This article is part of the Transeuropa Journal, the official publication of the Transeuropa Festival
by Niccolo Milanese
The various protests, occupations and viral internet campaigns that have seized the imagination of the media and many citizens since the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011 challenge the current system of power by articulating alternative political manifestos and practising (re)newed forms of politics. “Occupy!” is understood as a political protest against certain specific policies as well as a new way of being political, of doing politics that does not fit with the current political institutions. The consequence is that political mobilisation can now take the more traditional forms of holding placards, addressing politicians and decision-makers through protest, lobbying or raising awareness, but also organising a political alternative on the ground through alternative currencies, public agoras, protest picnics, flash-mobs, public-space university courses etc.
The awakening of a new form of political consciousness faces many challenges, but there are two crucial ways that many of these challenges can be understood: as a problem of translation, and as a problem of action.
One of the strengths of the new wave of political mobilisation is its transnational nature: new networks of
communication, solidarity and understanding are being built across large parts of the world, from Tokyo to Beijing, Russia to Europe and the Northern Mediterranean to North America. The increased speed of communication between continents has contributed massively to the possibility of these transnational waves of protest. Nonetheless, the problem of translation between all these contexts is consistently underestimated.
It is obvious to say that there are significant and massive political differences between Egypt under Mubarak and euro-crisis Greece; between Wall Street and Frankfurt. It is also apparent to many people that there are significant similarities – but these similarities have to be brought out through translation. The general slogans “Real Democracy“ or ”We are the 99%”, which lend themselves to twitter as well as other mass media, hold together a global coalition through their generality, but the concrete political situations behind them are often quite different. For the coalition to be effective in each political context without fracturing, a translation must take place which relates the specific to the general. The transnational coalition, to maintain its unity over the duration of time as well as its effectiveness, has to foster a shared awareness of different contexts and how they relate to the general sentiments.
Europe has an almost unique role to play in this scenario: it is both a crucible of shared information and a kind of giant translation machine. Cultures and peoples from every part of the world are present in Europe, meaning it is a place for sharing political knowledge and information on the political situations throughout the world. At the same time, and perhaps unlike the United States of America which has a similar and older claim of being the ‘melting pot’ of the world, translation and diversity is built into the European self-understanding. It is therefore in a position to play the role of a universalising force which maintains diversity and pertinence to different political contexts.
The second challenge is the other side of the translation challenge: it is the challenge of being politically effective in different political contexts, the challenge of taking action. Whereas translation is required to hold together the unity of a transnational coalition, for that coalition to serve its purpose, it needs to have a genuine effect. There have been substantial victories over the past year for those people who associate themselves with a move towards democracy and equality, whether it being the overcoming of dictatorships in the Southern Mediterranean or the mainstreaming of a discussion of a financial transaction tax which used to be on the fringes of political debate. But there have also been many occasions where change has not been brought about. The Real Democracy movement in Spain, for example, was unable to change the direction of politics in that country.
One of the strengths of the movement is to do politics in a new way and to build outside the institutions, but this risks impotency if there is no strategy for engaging with existing political institutions which still hold power. The movement needs to be clever enough to change formal political institutions at the same time as it limits their importance. The new democratic movement ignores frontiers where traditional politics is forced to stop and negotiate, but the new democratic movement has yet to use its full strength to not allow traditional politics to hide in the echelons of the structures it has built to protect itself. The challenge is particularly complex in Europe where political sovereignty is shared between a variety of actors and institutions: changing the politics of one country will not be enough to change the politics of Europe as a whole.
This very feature of the European situation mirrors the action-challenge of the democracy movement as a whole, which needs to be simultaneously specific and general in a globalised world where no political actor has total dominion over its territory, and only by doing both will achieve lasting and substantial change at any level. In this respect as well, Europe is the laboratory of a new politics beyond the nation state, which is simultaneously transnational and local.