| Interview: Europe from below

November 2013
with Claudia Bernardi, Christos Giovanopoulos, Catarina Principe und Sol Trumbo

 

Activists from Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy on local fights and transnational perspectives

LuXemburg: The current movements have a strong grassroots character and a mostly local focus. Do you still see the strategic necessity and possibility of stronger cross-border cooperation?

CLAUDIA BERNARDI: Over the last few years, several movements have generated a material proliferation of oppositions to biocapitalism at a local level, working mainly on the national scale as the key battlefield against austerity measures. In my opinion, the national perspective has run its course: even if such resistance is strong and well-established, it does not seem to be suitable to the new forms of command that, despite being applied at the national level, are based on decisions taken elsewhere than the previous place of (national) government. So the movements can hardly use the national space as a strategic field of battle inside the global crisis.

The systematic attack against »the 99%« living in the so-called PIIGS countries (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) must encounter strong transnational resistance from these movements. This is the only way to express a symphony of connected struggles that is capable of hitting the heart of the new capital accumulation-project that the Troika is leading. At the same time, cross-border cooperation cannot only concern »Southern« movements. The stakes are: rupturing the division between a »good Europe« in the North and a »bad« one in the South; we have to think cooperation beyond the paternalistic intent of supporting the »wretched« Southern Europeans.

The ability of movements to create local organization should be combined with the necessity of creating shared projects and build up a common grammar in heterolingual language.

 

SOL TRUMBO: Significant parts of the new popular movements in Europe have come from sectors of society that were not politically organized before, hence their grassroots character. There have been two kinds of responses from the movements: first, resistance towards the policies imposed by the Troika  – in Spain self-organized public servants were more prominent than trade unions in the resistance against privatization processes –, and, second, the proliferation of alternatives that question the dominant economic logic – from eco-villages and cooperatives to P2P and wiki-based projects.

All of this emerged from within an internet-based society, and therefore in direct contact with peers from all over the world, exchanging tactics and strategies instantly. Still, due to their grassroots character, the movements are very busy fighting local issues with little resources to strategize at the macro-level. There is an unresolved tension here. »One-off events« were very important in 2011 and 2012 to build a cross-border feeling of a common struggle; however I agree with Claudia that we need to go beyond that.

One way to go could be to identify which are the political moments (e.g.: EU summits or European elections) when it would make sense for the grassroots to intensify their local struggles or campaigns: Keep your local fight, but make it visible on an European level in order to create pressure.

 

CATARINA PRìNCIPE: Portugal is perhaps a different case regarding local/regional intervention. The massive protests of the last three years have focused on two areas: First, on the question of generalized precarity; and second, on the resistance against austerity with a focus on the Troika, but also specifically on the right-wing government. Our mobilizations have mainly been »one-off events« in the form of massive demonstrations, organized by social movements and newly created platforms, and have taken the form of one-day general strikes with widespread participation, organized by the trade unions with some articulation with the movements. However, the limitation of the Portuguese resistance has been, in my opinion, its »rootlessness«. We still haven’t witnessed something similar to a »stop the evictions« network like in Spain, or grassroots solidarity networks like in Greece. This makes it hard for people who take part in a demonstration to become continuously active and organized. In this sense, the Portuguese social movement must do precisely the opposite: we need to move from the general to the particular.

However, this does not mean that we don’t see the urgent need of international coordination. I agree with Sol that we need to identify the political moments when to coordinate our national interventions – the opening of the new European Central Bank in Frankfurt could be one of them. A better understanding of the economic architecture of the European Union might help to determine who our partners might be. In this sense we need to connect the »stop the evictions« campaign in Madrid with the strikes of the retail industry workers in Berlin.

 

CHRISTOS GIOVANOPOULOS: The grassroots solidarity movement is only one of the forms that the anti-austerity, anti-bailouts and anti-Troika resistance has taken in Greece. The common experience for each one of us is our simultaneous participation in numerous struggles and switching between various organisational models and forms of actions, as defined by the respective context and terrain of the conflict. Thus the resistance unfolds in multiple forms and is being fought in any field of social and political contestation, from the streets to the squares, and from the courts to the ballot box. The question of choice of form or field of struggle seems a privilege of a bygone era.

The social solidarity movement in fact established itself in and through the crisis and expanded the repertoire of people’s resistance with new forms of self-organization. But it is an integral part of the larger political struggle to overthrow the (economic and political) regime of exception the Troika has imposed in Greece.

As an offspring of the squares occupation movement, the solidarity movement is aware of the connections between its localised practices, nationwide political scopes and its transnational frames of reference. The latter refers to both the identification of its multinational adversaries (EU, IMF, TROIKA, ECB etc.), and to its own identification and affinities with similar movements from the Argentinean revolt of 2001, the Arab spring, the Spanish Indignados, and the Occupy movement, to the recent movements in Slovenia, Bulgaria, Gezi park and Taksim square.

 

How could these transnational references become more practical in the struggle?

CHRISTOS: It is important to consider the asymmetries and multiple temporalities of the struggles in different countries, which make it difficult for a synchronic cross-border movement, similar in form of action, targets and priorities to appear. The national frame and the different state of the movements in each country remain the key parameters that in the last instance determine the outcome of each international day of action, strike etc. Recent experience has shown that the most successful international days of action have been organized by strong movements on the national terrain (e.g. Indignados/Squares or Occupy), or when a single incident was felt as a common cause and triggered a movement of international solidarity (e.g. Alexis Grigoropoulos’ or Pavlos Fyssas’ killing), that supported the actual movement each time. Therefore it might be better, if we want to create cross-border political cultures and constituencies, that we build international mobilizations around specific battles fought on a local level, concentrating our forces on critical moments for these struggles.

A prerequisite for this would be the existence of vibrant movements on a national level, rooted in their local populations and contexts. This is important in order to create the conditions, in other words, the subject and agencies to materialise such alliances. I find the assumption misleading though, that such political or social subjects already exist, and the only thing missing is their coordination on a cross-national level. The (common) people, who are indignant, who occupy, revolt and take part, many for the first time in their life, in social and political struggles, impose questions on and have expectations towards the left and the antagonistic movements, that concern their everyday life in their „space of place»1 and thus challenge, and change (very slowly indeed) the deterritorialized discourses of the existing political subjects, social organisations and institutions, as well as their policies. If we fail to correspond to the concerns and agenda of such radicalized constituencies (which do not necessarily appear as we would like them to be), any chance to build cross-national alliances and actions would be another act of representational or ideological politics that the recent movements reject.

 

How Do you see – in this regard – the possibility of building alliances not only between grassroots movements across borders but also with other political actors like NGOs, unions or parties?

SOL: The main barrier here is the existence of different organizational cultures. The grassroots movements cannot be understood as a homogenous new political actor, but rather as the crystallization of a wide range of independent political initiatives that are nonetheless strongly interconnected. Traditional national or transnational structures – such as the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) – however have been built upon concepts of representation, which are rejected by the squares movements (and others of their kind). This tension remains unresolved. Even though trade unions are still very important in the protection of hard-earned social and labour rights, they increasingly do not represent a big share of workers anymore – like precarious workers, freelancers, interns, etc. Their organizational culture creates a gap with the expectations of the young generations.

The word NGO can be misleading, since it is usually taken to refer to charity organizations with little independence from governments. At the European political level we can talk about certain Civil Society Organizations (CSO) which in my opinion play an important role as mediators between more institutionalized actors and the general population. CSOs – such as the Attac network, the Transnational Institute (TNI) or Corporate European Observatory (CEO) – enable spaces of discussion and provide accurate analysis, although their own capacity to mass mobilization is limited compared with institutionalized actors and the grassroots movements.

Environmental groups and grassroots movements (such as, e.g., farmers) are not present as strategic actors in processes like the Alter Summit, but they do have great capacity for transnational mobilization – as demonstrated by, for example, the World March against Monsanto. They could serve as a nexus between, on the one hand, more accommodated sectors of the population that are however politicized in relation to environmental issues and the more vulnerable populations directly affected by austerity on the other. This would require a clear narrative linking neoliberalism and the Troika to environmental degradation, unpacking the EU’s own discourse about environmental protection.

CLAUDIA: Well, Italian movements, mainly of students and precarious workers, have often taken to the streets during the last eight years, occupied houses, opened public space of discussion, and participated in campaigns, like the national campaign for free and public water that created a political space of action around the commons. They tried to take protests to other parts of society, pointing out the progressive demolition of welfare systems, debt pressure, and precarity blackmail. They constantly tried to build up alliances with well-structured political subjects such as unions and associations, in an effort to combine different social compositions and organizational cultures. After two years of ongoing debates, common actions and developing political relations, the alliance broke down due to the unwillingness of trade unions to take a firm stand on precarious claims. Instead, they support government policies of cuts and dismantling public services. Beyond a nostalgic rhetoric of the old welfare state-system, unions chose the side of parties and their austerity measures.

A generalization of struggles requires a clear stance against all politics that impoverish, marginalize and don’t recognize the social productivity as well as the cultural relevance of the widest and youngest part of society. »To be or not to be Troika« is the first choice unions and association have to face, it is a conditio sine qua non for any coalition between movements and representative structures – and therefore to change present conditions.

CHRISTOS: We should be careful not to conflate different levels of political and social struggles, and their corresponding institutions, trying to fit them all into one type or in one spatial dimension. Different organizational structures, which correspond to the specificities of their respective terrains of political action, generate different discourses and practices. One level of struggle cannot substitute for the other, while at the same time each one alone does not suffice to develop effective mass movements and the conditions to succeed, especially when strategic goals are concerned. What we need to work out is the relationships (and dialectics) between the various fields of social and political contestation by changing them.

In my experience, the only factor that has succeeded in uniting the different actors is the mass of mobilised people. For two reasons: because they are everywhere (inside and outside the power machine), and because by producing a frame of struggle against the post-dictatorial political system and the »regime of exception« of the Troika, it provided a space for each different agency to contribute as an organic part of the whole. This is what caused and permits the leap from one level (social struggles) to the other (central politics), e.g. from striking and occupying the squares to voting for SYRIZA, in a tactical move of the people, in order push forward their political struggle.

It is therefore not so much a matter of selecting strategic allies, but to develop, first, strategic goals, that is, an hegemonic political agenda that corresponds to those that can unite all the different actors, experiences, levels and territories of struggle; through, second, the formation of a new public sphere, that permits the participation, debate, formulation and enactment of each decision through open and democratic processes, by the people itself.

The articulation of such a multilayered movement and/or network, in a synergetic whole, is one of the critical political, and not organisational, issues of our times, not only on a transnational, but also on a local level.

 

Last November, the first transnational Southern European general strike took place. In a way it was organized and achieved from below. How did non-union movements participate in it, and was it a crucial step for cross border cooperation?

SOL: The call for a transnational general strike was recognized as an important step towards a more coordinated response to the EU’s austerity regime at the European level. In the case of Spain the movements and networks created in the squares participated in a day of general mobilization, even though it was in the form of a »critical block«. In the Northern European countries there were only small demonstrations in solidarity of the strike.

Due to the high levels of unemployment and the widespread precarious labor conditions, different collectives in and around the squares movement have proposed to revise the concept of »strike«. Realizing the growing impossibility of forms of strike typical for the Fordist era, new forms of action are needed in order to disturb the normal functioning of the capitalist system at its current stage. This can take the form of boycotts of certain corporations or market dynamics – such as interrupting daily financial transactions. Some collectives use the concept of »social strike« in order to democratize and expand this idea that so far remains under the hegemony of traditional forms of unionism.

CLAUDIA: I think the transnational general strike of November 2012 was an important moment for European movements. Unlike previous transnational events, it wasn’t launched by a single leading movement with the aim of generating mobilizations beyond its borders; rather, it was an »in-between« process able to synchronize actions and demonstrations. The general strike confirmed the central role still played by unions, and their power to call for a transnational event that can produce a broad process of organization at the European level.

In Italy though, it was animated mainly by precarious workers and students, and highlighted the strong link between the national and the European space, as well as the necessity of a European institutional actor to mobilize at the transnational level. This is what will be at stake next spring, when the Italian EU-presidency and European elections will give another chance to experiment with cross-border, shared constituent processes. The opposition to austerity is just one of the elements that make it necessary to fight against the redefinition of capitalism in the West: the recent governments’ debate about competitiveness and about relaunching consumption are arguably the beginning of a new phase of the crisis.

CHRISTOS: In Greece the N14 strike never happened. A four-hour walkout and a demo in central Athens were called by GSEE, the private sector union confederation. As such it was a purely top-down process, disconnected not only from the needs of an at the time vibrant movement, but also from the unions’ membership. The turnout was about 2500 people. Actually, N14 occurred just after two big national mobilizations, the first against Merkel in mid-October and the second against the second bailout, only five days before N14. In that context the latter was pretty irrelevant, for the Greek movement.

Once more the issue of the relationship between such international days with subjects who fight (unavoidably) in the context of the places they live in and not in the fictitious spaces of (european) capital organization, was raised. I guess the antiglobalization movement’s motto to »think global, act local« is, still, closer to the political realities of Europe. We should utilize any means, from days of solidarity to specific struggles (e.g. for the Greek broadcaster, or for the recuperated factory of VIOME, to speak just for the Greek cases) in order to cultivate the ground and raise international consciousness.

I would like to add something to a point Claudia just made regarding the European elections. I am not so sure that they will be a rallying point,or create a space for experimentation. The majority of people in Europe will most likely not vote, despite the heavy intervention of EU institutions in the policies and economies of each member state. For Greece what is interesting, is Tsipras’ nomination as the head of the European left. This move is beneficial for both the left parties in each EU country and for SYRIZA, too. But we need to think honestly about why that is the case. Very briefly, the European left wants to capitalise on SYRIZA’s electoral success and emergence as a potential threat to the Troika and the austerity project. At the same time the radical left in Greece benefits in at least two ways. First, because Tsipras’ candidacy counteracts the permanent blackmailing by the pro-Troika powers, that SYRIZA supports – or that its victory will cause – a »Grexit« and a return to the Drachma. Secondly, this Greek candidacy for the highest European position, might have considerable effects on the voting behaviour of the Greek people, exactly as a »vote of protest« (if not revenge) against the EU.

One serious consideration is how these multiple elections will affect the development of real movements and struggles. International days of actions might help to highlight some common issues, but not to build a political agenda and struggles that would be reflected on the ballot. The ability of the Greek people to resist and impose its own anti-austerity anti-Troika agenda during the last elections was a result of two years of fierce struggles by any means. While the centrality of the political struggle made explicit the need to intervene in the terrain of political representation too, a strict focus on the electoral process hoping for the creation of a European anti-austerity movement, is only a displacement of what actually needs to be done.

 

The »taking the squares« movements use the assembly space for thinking about new democratic processes, building social transformative spaces from below. Could a constitutional process be effective on the European level?

SOL: The square camps and the initiatives that came out of those experiences have been described as micro utopias, meaning that their forms of resistance were at the same time images of the new society that would substitute the old one. The whole concept of democracy was called into question. We cannot understand the new democratic proposals without taking into consideration the breakthrough technologies that allow new organizational structures: open source, P2P, social media, Wikipedia, livestreaming.

The constituent processes developed in Spain during the Indignados movement as well as the recently formed political party »Partido X« understand this new reality and organize democratic processes around these new possibilities. They believe in the capacity of the population to take direct responsibility in areas traditionally occupied by professional politicians. Budget control, legislation and economic reforms are put in the hands of all, thanks to internet-based technologies, restoring the concepts of accountability, transparency and participation. The impact of this is systemic, and a consequence of the incapacity of the current political and economic structures to solve the present social, economic and environmental challenges.

I believe that these proposals are liquid enough to work at the same time within the current structures, and under a new organizational logic. We have witnessed successful experiences of counterhegemonic projects coming from Latin America – as in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia – where the existing political structures were used to pursue different constitutional processes, paving the ground for deeper transformations of economic structures and eventually power relations. In turn, this had an effect on international dynamics, as the ALBA and Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) projects have showed, relegating the neoliberal project for Latin America – The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) – to the dustbin of history. For a similar effect in Europe we must consider those experiences as crucial lessons for our internal constituent processes.

CLAUDIA: I agree that for a big part of the new movement-cycle, as in Spain, technopolitics has become the compass of a new socially transformative space. But that’s not the whole story. In Italy, we experimented with other processes that focused their intervention on the need for a constituent process at the national level: The occupations of theatres and cinemas, as well as the campaign around the referendum for free and public water. The former questioned the juridical status of certain spaces as spaces of the commons. The latter affirmed a widespread involvement of people,at the organizational and decisional level, that recognized common goods as untouchable and as subordinated to democratic decision-making. These two experiments have defined possible models to establish real democracy and practical constitutional processes from below, but they were not able, until now, to open themselves to »contamination« by other experiences beyond their borders, and to circulate as possible solutions to be translated into other contexts. The aim of upcoming transnational meetings should be, to consider specific issues and examples of existent experiments to multiply cross-border acknowledgment and common campaigns.

There are several examples that could work as such a »compass« for future actions. Self-managed hospitals are spreading in Southern Europe, occupied cultural spaces are fostering independent knowledge production, wiki-based projects are challenging established decision-making processes, networks of occupied houses are resisting evictions and rent aggression, local communities have strongly opposed mega events and large infrastructure projects, as well as the destruction of public spaces. These projects have already shown the potential of people’s resistance at the molecular level, but what is at stake is to multiply these experiments, taking into account local specificities, and to try to federate them: the problem is not to represent them in a general subject or logo, but to set up a common framework of action among allied compositions, giving continuity to these new relations.

CHRISTOS: An important part of each constitutional process is its constitutive part, referring to the spaces where new forms of democratic organisation and decision-making take place and new subjectivities emerge by giving life to this new political sphere. Spaces and subjects are formed through struggle to constitute a (or several) new political habitus. Therefore such constitutive processes have long-term transformative effects, and create the agencies and the infrastructures for structural social changes, including the level of organisation of the Polis (state, governance, civil life).

In this respect constitutional change relates to both the development of a movement for structural changes and to the respective institutional changes for the fertilisation of Demos or Polis by such different constituent processes. I agree with Sol that the recent history of the left governments in Latin America underlines the fundamental role of constitutional change in developing, deepening and safeguarding democratic processes of peoples’ participation that existed before, towards a decentralisation of the state structures. Moreover constitutional processes and constitutions represent a condensation the power relationships between the active social and political agencies. So choosing the moment to open up such processes is crucial for its result.

What distinguishes the constitutional issue of the EU, the only institutional framework for a European constitutional process to emerge so far, is that any discussion about a European constitution is determined, at least for the time being, by the attempt of European capital to centralise its powers and exclude the people from democratic processes of participation, even if those are performed on a national level.

Could a demand for a European-wide constitutional process help the diversion of this process and contribute to a reversal of the dominant relations (between capital and workers, elites and people, metropolis and peripheries etc) as reflected in the EU politics and architecture?

I think that in the current European context, and due to an absence of a movement able to impose its own will, such constitutional process would either occur outside the existing EU institutions, (as result of their own internal contradictions, which we should do our best to render explosive) or, if it is indeed attempted within the latter, will serve as a convenient »democratic« disguise for the dominant processes of a constitutional centralisation of EU powers.

In Spain, Latin America or even in Greece the question of constitutional change is related to the fact that the economic crisis has become a political crisis, precisely because of the people’s intervention. To subtract the importance of political subjects and struggles from such a proposal is to empty it of its content. The issue of constitutional change is an issue of power, and cannot be reduced to a tool to create an imaginary European common public institution, or a Europe-wide left.

To be sure, the further concentration of powers by the EU, with or without constitutional processes, can be resisted and fought against both within, and outside of, the existing EU framework.

The Greek experience, like the Latin American one, or those that emanate from Tunisia and Egypt, have shown a rich diversity of interactions between different levels of intervention and organisation, including political parties and institutional practices. The centrality of the political struggle, and of power, has become apparent in the context of these countries, and there is no question that one should intervene at any level. However, they have also shown that regulatory change usually does not occur through the relevant institutions.

Interviewer: Barbara Fried and Corinna Genschel.

 

1 This is used according to Manuel Castels, who argues that the perception of space, as political and historical terrain, that the lower classes have is that of the concrete territory they live in, which he calls „space of place», as opposed to the deterritorialized „space of flows» of the dominant classes and the capital itself. To locate where the materialities of the agents of change lie, is fundamental in order to create and imagine processes of change.