This is one of those rare moments in history when subterranean politics ‘bubbles up’ to the surface. What we mean by subterranean politics is politics that is not usually visible in mainstream political debates. The current demonstrations, protests and occupations, or new social initiatives of various kinds are probably less joined up, more heterogeneous and not even bigger than similar phenomena that our research on Global Civil Society has tracked over the last decade. But what is special about subterranean politics in 2011 and 2012 is their ‘resonance’, the way that they strike a chord in mainstream public opinion.
The Subterranean Politics in Europe project pursued a dual strategy. First, we set out to map initia- tives for reforming or transforming the European Union. Secondly, we investigated a variety of social mobilizations and collective activities across Europe that we call ‘subterranean politics’, in order to find out what they are about and how they relate to ideas about Europe. Since there was very little overlap between the two prongs of the strategy, our findings about European initiatives are included in Appendix A, while the main body of the report focuses on subterranean politics.
In order to research subterranean politics, we undertook seven contextual case studies – four national studies (Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain), one global city (London), and two trans-European studies (one focused on trans-European grassroots initiatives and one focused on trans-European initiatives and anti-austerity movements). Our main findings are:
The most important finding that emerges from our project is that what is shared across different types of protests, actions, campaigns and initiatives is extensive frustration with formal politics. Terms associated with subterranean political actions such as ‘angry’, ‘indignant’ or ‘disappointed’ are an expression of this frustration. By and large, protests are not about austerity per se but rather about the failures of democracy as currently practiced.
What we see in all the public displays of subterranean politics are projects of collective re-imagining of democracy, of its practices and, importantly, of its relation to everyday life. Our interviewees stressed the subjective experience of participating in politics and pioneering new experiments of democracy. This applies both to the assemblies and new techniques of consensus building in public squares and campaigning for the recent referendum in Italy, which was seen as an example of direct democracy.
The role of the Internet is critical at the level of mobilisation, much of which was coordinated over social networks. But above all the experience of living with the Internet has had a profound impact on the culture of politics. Many activists are preoccupied with Internet freedom, particularly issues of anti-piracy. The term ‘swarm intelligence’, which is used to describe collective actions based on horizontality, replaceability and leaderlessness, is characteristic both of online activism and of the occupation of squares. Concern with process, accountability and transparency for many subterranean actors is more important than a programme of specific demands.
Europe does not play a relevant role in the debates and protests that we have studied. In the few instances in which it is ‘visible’, it tends to be regarded as part of the problem as much as part of the solution. While many of our interviewees regard themselves as European in terms of life experience, and many are concerned with and aware of global issues, Europe as a political community or a public space only seems to exist for a small ‘expert’ minority.
The implications of these findings are twofold. First, it is important to bring together ‘expert activ- ists’, who have put forward European initiatives, with subterranean actors in order to discuss the political, rather than the financial, crisis of Europe and, in so doing, to make Europe more visible by ‘problematising’ it. Through a critical and active debate on politics, Europe may regain its potential as a political space for the re-imagination of democracy. Secondly, it is important to monitor, research and understand the evolution of subterranean politics. Specific proposals include supporting the European Citizens’ Initiative and establishing an online constitutional assembly.