Understanding European movements from ’68 to 2011

  • February 7, 2014

Anarchism & Autonomy

In the aftermath of 2011, the new volume by Fominaya and Cox provides an excellent analytical framework and empirical overview of European movements.

Flesher Fominaya, Cristina and Laurence Cox (eds.), Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest. London: Routledge (2013).

The last years have witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of mobilizations and grassroots movements responding to the dismantling of social and political arrangements following the momentous and ongoing financial crisis of 2008. In 2011, people took the streets across Europe to protest against socio-economic degradation, challenging the austerity policies designed and implemented under the auspices of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Cuts in public spending, wage reduction, the removal of working benefits, the abolition of collective labor agreements, the dissolution of public health systems and pension schemes, and rampant unemployment and homelessness were among the most contested issues behind the mobilizations, which soon redirected the public expression of indignation towards the entire political system, denouncing parties and challenging the very idea of representative democracy.

In the aftermath of the 2011 mobilizations and occupations, the plethora of grassroots movements that arose as a manifest challenge to dominant power relations has been accompanied by some recurring questions about the character of these movements and their objectives: is the popular contestation of the predominance of economic and financial priorities over social considerations a recent development? Are the post-2011 mobilizations a profoundly new phenomenon? How are they related to the proliferation of mobilizations and social movements since the beginning of the century?

The recently published volume — Understanding European Movements — is an endeavor to address questions like these by providing the necessary tools of understanding on where social movements stand in the global context, how are they embedded in local communities, how movement networks are set up, how social activism unfolds, how political identities are constructed and diffused, how contemporary mobilizations interact with historical memories, and so on.

Understanding European Movements seeks to grasp the logic of political activism in all its intricacies through a systematic examination of contemporary movements in light of social movement theory and European social theory. For this compelling collective project — which clarifies a number of deep-seated misunderstandings and corrects some commonly misunderstood aspects of social movements in the European context — credit should be given to the editors: Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox.

Fominaya and Cox have managed to masterfully put together a coherent collection of critical analyses and skillfully provide the analytical framework in which the three empirical parts of the book unfold. In their first chapter, they scrutinize the relationship between US and European movement theory as a relationship of domination of the “naturalizing” US approach over the “radical historicity” of the European one. Against American exceptionalism, Cox and Fominaya beset the canonical accounts of New Social Movements (NSM) theory and its ideological function for having reduced European social movement theory to an industry of myth reproduction, clearly devoid of a much desired critical framework or a clear intellectual history.

A winning analysis of the ‘anomalous’ Italian left and the historical legacies and political culture that created the conditions for the emergence of the ‘movement of movements’ (MoM) opens the first part of the book. Focusing mainly on the cases of Italy, France and the UK, the analyses in this part compose a compelling mosaic of the continuities and disruptions of European social movements and movement networks.

The contributions in this part trace the connections between the European social movements and the Global Justice Movement (GJM) by means of a profound examination of the political and socio-cultural legacy of the Centri Sociali Autogestiti (self-managed social centers) in Italy and the influence they had on the GJM’s “dynamics, culture, and agenda”, underlining the movements’ relationship to previous episodes of contention and their roots in specific national conditions, and elucidating the multiplicity of political, social and cultural connections between movement networks as an inescapable characteristic of the movements’ emergence and evolution.

The second part of the volume is devoted to an exploration of the interconnections and exchanges between movement networks, both national and international. The analyses here revolve around diffusion processes; the geographic interconnections between struggles; the formulation of collective memories and the construction of collective identities; the examination of connections between local and transnational networks in squatting movements; the importance of ‘space’ and the creation of ‘autonomous geographies’.

The third and final part of the book is devoted to uncovering the profound relationship between movement events and movement histories in various contexts. Closely following the argument carved out by Cox and Fominaya, the contributions to this part constitute a reflection upon the role of transnational networks in shaping social movements. Emphasis is placed on the prefigurative role of the Icelandic revolution for the later Tunisian and Greek anti-austerity protests, the use of national symbolic memory, and the importance of collective learning in the 15-M movement, which seems to display a certain degree of continuity with GJM mobilizations. Yet, at the same time the relative novelty of today’s movement is also debated, highlighting a certain degree of rupture with previous mobilizations.

Puzzling about this volume is that the connection of the individual chapters to the central theoretical argument of the book is occasionally obscured; something that can mostly be overcome when the chapters are read in close relation to one another and not as separate individual articles. But even though this may prove unwieldy, it certainly does not diminish the critical contribution that Understanding European Movements makes to the social movement studies literature and to actual movement activism. For this, the volume should rightly be considered a crucial tool for understanding contemporary activism in Europe as part of a long historical process unfolding in an increasingly global setting.

Understanding European Movements is now available in paperback from Routledge.

Parthena Xanthopoulou-Dimitriadou

Parthena Xanthopoulou-Dimitriadou is a PhD candidate in Social Movement Studies at the European University Institute.

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