2011: a year of occupations that changed the world

  • April 22, 2016

Movement & Mobilization

The 2011 square occupations have been a watershed moment that, despite its evanescence, has profoundly changed grassroots and institutional politics.

What has become of the great promise of social change raised by the “movements of the squares” of 2011? What did those spectacular occupations of public squares, from Tahrir in Cairo to Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Syntagma in Athens leave behind? To what extent did they contribute to advancing the cause of the “99%” or of the “common and ordinary people” they purported to fight for?

With protest movements, as with any other social and political phenomenon, there comes a time to take stock of what has happened — a time that is as important for evaluating the past as it is for planning future action. The latter appears to be particularly relevant in light of the rise of new movements, such as Nuit Debout in France, that can be seen as the continuation of the 2011 cycle.

Five years since 2011, famously celebrated as the “year of the protester” on the annual cover of TIME Magazine, we are perhaps sufficiently distant from the heat of those events to draw up something akin to a balance sheet of the achievements and letdowns of that momentous wave of protest.

The appraisal of the mobilizations of 2011 is, as it often happens with great historical events, a highly contentious topic. The movements of the squares have enthused in equal measure as they have disappointed; they have both under-delivered and over-delivered.

For some people these protests seemed to have achieved nothing at all; for others, like the Greek activist Giorgios Giovannopoulos, they “completely changed the political landscape.” Some, including many nostalgic leftists, see them as just a distraction from serious politics,or a childish display of naivety; for others, the mobilizations have been a decisive turning point in contemporary politics.

This great diversity in assessment stems from the different ways in which people have looked at these movements and their outcomes; different ideological positions led to different assessments. But they also derive from different understandings of what the outcomes of protest movements are supposed to be, the yardstick against which we can “measure” their results.

As I will argue, the movements of the squares have not fulfilled their hyperbolic revolutionary promise of doing away with representative democracy and substituting it with autonomous institutions of grassroots self-management modeled after the protest camps. But they have been formidable public rituals that by reclaiming public space and involving the citizenry in public discussions about economic and political inequality have facilitated a profound cultural change in society towards more progressive ends. They have informed the creation of new campaigns, initiatives and organizations that are now starting to pose a serious challenge to neoliberal order.

A flash in the pan?

The main reason for the widespread skepticism about the results of the 2011 protest wave derives from the rapid decline experienced by these movements after the climax of the occupations. The end of the square occupations — either due to police evictions or internal exhaustion — often left a sense of failure and hollowness behind, along with the remorse of having missed a huge opportunity to bring about social change.

The fizzling out of the movements resulted in a collective “trauma” that took many several months to get over. Many of the 130 protesters I interviewed for my book The Mask and the Flag related their disbelief at seeing how a movement that had risen so rapidly to such great heights could collapse so rapidly. At the height of the protest camps, activists had been at the forefront of a massive popular movement that was promising to radically change society; but soon after the camps were evicted or abandoned they often felt they were all by themselves again — the crowd that had gathered around them suddenly having evaporated.

Stopping our assessment at this initial disappointment would be wrong, however. Great historical upheavals are known to produce disillusionment in their immediate aftermath. So great are the hopes they inspire that they cannot possibly fulfill them entirely. The French Revolution led to the Reign of Terror and the dictatorship of Napoleon. The enthusiasm conjured up by the May 1968 protests evaporated after the victory of the Gaullist party in the June parliamentary elections. Yet nobody could deny that these and similar events profoundly changed the course of history. The same applies to 2011.

The year 2011 did not deliver on the revolutionary hopes harbored by its more militant supporters. Its occupations did not become the embryos of an anarchistic society of self-managed communities, as some of its participants had hoped. However, the protest movement has had profound consequences on contemporary politics in less perceptible and less radical but not less important ways.

For a start, the occupations have re-politicized society and galvanized social movements and left politics. Furthermore, they have generated a profound cultural transformation, as seen in the growing public attention to the question of economic inequality and the crisis of democracy. Finally, they have acted as “incubators” that have contributed to the rise of anti-establishment formations and candidates, including Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US.

These cultural and political changes would have been unfathomable had it not been for the 2011 protest wave. Far from being a flash in the pan, 2011 has been a watershed year; one which despite its many failures and shortcomings has inaugurated a new wave of progressive politics that is changing the world.

Goodbye apathy

The most important outcome of the 2011 protest wave has been the change in culture and social psychology. This year of protests and revolutions has been instrumental in overcoming the deep-rooted political apathy that has been the natural accompaniment of the neoliberal injunction that “there is no alternative” (TINA), with its implication about the futility of politics and resulting political apathy.

One of the recurring gripes among activists in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis was how despite overwhelming evidence on the failure of financial capitalism and the all-too-real effects on the everyday life of the majority of the population, most people would not take action. The protests of 2011 provided a powerful remedy to this widespread sense of of disempowerment. The huge demonstrations and occupations have concretely demonstrated that mass political action is making a comeback in present times, and can still have huge political consequences, as most clearly seen in the fall of Arab dictators.

As a result, 2011 has been the year that “fear has changed sides,” to use an expression adopted by Spanish activists. It was the moment when protest movements shed the psychology of defeat — that obnoxious feeling that they were somehow on the wrong side of history — and have once again started going on the attack. The enthusiasm conjured by the square occupations has persuaded many that, far from living at the “end of history” as was infamously claimed by Francis Fukuyama, we are in fact witnessing a “rebirth of history”, to use Alain Badiou‘s expression.

This new sense of enthusiasm and hope has been instrumental in activating large sections of the population that had previously been at the margins of politics. The movements have won over large sections of the millennial generation, one often characterized in the mainstream media as quintessentially apolitical — something that, as we have been learning in recent years, is far from the truth.

The 2011 protests have also facilitated a profound change in terms of political discourse and in the set of assumptions held by the majority of the population. One of the clearest examples of this trend comes from the United States, a country in which discussion of economic inequality was marginal in mainstream politics for the past 30 years. Yet in the aftermath of Occupy, many politicians have tried to present themselves as champions of the “99%” — the ordinary people disenfranchised by the arrogance of the super-rich and the political establishment.

The year 2011 has also redrawn the discursive battle-lines of contemporary conflict around the opposition between citizens and the establishment, between common people and elites, and between the bottom and the top, thus linking economic and political inequality, impoverishment and disenfranchisement. This profound cultural change has opened the way for the rise of new anti-establishment candidates and formations that are now taking institutional politics by storm.

The occupations as “incubators”

The greatest paradox behind the outcome of the movements of the squares is that their influence has been greatest precisely where one would have expected it the least: in the sphere of formal organizations and of institutional and party politics.

The 2011 protest wave will forever be associated with the slogan “they don’t represent us” — a clear indictment of the present form of representative politics and the existing political class. Yet a large number of those who sustained and supported the movements of 2011 have come to see the radical engagement with existing institutions as a necessary means to obtain concrete political results on the many issues raised by these movements.

The occupations thus acted as “incubators” providing the inspiration, the source of legitimacy and the personal networks for this new wave of radical institutional politics. To use Jodi Dean’s terms, some of the “crowds” gathered in 2011 have gone on to form political parties. From Greece and Spain to the UK and the US, the square occupations have been followed by a surprising surge of new left-wing formations and candidacies. The electoral surge of Syriza in Greece that eventually brought it to power was largely propelled by the strength of the aganaktismenoi movement. In Spain, Podemos managed at least initially to capture much of the energy of the movement of the squares and to appropriate some of its practices of direct democracy, through its local circles and forms of online deliberation.

The connection with the indignados protests was even clearer in the municipalist platforms that took over the town halls of Barcelona and Madrid in 2015. In the UK, the election of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader in the fall of 2015 and the impressive performance of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic primaries also carry the signature of the Occupy wave. These political phenomena would have been unthinkable if not for the support of a generation of young activists who grew up politically in the occupied squares of 2011.

Such an “institutional projection” of protest movements is certainly not a new phenomenon. Again and again throughout history, protest waves have been followed by the creation of new political parties and radical candidates proposing to give institutional representation to the grievances they raised. The rise of labor movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to the creation of the first Socialist and Communist parties. In some countries, starting in Germany, the protests of 1968 and the 1970s found a political outlet in the newly-formed Green parties.

Of course, the movement-party relationship is notably one that has often been fraught with contradictions. It is therefore no surprise that similar problems are also emerging in the aftermath of the movements of the squares. The rise of Syriza initially attracted high hopes from many of the Syntagma protesters, only to soon lead to bitter disappointments after its capitulation to the foreign lenders in July 2015. Similarly, a number of decisions by Podemos and its leader Pablo Iglesias have been criticized for disregarding the democratic spirit of the 2011 protests and of imposing traditional top-down party structures.

These and similar incidents have led many 2011 veterans, especially those of more anarchist or autonomist creed, to see in the electoral and institutional turn more of a betrayal than a continuation of the 2011 spirit. It is only right and necessary that protest movements criticize and challenge parties, also those who represent political views close to their own. At the same time, it is important to highlight that this electoral turn of contemporary radical politics is also a result of a collective realization, shared by many veterans of the 2011 protests, about the limits of the neo-anarchist refusal of formal organization and leadership, and the need to accompany necessarily fleeting protest movements with more lasting and structured forms of political organization.

The beginning is here

Given the breadth and depth of the results produced by the 2011 movements, it can be said that we are now living in a post-2011 world; a world for which 2011 acts as sort of “year zero” — a moment of foundation for a “new politics” that fulfills the promise contained within the caption of a famous Occupy poster proclaiming “the beginning is near.” Far from being a flash in the pan, 2011 has inaugurated a new wave of progressive politics that is changing the world.

It is true that these movements have ultimately not delivered on many of their stated revolutionary aims of doing away with representative democracy and constituting self-managed political communities. However, this protest wave has fulfilled the two important political goals of breaking with the widespread sense of political apathy and disempowerment, and acting as “incubators” for the establishment of new political organizations that, in alliance with the movements, may give the fight for substantive equality and real democracy a more sustained and structured form.

For those who have participated in these movements, supported them and believed in them, the task ahead is to build on these foundations by developing new initiatives and campaigns and waging new conflicts that may fulfill the hopes invoked by the protesters of 2011 — but also by periodically going back to the streets and occupying public squares in the knowledge that it is there that all radical politics has its necessary beginning.

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Paolo Gerbaudo

Paolo Gerbaudo is a sociologist at King’s College London where he acts as the director of Centre for Digital Culture and researches social movements and digital politics. He is the author of Tweets and the Streets (Pluto, 2012), and The Mask and the Flag (Hurst, 2016).

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