Home » Departments and Centres » Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies » Opinions » Can democracy be saved (by protest)?

Can democracy be saved (by protest)?

by Donatella della Porta


3 December 2014


Recent times are full of images of citizens protesting: they march in the street, squat squares, camp in parks stigmatizing austerity policies, but also asking for deep political changes. Many of these citizens have been called populist, anti-political, anyhow trouble makers. In times of economic difficulties, protests in the street have been considered as jeopardizing necessary reforms, and their declining trust in political institutions considered as a challenge for democracy. This is all the more the case as collective mobilizations are often met by repression, with social conflicts escalating into street battles.

Nevertheless, as  Albert Hirschman suggested long ago, protest as voice is a much more healthy reaction than apathy (as exit). Indeed, in a moment of deep disappointment with the functioning of democracy, those who participated in mobilizations against austerity policies, are developing ideas and practices of alternative forms of democracy as well as economic organizations.  In different ways and with different degrees of success, the protestors are stigmatizing some degeneration of representative democracy, promoting instead two democratic qualities, that normative theorist of democracy consider indeed as extremely important for the building of a just, effective and legitimated public decision making: participation and deliberation.

In 2011 in Spain, Greece or the United States, as in Turkey in 2013 the occupations of squares creates a new agora in publicly owned spaces, and experiments with new forms of democracy as a way to address problems of representative democracy.  In the acampadas, the principle of deliberative and participatory democracy – inherited from the previous movements such as the one for global justice – are adapted to the characteristics of a movement of ‘common people’ rather than activists, that privileged persons over associations. Equality and inclusivity in public spaces was indeed more radical in the movement’s appeals to ‘the 99%’. To a certain extent, the emphasis on plurality as a positive value and the related need to be inclusive increased with the diversity of the citizens affected by the austerity measures. Radical inclusivity and equality is reflected in the choice of public spaces – such as parks and squares – as the pulsating heart of the movement, where no walls or fences have to reduce the transparency and publicity of the process. The orientation to public goods to be obtained through the participation of all citizens in a high quality discourse was embedded in the generalization of the use of consensual methods, even to large assemblies. The alternative management of the commons was indeed prefigured in the camps.

While prefigurating different forms of democracy, participatory and deliberative, these movements seem quite capable of affecting the development of representative democracy as well, pragmatically taking advantage of the opening of political opportunities that critical voices face due to the growing mistrust in established parties and institutions. The extraordinary (and unexpected) success of movement-near-parties such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain as well as the sensitizing of new generations to politics open new possibilities for reflection on the interaction between different conceptions and practices of democracy.   


Page last updated on 18 August 2017