated process of politics. Simultaneously, instead of adopting the positions of the protestors, social democrats have dismissed the idea because they fear tolerance of radical left ideas undermines their political salience (Taylor 2009).
The seemingly temporary perception of protest movements in Europe reflects a larger misconception about the nature of Europe’s economic crises. By counting on the EU to hold together Europe and keep fascism in the history books, social democrats may be overestimating the economic interdependence of the union and the cohesiveness of the European identity. Those that do identify with being European, the “E” generation, have no economic means to continue existing in a socially productive manner. The crisis of budding national debts throughout the union have also tested the ability for the original Franco-German partnership to finance the union.
Thinking of the current political climate as an aberration of “fickle and volatile voters who will return to the fold in due course” ignores the growing reality that the foundations of European social democracy themselves are failing (Taylor 2008). The rise of the right in this context, however, need not be an inevitable outcome of political pessimism. Instead social democrats should realize the axis isn’t shifting right, but the left is failing to balance the right as it sticks inexorably to its centrist coalitions and ignores of the new social forces of the growing extreme left (Taylor 2008).
The dilemma of the idealistic European identity does not necessarily implicate democracy as a failure, but as globalization influences the values of new generations of Europeans, the mixing of those values produces an “inherently unstable compound, unlikely ever to solidify, constantly ready to interact with other substances, absorb or assimilate them” (Bauman 2004, 129). The stagnation of social-democracy’s ability to accommodate culture and maintain a balance of values represents very much the criticism of the protest movements. Virtues of education, peace and stability passed on to the youth generation have failed them economically. A child promised a trip to Disneyland will inevitably be upset when a parent reveals that they are bankrupt because of an inability to manage the family budgets. Only, this particular generation sees the flaws in the system, in capitalism, in globalization and in politics as a whole, and retreats from simply blaming their parents.
The Value of Protest
There remains an important facet of the development of protests throughout the world and particularly in Europe that has yet to be fully analyzed. Though the intentions and reaction of many of the protestors may be correct in content, the form is questionable at best, at least in its current state. Protestors have a correct hypothesis, but the results of their experiment are yet to be fully understood. The gloom and doom for Europe does not necessarily improve with an analysis of the efficacy of protest, and in particular, the global ‘occupy’ movement. Why have these citizens chosen protest instead of politics? Can simply calling out the inefficiency of the current political system serve as a viable alternative?
In some sense, as is usually the case in social divides, neither side is particularly viable. Social democrats may be right in decrying the protest movements as without a reasonable plan to change the status quo, even if they chose to ignore the valid recognition of the protestors themselves. As Robert Taylor further explains, “Wish lists of painless demands have always been the curse of center-left parties. But our times are too perilous and uncertain for this to make much political sense” (Taylor 2008).
The foremost analysis then involves a practical consideration: do the protest movements have the potential to succeed? This paper answers in the negative. Thus far, the protest movements have raised awareness, but beyond that their impact is unclear at best. Some have already declared that they are “not yet having any clear effect on politics, or the wider course of events” (Economist 2011). Indeed, the downfall of the protests may be their apolitical nature. Though they offer a format for effective political reflection and criticism, the movements often lack the larger support necessary to create real political change. The second prong of social, political revolution is eerily absent. Without a strategy to engage electoral politics, the ability for protest to change the reality of Europe’s situation remains somewhat remote. Jobs will not magically appear with college students and graduates exclaiming that there are no opportunities for them to work.
Greece, though not explicitly mentioned in the case studies section, includes protestors of its own. However, without the support of organized labor, Greece remains crippled and nothing in the elected government will change otherwise (Economist 2011). The call by protestors for change simultaneously recognizes the inability of politicians and the powerlessness to change the economic system without maintaining an incredible growth of protestors. The prospects of a full Marxist-style revolution seem improbable with the current numbers, though vast as they are. Indeed, the protestors “can occupy world’s financial markets physically, but they have not shown they can spook them” (Economist 2011).
Moreover, the protests themselves invariably have to consider the long-term commitment necessary to keep their issue at the forefront. Not only do such occupy movements require consistent and grueling perseverance; they will invariably face the crackdown of nation-state police forces. The Wall Street protests in the United States have stalled, as New York City evicted the tent city at Zuccotti Park (Grossman, Fox, Gardiner 2011). Similar events have taken place in Oakland, Toronto and London (Grossman, Fox, Gardiner 2011). Additionally, there is the danger that “the protest consumes its own energy” as it tries to remain legal despite the difficulty in managing an incredibly large campsite (Economist 2011).
At what point do speeches and chants become tedious, at what point does the cold winter deter momentum (Economist 2011)? The sheer numbers of protestors needed to keep the movement relevant is an organizational strain. Food, shelter and other basic human needs eventually become cumbersome drags on any movement. The practical ability for the protests to remain relevant thus faces a potentially debilitating list of obstacles.
As covered in section 3, the aim of the protest movements globally often sets capitalism in the crosshairs of the protest movement’s outrage and criticism. Yet, Europe itself is only twenty years removed from a disquieting failure of an anti-capitalist society. What if any alternative can the protestors offer against capitalism? These protests are not unique in that there have been numerous cries against capitalism in the twentieth century. In his book “Capitalist Realism – Is There No Alternative?” Mark Fisher evaluates the methodology of protesting capitalism. In his chapter “What if you held a protest and everyone came?” his investigation into contemporary protest movements reveals a conclusion that is far from optimistic:
Since it was unable to posit a coherent alternative political economic model to capitalism, the suspicion was that the actual aim was not to replace capitalism but to mitigate its worst excesses; and, since the form of its activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn't expect to be met (Fisher 20).
Capitalism, if understood as powerful enough to affect the livelihood of millions, cannot be simply ‘rejected’ in the contemporary world. Movements become co-opted in the name of eliminating the negative elements of a globalized capitalist economy. Protestor demand to move on requires something to move to, and that in and of itself appears to be more difficult than imaging the destructive consequences to come. How far are the citizens of the western, modern, social-democratic societies willing to go to defeat capitalism? These questions raise further doubt of the efficacy of the protest movements. If the movements are effective enough to raise doubt in the functionality of governments like Spain or Italy the resulting collapse lenders’ confidence, but that change to the world “might not be to anyone’s advantage” (Economist 2011).
The old guard of European idealism refuses to accept this reality. Stéphane Hessel, the last living author of the deceleration on Human Rights, wrote a call for the youth of Europe to “Get Indignant,” promoting a message “not to accept that idealism is dead” (Marquand). However, Europe needs to recognize the possibility that the protest movements may be insufficient without political integration or face the reality that they may be modernity’s “Minerva’s Owl,” the symbolic bird that flees as a civilization dies. Bauman calls this “premature termination” but raising questions of value can only be the first step (2004, 129). The protest movement may only be the first step; a public display of frustration and a call to recognize the injustice of the economic situation at hand.Continued on Next Page »