By Dimitris Dalakoglou & Antonis Alexandridis
Since early December 2016, following the Italian referendum that cancelled Renzi’s government, most newspapers and news-sites have expressed fears about the populist and anti-EU comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement winning the next elections in Italy.
Simultaneously, the same progressive media seem pretty happy about the Austrian elections that took place that same weekend. In that case the victory against a right-wing populist, with neo-Nazi tendencies, was celebrated. What is striking is that even left-leaning news sources expressed their relief at what was in fact the victory of a highly neoliberal political agenda.
There are two basic problems, however, with this entire pattern of response. One, it is in principle antidemocratic. At least given the predominant definition of democracy that was promoted after the collapse of socialist states in Europe. Namely, in representative bourgeois democracy the voting majority will establish via key decision-making events (elections, referendums) their will over that of the voting minority.
Two, many of these progressive public commentators threaten us with the far-right who might rise, and indeed, who are most probably already rising. For example, Trump’s discourse is not much different from various European far-right leaders like Wilders or Le Pen. But what is often omitted is the genealogy of this rise. This is not a natural occurring phenomenon: it was constructed by decades of elitism, ideological contradictions and increasing inequalities.
Who is afraid of representative ‘democracy’?
Nevertheless, it is not only certain liberal journalists who bemoan a malfunctioning democracy. Lately, they are joined by many European politicians. Since 1972, 66 referendums have been organised in the EC/EU and EEA area. Four of the most recent ones were in fact on EU participation and policies and have taken place within only the last two years. In all these cases, the EU elites of Brussels more or less blackmailed European citizens into voting the way they wanted and punished them when they refused.
One problem though seems to be that people often vote for or against something – even if this decision is against their own interests – simply because the hated political and media elites advise them to act differently.
In Hungary, on 24 February 2016, the right-wing coalition Fidesz-KDNP leader Victor Orbán called for a referendum on whether or not the country would accept the refugee quotas dictated by the EU. Orbán argued that the 1,294 refugees from Greece and Italy that his country was supposed to receive, would “redraw Hungary’s and Europe’s ethnic, cultural and religious identity, which no EU organ has the right to do”.
The referendum took place on 2 October 2016 with the Hungarian public refusing the country’s participation in the EU Asylum Relocation Program with the unprecedented 98.36%. However, due to the participation rate being below 50% the referendum was deemed invalid. Nevertheless, only a month before the referendum Luxemburg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn had called for the expulsion of Hungary from the EU due to the country’s lack of respect for European values in raising walls against refugees.
Asselborn sent a message to the Hungarian people to proceed carefully to the voting stations. He certainly did not send a similar message to Austria that is currently building a fence across the Austrian-Italian border. After the referendum results were published, Brussels bureaucrats celebrated its failure due to the low turnout.
Dropping the ‘wrong’ ballot
The most discussed referendum in the history of the EU has been the one that took place on 23 June 2016 in the UK. In this referendum the British voted for their country to leave the EU by a majority of 51.89%. This result brought a domino effect with one after the other European political leaders proposing that the same type of referendum should take place in their own countries.
After Brexit, the leadership of both the Tory and the Labour party have proposed a form of new deal whereby Britain would not entirely leave the Union: at which the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, promptly responded that not only was a new deal not possible but that Brexit presented an opportunity for deeper European integration.
A few months before Brexit, on 3 December 2015, Denmark held a referendum on whether or not to convert the country’s EU full opt-out on home and justice affairs to a case-by-case opt-in. This proposal was rejected by 53% of the voters. A consequence of this rejection was that Denmark could not be a part of Europol. However, the Danish government tried to negotiate a parallel agreement in order to opt-in to this specific directive. The response of EU Commissioner Frans Timmermann, which came only a few months after the more dramatic vote by the British to entirely exit the union, was that:
“You can’t be slightly pregnant, you’re either pregnant or you’re not. If you vote to be out of Europol, you’re out of Europol. I don’t see on the basis of the legal situation any alternative for that […] the vote of the Danish people was very clear, and the consequence of that vote is that Denmark will not be in Europol.”
In Greece on 25 June 2015, the Greek people were called to answer whether or not they agree with the proposed austerity package that resulted from months of negotiations between Greek minister of finance Yanis Varoufakis and the rest of the Eurogroup finance ministers. In this referendum 61.31% of the Greek voters voted against the plan. As a result, not only was the decision of the Greek people ignored but eventually the Greek government adopted an even harsher package. As a response to the result Juncker said:
“The momentum [for finding an agreement] was destroyed unilaterally by the announcement of a referendum and by the decision to mount a ‘no’ campaign to reject this agreement.”
Additionally the Council of Europe said that the referendum was not valid because the voters were not given a two week period to make up their minds.
The limits of a representative democracy?
According to social theory events are catalytic, but they are only representing ongoing social transformations. These four incidents manifest that representative democracy in Europe is reaching its limits.
When socialism collapsed in 1989-90, the spread of the multi-party representative system all over Europe came promising democracy. Twenty years later, in 2011 protesters in Spain, Greece and elsewhere revolted under a central slogan ‘Real Democracy’ . They were proposing alternative, horizontal and non-representative forms of democratic decision-making.
But most importantly, the protests were bearing witness to the fact that the current economic and political system is far from democratic. After all, when a system calls itself democracy, but forces increasing swathes of the demos (people) to live under poverty, its own central concept gradually becomes hollow. This hollowness manifests itself, more clearly than ever before, during the Euro-crisis.
It remains to be seen how and what will replace the current representative system that we are witnessing decompose in front of our eyes. Meanwhile, history has a lesson for us, Nazis and fascist governments in Europe emerged within systems of representative democracy under free market capitalism, similar to the ones we have today.
However, there is another striking resemblance: before the far-right parties took power in interbellum Europe, it was the democratic state apparatuses who first devalued their own polities.
This article was first published in Open Democracy
By Aimilia Voulvouni
On December 4, 2016 the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the federal agency involved in the construction of the Dakota Access pipelines project - a multi-million development concerning the construction of an underground oil pipeline - denied key permit for the pipeline to be drilled under Lake Oahe, the large reservoir of Missouri River which extends from North to South Dakota close to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The decision was received as a victory of the activists who were protesting for months against the construction of the pipeline in the area. The objections of the activists who are mainly members of the Sioux Tribe dwelling in the Reservation are related with environmentalist concerns but also with concerns relating to the damage of their cultural heritage. The Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation is home to Dakota and Lakota people who maintain a sovereign interest in protecting the natural and cultural resources of their land that includes water reservoirs, sacred places such as burial grounds of their ancestors and sacred natural monuments. According to US federal law, in the decision-making process such as the development of infrastructures of the scale of the Dakota Access pipeline, local tribes are supposed to be consulted, which according to the anti-pipeline activists has not happened (http://standwithstandingrock.net/history/). The protesters claim that they are entitled to have a say on this, a claim which raises issues of democratic participation, accountability and civil rights.
As an anthropologist specializing on grassroots protests related to environmental disputes, the #NoDAPL (the social media hashtag by which the Standing Rock protests came also to be known) presented an extremely interesting case of what in my work I call (borrowing the term of Kousis and Eder 2001) ‘transenvironmental protests΄. Collective action that centres around environmental concerns but does not remain action just about the environment or better said, it conceptualizes the protection of the environment as something a lot more complicated than the protection of our natural surroundings. The repertoire of such actions follows certain patterns: a) They are vocal, in the sense that they make use of every possible means they have at their disposal in order to communicate their struggle with the wider public; in our days it is mainly social media, b) this makes them diverse as the initial core of activists is complemented by ‘peripheral’ groups of people; that is, people who are not immediately affected by the development against which the struggle is held, c) they occupy public or “privately owned public spaces”, d) they attract ‘power brokers’; that is, middle-class professionals, academics, professional associations and celebrities who assume representation of the struggle in the mainstream media and elsewhere by taking advantage of their statuses and their reputation (Voulvouli 2009).
The case of #NoDAPL exemplifies both the above mentioned repertoire and the transenvironmental aspects of the struggle in a way very similar to the protests I have witnessed in Turkey during my fieldwork in Istanbul at the beginning of the century and again during 2013-2104 when the Gezi uprising took place (Voulvouli 2009; 2011; 2016; 2017 forthcoming). In an article about #NoDAPL, which was published last September, there was an account of a protester claiming that if the pipeline ran near the reservation as was planned, many sacred sites in the area would be despoiled. One of them is the flooded forest of the Standing Rock Reservation which used to be a burial ground of native Americans and the trees of that forest are said to be skeletons of Lakota (a Sioux tribe) spirits. Another protester quoted in the article said that "This (the protest) is about water. Water is the life of our people. Without it, we cannot exist" (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37249617). This narrative brought to mind narratives and scenes from my ethnographic experience in Istanbul. One of them is actually very similar to the one above: “I do not so much care about my house. I care about the sea. The sea should not be destroyed. The sea is everything to us” is the narrative of one of the activists of the anti-bridge campaign which was launched in Istanbul at the end of the previous century in order to protest against the construction of a bridge the construction of which had been planed since 1998. The other is the scene of Sırrı Süreyya Önder of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (Bariş ve Demokrasi Partisi – BDP), standing in front of bulldozers, trying to stop the demolition of trees of Istanbul’s Gezi Park which was going to be demolished as part of an urban renewal plan to reconstruct the Ottoman military barracks that existed in the area until the middle of the 20th century and the construction of cultural centres, an opera house as well as shopping facilities. This scene is not very different from pictures that reached the media of Standing Rock protesters standing in front of bulldozers trying to stop them from continuing their works for the construction of the pipeline or Jill Stein, the presidential candidate of the Green Party spraying a message on a bulldozer during the protests. Similarly, the protesters in both cases have set up camps in the area in order to be able to remain there, ready to act when needed.
Both the Gezi and the Standing Rock protests have gained world media attention as well as the support of political parties, civil society organisations, professional groups and intellectuals. I actually came up with idea of the present piece, when I read the statement issued by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) supporting the Tribal Nations opposing DAPL. The statement concludes with the following sentence: AAA believes in the protection of human rights, including those of Indigenous peoples; we have a collective responsibility to the environment and to future generations to protect these ancestral lands and water. We call for the respect of the sovereign rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its peoples, and the immediate halt of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (http://www.americananthro.org/ParticipateAndAdvocate/AdvocacyDetail.aspx?ItemNumber=20656). In this statement the AAA suggests that indigenous rights protections goes hand in hand with the environmental protection of the Reservation which seems to be also the claim of the protesters. Similarly, the Faculty of Anthropology of UC Berkley, has issued a statement of support to the protesters stressing the destructive consequences that the construction of the pipeline would have on the lives of the tribal nations of the area and commenting on federal law violations on behalf of USACE in “its failure to consult with the tribe about its sovereign interests” (http://anthropology.berkeley.edu/news/statement-standing-rock-uc-berkeley-anthropology-faculty). Similar statements of support have been issued by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), Society for American Archaeology (SAA) and many other national and international associations.
#NoDAPL such as the Gezi Protests of 2013 along with many other grassroots campaings around the world constitute typical cases of transenvironmental protests. Anthropologists who are ethnographically involved in such cases of collective action, are trained and methodologically equipped to understand the complexity of the motives of these initiatives which at first glance might seem as NIMBY or perhaps naïve environmental campaigns and like AAA and the Faculty of Anthropology of UC Berkley, they have a duty to communicate these motives to the wider public not only as courtesy to their informants but most importantly as a statement against corporate greed and legal violations which are almost always involved in such cases at the expense of the environment, human rights and democracy. At the end of the day, from Gezi Park to Standing Rock, the efforts of the protesters to protect the trees of Gezi or those of the flooded forest are never just about those trees but as one of my informants in Istanbul put it: “At some point those who rule this country, must understand that people, all Turkish people should be heard and their opinion should be a factor to their decision making” or as the official website of the Standing Rock protest mentions about the motives of the opposition “this is a fight for survival”.
Kousis, M and K Eder 2001 Introduction: EU policy-making, local action, and the emergence of institutions of collective action. A theoretical perspective on Southern Europe. In: Kousis, M and K Eder (eds.) Environmental Politics in Southern Europe: Actors, Institutions and Discourses in a Europeanizing Society. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Voulvouli, A 2009 From Environmentalism to Transenvironmentalism: The Ethnography of an Urban Protest in Modern Istanbul. Oxford: Peter Lang Publications.
Voulvouli, A 2011 Transevironmental Protest: The Arnavutköy anti-bridge Campaign in Istanbul. Environmental Politics 20(6): 861-878.
Voulvouli, A 2016a The protest against the Third Bosphorus Bridge: A part of town, a part of movement. In: Petropoulou, K. and Vitopoulou, A. (eds.) Urban and Regional Social Movements. E-book.
Voulvouli, A 2016b (In Press) Place, Space, Environment: The case of the relocation of a power plant in Lesbos AEICHOROS 25.
Voulvouli, A 2017 (forthcoming) From Tarlabaşı to Gezi and beyond: The 2013 Gezi event in the conjuncture of Neoliberal times. Urbanities.
American Anthropological Assocation 2016, AAA Stands with Tribal Nations Opposing Dakota Access Pipeline Accessed in: http://www.americananthro.org/ParticipateAndAdvocate/AdvocacyDetail.aspx?ItemNumber=20656
Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley 2016, Statement on Standing Rock from UC Berkeley Anthropology Faculty. Accessed in: http://anthropology.berkeley.edu/news/statement-standing-rock-uc-berkeley-anthropology-faculty
Official Website of the the Standing Rock protest http://standwithstandingrock.net
BBC 2016, Life in the Native American oil protest camps. Accessed in: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-37249617
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