Foreign Policy Blogs

Politics of the Street

Europe in the past has seen its fair share of successful (and unsuccessful) mass movements descending in the street and clamoring for justice of course. The 1968-69 demonstrations spectacularly failed (Prague) or led to ambiguous changes in the social life styles of society difficult to measure (Germany, France). The 1989 mobilizations were an unequivocal success even when proving the causality of the relationship between, say, the Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig and the fall of the wall is far less obvious. Going back further in history, social movements outside of existing political decision-making structures were of tremendous importance, in success or failure, the French Revolution, the 1848 movements, or the 1918 German November Revolution are only a few examples.

Arguably, the seeming increase in entrenched resistance to government decisions in Europe this summer is only part of a recurring cycle of extra-parliamentary opposition then. Whether this is true or not though, its importance and strength are higher today than at any other point over the last 20 years. Protests differ significantly depending on the country, their participants are made up of different social strata, their goals and organization structure are little comparable. Yet, they all contain a grain of fundamental distrust in the government and more than that traditional parties per se. They are in that sense (and as much as most European readers would recoil at the thought) quite comparable to the Tea Party Movement and its anti-Washington stance.

Examples of the renewed strength of social movements abound the French have been demonstrating on and off for the last few weeks against their government’s plan to raise the retirement age. Strikes have been called, the the oil refineries were blocked off causing a significant problem to the gas supplies, people were marching in every major city and a number of youths seized upon the occasion to live out their inner violence and looting fantasies. The Spanish observed a general strike on September 29 in order to protest against their government’s austerity measures. The Greeks of course have been demonstrating, striking and rioting in a number of different constellations (truck drivers, civil servants…) almost all summer.

Even the Germans, who – as Lenin was quoted as saying – were incapable of a revolt since before storming a train platform they would line up to buy tickets, have become active on the streets. Opposition to the destruction of a train station in Stuttgart and against the erection of a massive and expensive new one in its place has led to violent encounters between mostly middle class protesters and police forces leading to gruesome pictures. Less focused upon outside of Germany because far less violent, but maybe even more indicative of these new social protest movements, are the anti-school reform protests in Hamburg. A coalition of middle- and upper-class citizens there brought to an end a reform intended to make education more equitable. This reform had the support of all parliamentary parties, yet the aforementioned coalition forced a referendum upon the city-state, which it won.

It is not clear what these movements’ importance on the policy decision-making processes really is. The French President Sarkozy pushed through his pensions reform even in the face of protests. The Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero is not (yet?) backing down from his harsh budget cuts. Yet, the Greek Prime Minister Papandreou might call for early elections in the face of continued resistance to his policies and in Germany, the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg of which Stuttgart is the capital has had to bring in an outside conciliator to calm the situation. Then there are countries like the UK where the harshest budget cuts of them all seem to have hardly incited a public response.

Yet, apart from the actual issues playing out extremely different, there is an important common thread to these protests. First of all, the opposition parties are not benefiting as much from these situations as one would presume, let alone that they were to lead the protests. Their benefit comes mostly by default in fact, simply because the governing party is perceived as negatively. They are rarely seen as a trust-worthy and viable alternative though. It is here that the commonality to the Tea Party Movement becomes most clear actually.

Another commonality lies in who is demonstrating. These are not (necessarily or even predominately) young or destitute social groups who descend into the streets, rather these seem to be the established members of society who (even if often based on a rhetoric usually associated with the political left) who are defending their current life-style or – to put it negatively – their privileges. In a way all of these movements are conservative in the sense that they try to preserve what they already know and cherish against the onslaught of the new which the government is trying to impose upon them. To some extent (and this is almost more relevant for the Tea Party Movements and the xenophobic tendencies I wrote about last week), these protests are not even really geared against the government’s policies per se but rather challenge them as the exponent of modernity or of change which is forced upon the respective society. Changing demographics, a changing ethnic make-up of society or the end of an economic bubble (note that I am not including austerity measures or expansive fiscal policies here as these are policy-decisions not necessities) are realities that governments rarely cause but simply try to deal with after all.

These protests then have to be seen as vote of distrust against traditional parties as well as a sign of fear in the face of the change that European societies are undergoing. They are here to stay – as they are based on structural developments – even if it is impossible to gauge their mid- or long-term relevance yet or the impact that they will have on democratic decision-making processes.