In this post, Mercè Cortina-Oriol reports back the seminar on Social Movements organised by the University of Girona and Fundación Betiko.
The past 24th 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.