Western social movements need new public forums, if they want to succeed

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Western social movements need new public forums, if they want to succeed
Protesters in Paris pictured during a Nuit Debout at Place de la République in 2016. Credit: Flickr.

A series of social movements have been taking place across the Western world, with the Yellow Jackets in France being one of the most recent examples.

Analyses are often too quick to attribute these movements’ inability to bring about real social changes to their failure to create a sustainable form of organisation, to their inability to frame clear demands or to being unreasonably exclusive. Even a newspaper mostly sympathetic to these movements —The Guardian— shares this view: “And without any clear definition of goals or constituency, without organisation of a leadership structure or an attempt to form coalitions with established movements, they are likely to skew towards a voluntaristic politics of “witness-bearing”.

Looking more closely at three movements —Nuit Debout in France, 15M (also referred to as Quince de Mayo or los indignados) in Spain and Occupy Wall-Street in the US— I would like to propose a completely different reading of these movements’ birth and eventual failure. 

Claiming that these movements were not organised is an incorrect but understandable statement: it shows how deeply rooted the concept of hierarchy and organisation is intertwined in our minds.

Indeed, despite the absence of hierarchy, these movements were deeply organised through the creation of commissions, rules for voting or taking the floor, mediators, etc. In fact, Nuit Debout was even criticised for being overly organised, with critics accusing the movement of spending too much time on organising itself instead of framing genuine propositions.

Still, once again, this claim fails to withstand a closer examination of facts.

These movements were able to turn some of their demands into clearly articulated propositions. This is the case with “Occupy Wall-Street”, which, for instance, proposed the following: “1. Make our elections run publically, [sic] not privately by private political parties, 2. Make our elections publically [sic] financed (…)”.

But the concrete nature of some of the demands framed by these movements is even better demonstrated with the example of the recent overhaul of the Spanish electoral law. Even though the implemented version of the law was described as ‘mocking the indignados’, it does not change anything about the fact that Quince de Mayo was able to come up with a policy clear enough to be both incorporated into the Spanish legislation and denatured from its original idea. 

While there might be some truth in claiming that these movements were excessively exclusionary—reflected in a right-wing philosopher being ousted from both Nuit Debout and the Yellow Jackets for no discernible reason other than being right-wing —, it remains a broad exaggeration.

Available statistics on the sociology of the Nuit Debout movement draw a completely different picture and the paltry amount of footage we have of these movements’ assemblies show a willingness to debate among politically diverse people. Overall exclusiveness cannot be considered the main reason for these movements’ failure and collapse.  

These explanations are widespread and yet erroneous. They fail to provide us with a convincing reason for these movements’ failures, however one can easily understand why they spread.

These movements’ refusal to play by the rules meant that their structures did not fit into any known form of organisation such as trade unions, political parties, etc.

This led to great difficulties for the average person, who struggled to understand their objectives or what the movements were even about. Furthermore, refusing to endorse traditional political forms meant that there was no vehicle to carry the demands of these movements into the political system.

Finally, their complicated history with traditional media, for example, the seminal work of Pierre Bourdieu “On Television”, and lack of positive coverage led them to overuse social media, which in turn contributed to the portrayal of them as immature movements.

I would like to make the bold claim that these movements’ failure has not been correctly explained yet. The reason being that political commentators, so far, have guessed rather than analysed the causes of these movements’ decline and disappearance.

This is because all commentators forgot that, before being able to explain why these social movements failed, one should start to clarify what exactly constitutes a failure or a success for these movements. After all, there are people who state that the objective was to use these experiences as “political labs” to rediscover democracy, which is something that these movements indeed accomplished for a large share of participants.

In reality, labelling these movements as failures lies in the unwritten assumption that they had to choose between becoming a revolution, framing a series of demands or becoming a traditional political party: a ternary choice that was clearly and univocally rejected by these groups.

The blame cannot, however, solely be put on the commentators, as these movements themselves struggled in defining their own goals. In fact, I would like to argue that the downfall of these social experiences comes from their inability or unwillingness to accept that their main objective should have been to institutionalise a new type of public forum in Western societies.

From the start, demonstrators feared that these movements could become an end in themselves. Therefore, they refused to explore the possibility that their main objective was to transform a temporary demonstration into a permanent institution. As a result, they ended-up phrasing a series of demands and slogans as a ragtag alternative.

To better understand this, we need to take a step back and investigate these movements’ sources of inspiration. Indeed, these influences carried the germ that eventually led to their final collapse.

Three sources of influence can be identified: the Arab Spring, the wave of protests that took place in the Middle-East and North-Africa in 2010-2011; the influence of post-modern theories; and, to some extent, the French Revolution.

During the Arab Spring —a self-proclaimed source of inspiration for Western movements such as Occupy Wall-Street— protesters developed a new form of organisation and mobilisation, extensively building on social media and systematic occupations of public spaces. Copying these protests allowed for the new movements to rapidly blossom and grow but also brought an inherent limit to what they could have hoped to achieve in the context of Western societies.

The Arab Spring was a series of protests that were fighting authoritarian and corrupt regimes that are far less solid and legitimate than representative democracies. In the end, mimicking revolutionary movements taking place in the context of non-democratic societies trapped their Western counterparts in the impossible alternative of either becoming a revolution or disappearing.

This logic becomes evident when one looks closely at the shape these movements took: they occupied visible symbols of power (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Wall Street in New York, Place de la République in Paris) and became a parody of traditional assemblies and parliaments. Such a strategy has two possible outcomes.

Either the movement topples the existing parliament legitimacy and replaces it, or the movement collapses after having framed a series of demands that might or might not be taken into consideration by the existing democratic assemblies. Of course, in the context of representative democracies, the latter was the only realistic outcome one could expect.  

Another source of inspiration that displayed its limits during the unfolding of these movements is post-modern theory. Thinkers such as Foucault and Bourdieu might not have been directly quoted, but these movements’ logic and structure clearly carries the signature of their theories.

The influence of post-modern theory led to a refusal to create a hierarchy, something that post-modernism defines as an inherent form of alienation. In addition, the daily experiences of the new social movements tested the post-modern concept of micro-resistances against micro-oppressions.

The idea behind the theory of micro-resistance is that oppression is no longer exerted by one centralised institution or a single dictator. Rather, oppression stems from a series of micro-elements of social control. The typical example would be the education system, which does not enslave but exerts a more subtle and yet certain form of social control over generations. As a consequence, the theory of micro-resistance postulates that resistance should also have a more subtle and decentralised form of organisation.

On top of the incredible level of inefficiency inherent in these types of organisations, and despite the merits such forms of resistance might have had in the context of the 60s and 70s, the truth is that this form of protest has become completely obsolete in today’s political and societal context.

The neoliberal logic, as amply demonstrated by Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, commonly considered as the founders of neoliberalism, is fully compatible with this vision. Thus, it very logically led to these movements failing to demonstrate how exactly they could represent a convincing alternative to the status quo. The paradigm of the network and the loosely structured form of organisation with no clear centre of authority already is the reality of globalisation, and this is precisely something that originally fed these movements’ anger. These theories’ influence explains why these movements have more similarities to the type of political organisation dreamed of by the libertarian/neoliberal Muray Rothbard, one of the main writer and source of inspiration for the development of the libertarian ideology, rather than traditional revolutionary organisations.

The inability of such a form of protest to carry real seeds for change is very cynically —but rightly—, described in an article from Forbes, “For the good of capitalism, don’t end occupy wall street”. The author very lucidly explains that the form taken by these movements would unavoidably lead to the participants learning that the current capitalist society is the form of social organisation that best echoes their view and aspirations. In other words, these movements could only end with the triumph of the very logic they originally pretended to fight against.

The final source of inspiration that served as a model for these movements is the French Revolution. Hannah Arendt’s infamous essay “On revolution” offers precious insights to better grasp the idea that the French Revolution has acted as an unspoken influence. Her essay develops a comparison between the American and the French revolutionary traditions that can be very instructive for us.

According to Arendt, the American Revolution stopped at creating new institutions that were based on the ideas and theories that have been developed over the centuries by generations of thinkers and philosophers. Thus, the American Revolution ended-up creating a new form of social organisation that had been patiently and carefully thought through and designed by the Founding Fathers who restricted themselves to translating the legacy of a rich intellectual tradition into a political system. The French Revolution, on the other hand, took a different road.

Prompted by the hunger and the crushing misery the French popular classes were suffering from, the French Revolution was charged with solving social injustice once and for all. The result was that all successive institutions born in the wake of the Revolution rapidly collapsed as no social organisation could bring a decisive and definitive conclusion to such a quest. The tragic and final consequence was the death of the Revolution, concluded with the return of a king under the disguise of an emperor, an idea taken from the French historian Henry Guillemin.

When looking at new social movements such as Quince de Mayo or Occupy, we can observe a strikingly similar logic at play.

Indeed, these movements’ main shortcoming was not their inability to frame concrete propositions. Rather, the problem was the endless list of incredibly hopeful targets they pursued, which meant that any proposition would at best be seen as disappointing. We can understand this better by enumerating just a few of the causes these movements embraced: ending patriarchy, fighting against sexism, overhauling globalisation, finding a solution to global warming, ending social injustice, giving a new life to democracy, etc.

Not only did this long list of ambitious and generous targets lead to the downfall of these movements but, in addition, some commentators sympathetic to the cause mistakenly took its excessive ambition for a strength.

In the end, the three sources of inspiration we just described —the Arab Spring, post-modern theories and the French Revolution— acted as a deadly trap for these movements.

The misguiding effect these influences exerted on these new social movements led them –sadly and ironically— to end up as a mere list of demands that could be cherry-picked by the existing political organisations. In other words, the movement ended up being exploited by politicians, which was precisely one of the movements’ worst fears.  

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, epitomised this phenomenon in a speech he gave at the Davos’s summit in June 2019, when demonstrations from the Yellow Jackets were still raging in France: “Something does not work anymore in this capitalism that benefits the few more and more. I do not want us to consider that economic adjustment and public debt will prevail over social rights anymore.”

Going back to the point made earlier, I would like to pay homage to these movements.

As written above, my thesis is that these movements failed mainly because they either refused or were unable to see that their real objective was to institutionalise a new form of public forum in western societies, something that the entire Western political tradition has sought and failed to achieve since at least the American Revolution.

This point is crucial and to better understand it, I will once again point to the theories and ideas developed by Hannah Arendt. According to Arendt, the root of the previous revolutions’ failures, including the American, was their inability to create institutions that would protect and formalise the experience of liberty they discovered during the revolutionary period. In other words: the creation of a new public forum.

When speaking about new social movements, it is typical to hear that they were too self-enamoured and that, in the end, they were too busy enjoying the experience rather than trying to bring about actual changes. I would like to reverse the argument and make the complete opposite and unorthodox claim that the pleasure taken in public assemblies, debates and political discussion was precisely the most precious treasure these movements rediscovered.

Their inability to turn a temporary experience into permanent institutions is their real defeat.

The fact that so many participants from these movements —Nuit Debout, Yellow Jackets, Occupy, Indignados, etc— describe these experiences as life-changing is not something laughable or ridiculous. On the contrary, they rediscovered something long-forgotten; the fact that intrinsic to human nature, “(…) no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power”.

In the same essay on revolution, Hannah Arendt argues that the triumph of the socialist form of revolution made another form of protest invisible: the council system; a system that avoided the delegation of excessive power to centralised power, however, from Jeffersonian theory to the Russian Revolution, these councils were the most original form of protest, naturally sprouting up until they got cleaned up and replaced by either a counter-revolution or professional socialist revolutionaries.

We can draw clear parallels between this past experience and what we are currently witnessing.

One of the most upsetting aspects of these movements’ inability to recreate a common public forum is the growing use of exclusion logic. Safe spaces and exclusion of groups already took place at Nuit Debout where some feminist events were forbidden to men.

Even though I do not want to trivialise the difficulties faced by women in taking the floor in mixed groups, there is simply no bigger confession of failure in the attempt to create a common public forum than the appearance of these non-mixed spaces.

These groups created an exclusionary mindset that rapidly and predictably backfired when the “other side” started to ask for the creation of similar spaces. The most striking feature of this new segregationist logic is that these “safe-spaces” are not created to provide physical protection to oppressed groups: they are crafted based on the assumption that exchanging ideas and speaking in mixed groups is inherently impossible.

The biggest form of unwanted validation this dangerous view received is the way Donald Trump coined the argument that got him elected: a twisted rhetoric of victimhood that pictures the white male as the new victim.

The degree of polarisation we are slowly reaching, and the growing difficulty we are facing in shaping discourse, does not only explain the failure of these movements. It is also the unmistakable sign that recreating a common forum has now become a vital need.

In the past, the failure of the council system ended up in a series of catastrophes, whose toxic consequences still poison contemporary discussions and politics.

It appears clearer each passing day that the failure of the new social movements might lead to consequences at least as serious and potentially as dangerous as what happened in the aftermath of the council system’s failure and disappearance.

For once, let’s hope that history does not repeat itself.

Audren Layeux

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