The direct democracy of the squares has given way to representative party politics — a dangerous development, the Latin American experience teaches us.
I was at Syntagma Square in Athens during its long summer of 2011. Just like hundreds of thousands of other participants in this incredible horizontal experiment, I was impressed by the ability of everyday people — who were until then outsiders of the political game — to spontaneously get together and organize themselves into the largest Popular Assembly Athens has ever witnessed, seeking to overturn the neoliberal austerity measures the government was soon to vote on, and invent ways in which direct democracy could possibly work as a form of decision-making beyond the limited space of a square.
This autonomous and horizontal project was made reality without any particular financial resources and without the participation of the traditional political actors like trade unions and political parties, which were emphatically banned from the square. It all happened spontaneously, without leaders, and from below. And it did not happen only in Athens, but in all the squares of Greece — forming what came to be known as “the movement of the squares” (and not the aganaktismenoi, or Greek indignados, as the media called them; a name that was rejected by the movement itself. A huge banner hung over Syntagma those days with a clear message: we are not indignant, we are determined!)
A year later, together with Jerome Roos, we returned to Syntagma with the intention of interviewing some of the protagonists of this movement, as well as to explore a bit further how the occupation actually took off. “We gotta find the person who brought the microphone!” was my main obsession at the time, thinking that the movement seemed spontaneous, yet actually somebody was there with a microphone and a sound system on the very first day, so if we could find “who brought the mic” we could possibly be able to locate who was behind the call for the occupation of the square as well — thus went my doubting-Thomas thinking at the time.
Talking to activists from Syntagma we managed to find the answer to our question, yet it was not at all what we were expecting: the mic was actually brought to Syntagma on the first assembly by… a Spanish wandering musician who happened to be present in the nearby “Greek-Spanish Assembly” of Thissio and who offered his equipment for the very first Syntagma People’s Assembly to take place. Later on, the anarchists of Exarchia brought a better sound system, of course, but this whole story really proved to us that the occupation of the square was actually what it looked like: a leaderless, spontaneous, horizontal movement for real (direct) democracy; one that taught the people who happened to pass by Syntagma those days that there is another way of doing politics, not through ‘representatives’ and ‘leaders’ but through one’s own participation.
While this direct democratic approach was obviously not without its limitations, it was still an effort “coming from the people,” as Dimitris — one of the facilitators of the assembly — told us in an interview for the ROAR documentary Utopia on the Horizon (2012). And of course this radical democratic experiment made “the people” the main agent of change for the little while that it lasted, excluding the more traditional actors of political life and completely discrediting the country’s political system. Yet the summer of Syntagma did not last forever, even though the 72 days and nights for which it managed to last made it the longest major occupation of the Real Democracy Movement of 2011-’13.
Two-and-a-half years later, on November 10, 2013, another call for the occupation of Syntagma Square was made. Yet this time there was no need to investigate who made the call, neither “who brought the mic”. The whole event was organized by the radical-left party SYRIZA in order to support its request for a confidence vote against the government which was taking place inside Parliament at the same time (a confidence vote of which nobody understood why it had been called, since there was no chance for the government not to survive it — but that’s a different story).
Of course, the party had taken care of installing a big stage (and an expensive sound system) for its members to address the crowds, while it had also invited several artists to perform at the square. And of course there was no Popular Assembly — the main attraction of the night was the speech by SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras from inside Parliament. Yet, although SYRIZA had already taken care of the sound system and all the other details and needed no Spanish wandering musician to appear as a Deus Ex Machina to save the situation, its call to occupy Syntagma was not attended by even a fraction of the crowds that used to attend the Popular Assemblies two years before, neither did it have their passion, their creativity, or their hope. However, SYRIZA’s event confirmed one thing: that the ‘political party’ and the ‘state’ are back in play as the main front of political resistance in Greece today, with SYRIZA being the main expression of this tendency.
Many leftists in Europe and North America look to SYRIZA with hope and amazement. But is it really a good sign that a political party has “stolen the show” of the movements and usurped their energy? Should we not be worried that the horizontal and direct democratic experiment of the squares has largely given way to the old hierarchical forms of representation and electoral politics? Should we not be concerned that the Popular Assemblies have been replaced with the speeches of a party leader in Parliament? Perhaps we should look to the experiences of another continent — Latin America — that already has a long history with such developments, and learn a lesson or two.
In his excellent book, Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements, Raúl Zibechi evaluates the decade of the “pink tide” in Latin America and comes to the following two conclusions. First, that in all the Latin American countries that experienced the “pink tide” (which swept left-leaning governments into power in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and others), and despite the many local differences among them, there was one fundamental feature these countries all shared: the return of the state as the main agent of social change. And second, that the movements that were the protagonists of the main mobilizations in the late 1990s and early 2000s (the piqueteros in Argentina, the participants in the water and gas wars in Bolivia, the landless workers’ in Brazil, and so on) had all been marginalized or neutralized through state repression or co-option, leading to the ascendency of the ‘party’ as the main expression of popular demands and desires, and the side-lining of the radical emancipatory struggle of the movements themselves.
Regarding Argentina more specifically, where the direct democratic experiments of 2001-’03 gave way to Kirchner’s corporatist neo-Peronism, Benjamin Dangl famously wrote that “Kirchner was handing out crumbs, when what many demanded was revolution.” And regarding Bolivia, Oscar Olivera — spokesperson of the Coordinadora por la Defensa del Agua y la Vida during the legendary Cochabamba Water War — described the first year of Evo Morales’ government as follows:
“Now that [Morales'] Movement Towards Socialism occupies state space, it has begun trying to co-opt and control the movements, in order to demobilize them by means of their own specific demands and tame them according to the government’s interests. The state is expropriating capacities that we recovered at great cost: the capacity to rebel, to mobilize, to organize, and to advance proposals. They give institutional positions to movement spokespeople, embassies to social leaders, and dismiss and stigmatize those of us who do not want to enter state institutions but rather want to break with them, alleging that we are funded by the right-wing.”
Kirchner’s crumbs and Evo’s offers managed to stop whatever revolutionary processes were under way below the social surface, leading us to wonder once again why social movements consistently lose out to electoral institutional politics when the center-left takes over a regime. Are we witnessing a similar process unfolding in Europe right now, with the rise of SYRIZA in Greece? Are the radical emancipatory movements once again being sidelined in favor of party politics and the electoral conquest of state power? The Latin American experience is there and we better pay some close attention to it. Otherwise we are condemned to commit the same mistakes over and over again.