Reflections on the European Social Movement

, by MASSIAH Gustave

For several years we have been faced with the need to build a European Social Movement, with all its challenges. The European Social Forums were, for a while, an expression of this dynamic. But we must admit that this dynamic is now faltering, due to the changing situation of Europe and in Europe, beyond the organisational structure of the forums. In November 2012, the Florence+10 meeting will explore new theories based on the interaction of the European networks engaged in the social forums process, the "Joint social conference" and the proposal for an Altersummit.

With this in mind, we must ask ourselves what stands in the way of a united European social movement seeking social justice and the fight against inequality, the defence of liberties and rights, respect for the planetary ecosystem and the environment and Europe’s contribution to a fairer, peaceful world.

The European Social Movement Horizons

From this point of view, the unity of the European social movement depends on our horizons. In the short term, unity can be based on solidarity between resistance movements, particularly against austerity measures and their dramatic consequences for ordinary people as well as for basic freedoms. In the long term, unity may come from the proposal for a social, ecologica and democratic transition which aims to go beyond capitalism. This prospect was elaborated in the debate which characterised Rio+20. At this conference, three possibilities emerged: the reinforcement in a different form of the dictatorship of finance and the inclusion of nature in their financial mechanisms, a reconfiguration of capitalism based on public regulation and social modernisation or a rupture leading to ecological, social and democratic transition.

The first view reflects the concept of a financialised green economy. Here, the way out of the crisis is through the enlargement of world markets, by the "unlimited markets" necessary for growth. The proposal is to increase the size of world markets, described as ’green’ markets, through the financialisation of Nature, the commodification of life and a generalised privatisation process. The management of Nature would be entrusted to big financialised multinational companies. It’s an extension of neo-liberal logic, that of the deregulated capitalism which led to the catastrophe we are now living through, and which must be imposed at the expense of democratic freedoms. It is a question of limiting the fundamental rights which could weaken the preeminence of the markets.

The second view is based on the Green New Deal, defended by Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Amartya Sen. This would mean a profound reconfiguration of capitalism, including public regulation and the redistribution of income. Its voice is weak because it would mean confrontation with the dominant logicof the world capital markets, which rejects Keynesian ideas and is not prepared to accept any inflation which would reduce the value of their profits. This situation reminds us that the New Deal adopted in 1933 was not successfully applied until 1945, after the Second World War.

The third view is that of citizens’ and social movements, which was outlined in the WSF (Worl Social Forum) process. The social movements do not disregard the improvements in working conditions and purchasing power that the Green New Deal could bring. But they assert the impossibility of achieving it with power relations as they currently stand. They consider that productivist growth, even with a regulated capitalism, cannot escape the limits of the planetary ecosystem and is not viable.
They advocate a rupture, a social, ecological and democratic transition. They propose new concepts and methods of producing and consuming, such as the global commons and new forms of property, the control of finance, the good life (buen vivir) and prosperity without growth, the reinvention of democracy, shared and differentiated responsibilities and the right to public services free of charge. The organisation of societies and of the world would be based on access to rights for all. This rupture has already begun, through our struggles, because creativity is born of resistance, and the concrete practice of emancipation which, from a local to a global level, anticipates these alternatives.

Situations will be marked by the specific articulation of these three narratives. In many cases, the rejection of the dominant logic of financialisation and its consequences could lead to an alliance between those who maintain the possibility of modernisation and the movements which have signed up for transition. Such an alliance would not prevent debate on the objectives and perspectives needed to go beyond capitalism.

It’s in the medium term that the European social movements’ unity is the most challenging. This horizon is the one which defines strategy, and articulates both urgent responses and the longer-term plan for structural social transformation.

The Evolution of Citizens’ and Social Movements

The world social forums process is still active. The alternative strategic direction, that of access to rights for all and the equality of rights, from the local to the planetary scale, has been established. Their immediate demands are always about the consequences of the crisis on the living standards of ordinary people.

The neoliberal crisis has been accentuated by peoples’ resistance. However, the exhaustion of neoliberalism does not mean that capitalism has been surpassed. A period of structural crisis has begun with four dimensions: economic and social, geopolitical, ideological, ecological. The citizens’ and social movements allow us to think through this crisis. They are faced with two questions which should lead to renewal of the social forums process. The first concerns the juncture with new movements, the second relates to the changing circumstances of the movements in different parts of the world.

New movements have developed since 2008, in Tunisia and Egypt; in Spain, Portugal and Greece with the ’indignados’; in the U.S. and elsewhere with ’Occupy’; in Chile, Colombia, Quebec, Senegal and Croatia with the ’new generation’ movements, which are often linked to the failure of the global education system. These new social movements have their own dynamic. Connections with older alterglobalisation movements exist, but they are scattered. All the more so since neither of the two groupings is homogenous, nor do they have forms of representation which would allow formal discussions to take place.

The initial connections stem from the nature of the slogans used first in Tunis and Cairo and then completed by other movements. They relate primarily to the rejection of poverty and other inequalities, the respect for liberties, and the refusal of forms of domination. Some of the details vary from one movement to another on the denunciation of corruption and the designation of the "1% of the wealthiest and most powerful", on the demand for "true democracy" and the objection to the fusion between the financial and political classes, and on ecological constraints on landgrabbing and monopolising the raw materials of the environment. Beyond the political and cultural differences of each of these two broad groupings, there are specific tendencies which could either reinforce or contradict one another. The new movements place stronger emphasis on individual liberties rather than on social justice and equality, on ’libertarian’ approaches to government regulation and on spectacular direct action rather than long-term collective action.

Connections can also be found in attempts to construct a new political culture despite the difficulties. There is common ground in their horizontality, their affirmation of diversity and the primacy given to self-organised activities. There are still significant differences on the nature of public space, territorial or virtual ; on the relationship between individual and collective action; on the limitations of delegation and the need for coordination on the organisational models of the movements, and on their relationship with politics. The working hypothesis is that the two groupings will mutate, leading to the birth of new era movements, the era following the neoliberal crisis, whose issues are not still defined. Older alterglobalisation movements should learn the lessons of their achievements and limitations. And, as Esther Vivas put it so well for the new movements: "this is a prologue".

Social Movements Faced with the Growing Differentiation of their Circumstances

In the crisis, the financial bourgeoisie has remained in power and the dominant logic is still that of financialisation. But globalisation is constantly evolving and its contradictions are increasing. This can be seen in the growing variations between different parts of the world, a kind of continental drift. Each major region is changing according to its own dynamic and social movements adapt to take their new circumstances into account. These changes affect the conditions for convergence of the movements, as it has been constructed in the world social forums process.

In Latin America, desarollistas or developmental regimes establish post-neoliberal policies,which are not anti-capitalist and which combine forfeits to the world capital markets with redistributive social policies. The results are a kind of normalisation of alterglobalisation and the fragmentation of the social movements.

In Asia, alliances bring together statist, national and globalised bourgeoisies. As in Latin America, this raises a question on the role of the social movements of the new powers which we call, for want of a better term, "emerging countries". In these two regions, the social movements are organised around workers fighting for their rights and their salaries, who make broad alliances with the statist bourgeoisie, especially as the latter controls part of the productive capacity. In the Middle East, the new cycle of struggles and revolutions is the start of a period of profound contradictions. The real presence of social movements faces the emergence of the political forces of Islam which in turn is faced with government power, and the instrumentalisation of the major powers, who seek to make up for the fall of their dictator allies by playing politics with the situation. In Africa, the race for raw materials and the monopolisation of land, as well as the multiplication of conflicts as a result, obscures the true dynamics of the economy and the vitality of the movements.

In North America, the new movements, Occupy and Red Cards, are faced with the violent reaction of the economic powers, and the worrying rise of conservatism.

Faced with these new circumstances and the vigour of the conservative reaction, the movements are both highly combative and highly inventive. They have not yet redefined the new forms and priorities which they want to give to the convergence of international struggles. They are aware of their importance and remain present in exisiting spaces, notably in the social forums, but without paying them sufficient attention.

The Situation in Europe

The European crisis is part of the global crisis. The economics of the crisis in Europe are specific, the growth differential working strongly against it, as well as the geopolitics. The different models of globalisation around the world also affect Europe. There is variation between Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe and the U.K. European elites respond differently to the crisis and there is a clash. European social movements must be aware of the strategy of their ruling elites to define their own strategy. Convergence at the level of the European social movement is not automatic and this fact makes it more difficult.

In Northern Europe, in Germany first of all, the strategy is to maintain their economic position within a globalised world by strengthening the industrial base. Industry has not recovered its previous position, but it is a driving force for external trade and employment. Industry makes up more than 22% of GDP in Germany (against 12% in France, 6% in Greece). The plan of the German bourgeoisie is to base German industrial competitiveness on flexibility. This is done within the framework of joint management, offering a relative increase in salaries in return. The German trade unions have signed up to this joint management.

In Southern Europe, the reindustrialisation strategy is more difficult. They are not in a strong position in relation to global competition, and a reorientation towards internal markets would take 15 to 20 years and would not be easy. There is further variation in their circumstances – in Italy, industry makes up 20% of GDP, while the Catalan bourgeoisie is aligned with the Northern European strategy. Capitalism is based more on services – it’s a rentier capitalism with a complex relationship with the paternalist State. The austerity measures are felt more violently by the underpriveliged, particularly those who do not have secure employment. The maintenance of the Eurozone as it is currently managed translates into a 50% youth unemployment rate. The social movement is more strongly mobilised against these politics of austerity.

France is in an intermediate position. Exports create jobs and French industry is not dependent on competition at the lowest salary levels, ‘low-cost’ competition. The worsening situation in France is due to the tough confrontation with bosses, who underinvest to maintain control and refuse to make any concessions to employees. Unlike German bosses, in France they try to play different groups against one another, salaried employees against casual workers, and gentrified town centres and new middle-class inhabitants of the urban peripheries against ghettoised suburbs.

In Eastern Europe, the ruling classes are trying a strategy of ‘low-cost’ industrialisation to attract the multinationals. They lean towards a neoliberal direction for Europe and support freedom of exchange with their three ‘dumpings’: social, environmental and fiscal.

The U.K. still pursues an Atlanticist strategy, clinging to the United States. The British ruling elites play on fiscal and monetary attractiveness. Since the financial crisis, their challenge has been to manage the inevitable reduction in the financial scale of their economy, and notably the importance of the City. Finance has doubled in size in 30 years – like in the U.S., it has gone from 3 to 7% of GDP. The British ruling elites oversee what they call ‘deleveraging’, the reduction of debt and speculative instruments. After its victory over the trade union movement which opened the neoliberal era, they pursue a strategy of casualised employment creation and are tempted by the idea of ‘discount’ reindustrialisation, like Ireland.

Challenges for the European Social Movements

These varying circumstances are a barrier to the definition of a common strategic position for citizens’ and social movements in Europe. These movements are confronted with three main challenges: precarious employment, xenophobia and the alternative European project.

The first concerns the essential and very difficult alliance for the common struggle between workers in precarious employment and those in secure employment . Thirty years ago, the social movements were defined on the basis of employees with stable jobs. Workers in precarious employment could imagine that they would eventually be integrated into a stable social system. Today the opposite is true - insecure employment may be on the horizon for those with stable employment.

The second concerns the increase in racist and xenophobic ideologies. They are developed from fear and social, ecological and civic insecurity. They are fuelled by the symbolic dimension of the European crisis and the ‘disenchantment’ which prolongs the world’s geopolitical upheaval. How should people consider their identity when they know they are no longer at the centre of the world?

The third concerns the definition of an alternative European project coming out of the dominant European project, and its dead ends, which would be the cultural and political expression of the European social movement.