The Centre on Social Movement Studies


Rethinking Greece: Donatella Della Porta on social movements in times of austerity and electoral democracy

Donatella Della Porta spoke to Rethinking Greece* about social movements in times of austerity and electoral democracy, their cultural effects and partial institutionalization, as well as their moral critique on the corruption of representative democracy.

Rethinking Greece intrviews with Donatella della Porta about social movements in times of austerity and electoral democracy.

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Donatella Della Porta spoke to Rethinking Greece* about social movements in times of austerity and electoral democracy, their cultural effects and partial institutionalization,  as well as their moral critique on the corruption of representative democracy. She comments on the differences and similarities between the movements of the European South and underlines their heterogeneity and their concern for national sovereignty, while she also stresses the need for a cosmopolitan vision and transnational alliances between them. She believes that those who are able to develop alternative forms of governance, or cosmopolitan/pan-European identities are those who come from these movements. On an international level she anticipates that there will be a stronger and stronger struggle between progressive and regressive forces with an uncertain result. As far as Greece is concerned, she believes that it still is a laboratory for the progressive forces, asserting that the mobilizations of the previous years have produced important outcomes.

Can you talk to us about your latest book “Movement Parties against Austerity”?

The book grew out of the observation of the increasing relevance of electoral politics for social movements. This became very visible in Greece with the electoral victory of Syriza but also in several other places. Podemos in Spain is one case, Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal is another one; we also have the Left-Green Movement in Iceland, and more recently “La France Insoumise” with Mélenchon in France. So we see an unexpected return of the “Left-Left”, as the French call it, in the electoral arena. And this phenomenon is very much related to the mobilization by social movements. Even if none of these parties can be seen as the only and direct expression of the movements, there are nevertheless many overlaps in terms of the types of claims these parties and movements put forward, the forms of action taken and the importance given to political participation of the people.

These parties developed from movements which were very dissatisfied with representative democracy and electoral politics and in the beginning they seemed not to be interested in becoming an alternative type of political party. So, I wouldn’t have expected in 2011-2012 that, for instance, among the Indignados, people who were outraged with the corruption of participatory democracy would also start to think in terms in electoral type of alternatives. And this is just one of the expressions and outcomes of social movements in terms of their impact on electoral democracy. We are also seeing campaigns and referendums like the ones in Scotland and Catalunya, or the referendum against the privatization of water in Italy which has grown with from very dynamic social movements. We also have the development, within established parties, of a sort of left-wing opposition, like Sanders and the Democratic Party in the United States, like Corbyn in the UK, and also a change in established parties, like the Socialist Party in France, where totally unexpectedly, a left-wing candidate won the primary election. These are some expressions of the interaction between movement politics and electoral politics that we analyze in the book.

The movements that developed after 2011 in Europe seem to have died down. What is your take on this?

Research shows that usually movements tend to go in cycles or in waves: people cannot stay in the streets or in the squares forever. Sometimes,  the evolution of these cycles  movements has brought about, in the declining phase, a radicalization of fractions of the movement that start to use a violent repertoire of actions, like what we have seen in the 70’s in Italy and in Germany. On the other hand, and sometimes at the same time, we have a sort of institutionalization as of parts of the social movements And I think it is no by chance that this that type of effects develops in the moments of declining mobilization, as the activists tend to experiment with many different tactics and repertoires simultaneously in order to come up with solutions to the diminishing turnout in protest events.

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Furthermore, we have the cultural effects of the protest movements, effects on worker unions, like the “white wave” or ‘marea blanca’ that was organized in Spain from health-care professionals against cuts to the budget of the country’s public health services, or the development of alternative citizen-run health clinics, food centres, kitchens and legal aid hubs that came along with the movement of the squares in Greece. So there are various ways through which the people that had protested in the streets keep trying to change the future.

Also parties themselves change because of mobilization in the streets. It happened with the labour movements of the 19th century, or with the environmental movements, through the emergence of the Green parties. I think that what we are seeing today is quite common after the end of protests: when activists stop being in the streets, they often try to develop parties which they believe could help achieving the aims of the movements.

What is interesting at this particular moment is that these parties grow so fast and become so big, up to the point where they are entering positions in government, after national or local elections like in Greece, Portugal or Spain. So the unusual development, that we address in our book, is not that parties emerge from movements, but that these parties become so competitive and powerful in the electoral arena.

What do you believe has been the impact of social movements in party system politics? Has it brought something new to the way parties operate and are organized?

In the book we compare three parties that in many ways were related to social movements, Syriza, Podemos and the Five Star movement, and then we compare them with similar  parties in Latin America, some of which started on a similar type of dynamics. As in Latin America, this happened much earlier than in Europe, we can see the long term effect of these parties being in power. And what we see are different things.

In the beginning the parties tend to adopt some of the principles of the movements. So we have parties that are more participatory than traditional ones, more engaged in attempts to open up beyond the members. The first observation is an attempt of the parties to incorporate the criticism of the top-down organization in the parties.

What we notice however is also  that this attempt is not always easy. This is because usually movement parties have to take into account different types of arenas. One is the movements, which they take ideas from, and the other is the electoral arena, the party system. And they sort of adapt to both, developing different alternative tactics, but also adapting to general trends like the personalization of politics. Also, we see that as parties evolve the type of members changes, as they tend to include disappointed members but also leaders of these other parties, which have different characteristics than the activists and supports in the beginning. And this brings about changes. So there is a tension one could see within the parties themselves, like in Podemos for instance, with controversies between those who push towards the original relations with social movements and those stressing the constraints of electoral politics.


What we also see is that these parties are different in their origins and this is reflected in the evolution of the parties. For example, SYRIZA and Podemos are often referred to as twin parties but they developed in different ways. SYRIZA grew from a previous wave of protests, during the global justice movement, while Podemos developed from the 2011 Spanish protests against austerity.

Could you briefly describe the similarities and differences between protest movements across south European countries?

We see both similarities and differences. So in terms of the type of capacity of mobilization, forms of action, actors involved and so on, in Southern Europe you have these two constellations: on the one hand movements in the squares, very innovative and active in Spain and Greece, and on the other hand more traditional forms of protest in Italy and Portugal. What was similar in all the countries is the fact that there was a criticism of neoliberalism, of social injustice and increasing inequalities. Also all  the movements were very pluralist, involving different social groups from the precarious workers to the retired people, from workers in the big factories to civil servants. They also involved different generations. Young people in particular were very much present and one can say that these movements triggered the development of a very committed generation of young people.

Another thing in common is that the criticism of neoliberalism is a political as well as a moral critique that addressed the corruption of representative democracy and the lack of capacity of representative institutions to live up to their own standards, to deliver what they promised. In all countries what we saw was that conceptions of social, political and civil rights were so very deeply rooted that the attempt to take them away produced an indignant, outraged reaction.

Which broader social and economic transformations does the emergence of protest movements reveal? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new political identity?

The creation of collective identities is a long process; it usually takes a lot of time, even more so in this case because these movements are very heterogeneous.  This heterogeneity is reflected in how difficult it is to find a shared term to call these movements. In Spain they are called 15 de Mayo, 15M, or Real Democracy, journalists call them the Indignados; the multiplicity of names testifies for the fact that there is not yet a specific collective identity to address the people participating in these movement, but there is a search for it. So there is what Ernesto Laclau called a “populist reasoning” in the sense of attempting to create a new definition of the people.  This attempt has produced a sense of empowerment; particularly in Spain or in Greece there are generations of people that took politics into their hands and became deeply politicized by the mobilization in the streets. As of yet there is however no strong common collective identity, and I think there couldn’t have been yet one: a common identity, we can see  from previous movements, can take years and even centuries to form. However this sense of empowerment, of political participation, of search for a combination of justice and freedoms is spreading. This also explains why, not withstanding some decline in mobilization, these are movements that didn’t die: they keep re-emerging in different countries. So, in 2011 there was Spain and Greece, in 2013 it was Gezi Park in Turkey, protests in Brazil and other countries, and, less than a year ago the “Nuit Debut” in France, which showed a strong capacity to mobilize the people. So  a common identity does not exist yet, but it is in the making.

Is there a transnational or cross-European interconnectedness between anti-austerity movements?

There has been a difference in the way European issues, or global issues have been addressed by the global justice movement, the World Social Forum and European Social Forum in the beginning of the years 2000 on one hand, and the movements and anti-austerity protests of 2011 on the other. In the previous wave, protest started globally and then it shifted to local and national level. The recent wave of protests that developed in Europe was very rooted in the characteristics and the timing of the crisis at a national level. You had the 2008-2009 crisis in Iceland, and then it moved to Ireland and Portugal, Spain and Greece, nowadays in France.  Also, the issues of national sovereignty are more directly addressed by these movements. At the same time I think these movements develop ideas for a different type of Europe, so they are not nationalist in terms of an exclusionary type of nationalism. They are moreover trying to develop European and transnational linkages, even though, while in the previous decades this was more straightforward and easier, for these more recent movements it is still a challenge. However, it is something that is starting to happen now: you have pan-European union protests and campaigns against TTIP and so on, even if  still not well developed.

European social protest movements sometimes seem to call for a return to national sovereignty and to classical social democracy, instead of calling for a more radical alternative to capitalism. What is the political vision of those participating in the protests?

As I mentioned earlier, the movements are quite heterogeneous: you find different positions within the same movement. For sure, there is a much more concern, compared to the past, with the issue of national sovereignty. This is understandable, given the characteristics of the crisis, which was very much driven and then controlled at a transnational level. So people think, given that democratic institutions are at a national level, it is unfair that unaccountable institutions, like Ecofin, European Central Bank and so on, make decisions for us. At the same time, in most of the cases there is still an understanding that it is not sufficient to go back to national sovereignty, that you need to develop a cosmopolitan vision and transnational alliances between the movements.

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In terms of alternative to capitalism, again the movements are quite heterogeneous. There are those that call to go back to old laws and old rights and welfare state protection; this is also understandable in α situation where these rights have been taken away–the first claim is give us back what is our rights. But at the same time, there are some innovations, like the idea of the commons, of creating a space for something which is neither in the form of top-down welfare state nor in that of the privatization or commoditization of services. It is an attempt to develop ideas about how the citizens could participate in the management of common spaces and common goods. These are not ideas which are easy to develop. Also, initiatives like the alternative clinics or welfare services in Greece and the mareas in Spain are searching for a more radical alternatives but this search requires time; it is not a moment where you say, oh, I got the right idea. It’s a process of testing, adapting, transforming, searching for the right way.

Can this movements contribute to solving the problem of  democratic deficit in EU?

Yes, I think that this is an achievement already. The democratic deficit of Europe is very clear: what is not clear yet is if those who are in charge at the European level understand the danger for them. I believe that those who are able to develop alternative forms of governance, or cosmopolitan/pan-European identities are those who come from these  movements. But they need to be listened to, because otherwise, those that refuse any form of Europeanization on the basis of exclusionary and nationalist, xenophobic type of identities,will become more and more powerful. It happened in the UK, it happened in Hungary, it is also happening with the increase of illiberal regimes all over the world–take Turkey as an example.

How do you see this issue evolving in the future?

A social scientist never predicts. A reason why it is difficult to make a prediction is that right now there are very high conflicts between progressive and regressive visions. The old establishment is in crisis, but the new one is to be born yet, like Antonio Gramsci said. So, what you see is the development of strong conflicts and all possibilities are quite open. Take the United States as an example, we have Trump now, but it could have been Sanders. Take the French election. Anything can happen in a few days in France. It could be that in the second round you have two right-wing candidates, but it could also be that a left-wing candidate wins. What I mean is that it is difficult to make a prediction: the only thing that we can predict is the capacity of the people to mobilize and I think that there is an understanding that it is a moment when it is important for people to act, but at the same time also powerful forces tend to organize. So the prediction is that there will be a stronger and stronger struggle between progressive and regressive forces, with an uncertain result Well if I want to end this conversation on an optimist view, my understanding is that it is a situation in which regressive force do not have a strategy, so they are betting to high. Take Erdogan in Turkey, Trump in the US, Orban in Hungary. They are daring a lot and I don’t think that they will succeed.  Trump has produced a lot of damages already but he has also produced a lot of movements and Erdogan has been resisted by progressive forces. There was the March of Women in Washington, there is the March for Science on April 22. These movements seem to be able to mobilize, to create a convergence between different social strata and I really hope that they will successful.

How you comment the political situation in Greece now?

I think it is not easy, but at the same time Greece is a laboratory for the progressive forces. From what I can say from my limited knowledge of the countrywhat we see, even in the refugee crisis, is that those new values like solidarity, like empowerment, daring to take the destiny in your own hands didn’t decline with the end of mobilizations. Or are least didn’t disappear. The movements, the different moments of mobilizations since 2008 and then in 2011, produced important outcomes, they were not for nothing. But as an activist in Egypt once told me, “we thought that the revolution was a moment, we realize that it is a process”,  and I think this is the case for Greece also.

*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi

[Read the interview on the Greek News Agenda]



Martin Portos wins the Juan J. Linz Prize to the Best thesis in Political Science 2017

Martin Portos was just awarded with the Juan J. Linz Prize to the Best thesis in Political Science 2017 with his tesis “Voicing outrage, contending with austerity. Mobilization in Spain under the Great Recession”, realized under the supervision of prof. Donatella della Porta.


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Austeridad, capitalismo y conflicto social. Nuevas tendencias en el estudio de los movimientos sociales - An interview with Donatella della Porta

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Edited Volume - 2018

Solidarity Mobilizations in the ‘Refugee Crisis’. Contentious Moves

Donatella della Porta (ed.)
This edited volume ddresses a gap in research on social movements that has disregarded the origins of discontent and overlooks protest as a resource of the powerless; it offers insight into how the movement of refugees across the European Union and elsewhere activates political opportunities; it explores claims to citizenship made by refugees within processes of knowledge production and the mobilization of emotions

Journal Article - 2018

The Passage from Hierarchy to Horizontality: The Self-managed Factory of Vio.Me, Greece

Haris Malamidis
Through fieldwork research conducted in Vio.Me between January and April 2014 and in July 2015, this article examines the self-managed factory of Vio.Me in Greece, one of the most popular examples of these alternative forms of resistance during anti-austerity mobilizations in the country.