Mass protests across Europe show that a new politics is on the horizon
Updated: Apr 10
‘No Christmas for the bourgeoisie!’ declared graffiti on a wall in Paris as the Gilets Jaunes protests electrified Europe since their first protest on 17 November.
Even before the series of French protests had begun, and hardly mentioned in Western media outlets, demonstrations had spread across thirty cities and towns against similar fuel-related measures in Bulgaria starting on 11 November.
But they too started wearing yellow vests which had become the visual characteristic of the French protests. Soon, yellow vests became popular in mass protest movements that gripped other countries in Europe, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal, and beyond.
Protest spreads across Europe
Over the following weeks, seemingly unrelated protests also took place across Europe.
A series of weekly protests began against government-inspired violence in Serbia after the leader of a small left-leaning party was violently assaulted while visiting the small town of Kruševac on 23 November. Tens of thousands took to the streets of the capital city Belgrade on 22 December.
A major teachers’ strike and protest in Lithuania started in late November and led to the downfall of a Minister of Education and Science in early December.
In Albania, a student protest wave which had brought 50,000 on the streets of the capital Tirana on 4 December led to a cabinet reshuffle as the Albanian PM Edi Rama sacked seven ministers on 29 December in an attempt to stem the spreading tide of protest.
Demonstrations also started in Hungary, following the passing on 12 December of the so-called ’slave law’ which made it possible to do 400 hours of overtime every year. Ten thousand people marched in Budapest, giving a focus for various popular initiatives to coalesce and seek to channel discontent.
Protests in Republika Srpska, the the Serb part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had begun in March 2018, also reached a dramatic peak on 25 December as police arrested the parents of the young man whose suspicious death had kick-started protests earlier in the year.
Strikes and demonstrations have broken out in Catalonia since early November, as the province of Spain which declared independence last year saw major confrontation continue with the new government in Madrid. Clashes with Spanish police ensued.
Indeed, state repression against protests has been a major feature across the different protest movements, reflecting just how far the establishment has had to go to maintain its grip on power in each country.
Moreover, even though the different protest movements appear to be responding to varied national particularities, their common occurrence in such a narrow time-frame and across such a large space suggests there is something that connects them.
In different ways, this has to be the sense that mainstream politics has been failing ordinary people ever more visibly in the decade since the outbreak of global economic crisis in 2008.
Indeed, over the last ten years we have witnessed a slow-burning crisis of representative institutions, the erosion of the neoliberal “extreme centre” and the polarisation of politics with the rise of left and right wing movements and parties.
Even before this latest wave of protest, we have periodically seen mass mobilisations from below of working people. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, we saw the rise of movements like the Indignados in Spain or Occupy in the US, which underpinned the rise of left electoral breakthroughs.
The UK is no exception
The UK has been no exception. There have been union-sponsored marches against austerity, like the March 2011 TUC protest that brought half a million to the streets of London, before Jeremy Corbyn’s spectacular rise to the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015.
Earlier this year, in July, we also saw the mass anti-Trump mobilisation with a quarter of a million people opposing the US president’s visit to the UK. This comes on the back of successful campaigning over the years by groups like the Stop the War Coalition, the People’s Assembly against Austerity, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and others.
Against the deadlock of institutions that have been seen to serve the interests of the 1%, as the Occupy! movement in the US put it, mass mobilisations outside the ordinary channels have started to erupt, as people seek immediate relief for their mounting everyday problems.
Not all of the movements in Europe have broken out entirely from below, of course, and many have been organised by pre-existing popular coalitions and some even by mainstream opposition groups. But the scale and anger of protests everywhere suggests the feelings from below are no longer easily expressed through existing institutions.
It is in this context that we can understand the People’s Assembly slogan ‘Britain is Broken: General Election Now!’ for its demonstration called for 12 January 2019. With the UK parliament unable to break the Brexit deadlock, it is the mass extra-parliamentary mood that has to be tapped to shift the terms of the debate.
Looking forward to 2019: towards a people’s spring?
What is necessary across the board is a refusal to defend the status quo and a bold initiative to connect the big political, social and economic issues that affect working people with their own popular mobilisation.
Initially, of course, many movements will have bread-and-butter demands mixed with the most advanced and the most retrograde that has been piling up in people’s minds. But, at times like these, as Friedrich Engels put it, ‘[a]n ounce of practice is worth a tonne of theory.’
When the masses move, they see their collective power. The task of the left is to become the most visible and decisive element in all the movements, trying to bring to the fore what brings all the demonstrations together.
And when people begin to move, it is according to their experiences that they will begin to judge the political forces offering them guidance and leadership. We have to rise to the occasion. In 2019, we may have a world to win.