A lot of ink has already been spilled on last month’s European elections. Most commentators lament the rise of the far-right; some celebrate the rise of the radical left — but almost everyone has focused their attention on the rearrangement of the deck chairs, missing the grumbling sounds of discontent emanating from below, deep down in the bowels of the ship. As it turns out, only 43% of eligible Europeans actually showed up to vote; the rest couldn’t even be bothered to make the short trip to the polling station. Grand hypotheses are already being staked upon the numbers pulled out of the ballot box, but if numbers still mean anything in this world we should be looking not at the marginal success of leftist parties but at the hundreds of millions who have long since given up their faith in the sham of a democracy we are currently presented with.
The representative institutions of capitalist democracy are facing a profound legitimation crisis. According to the European Commission, 68% of Europeans do not believe that their voice counts in Europe, while a recent Eurobarometer survey revealed that public confidence in the EU has fallen to historic lows. Meanwhile, a major study by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project finds that the mistrust is far from limited to EU institutions: “compounding their doubts about the Brussels-based European Union, Europeans are losing faith in the capacity of their own national leaders to cope with the economy’s woes.” José Ignacio Torreblanca of the European Council of Foreign Relations remarks that “both debtor and creditor countries basically feel that they lost control of what they are doing,” and concludes that most European citizens “now think that their national democracy is being subverted by the way the euro crisis is conducted.”
The story is the same in the United States, where Gallup’s most recent annual trust poll found that only 19% of Americans trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time”, while an overwhelming 81% trust the government only “some of the time” or “never” — a marked deterioration even from the darkest days of George W. Bush’s anti-democratic reign. Just by means of comparison: back in 1960, 73% of Americans still trusted their government to do the right thing always or most of the time. As two leading pollsters for former Presidents Clinton and Carter remark, “this harrowing lack of trust in confidence in politicians and institutions today has been a long time coming … As it stands, our system only serves the elite, not the mass public. And the American people know it.”
This is the crisis of representation facing the so-called capitalist democracies today — and this is the context in which a wave of protest has spread across the globe in recent years. As one Brazilian activist put it during last year’s mass demonstrations, “the mask of democracy is falling.” Now, a timely new book by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini recounts the stories of ordinary citizens around the world as they decided to take matters into their own hands. In They Can’t Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy, the international scholar-activist duo provide us with a unique insight into the bowels of the ship, where a massive democratic mutiny is brewing — occasionally spilling over onto the deck to rearrange some of the chairs, but most of the time simply stirring below the surface, preparing the ground for a radical redistribution of power from below.
In a hard-hitting denunciation of representative democracy, and through a colorful depiction of the countless grassroots alternatives that are already being constructed in communities and workplaces around the world, Sitrin and Azzellini recount the story of the movement of the squares in Greece, Spain and the US, and seek to ground these mass mobilizations in the desire of ordinary people to control their everyday lives and to actively participate in the decision-making processes that affect them. This book, then, is both a fiery indictment of electoral politics and a riveting defense of real democracy — which must by its definition be built on the basis of radical egalitarianism and the direct participation of ordinary citizens in social, political and economic life. Above all, the book is about a radically different approach to running the ship and finding ways to change course before it slams into the dislodged icebergs that loom ominously ahead.
From this vantage point, the year 2011 constituted a rupture. The mass mobilizations and occupations of public spaces from Tahrir to Zuccotti Park cracked open history and allowed a renewed critique of capitalism and representation to finally come to the fore. For a brief moment, at least, the radical imagination ran free. For many, participating in these events was a profoundly transformative experience that was carried over into their everyday lives, where it shot root and began to branch out into new social relations and new forms of political engagement. Today, Sitrin and Azzellini show, hundreds of “laboratories for democracy” are emerging around the world, creating space for ordinary citizens to experiment with alternative forms of social organization, democratic decision-making processes and non-hierarchical ways of relating. In Southern Europe and Latin America, in particular, this project of autonomy has come to pervade the social fabric.
Unlike the occupations themselves, however, the more recent self-managed initiatives that emerged out of them are much less visible and tend to be greatly under-reported by the mainstream media and largely under-appreciated by the institutional left. As a result, the public debate in the United States and Europe today lacks a proper grassroots perspective. Luckily, Sitrin and Azzellini are in an excellent position to provide just that. Having actively participated in the movements themselves, having conducted dozens of follow-up interviews with other participants, and having spent a number of years embedded in previous movements in Argentina and Venezuela, respectively, Sitrin and Azzellini are able to reflect both on their internal functioning and on the global context in which they all arose.
Moreover, Sitrin and Azzellini take the title of their book seriously. Rather than trying to “represent” the voices of the movements, a large part of the book is devoted to the voices of activists and organizers themselves. Through a set of well-selected and carefully curated interview transcripts, they provide the reader with a wonderful insight into the political visions of movement organizers, as well as the many social struggles, political projects and community initiatives that emerged in the wake of the recent ruptures — ranging from efforts to recuperate factories and stop the privatization of water in Greece, to resisting evictions in Spain and “striking debt” in the United States.
Some of these efforts have brought inspiring (partial) victories. At the same time, it is clear that, on the whole, the movements have so far been unable to create a real dent in the top-down distribution of power between the decks. Apart from a number of promising spin-off campaigns, Occupy largely fizzled out, while the movement of the squares in Greece and Spain (despite continued mass mobilizations) has not yet succeeded in halting the austerity drive of their respective governments. In a recent article, the New York-based collective Not An Alternative ultimately blamed the failure of Occupy on the movement’s fetishization of process at the expense of the effort of constructing an alternative political form that could credibly challenge dominant power structures. The California-based Research & Destroy collective similarly lambasts the movement for its inability to match means with ends. These critiques raise an important question: can autonomous movements that emphasize horizontality and self-organization ever really mount a genuine challenge to the capitalist system as such?
Sitrin and Azzellini never really address this question explicitly, but they do touch upon it in what are perhaps the most fascinating and most instructive chapters of their book: the ones on Argentina and Venezuela. Like the US and Europe today, these two Latin American countries experienced a major rupture following a period of rapid neoliberal restructuring. In 1989, a brutal state crackdown on an IMF riot in Carácas — the so-called Caracazo – left thousands dead and set the stage for the proliferation of grassroots movements and the emergence of the Bolivarian process. In Argentina, a spontaneous uprising on December 19 and 20, 2001 ousted President De la Rúa and led to the greatest sovereign debt default in world history, as well as a massive surge in social mobilization, horizontal self-organization and workplace recuperation. These examples show that grassroots movements have a critical role to play in social transformation.
Still, the Latin American chapters leave many burning questions unanswered. Most importantly, there appears to be a tension between the Argentine and Venezuelan cases that is never fully resolved; a tension that arises from the movements’ relation to the state. While the role of the state in Argentina is described in mostly negative terms, with the Kirchners seeking to demobilize the movements through a dual strategy of repression and co-optation, the relationship between state and movements in Venezuela is depicted in a more contradictory light, as one containing both conflictive and cooperative elements. Argentina seems to leave little hope for strategic alliances between autonomous social forces and national-popular parties, while Venezuela’s experience highlights various ways in which progressive forces occupying the state can create space for autonomous movements to construct their own grassroots alternatives from below. What are we to make of these somewhat divergent experiences? What do they tell us in terms of strategy; in terms of matching means with ends?
At this stage in the struggle, such questions are no longer just academic. The rise of the radical left in Greece — and to a lesser extent in Spain — forces activists in autonomous movements to take a stance: either they support left parties wholeheartedly, or they oppose them and insist on radical autonomy and “abstraction” from the state, or they find some kind of intermediate ground, where one may vote for the left and even ally with it on strategic occasions to defend any advances made, while continuing to push against and beyond the state for a post-capitalist world that is to be held in common. It would, perhaps, have fitted the ambitious scope of Sitrin and Azzellini’s book to take up these strategic implications in a proper conclusion (right now, the book ends in the middle of an interview without any concluding remarks from the authors). None of this, however, can detract from the book’s practical importance at this historical juncture. Now, more than ever, we need to keep shining our light on the deepening crisis of representation and the real-world alternatives that are already being constructed from below. Sitrin and Azzellini have easily provided the best account of these grassroots struggles so far.
As for the deeper question — often raised by the communist left — of whether or not the notion of democracy provides a useful starting point and organizing ground for the anti-capitalist struggle, perhaps we should invoke a quote by C. Douglas Lummis, cited by Sitrin and Azzellini in a passage that now rings truer than ever: “‘Democracy’ was once a word of the people, a critical word, a revolutionary word. It has been stolen by those who would rule over the people, to add legitimacy to their rule. It is time to take it back.”
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.