Understanding the new non-representational politics that are animating the new social movements

People of Greece have shown an impressive willingness to struggle. It is now time they also dare to win…

No more mediation by political parties, established or not, seems to be one of the new principles behind recent mobilisations. Is this the right way to approach political and social struggles today? How can we understand this?

Excerpted from Illan Rua Wall:

” People come out and refuse the current state of the situation. Their anger brings them to the streets, and there they learn radical politics, they learn ‘overthrow’. We see this in Greece (I rely here on a description in the latest edition of the Journal of Critical Globalisation by Sotirakopoulos). By the 15th of June Syntagma Square appeared to have divided in two, with the political ‘frustrated’ in the lower part of the square gathering around the Free Assembly and the upper half of the square around the parliament seemed full of the ‘apolitical’ frustrated. The radical left feared that the majority of the indignants were merely there for pleasure rather than some sort of serious political programme. However, when the police rounded on the occupiers on the 15th of June, the apparently ‘fluffy’ apolitical non-violent side of the square fought back with vigour. They had been subjectivised in their being-together against the state of the situation. They were not organised, they were not trained, not indoctrinated. There was no party revealing the reality behind the ideology. There certainly was critique, argument and solidarity. However, these were not mediated in the traditional sense by a party structure.

This subjectivisation is fascinating. In Tunisia and in Egypt, we find a crucial example of how this works. In both countries, there was a huge effort to disrupt the ordinary running of the state. Variously, the police were restrained and the civil service were blocked from undertaking the ordinary workings of the state bureaucracy. But of course, in Tahrir Square, life continued without the police and without the civil service. The pre-constituted order was suspended and instead spaces of alegality, or of life without state (in Agamben’s words) were generated. Rancière calls this ‘real’ democracy ‘where liberty and equality would no longer be represented in the institutions of law and state, but embodied in the very forms of concrete life and sensible experience’ (Hatred of Democracy p3). Thus, in Tunisia we find the refusal of representation coupled with the opening of an interval between state and life. The ‘order’ of the state, in many instances, is suspended, and in that gap there is just life without law. This sense of the suspension of the state however, does not lead to rape, murder and civil war – as the Hobbesean myth of the state of nature suggests. In fact, it is precisely the attempt to once more create the obedience to the social contract that has lead to the most violent confrontations. In Greece, it strikes me that a similar event takes place. Over and again the people come to the squares and refuse. They refuse labour, they refuse representation, they refuse! In the space of this refusal an interstices opens, and in that space a different politics emerges.

The final point I want to make concerns that refusal. In Tunisia it begins with anger. The story of Mohammed Bouazizi has been told over and again. This is the man who set himself alight after an altercation with the police and a failure of response from the local government. Bouazizi’s situation resonated with the people. However, they were not just angry with bureaucracy or the police. Rather. On the streets they cried Dégage – clear out, get out. They manifested a simple refusal of the situation. It is not just Ben Ali but the entire situation. There is no attempt to reform, to work within the system, etc. Rather the people refuse representation. Like the characters in Jose Saramago’s novel Seeing, each provisional government since January 14th has been silenced by the simple refusal of representation. This refusal at once asserts the unacceptability of the secret police and Ben Ali’s neo-liberal reforms, but it is more than this as well. It is a rejection of the current positioning of the Tunisian populace in relation to the globalized world order. This is the same relation that pacifies Ireland.

In conclusion, anger and indignation provide the starting point. At one stage in the early nineties, Jean-luc Nancy demanded that:

‘Anger is the political sentiment par excellence. It brings out the qualities of the inadmissible, the intolerable. It is a refusal and a resistance that with one step goes beyond all that can be accomplished reasonably in order to open possible paths for a new negotiation of the reasonable but also paths of an uncompromising vigilance. Without anger, politics is accommodation and trade in influence; writing without anger traffics in the seductions of writing.’ (J-L, Nancy, ‘The Compearance’)

Anger is the political sentiment par excellence. Precisely because it draws us together on the streets. At that point the radical subjectivation begins again. We make friends, we learn together. This is what we were beginning to see in the student protests before Christmas; in the repetition of bodies on the street, a radical sense of being-together began to emerge. This is precisely what the TUC strategy misses. Anger, expressed in one massive spectacle and subsequently mediated through representatives, is not enough. It is the continuing refusal of representation and the subjectivisation of the streets that has effect. “

And this is how the tension between representation and non-representation worked out during the Greek Spring, according to Nikos Sotirakopoulos:

“The aim of what follows is two-fold: In the first part, there will be a presentation of the spontaneous uprising of the Greek people, known as the Greek Spring, taking place for the last month. I will at the same time examine its internal dynamics and its progress towards a considerable degree of radicalization. In the second part, I will attempt an evaluation to the argument made by the radical academic, Costas Douzinas, that what we are experiencing now in Greece is an appearance of the notion of the Multitude.

On Tuesday May 24th 2011, there was a rumor in Greek media that the Spanish indignados protesting in Puerta del Sol had a slogan stating “keep it quiet, we might wake up the Greeks”. The general feeling going on for months, i.e. that something had to be done, escalated. The same afternoon, a Facebook group named “Frustrated in Syntagma Square” calling for a gathering, ala Tahrir square, on Wednesday the 25th in the central square of Athens outside parliament, was gaining enormous publicity, with more than a thousand new members every hour. Similar groups were created for many Greek cities. The unknown administrators were calling for peaceful demonstrations, without party-banners, flags, slogans or even ideologies. Only Greek flags would be welcome and everyone would participate as an individual and not as a member of a wider group. Indeed, Wednesday’s gatherings were successful, with some 25.000 people gathering in Syntagma square and many other central squares around Greece. The movement is alive and strong until today (June 18th), peaking at more than 300,000 in some days, such as Sunday June 5th and in the general strike of the 15th of June.

The movement spread throughout the country and included many forms of action, like the disruption of visits by members of the government in places throughout Greece and the occupation of public buildings and various PASOK local headquarters and offices. According to a survey by an opinion polling company, more than 2 million Greeks participated in some form of social protest throughout Greece during June of 2011.

The first reaction by many observers was that the occupation of Syntagma square was just a “copy-paste” internet trend from Spain, based mainly on people clicking “like” on Facebook, rather than committing themselves to any serious political action. The gathering in the first couple of days seemed apolitical and there were no claims or any will to spread the “frustration” in universities, workplaces and so on. Some striking workers that also had a demo in the first day were booed and declared unwelcome at Syntagma. They were accused for demonstrating as union members and not as individuals.

All this signified a trend that could transform such an a-political procedure into anti-political populism. The prevailing attitude was that all the politicians (including the Left) are thieves and corrupted, that the workers’ unions are equally blameful for being controlled by parties, and that all ideology is unwelcome in Syntagma square. The agreed form of protest was to issue a collective moan and curse against the walls of the parliament and pleas to the police to join the people, as they are “also Greeks”. A mentally handicapped person (a well-known mascot figure that has been participating in almost every protest for years) was kicked out of the gathering for carrying a red flag and some grassroots union-activists were made to put down their banner. In reality, this was a form of politics serving the elites’ best interests, and this is why the media and politicians who are usually hostile to any form of radical protest rushed to congratulate the “frustrated” of Syntagma and advised them to keep it non-violent, apolitical and to stay away from parties and unions.

This a-political/anti-political nihilism seems hazardous and could be hiding a more reactionary politics beneath the nationalist populism, especially combined with the attempt of some right-wingers to present the situation as a “gathering only for Greeks”. The principal demand was to change the political scene by the substitution of “corrupted traitors” for new politicians and technocrats. It was as if people demanded a total change by making sure that nothing would really change; a “revolution without revolution”, as Zizek would put it. Predictably, postmodern individualism is partly to blame, with many protesters describing the protest as a life-changing experience, as it “made us all feel happy and close to each other after so many years”, thus lacking any need for escalation beyond the limits of individual gratification with the experience. Many mentioned how the atmosphere was similar with the nights of festivity when Greece won the European Championship in Portugal in 2004. The above can be easily understood by considering the absence of the radical Left and of radical politics in the movement.

The Left, initially caught by surprise by these spontaneous events, could follow two paths. The first was to stay at a safe distance and mock this “petite-bourgeois frenzy”. This was what the Greek Communist Party and some hardcore anarchists did. Such an elitist approach makes sure that the streets would be left to those who considered that gathering and screaming curses against all politicians is the final horizon of political imagination.

The second path was followed by the rest of the Left and radical milieu. They understood that social upheavals do not arrive pre-ordered and packaged in the way we fantasize, and therefore decided to intervene. The vehicle was the Peoples’ Assembly, taking place every night in the lower part of the Syntagma Square; a direct-democracy procedure probably initially set up by members of the libertarian/anarchist milieu, which gradually became the soul of the movement. Respecting the ground rules, the radicals intervene without flags or banners and as individuals, but have still managed to change the dynamics. Free Peoples’ Assembly has called for specific political claims, declared that it stands in solidarity with all workers’ struggles, has called for the building of free assemblies in all neighborhoods, puts pressure on the workers’ unions for an open ended general strike and has made clear that those who do not respect immigrants are personae non gratae in Syntagma. Furthermore, the exchange of ideas has become free and political groups are allowed to distribute their leaflets. In time, even the less political part of the protesters has become more willing to take direct action.

There was a lot of debate concerning the distinction between the “political” part of the “Frustrated”, gathered around the Free Assembly in lower Syntagma Square and those who are more a-political and gather on the upper top of Syntagma, outside Parliament. However, there seems to be a qualitative leap forward after the general strike of the 15th of June. It was the day when the workers’ unions, including those of the Communist Party, have met the “Frustrated” in Syntagma, besieging the Parliament that would start discussing the biggest package of austerity measures a Western country has experienced in the last 50 years. The demonstrators damaged the 2-meter steal-fences that the police had put around Parliament and succeeded in letting no more than 30 MPs enter the building. When anarchists (and probably agent provocateurs) engaged in fights with the police, everyone thought that this could be the end of the protest, as the police attacked the masses indiscriminately with sticks and tonnes of tear-gas and chemical aerials, trying to kick people out of the square.

However, what followed was a huge surprise to everyone. The supposedly a-political and “fluffy” non-violent “Frustrated” defended Syntagma square, resisted the numerous attacks by the police, showing impressive solidarity with various other groups, saving protestors from the hand of police and via mobile medical units giving first-aid to injured people. In the course of three hours and in a cloud of tear-gas, the square was re-occupied by the people.

This was the day that the PASOK government went on its knees and Prime Minister Papandreou came close to resigning. Commentators such as Frantzis were right to point out that the “battle of Athens” in the 15th of June gave to the people of Athens a new-born “common identity”.

However the author believes that the movement does need a political subject that can act to transform the institutions, a ‘political front’, and that the assemby form of democracy born on the squares is strong enough to prevent a ‘detachment’ of this new front:

“Nowadays in Syntagma, many protesters seem to just want to affirm their individual identity as “frustrated citizens”, without aspiring to engage in a wider sociopolitical attempt at transformation. There is still a lot to be done until the mass of individuals is transformed into the social-Multitude thereby opening the potentiality for a true radical change. But even if the Multitude tends to be gradually realized in Syntagma, this still might not be enough for a progressive change, as recent history has shown.

Could we not equally claim that the Multitude has appeared in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and the other countries of the Arab Spring? After a heroic struggle, costing thousands of deaths, the Multitude has managed to kick away the governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Yet the biopolitical production and the spontaneity of the Multitude was not proven enough for preventing another government equally hostile to peoples’ interests from rising to power. The Multitude at the moment seems too weak to establish its victories, not to mention to bring the much needed socio-political change beyond capitalism. This makes clear the need for a political subject that will materialize and establish in a political level the victories that the Multitude achieves in the streets.

This is why we need to return to an idea of a political front which has to be somehow formed from below and strike a fatal blow to the cracks in the system; cracks which will also become the factor relating the Multitude with the Front. The capitalist contradictions that may become the crack which the Greek ??????? (potential) Multitude will strike at, are already there. The overthrowing of the government and of the austerity measures, a “default” in the Greek debt, the breaking of the bonds with the European Union and the Common Currency, seem to be a minimum basis shared by most people who are on the streets for the setting of such a wide sociopolitical alliance. Needless to say, the Left can and should play a hegemonic role in this procedure.

However, the political institution which will come out of such a procedure will be in constant and dialectical relationship with the democratic politics produced directly in the squares and in the innumerous peoples’ assemblies that have sprung up in the whole country. This poses an answer to the issue of the representation/substitution that Douzinas has rightly alerted us to. I claim that the production of direct democracy in the peoples’ assemblies has gained such a dynamic that can prevent its possible overshadowing by the hegemonic political front. “

And Nikos Sotirakopoulos concludes:

Such an attempt of political empowerment is not going to be easy, nor can we tell whether it will succeed in advance. The mere idea of political power is repulsive for many participants in the movement. However, with the current state of urgency, it is the only possible outcome for a victory and the further realization of the Multitude. “

1 Comment Understanding the new non-representational politics that are animating the new social movements

  1. Avatarmarkus petz

    In English we have a phrase – mob rule. The idea implicit is often things like lynching and torching of public buildings. Rarely does the mob go beyond the politics of protest, before it is suppressed or neutered.

    However here we see the idea of a non-heirachical space. One where all Greeks are (or Tunisians etc.) are given the competence to form and pass judgement on a situation. One where people must stand as individuals with direct democracy and not via representation, and certainly not by organization.

    The question is does this become like the historical Althing of Iceland where all can bring their grievances? It was such that “all free men could attend the assemblies”. However now the people also want to decide things. How does that work? It will be interesting to see how Greece can take into account in a direct way all of the opinions of small villages and distant islanders and not just a vocal minority in Syntagma Square.

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