How can citizens keep societies open, free, and fair? What can one person really do? Sometimes it feels hopeless. When looking at the political situation across Europe (and, honestly, across the globe) it’s easy to feel powerless and despondent. It can seem like society is sleepwalking into the abyss, with politics today being driven by hatred and anger.
What about taking to the streets and marching? We had a comment from Paul, who is sceptical of the power of citizens to protest. In fact, he believes that “marching and protesting is a complete waste of time”. He argues that:
[Marching and protesting] physically achieves nothing and is usually only done by unemployed attention seekers with too much spare time on their hands. If people have a justified complaint there are better ways of trying to address things without walking down the street ranting and annoying everyone.
Harsh words from Paul, but is he right to be so cynical? To get a response, we spoke to Lorenzo Marsili, co-founder and Director of European Alternatives, an organisation working to empower citizens, civil society, and social movements across Europe. What would he say?
What Paul is saying is factually untrue. Historically, as well as in the recent past, some very important political changes have been the direct outcome of citizen protests and citizen activism. Today, we are witnessing the probable collapse of the TTIP negotiations between the EU and the US, and this is a direct result of the large-scale mass democratic mobilisation of the citizens of Europe against it. The same thing happened a few years ago when it came to the ACTA treaty…
Secondly, protests serve to reshuffle the political offer that one is faced with at the moment of voting at the ballot box. Without a strong bottom-up movement, we are going to continue to be faced with these false binary options: Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump; the regime of Erdoğan versus the military coup; the Europe of the status quo, economic injustice, and lack of democracy versus the nationalist, xenophobic option.
The rise of populist power, through protests, activism and participation, is also the precondition – as we have seen in Spain – for new political options which then run for office, and then offer new alternatives for citizens at the ballot box. There is no contradiction between participatory or activist democracy and representative democracy. On the contrary, direct participation and activism of citizens, including through protest movements on the street, is a prerequisite for a representative democracy that functions and addresses the concerns of citizens.
We also had a comment from Mariateresa from Italy, who says she’s very worried by the radicalisation of politics in Europe. She is concerned that this trend will lead to a close-minded, extremist establishment taking hold. But is there anything that she, as a citizen, can do? How can citizens keep societies free, open, and fair?
How would Lorenzo Marsili respond to Mariateresa?
[Citizens] need to make sure there is a third space, a third alternative to the false dichotomy of a failed establishment on the one hand, and the nationalist response on the other. We need to come up with a new political, civil society, and citizen-led vision of what a united, fair, and just Europe looks like. That vision will be very different from the Europe that we have today. And that vision is one of the most important antidotes to the rise of far-right.
Is marching and protesting a complete waste of time? How can citizens keep societies open, free, and fair? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!