International Seminar on Social Movements

In this post, Mercè Cortina-Oriol reports back the seminar on Social Movements organised by the University of Girona and Fundación Betiko.

The past 24tisrael_social_justice_protests_rabin_square_tel_aviv_29_october_2011h and 25th of November took place in Girona (Catalonia) the 1st International Seminar on Social Movements co-organized by the Area of Political Science of the University of Girona and the Betiko Foundation.

The aim of the seminar was to address the fields of social movements and collective action in the current political, social and economic context. More specifically, the framing question of the seminar was to what extent the economic and political changes of recent times, mainly -but not only- in Europe, are giving rise to new forms of collective action and social movements whose contents, identities, and resources differ from those the previous, conventional ones.

The seminar was an outstanding opportunity to congregate academics such as Bob Jessop, Jonathan Davies, Donatella Della Porta, Salvador Martí and Joan Subirats among others; political and institutional actors coming from the background of the social movements such as Miguel Urbán (Member of the European Parliament for Podemos), Xulio Ferreiro (City Mayor of A Coruña), Nacho Murgui (Deputy Mayor of Madrid City Council), Jordi Bonet (responsible for communication at Barcelona City Council), and Ricard Vilaregut (Chief Executive from Badalona City Council) among others; and activist from different European countries. The event was structured through four different sessions, each of them aiming to reflect on a particular topic: the challenges of social movements in a new era; mobilisation in the global world; from protest to institutions; and, the activist in power: has anything changed?

The seminar posited relevant questions and inspiring answers and examples around the new processes of mobilisation and the challenges for both the social movements and the new political organisations that emerged from them. Along two days, the debates brought up consistent questions with the research agenda of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) such as the processes of emergence of new expressions of resistance, the conditions for their emergence or for their absence, the forms that these new expressions adopt, the limits or capabilities of local governments to face the political and economic order and the imposed austerity policies, the possibilities for the development of alternatives to crisis and austerity from the local sphere, and the challenges for democracy in a context of crisis. The organisers we will soon compile and publish the interventions of the seminar. Nevertheless, and despite the relevance of all the debates, in this post I will summarise briefly those more connected with CURA’s research interests.

One of the central sessions in the seminar focused on the structural conditions for social movements and other forms of response and resistance in the new era. Professor Bob Jessop, from Lancaster University, opened the debate. In his intervention, he contemplated the threats to democracy that the current crisis brought along and contextualised the challenges of current social movements. Throughout his presentation, he stressed the need for a better understanding of the relation between the State and the capital, and the analytical opportunity that the comprehension of the State as a social relation opens for it.

In the discussion, Mercè Cortina-Oriol, from the University of the Basque Country and CURA fellow, stressed the need for examining the implication of the social in the processes of neoliberalisation and the risks of assuming the disruptive character of the social. After Cortina-Oriol, Professor Jonathan Davies, from the De Montfort University and Director of CURA, focused on the role and the capacities of both the local government and the social to respond to the challenges that austerity policies bring along. He underlined the disjuncture between normality and crisis, and the problem of assuming austerity as part of the normality. From a more theoretical approach, Carlos Prieto, from the MNCARS, defended the need for the emergence of a new political subject. Throughout his intervention, he questioned the class compromise as a transformative articulating element. For his part, Marco Aparicio, from the University of Girona, talked about the complexity of the power structures and the progressive hollowing out of the traditional spaces of decision-making. He also stressed the relevance of the discursive dimension in the processes of mobilisation, and the importance of defending social, political and economic rights.

A second debate focused on the new forms of resistance and their challenges. Donatella Della Porta, from the Scuola Normale Superiore of Firenze, opened the debate. The discussion revolved around the new processes of mobilisation since the economic crash in 2008. Della Porta presented the results of her recent research on the new cycle of mobilisation in the context of austerity, expressing the need for rethinking the social movements in times of crisis. In a context of diminished confidence in the institutions and an increased sense of grievances, she identifies new processes of identity formation and new forms of mobilisation. Comparing these with previous cycles, she observes forms of collective action that are more open and plural, where individual citizens have more space and chances to participate, and where consensus gains prominence over the logic of the delegation.

Some of the points highlighted in this regard were the tragedy that supposes the fact that critical networks often go behind those that defend the status quo, and the performative dimension of the responses to the austerity as a way of generating alternatives. This last question, addressed by Leandro Minuchin, from the University of Manchester, posit the potentialities of self-managed initiatives and solidarity networks in action for the provision of services in a context of austerity and social emergency from a communitarian basis.

Another point in this regard was the need for stressing the links among social movements, social initiatives, citizens and new alternative governments. This idea was closely related to a third central debate: the challenges for the new local governments for building alternatives to austerity. Joan Subirats framed this discussion focusing his analysis on the impact achieved by emerging parties, evaluating the case of the Barcelona City Council. He underlined the challenges of new formations such as Barcelona en Comú, a formation that, coming from a process of mobilisation, managed to win the municipal elections in 2015. Subirats highlighted the need to strengthen the sovereignties of proximity and the ability to promote popular construction from the commons, without falling into processes of systematic re-municipalisation. Instead, he advocated for searching different possible options that range from the traditional public service to the idea of co-production to ensure the universal delivery of quality services.

Adding to the third debate, the interventions by new institutional representatives bringing out the contradictions when passing from the street to the Mayor’s Office, the limitations of the institutional strategy, and the difficulties that entail the relationship with other levels of the State Administration. Other questions were related to the need to settle the political decision processes with what we could call a new type of civil servants and the need to train new officers while coexisting with the previous ones. For his part, Ricard Vilaregut brought up the limits that these new governments have at the time of breaking with the inherit clientelistic relationship that the previous governments had with some social organisations and private entities. Finally, Ismael Blanco, from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, insisted on the need for these new formations to carry out flagship policies in order to give direction and symbolic power to these new local governments.

The seminar provided an open space for actors from different background to share their experiences and perspectives, and proved the need for a common space of reflexion to move forward in the field of the alternative ways of governance under austerity.

Dr Mercè Cortina-Oriol is postdoctoral researcher of the Basque Government and CURA fellow. Form January 2017 she will be an Early Career Academic Fellow in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at the DMU.

Austerity in time and space: the case of Germany

germany-96590_960_720In today’s post Felix Wiegand, Tino Petzold and Prof. Bernd Belina argue that while austerity policies have often been implemented as part of a short-term, often authoritarian political offensive (a “shock strategy” as Naomi Kline put it) in (West) Germany this was carried out “piecemeal” over a thirty- to forty-year-time frame, which also included the subsequent adaptive and normalising effects. The authors discuss several important historic markers and dynamics to illustrate this process while emphasising the multi-scalar and spatially unequal nature of implementing austerity.

The history of austerity in (West) Germany, following the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, began during the first half of the 1970s as the Fordist development model started to come apart not just politically, socially and culturally, but in particular economically. Two decades of relative stability of German society and the “brief dream of never-ending prosperity” were followed by a cycle of economic crises that had reached its temporary high point in 1974/75. During the first years, the (West) German state reacted to the effects of the crisis with counter-cyclical fiscal and economic policies based on Keynesian ideas. However, a turn to austerity policies was soon after carried out – at a time when power relations in German society shifted and a “national state characterized by market competition” was created.

This was started by the social democratic-liberal government coalition led by Helmut Schmidt, German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982. During his first government policy statement on May 17, 1974, Schmidt announced a change to how government debt will be managed. He said that “[t]he Federal Government will use all constitutional and political measures at its disposal to their fullest extent in order to commit federal, state and local authorities to cost-cutting budgetary policies starting in 1975.” The following year’s Budgetary Structure Law substantively implemented this announcement by putting the Federal government on a restrictive fiscal path.

The budget situation of states and municipalities worsened during the subsequent years of deindustrialisation processes as a consequence of the crisis and because of tax law changes such as the elimination of the payroll tax in 1979. As the local state experienced a fiscal crisis, local political projects were established that combined cost-cutting measures with early types of entrepreneurial urban policies – events that put in motion the long-term transformation of urban politics.

Also on the federal level, the focus shifted to austerity and neo-liberal supply-side politics towards the end of the social democratic-liberal coalition government (“Budget Operation 82”) and in particular during the conservative-liberal governments under the leadership of Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982-1998). In his first government policy statement, Kohl put fiscal policy at the center of the attack on the Keynesian welfare state consensus by announcing his vision of a “well-managed country through well-managed budgets.” During the 1980s, the German government consolidated the federal budget and lowered public spending – similarly to developments in the UK under Thatcher’s leadership, albeit without the same intensity of conflict with organised labor.

The unification of the two German states in 1990 opened a window of opportunity for continuing the policies of the 1980s.  On the one hand, the policies of the German transitional privatisation agency supported an enormous privatisation project for making formerly publicly owned East German companies competitive for the global market. On the other hand, expectations for a speedy global market integration of these now privatised companies led to the (neoliberal) decision to forego tax hikes for financing German unification. Instead, the government opted for not interfering in the market in hopes of covering the cost of unification by an economic upswing.

After it became obvious early on that these hopes would not materialise, the German government responded with a classic “failing forward”, in Peck’s terms, of neoliberal policies. The growing public debt increased the pressure on the government for limiting new borrowing. As a result, municipal “budget consolidation plans” became popular during this time. The Maastricht Treaty (1992) and the Stability and Growth Pact (1997) implemented similar policies on the European Union scale. The federal Savings, Consolidation and Growth Program (1993) aimed at cutbacks of around 35 billion Deutsche mark by slashing unemployment and social welfare payments by 1996. This policy was, however, only the beginning of a comprehensive reduction of welfare state services under the banner of budget consolidation characterized by a roll-back of the welfare state, cuts of public sector jobs and reduction of public investments.

There are similar connections between attempts at shrinking the welfare state and the policies of Chancellors Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) and Angela Merkel (since 2005). Massive tax cuts during the social democratic-green coalition governments under Schröder’s leadership, adopted with the intention of improving the competitiveness of German companies, exacerbated the structural underfunding of the state. Under Merkel’s leadership, public debt continued to increase during the peak of the 2008-2009 financial and economic crisis, as bailout packages for failing and troubled financial institutions worth billions of euros and further tax cuts were adopted. At the same time, Germany introduced several constitutional regulations and mechanisms such as the balanced-budget amendment (2009), the European Fiscal Compact (2012) and municipal “budget consolidation programs.” The constitutional changes institutionalised the neoliberal ideal of a balanced budget on various scales and further limited the financial scope of public expenditures. In recent years, this politics of constitutional austerity has been reflected, for example, in the German government’s 2010 austerity package, in public service staff reductions and inadequate compensation levels for state and municipal employees and – despite some concessions regarding social spending – in a new round of municipal cost-cutting measures.

The diverse nature of the individual measures enacted on the various scales of the state shows the significance of the spatial dimension in the process of implementing austerity in the Federal Republic of Germany. On the one hand, financial burdens that mainly arise from the delivery of welfare and public services, which have been funded through Germany’s federal system, have increasingly been shifted to lower levels of government – a classic scalar dumping. German states such as Bremen and the Saarland as well as many municipalities in the former industrial heartland have experienced the full brunt of de-industrialisation processes – in addition to the limited opportunities of income generation and the negative repercussions of tax cuts on government revenues. This has left many levels of government exposed to a form of structural underfunding and has established austerity as the norm even in the absence of cyclical crises. It becomes apparent that the spatial hierarchy within Germany’s government system has been used on a regular basis for imposing specific budgetary consolidation requirements and austerity policies onto subordinate levels of government – often against their will and beyond their capabilities. This practice has taken on a new quality with the institutionalised balanced-budget regulations that have been introduced at all levels of government since the 1990s and in particular after the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The scalar linking and reinforcing of the individual mechanisms and policies across various government levels has created a tightly laced corset of austerity in Germany.

In a sense, all levels of government are impacted by austerity. A geographic perspective, however, shows that austerity’s tangible effects and the remaining room for action are unequally distributed across Germany. The local scale suffers the most from austerity. Within the federal government structure, municipalities are the lowest level of the spatial hierarchy and possess, despite their constitutional right to home rule, particularly little room for action. Especially (larger) cities are the focal points where public service agencies and poorer as well as marginalised populations are spatially concentrated. Cost-cutting measures are directly experienced by urban residents on a day-to-day basis and, more often than not, lead to an extensive crisis of social reproduction. As a result, austerity is hurting municipalities and, in particular, cities the most – although the extent differs from city to city and from municipality to municipality. The politics of austerity has affected first and foremost economically disadvantaged municipalities during the last decades and has even further reduced the already few resources that are locally available for addressing economic and social needs. On the other hand, prosperous cities and municipalities have been in the position to further improve their locational qualities through low taxes or exciting social and cultural attractions. This is one of the main reasons for why spatial disparities as well as the level of socio-spatial inequality between (and also within) municipalities has further increased in Germany during the last decades.

The case of the Federal Republic of Germany illustrates that scholarly research on austerity must draw its attention to the big picture of multi-scalar and spatially unequal processes whenever possible. This insight should prompt not only researchers in academia, but also all those who envision and organise an emancipatory politics, to meet this challenge. The everyday politics of austerity  and the associated incremental implementation of normalisation and adjustment processes force us to develop emancipatory strategies based on everyday experiences. At the same time, however, the spatially unequal nature of austerity impedes the development of political projects that would be comprehensive and far-reaching enough for confronting the multi-scalar linkages of institutionalised austerity. But that’s another blog post.

Felix Wiegand is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Human Geography (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany) and works on (urban) austerity, crises and the transformation of statehood; Tino Petzold is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Human Geography (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany) and works on multiscalar austerity in Germany; and Bernd Belina is professor at the Department of Human Geography (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany) and works on critical geography, austerity and criminology.