EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution

(P084)

The worldwide urban mobilizations: conundrums of 'democracy', 'the middle class' and 'the people'. Supported by Focaal and the IUAES Commission on Global Transformation and Marxian Anthropology

Location A-242
Date and Start Time 03 August, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Massimiliano Mollona (Goldsmiths College) email
Don Kalb (Central European University/Utrecht University) email
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Short Abstract

What is the nature of the contemporary urban protests, as evidenced in the recent rounds of worldwide urban contentions? What is their class basis? How can we read these urban phenomena within the broader scalar hierarchies and transformative processes of the state, capital, and the world system?

Long Abstract

On June 17th, 2013, two million people across Brazil protested against the increase in transport fares planned by the government in preparation to the 2016 Olympic Games, forcing the president of Brazil to proclaim a national plebiscite for political reform. In opposing housing speculation and displacement of low-income families, the demonstrators made the specific claim that equal access to the city is a fundamental civic right. Similar mobilizations were happening in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, all resulting in a change of government. Urban Turkey, too, was shaken by massive urban uprisings; Southern European countries meanwhile continued to witness occasional mass gatherings in the recent Indignado mode or within older left wing traditions. Social scientists and political activists have often looked at these urban protests with optimism - as forms of subaltern uprisings (Castells 2012; for Latin America see Sugraynes and Mathivet 2010); as organised commoning against the rentier economy of late capitalism (Harvey 2012; Susser 2013) or as the praxes of new constituent subjectivities (Douzinas 2013; Graeber 2012). But with their hybrid forms - between riot, direct action, peaceful demonstration, and public occupation - and generally middle-class self-identifications, these movements defeat easy interpretations. Moreover, their hopeful starts as 'spontaneous rebellions' are often bitterly contradicted by their subsequent co-optation into conservative and rightwing coalitions. What role does the 'certified language' of corruption play in this regard? Which factors, general or contingent, help to explain their articulating towards right or left?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

"Old people are not revolutionaries!" Labour struggles and the politics of ʾistiqrār ('stability') in post-Mubarak Egypt

Author: Dina Makram-Ebeid (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores how class conflict between permanent and precarious steel workers in Egypt was expressed in generational discourses during an occupation. It argues that an anthropology of value helps us understand class as relational and the imaginative appropriation of state projects.

Long Abstract

Although the initial 18 days uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011 rallied people from across generations, it was predominantly young people that led the mobilisation. A generational conflict emerged in the days following Mubarak's downfall and shaped the politics of the revolution.

This paper draws on fieldwork in a steel plant in Helwan, an industrial neighbourhood of Cairo important to political movements. At Egypt's oldest and largest public-sector steel plant, the generational conflict became central to recent industrial actions. In the month-long factory occupation in 2013, older permanent workers and younger precarious workers held different ideas about what was at stake. While older workers promoted the state's counter-revolutionary discourse of the need for ʾistiqrār ('stability') and distanced themselves from the occupation, young workers had a different interpretation of ʾistiqrār, which involved revolutionising their tactics.

In this paper I explore how class conflict between organised stable workers with middle class lifestyles, and younger workers who experienced greater precarity was expressed in generational discourses. By highlighting what ʾistiqrār ('stability') means to both groups, the paper explores how ʾistiqrār is a mode of governmentality whose power cannot be fully appreciated at the level of political discourse only. Rather, as a practice of government, it is entangled with peoples' values, aspirations, affects and the intimate politics of everyday life. The paper argues that an anthropology of value is central to a relational understanding of class conflict and to the complex ways in which state projects and their imaginative appropriation intersect.

'Neither Left nor Right' crisis, wane of politics, and the struggles for sovereignty

Author: Giacomo Loperfido (Universitat de Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

This paper shows how a progressive disintegration of ‘class’ as the social-organizational paradigm through which sovereignty was practiced, has been a crucial factor in the structural re-organization of the Italian political universe, and of the diverse ideological forms that animate it.

Long Abstract

New movements have recently arisen in Italy around the claim of being 'neither left nor right'. Beppe Grillo's M5S, the so called 'Rakes Movement' and the fascist inspired 'Students Block' all base their activism on a strong opposition to EU politics, the effects of advanced capitalism and mostly on a thorough anti-establishment discourse. The paper shows how similar political idioms were deployed during the 1970s in the early years of the Italian economic crisis, de-industrialization and austerity. Groups like the so called 'Nazi-Maoists' or the 'Third Position' preached the fusion of left and right as part of a wider rebellion, of what they termed 'the people' against 'the state'. Like the contemporary movements referred to above, they denounced the connivance of all established parties with the interests of finance capital, and, in part as a result, saw themselves as dispossessed of any possibility of control over their own lives. Ultimately, this paper seeks to show how a progressive disintegration of 'class' as the social-organizational paradigm through which sovereignty was practiced and articulated into politics has been a crucial factor in the structural re-organization of the Italian political universe, and of the diverse ideological forms that animate it.

Bangkok protests in the name of democracy

Author: Karin Dean (Tallinn University)  email

Short Abstract

The casting of mass protests in Bangkok as a struggle between social classes is based on the Western political history and its definitions. The paper argues for reading local struggles within the local contexts and for creating conditions to see multiplicity and the remaking of socio-spatial orders.

Long Abstract

Bangkok has witnessed protracted mass protests drawing hundreds of thousands of ”people” for almost a decade. The conflict is widely cast as a struggle between two social classes – the uneducated and poor, donning red shirts, and the educated urban “middle classes”, previously known as the yellow shirts. Both sides demand democracy and justice. However, while the “class” aspect exists, the approach originating in the Western political history with its definitions of democracy, corruption and class, and a tendency towards black-and-white constructivism (e.g. left and right, urban and rural) obscures the roots of the conflict, deeply embedded in the particular trajectories of evolvement and local cultures. The paper argues for care in applying the Euro-centric master terms such as democracy or class when discussing contemporary global developments. These notions, constructed and often also promoted by Western dominated academia, are today travelling all over the world in “their free-lance translations” creating “ever new terminological kaleidoscopes” (Appadurai 2000), having frequently been appropriated by various interest groups.

Thus it is imperative to prioritize the facets of local struggles within the local political, social and cultural contexts that are always diverse and complex, with their trajectories of evolvement and composition often uniquely contextual. The paper argues for the need to create conditions to see multiplicity instead of singular, overcoded and explanatory frameworks. It focuses on the making of these conditions and on the need to see the remaking of the socio-spatial orders that borrow extensively from both the Western notions and wider global processes.

Building an urban commons: displacement and resistance in New York City

Author: Ida Susser (CUNY)  email

Short Abstract

This paper based on ethnographic fieldwork in New York City, explores the history of collective movements around housing and public space since the neoliberal turn of the 1975 fiscal crisis.

Long Abstract

This paper discusses the early working class movements for housing and neighborhood services which emerged following the 1975fiscal crisis in New York City in the light of the city's major turn from one hundred years of progressive leadership in social services in the United States. New York City had the first free hospitals and the first free city universities and up until 1975 was among the most progressive cities in the U.S. with less people living in poverty than the average US city. After 40years of neoliberal policies, New York City is again emerging as a base for progressive politics in the election of a mayor opposed to the decades of neoliberal policies. The paper argues that this shift is based on the citywide development of oppositional movements around housing, education and other issues that have emerged to create an urban commons of the 21st century. The paper explores to what extent this growing progressive base will be able to shape the politics of the city in the future.

Commoning the common man

Author: Luisa Steur (University of Amsterdam)  email

Short Abstract

The Aam Aadmi party in India is experiencing a spectacular success that however increasingly exposes the powerlessness of the party’s middle-class moralizing vis-à-vis capital. Could the urban politics of “commoning” (Harvey 2012) be the more realistic path of emancipating the common man?

Long Abstract

With the small formalized working class on a steady decline and marginal farming, petty commodity trading, and wage hunter-gathering the absolute norm again in neoliberal India, it should come as no surprise that the space of radical politics is no longer occupied by Communist parties. Instead, it has given way to, notably, a Maoist armed rebellion on the one hand and the rise of the Aam Aadmi (common man) Party on the other. Where the former unites dispossessed peripheral populations under red Naxalite dreams of "encircling the cities from the countryside" and overthrowing the comprador capitalist state, the latter organizes mass urban gatherings where followers symbolically brandish the jhadu (broom) to "clean the filth which has permeated our government and our legislature" and replace it by the incorruptible Common Man. While the Naxalites are realistic enough to identify their real enemy, the stakes of their impoverished armed collective making an urban break-through vis-à-vis the Indian army are less realistic. The AAP, meanwhile, is experiencing a spectacular success that however increasingly exposes the powerlessness of the party's middle-class moralizing vis-à-vis capital. Could the urban politics of "commoning" (Harvey 2012) be the more realistic path of emancipating the common man? What would it take for the AAP to face up to its contradictions and embrace commoning? Could the peripheral commoning happening in Naxal "liberated areas" break through into urban India?

Crowds without a master (transnational approach between past and present)

Author: Yves Cohen (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)  email

Short Abstract

Worldwide, crowds without a master formulate rational and insisting demands. They are not anymore these of the 20th Century, which were told they needed leaders. We will compare and follow circulations between countries, mobilize history as the crowds are doing in order to criticize it in practice.

Long Abstract

In the whole world, crowds without a master formulate accurate, rational and insisting demands. These crowds are not anymore these of the 20th Century, that they were told that they needed leaders. We will compare and follow circulations from one country to another and mobilize history as the crowds are doing to criticize it in practice. Other aspects have to be comparatively studied: the meaning of the city and its social uses, the aesthetical component of the actions, be it on one's body or on the city, as in Istanbul. One other aspect should be fully understood: none of these crowds was, nor is, "revolutionary" in the 20th Century meaning of the word, with a general program, a party, its military section, organized leaders. On the contrary, they were seeking efficiency without party or leaders, giving the new communication technologies all its inventive deployment. Dealing with such crowds is extremely difficult for the governments. The media are themselves trying to create representatives whereas, facing them, individuals refuse to stand as such. One can also reflect about the renewal of democracy. Why should not exist a twofold democracy: one side being a Weberian one, with leaders, and the other side being the vast and moving gathering of all movements stating democracy with their presence in the street, with their occupation of squares, etc.? This comparison in space and time lets appear a profound renewal of politics with new forms of expression for cultural or social groups defining themselves in the action.

How do you know if a protest is 'middle class' and why does it matter? The Argentine cacerolazos of 2012-13

Author: Sian Lazar (Cambridge University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines the visual language of mass anti-government demonstrations in Buenos Aires in late 2012. I will show how the claim to be 'the people' was performed in physical space but also contested in later readings of the protests as 'middle class'.

Long Abstract

The paper will focus on the mass anti-government demonstrations held in September and November 2012 in Buenos Aires, which were part of a series. These demonstrations were subjected to multiple readings and evaluations by ordinary residents of the city, one of the most important faultlines being how 'middle class' the demonstrators were. In this paper I will explore why that should have become such an issue, seeking to place the Argentine protests in something of a regional (and possibly even global) context. Specifically though I will examine the visual language of the protesters and their audiences, and analyse ways that the claim to be 'the people' was performed in physical space.

Identities of Portuguese urban social movements: class heterogeneity and modalities of action

Author: Cédric Masse (Research Centre on Political Action - University of Lausanne)  email

Short Abstract

What are the identities of contemporary Portuguese urban social movements? We shall answer this question and provide etic interpretations by exploring their composition, actions (forms and contents of public sphere) and interactions (with outer social actors, allies and adversaries) from emic data.

Long Abstract

What are present-day Portuguese urban social movements? This ontological question entails definitions that remain strictly related to phenomenal observations in order to avoid transcendental idealism, both in its positive and negative signification that lead either to forms of apologias or, to the contrary, to types of nihilism, and eventually in order to be scientific. This Kantian criticism of the metaphysics of social movements that are nonetheless common within social sciences, as this appears with the "optimistic" authors presented by Mollona and Kalb in the abstract of this panel, therefore obliges us to rigorously construct our reflections on the nature of urban social movements out of the empirical experiences of the fieldwork.

From an ethnography performed within three movements in Lisbon between 2010 and 2012, it appears, regarding their composition, a core dimension of their being, that they are trans-class. They seek a certain universality that no longer exclusively concerns the working class by attempting to integrate different social milieus - the middle classes, petty and middle bourgeoisie, popular strata - since the stakes within current capitalism are both socio-economic and cultural.

Because the knowledge of the doing helps to know the being, albeit the former is not a sufficient condition and they may be analytically separated, we shall also address their modalities of action. Thus, these are the aspects that I intend to develop in my paper.

Silences and absences from the Bulgarian protests: an ethnographic approach of non-participating

Author: Dimitra Kofti (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses new forms of political action in Bulgaria and processes of inclusion to and exclusion from political participation. It focusses on workers’ communities who had low participation in the 2013 protest waves.

Long Abstract

Political mobilisation in Bulgaria has taken new shapes since the beginning of the protests against austerity that took place in February 2013 and resulted in a governmental change. Political activism continued with ongoing protests in the summer of 2013, this time against decisions of the newly formed government. While much of the discussion about these events has focused on who are the protesters and what are the differences between the winter and summer participants, there is a relative lack of discussion about the non-protesters. Daily political talk has been widespread and brought to the fore previously unheard voices and previously neglected political practices. 'Corruption' and 'crisis', 'right' and 'left' politics and the status of the protesters as 'working class' or 'middle class' were at the center of attention. However, anti-communist discourses soon became dominant among activists and in public talk. A large amount of people stopped participating or never did, because they did not view the protests as challenging previous political practices and structures or because their political views could not be expressed through anti-communist ideas. Drawing on research with industrial workers and unemployed from two communities on the outskirts of the capital city and in a smaller industrial town, this paper explores workers' political talk and thought about protesting and syndicalism, which has been triggered by the recent political events. It aims at understanding the lack of engagement in political activism by those who view themselves as remote from the urban centers.

The rebellion in the shadow of a Maoist revolution: urban activist practices of the Kamaiya Movement in the western lowland of Nepal

Author: Michael Hoffmann (Max Planck Institut)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses history and activist practices of the freed Kamaiya movement, a large landless-movement in the western lowlands of Nepal.

Long Abstract

Long gone before the occupy movement, former bonded labourers occupied and squatted en masse public terrain in urban centres of the western lowland of Nepal in the shadow of the Maoist Revolution. This paper examines the history and activist practices of this Kamaiya movement, paying close attention to Maoist attitudes towards different Kamaiya organizations. I argue that the Maoists' policy regarding such organizations provided political conditions that benefitted the growth of ist current frontrunner FKS (Freed Kamaiya Society) but were detrimental to its previous movement leader BASE (Backward Education Society). As a result, the Freed Kamaiya Society emerged as a powerful grassroots movement among ex-debt bonded labourers. I further examine the FKS's organizational practices and structure, before giving detailed ethnographic descriptions of two mass protests undertaken by the FKS in 2009. I go on to argue that these represent rituals of confrontation with the state that are intended to make the local government more responsive to the demands of the FKS. As I further explain, however, they are also emblematic of a struggle for visibility. I further show how this struggle against the state is experienced and comprehended by its participants. Finally, I suggest that the FKS confrontation with local state bodies resonates with the broader CPN Maoist aim of reforming the local state, but while there is an overlap of interests, both struggles discussed here are seen as operating separately.

Urban movements and the forces of labour in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Authors: Massimiliano Mollona (Goldsmiths College)  email
Marco Santana (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro)  email

Short Abstract

Our talk addresses the waves of urban demonstrations taking place in Rio de Janeiro in 2013-2014 by looking at the economic underpinnings of the protest, it spatial dynamics and organizational structure.

Long Abstract

This talk addresses the waves of urban demonstrations taking place in Rio de Janeiro in 2013-2014 along three main theoretical dimensions. First, it looks at the relation between political activism and economic structures, including class relations, in which struggles are embedded. Second, it looks at the spatial dimension of the struggle, especially in relation to the big sports events which are taking place in the city, its gentrification and tradition of police violence. Thirdly, it addresses the organizational dynamic of protest, with particular the dialectic of horizontalism and verticalism. Our work engages with the tradition of labour studies, which looks at the dynamic of class formation, identity and consciousness through the lenses of ethnographic analysis.

Urban struggles, frontiers of capital, and migration in the current global crisis: a perspective from Berlin

Author: Manuela Bojadzijev (Leuphana University Lüneburg)  email

Short Abstract

Different kinds of urban struggles supply important coordinates to read the spatial economy of the global crisis. Can we think of them as interconnected or as resonating and repercussive? What lessons for the conundrums of democracy are there? How does a migrant population figure in this global configuration?

Long Abstract

There are struggles in the past cycle of mobilizations that lack the iconic status of Zuccotti Park, Tahir Square, or Gezi. However, they echo the democratic expressions and deliver insights into practices that oppose the enduring crisis of capitalism. My paper will investigate a two-year long public occupation in Berlin, the capital city of a country that is seen as one of the profiteers of the debt and financial crisis. The occupation of a square at the rim of a roundabout in the inner city area has become the hub for organizing of a predominantly migrant tenant's initiative in a privatised social housing estate. Starting from their activities will help me to outline how the dominance of finance in capitalism 'hits the ground' and how frontiers of capital open up new territories to establish conditions for accumulation in our cities. I will also focus on the political technology that is driven by protocols of "social diversity" that arrange the parameters within which the business of privatisation can deal with cultural, religious, social contestations. I will draw on the initiative's mix of practices of collaboration, mobilisation, research, art practice, festive events, demonstrations, appeals, cultural initiatives, on their ability to organise collaborations on a local as well as on a European level. By doing so my paper will examine the factors, such as racism, poverty, the social composition of the activists, political traditions, productions of subjectivity, art practices that help to explain the initiative's articulating towards left without neglecting political complexities in the field.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.