The Populist Turn of the 2011 Protest Wave

by Paolo Gerbaudo

For anybody with some experience in social movements and the radical Left, the movements of 2011 have come as a real shock; refreshing for some and disturbing for others. They have been like an earthquake, putting into question ideas, tenets, attitudes that had for long been established in protest movements. From the Arab Spring to the Indignados in Spain and in Greece to end with Occupy Wall Street, just beneath the familiar surface of anti-authoritarian and neo-anarchist attitudes, seen for example in the rejection of leaders and formal organizational structures, something unexpected and puzzling emerged in this protest wave. Take, for example, slogans that have come to typify the 2011 protests, from Occupy’s “We are the 99%” to the Egyptian “the People want the fall of the regime” or the Spanish Indignados “we are normal common people”. These slogans contain references to the universal subject of the People, one that the radical Left had grown increasingly suspicious of in the aftermath of 1968, when the majority and the youth seemed to increasingly part ways. Furthermore, they also display a neo-modernist spirit of possibility, full of ambition for radical political change, the like of which had for long been considered by post-modernist theorists, as the mark of a by-gone era, of grand narratives, grand dreams, and grand delusions.

The protest culture of the movements of 2011 bears the mark of what can only described as a populist turn. By this term, I describe a change in protest culture that revolves around a recuperation of the politics of the people that strongly resonates with the writings of Ernesto Laclau. Populism obviously is not used here as intended in the journalistic jargon, as a synonym for rightwing populism, but as the description of a radical politics of the People, one which is imbued with a universalist project of emancipation, and whose historical antecedents include such democratic movements as the Russian Narodniki, the British Chartists, and the anti-fascist popular fronts. Populism as a progressive politics that counter to the majority of the post-modern Left with its cult of diversity, individuality, and multiplicity, reasserts the values of the Enlightenment, of the French revolution and of early socialism: equality, solidarity, and unity. As I describe in my forthcoming book ‘The Mask and the Flag: The rise of anarcho-populism in global protest’ (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2016), the manifestations of this populist turn are everywhere to be seen in the discourse and practice of contemporary social movements. They are reflected in their use of mass communication platforms as those offered by social media firms, instead of self-managed services available only to small minorities; in the use of a political language that makes constantly appeal to common sense rather than to a desire of subversion and a cult of abnormality; in the use of protest tactics that carefully eschew violence and provocation; and finally in a different view of the State not just as the enemy but as a battlefield between reactionary and progressive forces.


As suggested by the ‘hybrid’ title of my book, and the double nature of the term anarcho-populism this change is a ‘complicated’ one to use a Facebook trope; that is while populism is the novelty and the most powerful element of contemporary protest movement protest culture continues to bear the mark of neo-anarchist elements that have been dominant in protest culture since 1968. This again is the reason that has led many scholars and activists to celebrate the 2011 wave as a great revival of anarchist politics. In the culture of the 2011 movements anarchist and populist themes have been intermixed in often contradictory ways. An example is provided by the popular assemblies that have become a hallmark of this protest wave. Their decision-making protocol based on consensus and participation, was definitely of anarchist derivation. However, the actual result of these assemblies as manifested in resolutions, and official declarations was far more populist in content. It resonated more to the texts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the brain-father of progressive populism rather than to the writings of Mikhail Bakunin, one of the founders of anarchism. Protesters did not express a desire to pull down the State, and establish a world of self-managed assemblies. To the contrary the used assembly to put forward demands for radical state reforms, taking the state away from the control of economic and political oligarchies and under the control of the citizenry.

The implications of this populist turn are very important and to a great extent very hopeful. The populist turn means that contemporary protest movements have abandoned the narrow yet often comfortable space of social and political marginality they had often occupied in the last 40 years. They have decided that they do not content themselves with a politics of resistance but that they want to win, to impose another model of politics and the economy in the service of common people. Furthermore, they have realized that a factor in the long defeat of progressive forces stemmed from their unconscious acceptance of many features of neoliberal ideology, adopted in neo-anarchist thought and practice, with the anarchist suspicion of the State, bearing uncanny similarities to the position of neoliberals as von Hayek, and its belief in autonomy often coming close to the neoliberal cult of the entrepreneurial self. The change in mentality of protest movements of the 2011 wave, has resulted in important political changes. It has provided a fuel for a revival of Left party politics as seen in the spectacular rise of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and Bernie Sanders in the US. These political exploits would have not have happened without the 2011 protests, and despite the disappointments that they have produced and will produce they constitute important developments that point to a shift in political equilibria towards a more progressive agenda. More importantly the populist spirit of the 2011 wave has engendered a re-politicisation of the citizenry, an empowerment of individuals and local communities that will constitute a fundamental asset to wage the long fight ahead against a neoliberal capitalism that to use the words of Wolfgang Streeck continues to buy time to postpone its eventual collapse.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Melone says:

    Bakhtin founder of anarchism?

  2. Paolo Gerbaudo says:

    Bakunin not Bakhtin. Apologies

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