Blockupy and beyond

The blockade of the European Central Bank in 2012 and 2013 started as a German initiative but has triggered an international movement responding to a Europe in crisis, writes Corinna Genschel

June 30, 2014
13 min read

Blockupy is in its third and maybe most important year. Sometime in late autumn, the European Central Bank (ECB) will open its new offices in the highly visible and symbolic “Twin Towers” in Frankfurt City. The ECB and EU heads of state will use this occasion to once again try to convince the German and European publics that “the crisis is over” – and the neoliberal model of European economic governance is its successful outcome. Blockupy plans to mobilise tens of thousands of people to come to Frankfurt and stage a bold series of protests, including marches and various actions of civil disobedience, to counter this celebratory narrative.

As we know, the “crisis” is far from over – it is not over for the people who are bearing the consequences economically, socially, politically; not over for the fabric of the social and democratic infrastructure1; not over economically in terms of debt, financial speculation or structural imbalances2. In retrospect, the crisis appears to have been used as an occasion for the further neoliberal restructuring of capitalism and capitalist social relations, of labour and markets, democracy and decision-making in the Eurozone, with all the consequences that flow from that3.

Blockupy started in 2012 (and continued in 2013), targeting the financial district of Frankfurt to expose the crisis’ systemic character and power relations within the Eurozone. Blocking the financial district and taking the squares of the inner city of Frankfurt was intended as a moment of internationalist resistance in the “belly of the beast” of the European economic system.

However, Blockupy is more than a necessary protest in the centres of power. What had been initiated out of a double dilemma for German emancipatory forces (how to politically address the “German role” in the European crisis and how to mobilise around the issue) became in the course of these three years a moment for realigning the left in Germany, as a potential rallying point for those forces, still a minority, opposing the political and social “grand coalition”. Equally importantly, due to its character Blockupy also became a part of a process of European movement rebuilding and common strategising – a space to articulate the necessary unevenness of social conflict and struggles across a Europe in crisis, with a desire to work out commonalities, differences and practices, particularly on the streets. It became a new space in Europe, against the current Europe and for a Europe from below.

Northern movements in crisis within the “Eurocrisis”

Let us reflect for a moment on the dilemmas – the crisis – faced by progressive, left forces in Germany (and other countries in the north of Europe) within the European crisis, and especially in the face of the disastrous policies imposed on the south of Europe by the Troika of the ECB, IMF and European Commission.

The first dilemma the forces opposed to the Troika face is that a coalition of all the major political forces has managed to integrate the majority of the population into the politics of the Troika and the leading role of the German government within it.

While there were exceptions, most notably some trade unions and left wing party Die Linke, there was a “grand coalition” of sorts in wider society before the Christian Democrat–Social Democrat grand coalition (with the support of all major trade unions chapters) became a political reality in September 2013. It is not that there was no compassion for the people of Greece, or that there was no impoverishment and widening of income and class relations in Germany itself4. However, as evidenced once again in the European election some weeks ago, the majority tends to believe that Merkel – and a grand coalition – serves their interest, especially in regards to the export industry and banking sector, and protects “the German economy” from worse.

In this context, how to organise protests against the Troika’s policies, including the German role in them, became an increasingly crucial question. Especially with the emergence of mass rebellions and the movements of the squares in Southern Europe, the linking of those struggles across Europe and participation in these European anti-austerity movements was tricky. For the German left simply to call for the occupation of public squares along the same lines as in Spain, Greece and Portugal would have been not just embarrassing but politically disempowering5. Therefore another strategy was needed – a strategy not necessarily geared towards mass participation but taking aim at a symbolic target (the financial district of Frankfurt and the European Central Bank), coupled with a conflict-based form of action (blocking) that would allow for a publicly recognisable form of progressive intervention.

A significant side effect of that successful action strategy (coupled with publicity provoked by police attacks on the movement6) was the creation of a left wing, progressive alliance – stable, committed and with an interesting model for cooperation between distinct forms of politics. Right now, the German Blockupy alliance is made up of activists from various emancipatory groups and organisations such as the Interventionist Left, Attac, Occupy Frankfurt, youth and student organisations, Die Linke, the anti-capitalist alliance Ums Ganze and activists from the unemployment, peace and other movements. The decision to go for radical direct action in Frankfurt with a stable, committed alliance might mean not becoming a mass coalition (see above). However, Blockupy could evolve into a vocal minority with the potential to attract those who defy the politics of the grand coalition.

The second dilemma concerns the question of nationality and transnationality: the knowledge that to fight the global class and capitalist character of the crisis and its solutions, our struggles and movements need to be both national and transnational. However, given the uneven and hierarchical articulation of the crisis within Europe, and the consequent unevenness of social struggles across Europe (and indeed across the world), this is a challenge. How can we form transnational movements and build alternatives (“Europe from below” as the catchphrase has it) while the conditions are so diverse for fighting, for building new alliances across societies, for reconstructing alternatives, and for finding different nodal points of conflict? How can we define meaningful crystallisation points – meaningful in that it makes sense strategically for a movement to join that event, even if it means more work, resources and no immediate effect for one’s own struggle?

Of course, the interventionist character of Blockupy is only one answer to the challenge for movements in the North, with their internationalist need to attack in the belly of the beast. However, in looking back at the process of Blockupy – from Blockupy Frankfurt to Blockupy International – and taking seriously the symbolic value of Blockupy throughout many chapters in Europe, it seems worthwhile to look at what it managed to offer.

Lessons from Blockupy to build a pan-European process

Understanding the unevenness of struggles throughout Europe is the first prerequisite for building a common process with any potential of constructing a “Europe of resistance” against austerity, the Troika and beyond. It is not just a matter of respecting the variety of struggles and conflicts, nodal points and political objectives, forms and strategies, but of building on that variety, differences and experiences as a precondition for its possibility. Only if we share and analyse our experiences, political reflections and potentials in respective constellations are we able to learn and integrate new knowledge into existing frameworks.

But we not only need in-depth debates and discussions, we also need to build links through coordinated practice. The “May of Solidarity”, which emerged out of the Blockupy organising space but went beyond Blockupy, can be seen as one meaningful attempt to coordinate Europe-wide days of action throughout various emancipatory networks in Europe against the Troika’s policies and their consequences – finding a common motto (“Solidarity beyond borders – building democracy from below”), bringing in specific and regional issues and networks, working out common strands transnationally and presenting all of this as a common initiative and a crucial step in a process that goes beyond the coordinated action itself7.

However, Blockupy being taken up by various movements, organised networks and beyond raises the issue of, and I want to say need for, strategically decided central and common spaces on the streets. Through those we can experience what it means to confront power together8, experience a lively transnational physical space, and work for medium-term goals. That does not mean a return to a politics of “hopping” from one event or campaign to the next without returning, or looking at the resources this kind of politics takes. But it means that, yes, it is important to share physical space in confrontations on the streets and the squares. Further, it is important, since – given the transnational character of state and corporate power – one of our main objectives should be to bring back onto the agenda the crises that are supposedly solved, whether it is on the streets of Torino to foil the EU’s show of battling youth unemployment9 or whether in the city of Frankfurt in autumn. What is important is to exchange reflections on the different constellations of forces, the regional conditions to build stable alliances across various forms of politics and beyond the current action, to think through mobilisations as steps in a process, and of course its significance for spoiling the EU’s staging of a success story, through confrontation, intervention and a “different Europe”.

Of course this is not to say that the “Blockupy and Beyond” process is by any means the only one or yet sufficient – this TNI series on Europe’s movements gives evidence to that fact, as well as the need for all those “national” mobilisations, rebellions, movements from below10. The last few years have demonstrated that the Europe of the crisis is also a field in which we can develop new strategies of confrontation against the capitalist restructuring of Europe and democracy – and potentially of reconstituting alternative social spaces that go beyond the national. Yet, this is far from powerful in the real sense of the word. Therefore it is up to us to expand to other organised networks, European alliances and processes from below, as well as to more European regions (especially to Eastern Europe), to politically deepen this process and find those nodal points for effectively confronting the EU crisis regime with its consolidated neoliberal economic governance model – the driving force of “the crisis”. It seems clear that while they want capitalism without democracy and will continue to work for that forcefully, we, however, want democracy without capitalism.

See you on the streets of Frankfurt – let’s continue this process and use Blockupy to move beyond Blockupy!

Corinna Genschel is working for the Left Party (Die Linke) in parliament as a liaison between the party and social movements. As such she is active in the Blockupy coalition – especially right now in the Blockupy International coordinating structure.

1. See the powerful, diverse and clear statements by the witnesses at the “People’s Tribunal Hearing on EU Economic Governance and the Troika”, May 2014 (http://www.tni.org/multimedia/video-peoples-tribunal-hearing)

2. See Ellmers/Hulova (2013) “The new debt vulnerabilities” (http://www.eurodad.org/Entries/view/1546060/2013/11/11/The-new-debt-vuln…)

3. See the in-depth studies of Corporate Europe Observatory, http://corporateeurope.org/economy-finance. Further, Naomi Klein’s work on the “Shock Doctrine”, with its systematic enforcement of “free market” policies through what she calls disaster capitalism, comes to mind (see also: http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine).

4. Even the media reports that there is a growing gap in income, wages and property in Germany. In fact, Germany is leading the way in Europe. There is a growing number of working poor, and high poverty rates especially among children and single parents. (See the German witness’s statement at the Tribunal against the Troika, footnote 1). But even if this is due to the neoliberal labour and social reform called Agenda 2010, which the Social Democrats put underway in the beginning of the millennium, in a bizarre move this is now understood as the necessary “homework we already did” to make the German economy fit for competition in the global market. See the various studies by the German trade unions’ scientific institute, such as Unger, Brigitte/Bispinck, Reinhard/Pusch, Toralf/Seils, Eric/Spannagel, Dorothee, “Verteilungsbericht 2013 – Trendwende noch nicht erreicht”, published as a WSI Report, Nr. 10, November 2013 http://www.boeckler.de/pdf/p_wsi_report_10_2013

5. Of course left forces and social movements took part in the growing European movement against the Troika from the beginning of the crisis. However, the annual marches under the slogan “We won’t pay for your crisis” by 2011 clearly marked a dead end in regards to reaching higher numbers. There were also some attempts by Occupy to take squares, however this was severely limited in numbers and perspective in Germany.

6. In 2012 the police reacted to the call for Blockupy Frankfurt with a ban on all marches throughout Frankfurt on the planned action days; in 2013 police repression focused on the march of 10-15,000 people, “kettling” (surrounding) almost 1,000 demonstrators for eight hours. However, in both instances the alliance stood together – even more firm than before. For the activities and the police reaction see http://17to19m.blogsport.eu/ and http://blockupy.org/en/call-for-action/

7. For the actions, the common call and the final reflection see www.mayofsolidarity.org.

8. Even if we should be very well aware that we are far away from “really” confronting the source of power.

9. On July 11th 2014, the EU will meet in Torino, Italy, for a summit to supposedly battle youth unemployment. Of course, this will not be battling the root causes, but it will be about lowering legal and social standards in the member states as the proposed means to battle unemployment. Social movements, trade unions etc in Italy – plus Blockupy International – will mobilise to counter that narrative. See also http://www.globalproject.info/it/tags/englishversion/desk [Note from the editor: The 20th of June the Italian government decided to postpone the event to September]

10. And the need for movements of the North to also think about the support the movements of the South need to survive and to make a difference. This will be crucial in the moment, for example, when Syriza and the Greek population vote for a fundamental break but “Europe” refuses to let it happen.

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