Political Agency in Times of Border-Crossing Challenges

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29.09.2021
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Movement Histories
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A couple of months after the UK decided to leave the EU in the summer of 2016, I set out on a four-years-long journey which took me all across the European continent. The trip came about in the context of an ethnographic research project which I undertook in collaboration with European Alternatives. As the mainstream media discourse was focussed on whether Britain should be “in” or “out” of the EU, I was interested in a rather different question: what would an alternative Europe look like if it was redone from the bottom up?

Indeed, for the activists from Another Europe Is Possible, with whom I campaigned in the streets of London in the run-up to the referendum, the question whether one was “pro-” or “anti-European” presented a false binary choice that defeated the point. They demanded that both Britain and Europe needed to change in favour of a “Europe for the Many” – an option that was not on the ballot paper. Participating in protests, meetings and campaigns in all corners of Europe in the following years, I learned that alternatives to the European status quo already exist all across the continent. To my surprise, however, witnessing these actions also led me to an underlying question, which I came to think of as one of the most urgent challenges for politics in the 21st century: the question of agency.

How to act in times of borders-crossing challenges?

Antonio, one of the activists I interviewed as part of my research, explained the problem of agency as follows: “‘We ought to do something to contribute to constructing a pan-European political agency.” He elaborated:

We need a supranational democratic community if we want to control – “take back control” to quote Brexit – over some of the great global transformations of our time... The experience of Greece is that you can be in power without actually having the power to change things.

Antje Scharenberg 

Antonio was referring, here, to the experience of Syriza, the radical left coalition which took power in Greece in the aftermath of the occupation of squares all across Europe in 2011, taking the struggle against austerity into the national parliament. Despite being elected on the back of the promise for an end to austerity, however, Syriza eventually bowed down to austerity measures imposed by what came to be known as a “Troika” of lenders made up of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. Thus, in Antonio’s view, despite having made it into government, Syriza found itself unable to act against the more powerful actors of international capital. Consequently, for Antonio, getting a radical left party elected into national government was not enough: in order to actually have agency in today’s world, he told me, “we have to reinvent politics, political mobilisation at a pan-European level”.

Antonio’s question stuck with me as it pointed towards something essential about the contemporary political moment: How might it be possible to act in a world where many of our contemporary challenges – be they related to climate change, neoliberal globalization or migration – cross borders, while our political agency remains largely tied to the borders of nation-states? Scholars like Fenton have argued that the decoupling of market needs from political decision-making in the context of ongoing neoliberalisation has led to a “political disjuncture” in which “the ability to effect political change to systems of governance remains state-bound, yet states have lost the power to do much about it because they no longer have control over their economic means” [1]. How, then, might it be possible to exercise agency in a way that is compatible with the border-crossing challenges of our times?

Acting beyond the borders of nation-states

During my four-years-long journey across the continent, I learned that the quest for agency leads activists across three different types of borders. Firstly, as illustrated by Antonio’s quote, one of the key challenges for activists today remains how we may act across geographical borders, including both the borders of nation-states as well as the borders of Fortress Europe. Importantly, contemporary activists are not the first to raise this question. As this very publication illustrates, transnational activism has a long history: from the suffragettes and feminist internationalism, to the labour movement and pan-European peace mobilisations, or anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle, transnational mobilisations have existed all throughout and long before the 20th century [2].

The 21st century, too, has had its fair share of transnational mobilisations. This was not least fuelled by the advent of digital media technologies, which allowed grassroots actors and social movements to instantly connect their struggles across the globe. Besides physical gatherings and protests, digital networks have since played an important role in connecting activists across national borders, from the Zapatistas’ “first informational guerilla movement [3] in Mexico to the World and European Social Forums in the early 2000s, and the “movements of the squares” in the 2010s. [4]

Yet, while these mobilisations continue to be inspiring to social movements until today, many of the activists I interviewed – including some, like Mark, who have attended the European Social Forums themselves – point to an ongoing challenge of transnational mobilisations:

[It] was a period where you had a lot of initiatives, movements that were challenging neoliberalism in the Global South, injustices in international trade treaties… [so] the European Social Forum was very important... The interesting comparison with today is that it was all extra-parliamentary social movement stuff and the social movements were very big... but they didn’t have any impact on parliamentary politics... That was its limitation..., you go to this great conference and you hear a lot of interesting ideas, but what is the outcome?

Acting beyond lines of struggles

A second challenge for activists today is the question how it may be possible to act not only across geographical, but also across the lines of particular struggles. For instance, as Naomi Klein illustrated for the case of climate change and the call for a European Green New Deal [5], contemporary activists understand that different struggles intersect and have to be addressed at once: “[i]t’s going to take a lot more than a carbon tax or cap-and-trade. It’s going to take an all-out war on pollution and poverty and racism and colonialism and despair all at the same time” [6].

My politics… is to try and see the way in which differences of oppressions intersect, that is what intersectional organising is about.

Silvia, a feminist activist I interviewed.

[W]hat’s happening in feminist activism and migration activism feeds each other, it’s the same fights. What I’ve done on women’s rights is not separate from the migration side of my activism, it’s all linked… I think we’re missing [something], as activists, if we’re not drawing on those linkages.

Alexandria, another activist I interviewed, gave an example of intersectional organising.

Indeed, feminist organisers, educators and scholars have long been acting in intersectional ways before Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 [7]. A similar approach that I found particularly useful is the concept of transversal politics, which may be defined as “the practice of creatively crossing (and re-drawing) the borders that mark significant political differences” [8]. For several activists I met throughout the four years of my research, the building of alliances across different struggles remains a second key challenge for activists today. This transversal quality of their actions, that is, the ambition to translate and create bridges between different actors, united a lot of the actors I met on my trans-European journey.

Acting beyond institutional boundaries

One of the most surprising findings of my trip through an alternative Europe, however, was how contemporary activists are challenging not only geographical and thematic, but also institutional borders. This “democratic” or “electoral turn” [9] began in 2014 after the so-called “movements of the squares”, including the outraged activists (as the indignados in Spain and the aganaktismenoi in Greece called themselves) took from the streets to the institutions in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, after their occupations of central public squares were evicted. The most well-known results of this move were “movement parties” [10] or “hybrid parties” [11] like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, both of which eventually made it into their respective national governments.

Besides these national movement parties, however, another actor that arose in this context has received curiously little attention by comparison, besides, perhaps, the case of Barcelona En Comú’s and activist-come-mayor Ada Colau: the municipal movement party, which sees progressive activists and residents take power in local institutions. During my travels with the campaign Transeuropa Caravans, which visited municipal movement parties – amongst other actors – in A Coruña, Marseille and Saillans in the run up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, I realised that municipal movement parties like Barcelona En Comú exist all across the continent, and, indeed, the globe [12].

To be sure, these latest overlaps between movements and parties are not entirely new either. We may think, for instance, of social democratic parties’ historically close relationship with trade unions and labour movements or of how Western European Green parties emerged out of the environmental movement, not to mention the history of movement parties in Latin America [13]. Municipal movement parties, too, have a history in Europe, as the case of the 1980’s Greater London Council illustrates, which drove a radical, feminist politics in the midst of Thatcherism [14].

Redoing Europe from the cities

One of the most exciting findings from my tour around the European continent is thus not only how radical municipal actors change local institutions from the inside by making them more participatory, democratic and, indeed, more feminist. What fascinated me throughout my study is how radical mayors, municipal movement parties and non-institutional actors come together in pan-European networks in order to drive radical social change not only on the local, but on the transnational level.

My favourite example: in the absence of progressive actions from national governments and EU institutions, cities and communes which continue to welcome migrants and refugees form alliances to push for a trans-municipal approach to an alternative refugee politics like it is done by “From the Sea to the City”. In this scenario, which challenges national borders and Fortress Europe alike, European funds may be transferred directly to municipalities, cities and towns which are open to newcomers yet who might lack the required local infrastructure. In doing so, they bypass regressive national governments which prefer to close borders rather than finding solutions that benefit not only refugees and migrants, but also support respective local communities more broadly. Here, transnational connections are made not through agreements between national governments, but through connections between local, mobile and civil society actors - a bottom-up alternative to international politics.

Such alternatives that radically rethink European politics from the streets and municipalities only become visible once we stop focussing primarily on national actors and Brussels’ institutions. Rather, in the struggle for another Europe, it is in the alliances between different actors across geographical, thematic and institutional borders where new expressions of transversal agency for the 21st century may emerge.

  • 1.Fenton, N. (2016) Digital, political, radical. Malden: Polity, p. 17.
  • 2.See, for instance, Berger, S. and Scalmer, S. (eds) (2017) The Transnational Activist: Transformations and Comparisons from the Anglo-World since the Nineteenth Century. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan; Gago, V. (2020) Feminist International: How to change everything. London: Verso; Gandhi, L. (2006) Affective communities: anticolonial thought, Fin-De-Siècle radicalism, and the politics of friendship. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • 3.Castells cited in Atton, C. (2002) Alternative Media. London: Sage, p. 133.
  • 4.See, for instance, della Porta, D. et al. (2006) Globalization From Below: Transnational Activists and Protest Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Flesher Fominaya, C. (2014) Social movements and globalization: How protests, occupations and uprisings are changing the world. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; Gerbaudo, P. (2012) Tweets and the streets: social media and contemporary activism. London: Pluto.
  • 5.GNDE (2019) The Green New Deal for Europe - Blueprint for Europe’s Just Transition. Available at: https://report.gndforeurope.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Blueprint-for-Europes-Just-Transition-2nd-Ed.pdf.
  • 6.Klein, N. (2019) On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. London: Allen Lane, p. 51.
  • 7.Crenshaw, K. (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8), pp. 139–167. See also: Lorde, A. (1984) Sister outsider: essays and speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.
  • 8.Cockburn, C. and Hunter, L. (1999) ‘Transversal politics and translating practices’, Soundings, 12, pp. 88-89; see also: Yuval-Davis, N. (1999) ‘What is “transversal politics”?’, Soundings, 12, pp. 94–98.
  • 9.Flesher Fominaya, C. (2020) Democracy reloaded: inside Spain's political laboratory from 15-M to Podemos. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 232.
  • 10.della Porta, D. et al. (2017) Movement Parties Against Austerity. Cambridge: Polity.
  • 11.Flesher Fominaya, C. (2020) Democracy reloaded: inside Spain's political laboratory from 15-M to Podemos. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 234
  • 12.Barcelona En Comú’s publication Fearless Cities – A Guide to the Global Municipalist Movement (2019) provides an overview of strategies and toolkits at work in 50 initiatives from 19 countries and all continents. For a focus on European cities, see Büllesbach, D., Cillero, M. and Stolz, L. (eds) (2017) Shifting Baselines of Europe: New Perspectives beyond Neoliberalism and Nationalism. Bielefeld: Transcript.
  • 13.For instance: Van Cott, D. L. (2005) From movements to parties in Latin America: the evolution of ethnic politics. Cambridge: Cambrigde University Press.
  • 14.Wainwright, H. (2020) 'Municipalism and feminism then and now', Soundings, 74, pp. 10–25.
  • About the contributor

    Antje Scharenberg
    Protest & Movement Researcher (University of St. Gallen) & Activist

    Antje Scharenberg is a postdoctoral researcher and activist with a PhD from the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies department at Goldsmiths, University of London, currently at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Her thesis – titled Trans-Europa: Agency Beyond Borders in Alter-European Activist Networks – is based on a 4-years-long ethnographic research project conducted with transnational civil society organisations between 2016 and 2020. As an activist and ethnographer Antje has worked with different civil society actors including European Alternatives and Another Europe Is Possible, with whom she campaigned for a progressive Europe during and after the UK’s EU referendum in 2016.

    One of the central questions driving her thesis and her wider research is how we can enact agency in times of border-crossing challenges that arise, for instance, in the context of migration, climate change or digital capitalism. Her research interests include activism and social movements, transnationalism, globalization, alternative media, new municipalism, feminism, ethnography and engaged methodologies. Antje’s work has appeared in English and German media, including openDemocracy, Soundings, Political Critique, Enorm and DIE ZEIT and was presented at both public and academic conferences. She is the series editor of Other Europes for Soundings – A Journal of Politics and Culture.