• The Vital Importance of Action and Lateral Power in Transforming Europe

  • By Sol Trumbo Vila | 06 Dec 13 | Posted under: Social Movements and Trade Unions
  • In recent years, the Indignados and Occupy movements attracted previously unengaged, unorganised and de-politicised sections of the population and garnered significant attention in the media.

    ‘The movements’, as they are referred to by traditional trade unions, political parties and civil society organisations, have been recognised for the key role they play in facilitating resistance to the Troika and the EU crisis regime.

    With a view to facilitate the convergence of forces, I will outline what characterises these movements and identify the lessons we can draw from their most successful initiatives.


    Understanding ‘the movements’1

    For traditional political actors, it is hard to understand the movements’ rejection of current modes of representation as illegitimate. The inexistence of recognisable leaders within the movements makes it especially difficult to follow traditional models of alliance building, based on negotiating common political statements. Scholars like Manuel Castells1 point out that the essence and logic of the new movements is a consequence of the new forms of communication technology. Visualising them as horizontal nets in contrast to a vertical pyramid can help us to understand the differences. The net has nodes, some more influential than others; however, no node can by itself influence all of the net. As Jeremy Rifkin explains, the strength of this net lies in the use of lateral power, organised nodally across society in contraposition to traditional, hierarchical organisations.2 Wikipedia and social media are good examples of what lateral power can accomplish.

    We cannot understand the European movements that have emerged in recent years without taking into consideration the Arab Spring. Tunisians reminded the world that social change from below is possible; this message spread everywhere and still resonates. The lesson from Egypt was about the appropriation of public space – paradigmatically the square – to be used as headquarters of the resistance. The Indignados camps in Spain further developed this tactic, striving to create in the squares micro-utopias of a new society,3 which included the creation of an open political space where all previous ideologies were explicitly rejected. Replicated by the Greek square movement, it later served as inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The creativity unleashed by the people gathered in the core of the financial empire created a new language that would inspire millions if not billions with irresistible force: ‘We are the 99  %’ or ‘Occupy’ (from Lovehttp://occupylove.org/4 to Troika5 to Gezi Park) have by now entered into history books. All this happened in the frenetic year 2011.

    After the spectacular occupations and massive mobilisations, by the end of 2012 the corporate media announced that the movements were dead. This picture – which obviously benefits the status quo – does not show that the nodes and the net they form only seem invisible compared with traditional institutions and confederations. Nevertheless, expressions of the new reality spread continued to – in Turkey, Brazil or Bulgaria.


    Action unites and expands the movements

    ‘What made Occupy different from so many social movements of the past several decades was that it started out with a radical act, it started out by doing something – occupying territory – [ …] and refused to settle solely for marches and statements.’6 This reflection by an activist from Occupy Oakland explains the spirit of the new movements very well.

    The capacity for mobilisation of the new movements is not only based on the accuracy of a specific political analysis, but on how this analysis is put into practice. There are two reasons that a call for action is the most successful way to create alliances. First, calls for action break social movements’ silos; in the event that an organisation does not support an action, its members still can. This is not possible with a manifesto, which usually is built on official sign-ons. Secondly, through coordinating the action the movements learn to work with each other, strengthening their capabilities and building mutual trust. Actions often create new networks, which then become a new node in the net.

    The success of a call for action is determined by its flexibility, that is, the extent to which it can be shaped by the net. The power of the movements relies on their capacity to adapt the proposal to their local context, at the same time enriching the proposal with the nuances of their own reality. In Spain, the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages7 combines specific nationwide political demands with direct action at the local level – stopping evictions and pressuring politicians in their own homes. Following a call for action that was discussed and shaped in open online and physical assemblies, 50,000 people surrounded and blocked the Spanish Parliament on 25 September 2012, evidencing in practice their rejection of the undemocratic regime imposing austerity. This action resulted in a network called 25S8 that is now a recognisable hub in the Spanish context. The Blockupy Frankfurt coalition,9 which includes German grassroots movements, trade unions, civil society organisations and political parties, was born in a call to block the European Central Bank as a denunciation of its role in the EU crisis regime. In 2014 the coalition will act for the third time.

    Imaginative and inspiring forms of action attract de-politicised sectors of the population. Irony and humour have proved to be great weapons in the fight against fear and apathy. Emma Aviles from the PACD (Platform for a Citizens Debt Audit) explains that the 15mpaRato10 campaign ‘Put your favourite banker in jail’ in less than 24 hours the required 16,000 Euros in legal fees to sue Rodrigo Rato – former chairman of Bankia Bank, ex-president of the IMF and former Minister of Economy in Spain. Fifty shareholders volunteered as plaintiffs, and dozens volunteered as internal witnesses.


    Tensions within the movements

    When the squares were filled by thousands of people, anything seemed possible. When the initial euphoria passed, organisational capacities became scarce, but important strategic decisions had to be made. At that point, the nodes had to ask themselves: Shall we use our resources to mobilise and protest the privatisation of public services, or shall we create our own services? Shall we coordinate a national or pan-European political response, or shall we concentrate on reversing the effects of austerity in our neighbourhood? These questions do not have simple answers. The problem lies in achieving a balance between reacting to a local problem in the short term and building long-term solutions, the impacts of which are limited in the short term.

    Many movements consider the state and the capitalist market to be two sides of the same coin and are seeking a different path. They are focusing on the creation of alternative economies based on solidarity, horizontality and defence of the commons. This type of initiative has flourished all over Europe since the crisis, particularly in Greece. Theodoris Karyotis is an activist involved in three initiatives: the self-managed factory Vio.Me11, the Initiative 13612 to bid for Thessaloniki’s water company privatised by the Troika and the campaign to stop a mining project by the multinational Eldorado. He defines them as ‘instruments that are autonomous from existing structures of power, that work outside of the spaces of representational democracy co-opted by the traditional holders of power’.

    In Spain self-organised public servants have been the most important actors in the defence of public services. The citizens tides (mareas ciudadanas)13 assumed roles traditionally played by the trade unions. In Portugal, self-organised precarious workers – ‘precarios inflexiveis’14 – are making great progress organising sectors of the working class which do not believe in traditional forms of unionism to defend their common interests.

    These experiences provide examples of new kinds of political organisation. Nevertheless, many of these nodes are facing criminal prosecution – from fines to police violence – and increasing levels of poverty and exclusion due to the austerity policies. The decentralised character of the movements can lead to fragmentation when effective and legitimate communication structures are not in place. The use of new communication technologies is a strategic tool of the new movements – the European Trade Union Confederation has 3,700 Twitter followers, while Democracia Real Ya, for example, has 226,000. For many movements the only physical resource is a website or a Twitter account. But the control of these resources has brought with it new power structures. In some cases, unresolved tensions in the management of these resources has led to divisions within the movements.


    One size does not fit all

    Any attempt to organise a pan-European social movement has to take into consideration the tensions and the lessons outlined above. It has become clear that calls for action are currently the best way to aggregate different political forces and mobilise previously unorganised parts of the population. The calls for action must be open, transparent and flexible so that they can be adapted to each context.

    As a final reflection, I would call for the recognition of the different realities and different levels of struggle in different contexts. In Greece any interest in European alliances will depend on their capacity to strengthen Greek solidarity initiatives. The level of police/state repression and the rise of the extreme right are specific and uniquely dangerous characteristics of the Greek context.

    Many new nodes remain in the other PIGS countries, which can be activated if a sufficiently appealing call for action is presented – such as the Peoples United Against the Troika mobilisation on 1 June 2013 sponsored by the Portuguese organisers. However, in the construction of a pan-European movement we cannot only rely on the strength of the Southern European movements. In Eastern Europe the most successful mass mobilisations have been around the protection of the commons – as, for example, the protests against fracking or GMOs. Campaigns against the EU or neoliberalism have little popular support there for two reasons: These countries still receive vast amount of European funds, and discourses that employ socialist or anti-capitalist rhetoric are strongly felt as nostalgia for a widely discredited Soviet-type society.

    To conclude I would point out the strategic importance of the main Western European political and economic capitals as hubs of a pan-European movement. Occupy London15 (with its role in the G8 mobilisation), the European Spring16 in Brussels (targeting EU institutions) and Blockupy Frankfurt have demonstrated their capacity to escalate local protest to the European level.



    1   Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Polity Press, 2012.

    2   Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    3   Bernardo Gutierrez. ‘Microutopías en red: los prototipos del 15M’ 12/05/2013

    4   http://occupylove.org/

    5   Sol Trumbo Vila. ‘The European Spring 2013 – A New Beginning?’ 27/03/2013.

    6   Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy and Mike McGuire, eds., We Are Many. Reflections on Movements Strategy. From Occupation to Liberation. AK Press, 2012.

    7   http://afectadosporlahipoteca.com/

    8   http://coordinadora25s.wordpress.com/

    9   http://blockupy-frankfurt.org/en/

    10 http://15mparato.wordpress.com/

    11 http://www.viome.org/

    12 http://www.136.gr/article/what-initiative-136

    13 http://mareaciudadana.blogspot.nl/

    14 http://www.precariosinflexiveis.org/

    15 http://occupylondon.org.uk/

    16 http://foraeuropeanspring.org/

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