Dissent, Protest, and Revolution: The New Europe in Crisis

By Andrew R. Myers
2012, Vol. 4 No. 03 | pg. 1/4 |

In the waking moments of the twenty-first century, political science faces a burgeoning global movement, a crisis in some eyes, and a revolution in others. News and media hype over worldwide protests, from the Middle East, to Africa, to the United States and finally Europe present conditions for a new social movement, global and local in nature. The traditional bedrock of western society and values, Europe shows cracks and fissures that represent the potential for the decline and fall of our contemporary worldview, if not the global system itself.

How are intellectuals and academia to respond? How can we evaluate the matter at hand with any reasonableness? This paper evaluates the protests in the “New” Europe, as coined by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their implications for the prospects of Europe’s own future.

In order to understand the complexity of the growing political dissent in Europe this paper focuses primarily on the protests through historical and political contexts. Questions of the values and ideologies, though with some exemptions, are topics for a continuing comparative analysis by the leading thinkers of western society. The reality of the situation, however, will be elucidated through the key focal points of Europe and its current relation to individual and mass dissuasion with the status quo.

“The demise of European social democracy has come suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly.”
Robert Taylor, 2008

What can be said about that situation will be explored via analyzing the (1) the European situation, including brief inquiries into protest in Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain; (2) the cultural and political influences of a new generational approach to activism; (3) Globalization and its accompanying influence on politics; (4) the implications for politics in Europe, and finally; (5) evaluating the global “occupy” protests and their possible influence.

What Revolution?

The understanding of the political landscapes of current times varies widely in form and content. Some assure the larger community that threats of collapse are fear mongering in form and invalid in content. Others see a changing western world and radical departure in the ideologies of its inhabitants. Though this paper takes a negative view of the prospects for a stable, peaceful future, the tone only remains negative to expose the meaning of current events, to encapsulate the “vague” calls and attitudes of a movement protesting the current global situation. Europe, though perhaps not the most ideal starting point, remains crucial to our understanding of protest and civic disengagement worldwide. Democracy, so integral to the formation and the political identity of Europe, lies in the balance as thousands take up signs and occupy public spaces to express their displeasure.

Protests in Athens, Greece November 2010

Greek protests in November 2010. Photo: George Laoutaris ND-2

The bleak outlook offered by Robert Taylor has by no means been the popular viewpoint of Europe. Europe’s potential demise should strike the social consciousness of an entire generation of academics. Recognized ‘Europhile’ T.R. Reid proclaims in his bestselling book, “The United States of Europe,” the rise of a new geopolitical reality. In his optimistic and vigorous analysis of EU unification and its accompanying cultural assimilation, he offered a criticism of American political thinkers: “A geopolitical earthquake is taking place in Europe that will have a profound effect on the world of the twenty-first century, and America’s place in it – but so far Americans have chosen to overlook the tremors” (Reid 2004, 227). In large, this paper agrees with the sentiment, but not the implication.

Writing in the early 2000s, the optimistic nature that Reid writes with concerns not just the relatively successful economic integration of the EU, but also the general ignorance on part of the Bush led United States in recognizing the importance of Europe. However, in light of recent global and European events, his analysis seems more dated than simply optimistic. Reid declared triumphantly, “There is a basic momentum to European unification that will not be thwarted” (Reid 2004, 231). That statement, in analyzing the protests and political developments in Europe, should now not only be put to question, but used as a launching point for a new question: If not a earthquake of a geopolitical gain in stability and power, what revolution do Americans need to “wake up” to (Reid 2004, 244)?

The New, Changing Europe

The tidal wave of indicators of a recessing and unstable European economy continues to rise higher and higher over the heads of the European Union. Many optimistic Europhiles saw the coming age for the EU after the collapse of the Soviet Union, over twenty years ago now, as a prosperous era. Germany powered the EU with a post-divide surge of industrialism and economic production. The relatively smooth transition to the Euro seemed to point towards growth, interdependence and set the basis for numerous political changes in response to crises (global warming, GMO food, Human Rights, genocide prevention, etc.). Yet, the outlook as of 2011 appeared more muddled, dark and gloomy. Debt crises in Greece (twice bailed out), Italy, Ireland and other EU nations represent an obstacle to continuing the rapid pace of integration and progress the EU once offered.

The economic crisis felt in America in 2008 may be rearing its head in Europe. The growing “international financial crisis” sparked by Americas subprime mortgage crisis has dragged the economies of Europe and the stabilization of their economy (Taylor 2008). The American “Great Recession” may be contributing to, if not illustrating, the problem of contemporary economic stability. The effects can now be measured statistically, and the numbers look gloomy.

Before the American recession, “the overall jobless rate among youth was 14.4 percent, according to Eurostat, the statistical arm of the European Commission” (Marquand 2011). By 2010, the unemployed body of young Europeans grew to over 20 percent (Marquand 2011). Spain, to illustrate further, experienced a rise in joblessness from 18 percent to nearly 42 percent in that same period (Marquand 2011). The youth, graduating college and training schools are meeting an ice-cold job market, and the levels of individual and national debt keep rising.

Others noticed the rise in mass unemployment as early as July 2008. As Robert Taylor notes, “the old and the young find it harder than before to secure and hold good quality jobs that have a future” (Taylor 2008). Thus, the debt crisis of today stands elbow-to-elbow with the job crises of Europe. Nations can no longer afford to provide public goods without borrowing, while students who borrowed money to get a job now have no means to repay their debts. Europe as a whole faces a debt crises, not just nations within the EU. In what some call the “worst economic crisis since the Second World War,” the European progressive economic machine that Reid and others have counted on has stalled, and the mechanics to fix it are jobless (Wolin 2011).

The attitude of Europe, furthermore, reflects a sudden and growing crisis.

Europe, ravaged by two world wars in the first half of the twentieth-century, now faces a generation of pessimists. Economic pessimism has bled into political pessimism and cynicism. As Robert Marquand, a Christian Science Monitor journalist in Paris notes, “This is Europe's first generation since World War II to have fewer prospects than their parents, and for now, they blame the politicians” (Marquand 2011). The prosperity that post war Europe (literally) banked from the US now runs dry.

The Debt-ridden euro zone has violently and suddenly awoken the citizens of Europe from its optimistic dream of progress, revealing a nightmare of a fraying and exhausted Franco-German leadership, widespread economic stagnation, joblessness, and seemingly inept political structures (Marquand 2011). The situation, befallen to the economic crises, for many inspires “more doubt than optimism,” especially in those under the age of 30 (Marquand 2011).

The disturbing correlation between economic depression and political pessimism forms the basis of the changing landscape in Europe. Traditionally, Europe has implemented its efforts to promote democratic unity successfully, especially through the EU. The financing of developing economies, the integration of the former soviet satellites of Eastern Europe, and the codification of EU international law demonstrate the power of collective European democratic thinking, but the crisis now threatens the strength of those bonds. Instead of seeing a resurgence of social-democratic movements, there is a lack of confidence in the leadership and ability of social democrats within Europe to improve the economic circumstances at hand (Wolin 2011). The political strength of the EU seems to be giving way to economically induced pessimism.

What happens when the European social compact fails? Failure, in the eyes of European citizens, is already apparent. Though the structures of democracy are still prevalent in Brussels, the faith in their ability has waned. These downward economic trends are apparent to the everyday citizen and it has had a dividing effect on the working class of Europe. As Robert Taylor explains, “All these contemporary trends look irrevocable and they are creating a new and complex working class that is characterized more by their internal differences than any sense of shared collective consciousness” (Taylor 2008).

The collective effort to unite Europe is now in more danger than Reid’s prediction. The momentum that could not be “thwarted” has quickly dissipated. Uniting the working class of Europe under the banner of democracy has thus far depended on the economic promise that the EU could give, as even Reid admits (Reid 2004, Chaps. 3,8,9). However, the European economic crisis undermines the narrative of a geopolitically and economically powerful and united Europe. More importantly, the crisis calls into question the “unifying project that binds together European social democracy” (Taylor 2008).

The question for Europeans, much like for any people experiencing economic struggle, no longer concerns the ‘reality’ of their economic downfall. The growing number of unemployed workers and debt totals expose the fragility of collective European unity. The question instead is what to do. What does one do if the narrative of European identity is an empty concept? Is there anything in that identity worth fighting for? Zygmunt Bauman reminds us that these questions concern ‘value’, and in this case, the ‘value’ of the EU itself (2004, 124).

These values inform European identities and, particularly in the case of Europe, those values typically pushed for a better state of reality, “rather than settling for the state it was in” (Bauman 2004, 124). When the EU fails to accomplish that metanarrative, the natural reaction is not just a crisis of economic and political proportions, but one of European identity itself. The occupy movements from Spain to Greece and Britain are demonstrating such a phenomenon of pessimism amidst crisis.

Protest in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Britain

As the numbers of protestors throughout Europe grow, the reality that each nation faces is the economic crisis and political pessimism accompanying the amorphous ‘movement’ for change. America, the Middle East and Africa do not hold the only claims to occupy movements, political protests and general civil disobedience. Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain all demonstrate the new political pessimism as twenty-first century activism.

In Spain, the now famous “Puerta del Sol” movement, inspired by the youth activism in the Arab Spring and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the United States, began as a outcry against the status quo of economic instability and political failing (Marquand 2011). Jobless graduates, indebted students and other disenchanted Spaniards gathered to discuss their situation. A 44 percent youth unemployment rate no doubt inspired anger and frustration on the part of several students occupying the Puerta de Sol Square in Madrid, but the movement gained notoriety when police forcibly evacuated the square (Marquand 2011). After some ingenious planning and twitter campaigning (one that has grown to include over 70,000 followers), the movement gained enough collective momentum to not just acknowledge the severity of the economic reality in Spain, or protest the lack of Jobs, but to raise questions about the bigger issues inherent in the status quo (Marquand 2011).

These discussions include the value questions Bauman connects to Identity. Protestors question not only the job situation but also “what it means to be human, what values and truths to accept, how people should be treated, how democracy should work, the role of free markets, money, the social contract, [and] community" (UPI 2011). In Madrid, the identity crisis over the European narrative of progress heads the discussion. Alberto Canfran, a 25 year-old biologist in Madrid, explained that "Other generations were living in good times, and we expected to take a ride on that . . . We saw bad times coming and did nothing. Our future is in our hands. You have to fight for it” (Marquand 2011). Only a few generations removed from the Fascist Franco Party, Spain personifies how political pessimism is rising as the populace rejects any notion of EU ability to promote success for the upcoming generation.

Italy similarly faces protest and economic gloom, but the stakes are much higher and the protests more violent. As their own dark future unfolds, facing a debt crisis and a political embarrassment in Prime Minister Berlusconi’s resignation, the economic signals emanating from within Italy paint a substantially more difficult picture. Economic experts are predicting that “the Italian government is likely to ‘implode’ before its mandate ends, risking ‘an ever more severe deterioration of the crisis in Europe’" (Evans-Pritchard 2011). Consider for a moment the gravity of such a claim. The imperial history of Rome and the undying importance of Italy in western culture is staring collapse in the face, and the populous are unconvinced its government could do anything about it. Italy’s “consumer confidence index crashed to a three-year low in October” as Italians plan for a continuing downward economic spiral (Evans-Pritchard 2011).

Dissent and protest from young Italians recognize this reality and like the rest of Europe, seem discontent to trust the EU to fix the crisis. Their “burning resentment” at the lack of jobs and a stagnating economy over the past ten years has pushed several thousands of protestors to march on Rome (Economist 2011). Unlike the Puerta del Sol movement, the dissent in Italy has reached violent levels with looting, defiling churches, lighting cars on fire and resisting police as the initially peaceful demonstration evolved into disaggregated violent protest.

Germany, long the economic power and savior of the EU, further represents a fragmentation between politics, citizens and economic stability. For some, the economic “warning signs are clear,” as Germany’s reliance on bonds to rescue the indebted countries has become questionably viable (Evans-Pritchard 2011). Germany, though not as economically ravaged as many southern European nations, now embodies the pessimistic, crisis-approaching mindset of Europe. Political debates over the future of the EU economy and Germany’s role have inflamed a whole class of citizens. Leaders like Wolfgang Bosbach are campaigning against “piling up burdens on Germany’s own children” (Evans-Pritchard 2011). Germany represents a coalition of protest not as prevalent in Italy or Spain: the dissent of the middle-class.

They are “even more focused” and have unleashed a public debate over the country’s banks and economic policy that has failed to keep the EU afloat (Economist 2011). Protests in tent cities, much like their occupy counterparts in the US, are foundationally questioning the Banks of Germany and its participation in global capitalism. The “hostility” to German neoliberalism has resulted in the formation of a political party known as “Die Linke,” the “most influential political party in the pan European socialist left” (Taylor 2009). This mobilization against the “barbaric” model of the United States and Neoliberal Capitalism ideologically rejects the “inequality, exploitation and degradation” across Europe (Taylor 2009). This coalitional and progressive force claims to be a party unlike anything “seen in Germany before,” and represents one of the few political motivations opposite the Christian Democrats, fueling a divide between the elite and the impecunious.

In England, long a foundational stalwart of stability for Europe, the prospects look bleaker than ever before. A general apprehension towards the inadequacy of the EU and the English government drives yet another protest movement, this time in London. Comprised of students and unemployed workers, the protests in London convey a political pessimism of the most blatant of sorts. In the May 2010 elections the Liberal democrats won in part due to their promise to the youth that the tuitions at universities would remain at their current prices (Marquand 2011). In December 2010, a coalition of the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties raised university tuitions from £3,000 to £9,000 (US$4,700 to $14,000) a year and the “shock ignited a massive student march through central London” (Marquand 2011).

Protestors now see politics in London as deliberately ignorant of the needy and echo the overall pessimism in Europe. In the previous case studies, the general dissent that came with a feeling of political insufficiency. In London, students no longer believe that their government listens to their voice and see the tuition rise as a disparaging example of the problem of the status quo. As a result protestors have “bused in from all parts of the country to demonstrate” against the reality they now all face (Marquand 2011). One student, Jamie Lee, boldly proclaimed that the camp is “the beginning of the end of global capitalism” (Economist 2011). Others see Britain as lost, and the values of work in the European narrative as dismissed altogether. The resulting fragmentation mirrors the situation in Germany, as one member of the far right youth gang, the English Defense League, explains: "I think the internal drive to make something of yourself is disappearing in Britain.... We can't be great again. That's how people feel" (Marquand 2011).

In each of these cases, as well as in other European protests, the common attributes of apprehension for citizens epitomize the dark picture presiding over the EU. Talking points like capitalism, the economy, the environment, xenophobia and general distrust of politicians outline the broad reaching questions of protesting students and the unemployed. The youth “say an impending global catastrophe, whether economic or ecological, is not far off. There is a lot of ‘collapse talk’” (Marquand 2011). This dystopian viewpoint of the new youth presents a challenge to the existing narrative of working within social-democratic systems at its roots. Apathy has replaced the narrative of progress and disputes the ideals that originally bonded Europe and the EU.

Youth protestors see the arch of their era falling towards a “Children of Men” like future, the ultimate collapse of the contemporary world. It is important, here, to acknowledge that while a sizable portion of the protestors fall within this category of a youth generation, not all protestors are necessarily young. Their organizational efforts have produced a recognition not held solely by the youth, but do seem to drive the act of protestation itself. More importantly, each without reservation believe in values opposed to the current order of things and contest directly the notion that the European Union can continue to accomplish something, not to mention system of neoliberal capitalism. However, as many European critical theorists point out, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism” (Fisher 2009, 8). The question then becomes why protestors believe they can undermine capitalism while also portraying the collapse of society itself.

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