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A worldwide mobilization
The indignados protesting in Puerta del Sol, or those occupying Zuccotti Park in New York, recalled ideals of participation from below. They however combined this with a special attention to the creation of egalitarian and inclusive public spheres. In this sense, their actions resonate with conceptions and practices of deliberative democracy
Attention to deliberation became in fact all the more central in the most recent movements against austerity. The Arab Spring could be read as yet another testimony that democracy is becoming « the only game in town ». The effects of the wave of protest that brought about democratization processes in an area of the world traditionally defined as dominated by resilient authoritarian regimes contributed to challenge the idea of a clash of civilization based on the incompatibility of Islam with democracy. Moreover, those protests have shown that, even in brutal dictatorship, citizens do mobilize, and not only on material issues. Interpreting the Arab Spring as merely a call for representative institutions would however be misleading. The protestors in the Tahir Square were calling for freedom, but also practicing other conceptions of democracy that, if not opposed, are certainly different from liberal representative democracy, resonating instead with ideas of participatory and deliberative democracy (della Porta, 2013).
Not by chance, when the ideas of the Arab Spring spread from the MENA (Mediterreanean and North-African) region to Europe, they were adopted and adapted by social movements that challenged (neo)liberal democracy. Austerity measures in Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain were in fact met with long-lasting, mass protests directly inspired by the Arab Spring. The Spanish and then Greek indignados
occupied hundreds of squares in order not only to protest cuts to the welfare state in their respective countries, but also to ask for a better and different democracy. « Democracia real ya
»was the main slogan of the Spanish indignados
protesters that occupied the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona and hundreds of squares in the rest of the country from May 15th
2011, calling for different social and economic policies and greater citizen participation in their formulation and implementation. The indignados
explicitly challenged representative democracy, its methods and its main actors with the following slogans «Lo llaman democracia y no lo e
s»(They call it democracy but it’s not), «No le
s »(Don’t vote
Before this example in Spain, between the end of 2008 and the beginning of the following year self-convened citizens in Iceland had demanded the resignation of the government and its delegates in the Central Bank and financial authority, accused of collusion with big business. In Portugal, a demonstration arranged via Facebook in March 2011 brought more than 200,000 young Portuguese people of the « Geracao A Rasca
»-- desperate generation -- (Wise, 2011) to the streets against the political elite. The indignados
protests in turn inspired similar mobilisations in Greece, where opposition to austerity measures had already been expressed in occasionally violent forms. In both countries, the corruption of the government was a central issues of protest, and it so remained when protest moved to the US, and beyond.
The very meaning of democracy was, in all these protests, contested. There is no doubt that nowadays crisis is a crisis of democracy as well as, or even more than that, a financial crisis. As mentioned, neo-liberalism was and, in fact, is, a political doctrine that brings with it a minimalist vision of the public and democracy. It foresees not only the reduction of political interventions oriented to balance the market (and consequent liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation) but also an elitist conception of citizen participation (electoral only, and therefore occasional and potentially distorted) and an increased level of influence for lobbies and strong interests. The evident challenges at liberal conception and practice of democracy have been, here as well, accompanied by the (re)emergence of different ones, elaborated and practiced by – among others – movements that in Europe today are opposing a neo-liberal solution to the financial crisis, blamed of further depressing consumption and thereby jeopardizing any prospects for development (whether sustainable or not).
Accused by the center-left parties of being apolitical and populist (not to mention without ideas) and by the right of being extreme-leftists, these movements have in reality placed what Claus Offe (1985) long ago defined as the « meta-question »of democracy at the center of their action. The activists’ discourse on democracy is articulate and complex, taking up some of the principal criticisms of the ever-decreasing quality of liberal democracies, but also some proposals inspired by other democratic qualities than representation. These proposals resonate with (more traditional) participatory visions, but also with new deliberative conceptions that underline the importance of creating multiple public spaces, egalitarian but plural.
Above all, protestors criticize the ever more evident shortcomings of representative democracies, mirroring a declining trust in the ability of parties to channel emerging demands in the political system. Beginning from Iceland, and forcefully in Spain and Portugal, indignation is addressed towards the corruption of the political class, seen in both bribes (the dismissal of corrupt people from public institution is called for) in a concrete sense, and in the privileges granted to lobbies and common interests shared by public institutions and economic (often financial) powers. It is to this corruption – that is, the corruption of democracy – that much of the responsibility for the economic crisis, and the inability to manage it, is attributed.
Beyond the condemnation of corruption, the slogan «they don’t represent us »also expresses a deeper criticism of the degeneration of liberal democracy, linked in turn to elected politicians’ failure to «do politics ». The latter are in fact often united in spreading a narrative suggesting that no alternatives are available to cuts in budget and deregulation—a narrative that protesters do not accept. In Spain in particular, the movement asked for reforms to the electoral law, denouncing the reduced weight given to citizen participation by the current electoral system, where the main political parties tend to form cartels and electors see their choices limited (for this reason equal weight for each vote
was called for). Also in other countries, among other proposals for restoring the importance of citizens are those that call for direct democracy, and which give electors the possibility to express their opinions on the biggest economic and social choices. In this vein, greater possibilities for referenda are called for, with reduced quorums (for signatures and electors) and increased thematic areas subject to decisions through referenda.
Really existing democracies are also criticised for having allowed the abduction of democracy, not only by financial powers, but also by international organisations, above all the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
Another vision of democracy
In recent mobilization there is also another vision of democracy, which normative theory has recently defined « deliberative democracy», and which the global justice movement has elaborated and diffused through the social forums as consensus
democracy since the beginning of the new millennium (della Porta 2009). This conception of democracy is prefigured by the very same indignados
that occupy squares, transforming them into public spheres made up of « normal citizens ». It is an attempt to create high quality discursive democracy, recognising the equal rights of all (not only delegates and experts
) to speak (and to respect) in a public and plural space, open to discussion and deliberation on themes that range from situations suffered to concrete solutions to specific problems, from the elaboration of proposals on common goods to the formation of collective solidarity and emerging identities.
When Occupy Wall Street started in the United States, quickly spreading in thousands of American cities, the concern voiced by the protestors addressed the financial crisis, but even more the failure of democratic governments to live up to the expectation of their citizens. Like for the global justice movementthat used the slogan « You G8, we 6 billions”(della Porta et al., 2006), the mobilisation of occupiers was framed in general terms under the slogan « We are the 99%».
The occupations represented not only occasions to protest but also experimentations with participatory and deliberative forms of democracy. The style that started to dominate the movement included an emphasis on respect and inclusivity. Moderators tried to assure a racial balance. A consensual, horizontal decision making process developed --sponsored by the young generations (that had by 2/3 voted for Obama)-- and older activists based on the continuous formation of small groups, that then reconvened in the larger assembly.
The occupation became much entrenched with the very identity of the movement, not just, as for other social movements, an action forms among others. Occupied spaces were in fact « vibrant sites of human interaction that modeled alternative communities and generated intense feeling of solidarity »(Juris, 2012, 268). Evictions took away these vital spaces, exposing the risk of transforming the camps into a sort of fetish, difficult to keep, but also difficult to substitute for. The clearing of the occupied places by the police created in fact important fractures among activists—among others, between the community of those who are physically occupying and the various circles of those participating, virtually and/or intermittedly.
Democracy in networks
Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms have been adopted by occupiers to provide visibility to their protests, gain media attention, recruit new members, circulate minutes, photos and videos of their assemblies (often livestreamed). The internet was crucial to the diffusion of the movement tactics and practices. New technologies of communication have often been perceived by activists as enhancing democratic procedures and individual participation. However, despite the fundamental role of new media in lowering costs of participation in the new wave of contention, the expertise of experienced activists was recognized as central in mobilization processes. This holds true for the Arab Spring as well as the Spanish indignados and Occupy Wall Street.
As Valeriani (2012) noted, central to the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia has been the presence of an élite of tech-savvies bridging disperse networks within society. In Spain the Free Culture and Digital Common Movement had an important role in the genealogy of the 15Mproviding resources as well as an effective organizational logic incentivising individual participation (Fuster Morell, 2012). Networks of experienced media activists also played key roles in all major occupations in the US, generally through participation in media and tech tents and working groups (Costanza-Chock, 2012). Media teams often included experienced media activists who moved between movement networks bringing specific practices with them (ibidem).
In comparison with waves of mobilisation occurred in the era of web 1.0, mainly based on mailing lists, the indignados relied on web 2.0 platforms. While the former favoured a « networking logic » among different and autonomous collective actors, the latter facilitated a « logic of aggregation » among interpersonal networks mobilisingephemeral « crowds of individuals » difficult to keep together over time and« whichdisaggregate as easily as they aggregate » (Juris, 2012, 267). Moreover technologies embodying logic of aggregation « are far less effective than listservs for facilitating complex, interactive discussions regarding politics, identity, strategy, and tactics » (ibidem).While new media made communication cheaper, faster and easier mobilizing a great deal of inexperienced participants they also made it more complex, generating clashes and facilitating activists burn-out and disengagement (Mattoni, 2012).