Exit Politics

In 2011, Adbusters magazine released the now famous poster in which a ballerina danced over the symbolic bull of the New York Stock Exchange, calling on activists to occupy Wall Street. At the top of the poster, one reads the line: “What is our one demand?” In a democracy without representation, all political movements have the right of a single demand. It might be very concrete—say, lowering the bus fare in San Paolo or dispensing with plans to rebuild the Stuttgart railway station. In such cases, there is a fair chance that the demand will be met. Or the demand can be grandiose and symbolic, as in ending capitalism, and then the meaning becomes the demand itself. In order for the protest to be successful, it should be either concrete or symbolic. The middle level—messy space of actual politics that cannot be addressed by crowds huddled in public squares—has disappeared.

In many respects, the current revolt against political representation resembles the situation in ancient Rome, when plebs (Rome’s middle class) decided to leave the city, separate themselves, “go away,” and thus demonstrate their collective rejection of the status quo. Beginning 453 BC, the plebs would occasionally exit the city, evacuating Rome and encamping on one of the neighboring hills as an explicit expression of their civic anger.“They are without any leader,” wrote Titus Livy, the great chronicler of ancient Rome, “their camp being fortified with a rampart and trench, remaining quiet, taking nothing but what was necessary for sustenance, they kept themselves for several days, neither being attacked, nor attacking others. Great was the panic in the city, and through mutual fear all was suspense. The people left in the city dreaded the violence of the senators; the senators dreaded the people remaining in the city, uncertain whether they should prefer them to stay or to depart; but how long would the multitude, which has seceded, remain quiet? What were to be the consequences then, if in the meantime, any foreign war should break out?”

This secession was nothing more than an appeal for the re-founding of the political community around principles dear to its rebellious citizens. As Livy indicates, the plebs agreed to return to the city only when the senators succeeded in fashioning a narrative that recognized the plebs’ significance to society as well as their power.

The institution of the tribunes—the ones who have the power to veto the decisions of the senate—was born out of the secessions. Secessions were different from conspiracies and civil wars. They were not about changing those who govern. They were about the principles according to which power is exercised. In a society that believed in the cyclical nature of history and where the future was simply another name for the past, they were truly revolutionary. The secessions did not hope to bring change; they demanded the restoration of cosmic order.

Today’s mass protests, in many respects, are acts in search of a concept; they are praxis, if you will, without theory. They are the most dramatic expression of the conviction that the elites do not govern in the interest of the people and that the electorate has lost control over the elected. They stand for an insurrection against the institutions of representative democracy but without offerring any alternatives (or even an openness to endorse nondemocratic replacements). This new wave of protests is leaderless not because social media made leaderless revolutions possible (last we checked ancient Rome was not wired), but because the ambition to challenge all forms of political representation has made political leaders unwelcome.

In my book, In Mistrust We Trust, I argued that while globalization has empowered the middle-class individual, it has disempowered the voter. Once upon a time, a voter’s power derived from the fact that he was a citizen- soldier, a citizen-worker, and/or a citizen-consumer. The citizen- soldier was important because the defense of the country depended on his courage to stand against his enemies. The citizen-worker was significant because his labor made the country rich, and the citizen-consumer mattered because his consumption drove the economy. But globalization liberated the elites from their dependence on citizens. When drones and professional armies replace the citizen-soldier, elites lose interest in the views of citizen-soldiers. The flooding of the labor market by low-cost immigrants or outsourced production reduces the elites’willingness to cooperate. As a result, the citizenworker gets detached from the citizen-voter.

During the recent economic crisis, it became evident that the performance of the American stock market no longer depended on American consumerism. The general strike had lost its political power. At the same time, elections fail to evince either the drama or the capacity to solve social problems that they once did, while rebellion from below has become unconvincing. Capturing the government is simply no longer a guarantee that things will change. Voter power is constrained today not just because the voter has lost his additional capacities that derive from his other social roles and participation in stable social groups but also because the voter does not know whom to blame for his misfortunes. The more transparent our societies become, the more difficult it is for citizens to decide where to direct their anger. We live in a society of “innocent criminals,” where governments prefer to claim impotence rather than power.

In her classic mystery Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie tells the story of a very unusual murder in which all twelve suspects are guilty of committing a crime, and the police are forced to either acknowledge it or pretend that a stranger who exited the train is the culprit. Our angry citizen finds himself in a similar dilemma. He is angry at power but he does not know who to blame—those in government, those behind the government, the very idea of a government, the market, Brussels (for those who are EU members), and so forth. If a citizen today seeks to criticize, say, rising inequality, to what should he turn to find those responsible? The market? The government? New technologies? Could any government succeed in reducing inequality on its own without destroying his country’s compet itiveness? The futile attempts of several leftist governments to increase taxes on the superrich are the most powerful demonstration of the constraints that governments face in an era of global markets and international capital flow. It is unclear if it would make more sense to topple the government or pity it.

Voters feel helpless today because the politicians they choose are candid about their lack of power. It is up to citizens to decide whether to trust that the politicians do in fact have their hands tied or to treat the cries of powerlessness as the ultimate power grab. “I am tired of austerity, I want promises,” reads a graffiti in Brazil. The author of the outcry captures something fundamental. In a democratic politics without alternatives, politicians make a virtue out of promising nothing. But a stance of “no promises” translates to even less power for the voters. Democracy is nurtured by promises because politicians who fail to fulfill them can be held accountable. When there are no promises, there is no civic responsibility. “I didn’t promise you anything” is a line out of a cheap romance novel.

After hearing it, the only thing the jilted lover can do is run away and cry. It is through this prism that we can apprehend the meaning of the wave of protests that have rocked the world in recent years. The prism also enables us to ponder the political changes they may bring. The protests are a rejection of a politics without possibility, but they are also a form of acceptance of this new reality. None of the protest movements emerged with a platform for changing the world, or even the economy. In this sense, they are not anti-capitalist revolution. In fact, they might be seen as capitalism’s safety valve. Karl Marx would probably tell today’s rebels that anti-capitalist protest is essential for the relegitimation of global capitalism.

Neither are the protests examples of Fukuyama’s revolution of the global middle class—at least not in the sense of them being a demonstration of its empowerment. After all, it was during these protests that the middle class proved its own loss of political strength. But if the protests do not signal a return of revolutionary politics, neither will they represent an effective strategy of citizen empowerment in the age of globalization. Where governments are less powerful than before, corporations are more mobile, and political parties bereft of the capacity to build a political identity around visions for the future, the power of citizens derives from their ability to disrupt.

Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist. He is president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 03/2019

Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

Download PDF