Global Revolt and the Struggle for Democracy

Posted: November 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

This is an edited version of a paper I presented to the Collaborative Struggle Conference at the University of Wollongong in September 2012.

Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 we have seen widespread popular revolt that is evidence of a Global Political Crisis. During the past eighteen months European anti-austerity movements occupied squares, universities and banks and launched a wave of general strikes. In North Africa, the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula – revolutions toppled dictatorships and uprisings destabilised authoritarian regimes. Launched in the United States, the Occupy movement transformed streets and parks all over the world in a challenge to the tyranny of finance capital. In Israel encampments and protests for economic and social justice erupted across the country, and in Japan a powerful anti-nuclear movement emerged after the Fukushima disaster, calling into question the ability of the state to protect the population. In South America, after a decade of radical upheaval from Argentina to Venezuela, Chilean students at universities and high schools organised strikes, boycotted classes and occupied buildings, plunging the government into perpetual crisis. To their north a powerful rebellion of Quebec students did the same.  These are just some examples of the contemporary wave of revolt destabilising the global economic and political order.

This paper explores global revolt and the struggle for democracy by looking at these movements and the resulting experiments in direct and participatory democracy. In order to clarify the ideas and practices of those in revolt, I consider how democracy is organised as a common and immanent political project and reflect on the creation of alternative spaces and times, as well as forms of democratic organisation. Since the conference for which this paper was written sought to emphasise collaboration I spend little time on the conflicts within the movements being discussed. Instead I investigate these movements as dynamic processes of social relations that, despite their diversity, recognise and respond to common concerns and common enemies.  I also explore how the development of shared tactics, strategies and practices has unleashed the collective ability of people to organise democracy while producing alternative collaborative and affectionate communities.

‘Democracy’ and ‘democratic’ have always been contested terms and have a wide variety of definitions and uses. Faced with the corruption of modern representative democracy, today there are widespread attempts to reclaim the concept of democracy in its radical, utopian sense: the absolute democracy of “the rule of everyone by everyone” (Hardt and Negri: 2004: 307). Of course, contemporary struggles for democracy are not identical and don’t share the same social conditions. Yet, although the Arab Spring, Anti-austerity and Occupy movements tend to be rooted in specific local conditions, and ties between those involved in collaborative struggles are often tenuous, recent revolt has spread so widely due to a shared distrust of governments and corporations and a common belief in networks of freedom. Many in the movements see democracy as central, and challenge the anti-democratic power of existing institutions and processes. They refuse to be represented, direct powerful critiques against the structures of representative government and champion the inclusive and open involvement of direct democracy. As David Graeber (2011) explains, it was the refusal of the Occupy movement “to recognise the legitimacy of the existing political authorities by making demands of them; refusing to accept the legitimacy of the existing legal order by occupying a public space without asking for permission, refusing to elect leaders that could then be bribed or co-opted;” and asserting that the entire system was corrupt, that attracted millions of people to participate and had a majority of people declaring their sympathies.

Although a rejection of political parties and an emphasis on direct democracy and militancy infuse the movements of revolt, significant conflict has occurred around the issues of authority, accountability, representation, legitimacy, and collaboration with capital and its state forms. To try and achieve democracy involves wide ranging debates that occur online, in the streets, squares, campsites, occupied schools, universities and other workplaces. Some have demanded free and fair elections, while others reject the political system, instead advocating what they call ‘real democracy’. For some the strikes, occupations and encampments are symbolic, highlighting inequality and inequity in the hope that the public will push for change. For others they are protests with demands for the powerful to implement. Yet, what is also common is a rejection of vertical, hierarchical government, and attempts to create horizontal democratic institutions. Consensus decision making and attempts to find common ground are the lifeblood of the general and popular assemblies at the beating heart of the movements for democracy. These assemblies do not expect or seek unity “but instead are constituted by a plural process that is open to conflicts and contradictions.” (Hardt and Negri: 2012) The movements have also involved decentralised gatherings for people to get together and talk about their own particular interests. Anyone who wishes to participate can do so and all can have a voice in decisions. Consideration is given to the protection of minorities and the right to dissent from majority decisions is widely defended. Importantly, rather than just making demands of governments and corporations, or drawing up programs for the future, these movements have created alternative places, occasions and practices, where the struggle for democracy has become more clearly an immanent contestation of existing state forms. In order to further explore the immanent power of revolt I will now look at these alternative places, occasions and practices.

Spaces of autonomy

Despite their differences, the movements of revolt have shared tactics and strategies, including a collective civil disobedience that has constructed ‘autonomous zones’, by seizing and creating space for struggles that are not controlled or limited by previously established political apparatus, in which a new democratic politics can be experimented with. Most obviously this has involved occupation, encampment and the formation of open and inclusive general, popular and neighbourhood assemblies for decision making. These occupations and democratic sites have enabled people of all kinds to coexist in public with likeminded strangers and acquaintances – one of the great foundations and experiences of democracy (Solnit: 2011). Not surprisingly, many of these alternative areas have come under attack from mainstream media, politicians, police and armed forces, or have been recuperated, helping to clarify the difficulties of creating and defending democracy in isolation, and making the need for deeper and more widespread revolutionary change more apparent. The attempted creation of ‘safe spaces’ has been a crucial task for those in revolt. Learning how to help make each other safe has mostly involved negotiated processes which encourage shared responsibility and collective action, aiming not to eliminate conflict but to manage it. Although at times the defence of ‘safe space’ has required physical struggle to avoid, lessen and cope with offensive violence.

As part of the struggle to expand the spaces of democracy we have also seen escalating clashes over the control of cyberspace. Despite government attempts to police communications technology, social media has provided the infrastructure for democratic political activities and new forms of politics relatively free from state coercion. Social media and networking tools are being used to organise a swarm of decentralised and participatory activities, helping to co-coordinate transnational and multitudinous actions with minimal resources and without bureaucracy, as social media teams, outlets and networks continually broadcast their own version of events, promote actions, provide analysis and engage in intense debates.

Time for action

These spatial activities make it evident that democracy often requires a significant amount of time devoted to discussion and deciding common affairs. So, along with the creation of alternative spaces those in revolt have also refused the work of capital and experimented with alternative temporalities. In the past year we have seen a wave of strikes and other forms of work refusal, including general strikes in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Greece, Bangladesh, Slovenia, India, Portugal, Lebanon, Syria, Italy, Nepal, South Korea and Chile. Although these strikes were usually short-lived, the long-term encampments and occupations that swept the globe have lasted weeks and even months. In Syntagma and Tahrir Square, along Rothschild Boulevard and Wall Street, and in hundreds of other locations, once people gathered together they remained for as long as possible in order to take part in “extended moments of struggle . . . to take back their entire lives” (Vradis: 2011: 66). By freeing time and space from capital people experimented with unmediated control, advancing new social relations which are the basis for more widespread and powerful resistance and revolt. Taking time in this way is not only a refusal of work that is exploited, under-valued, oppressive and alienating, but helps to manifest alternative times dedicated to mutual aid, cooperation and collaboration. These temporal struggles and reconsiderations of the time of our lives open up questions about people’s relationship to work and consumption, allowing them to interact differently, and to have more time for each other.

Living practice

A widespread understanding that the game is rigged and corrupt beyond redemption, has resulted in a profound questioning and examination of how power, domination, and exploitation operate in the social relations of everyday life. Rather than just rising up against the powers that be, or making demands on the elites, the movements in revolt have provided a multitude of suggestions about how to democratise our lives and confront inequalities. These suggestions for change are not only theories, slogans or demands, but the living practice of democratic struggles. Although it is common to consider these democratic practices pre-figurative, ‘creating future society within the shell of the old’, it is also important to recognise that democratic revolts immanently and continually challenge hierarchies, dictatorships and authoritarianism. We should appreciate the ‘future societies’ which already exist outside ‘the shell of the old’ and how those in revolt have attempted to create, as much as possible, the reality of democracy, through processes of becoming increasingly democratic. In the political communities constructed by those in struggle we see a common commitment not to win but to realise democracy, an understanding that democracy has to be enacted, not asked for, that it is “something you do, not something you have” (Ainger: 2012) and that you learn democracy by struggling to create it.

Global revolt has produced new organisational forms, as a rejection of failed practices and strategies, and to avoid and bypass repressive institutions. The self-organisation of broad based pluralist networks involves a range of decentralised experiments in collective self-government and complex decision making procedures. For those who doubt the ability of diverse, fluid and dispersed democratic networks to make decisions and take powerful collective action, recent revolts have shown how movements can collaboratively organise formidable capacities and coalesce around common needs and desires. By creating horizontal connections and networks between different individuals, organisations, campaigns and movements, people can cohere in a manner where no person or sectional struggle is seen as necessarily more important than any other. In this way, collaborative activities can develop that are open to a diversity of practices and that rely on people’s ability to self-organise and rule themselves. A multitudinous strategy can support the most democratic movement possible, one that provides people with the ability and confidence to be fully part of it, and a sense of their own power to create social change. This multiplicity of struggles can address the variety of domination, as well as the diversity of people’s needs and desires.

Collaborative communities

Along with the composition of democratic places, occasions and the development of experiments in self-organisation, the global revolts have demonstrated the power of collaborative communities of struggle. Although each of the movements has different focuses, they have all focused to a certain extent on each other. Many of those involved are in communication with each other; they have visited each other and sent each other messages of solidarity, while sharing their experiences, slogans, lessons, skills, resources, and the practices of encampment, occupation, encounter and popular assembly. Within the movements of revolt there is a deepening understanding that direct democracy creates new subjectivities and relationships and that the construction of times, spaces and events for connection and affinity are key activities. As we have seen, those in revolt do not confine themselves to narrow policy demands. Instead, they take aim at the underlying values of rampant greed and individualism that have created economic, financial and social crisis, while embodying—in highly visible actions—radically different ways to treat one another (Klein: 2011). They have demonstrated the capacity of people to stop doing what they usually do, to transform private space, private time and private property into community space, community time and community property.

The opportunity to experiment with new forms of politics and self-organisation enables people to experience their own personal agency and collective power, to construct and experience different social relationships. Those in struggle learn how to work with one another, to collectively produce and make things happen, building confidence by relying on each other and fostering their own initiative. Marina Sitrin (2006: v) describes such experiments in autonomy and direct democracy as “the new politics of affectivity” established on the basis of “solidarity and love”. The social activists interviewed in her book Horizontalism consider this new politics as a process of learning to respect others and themselves, while resisting, managing and demolishing internal and external authoritarian and hierarchical subjectivities. This affective politics is centred on “the creation of loving and trusting spaces” where direct democracy fosters a collective agency which “changes the sense of the individual and the sense of the collective” (Sitrin: 2006: 18). These politics are “affective in the sense of creating affection, creating a base that is loving and supportive” (Sitrin: 2006: vii). Similarly, when considering the Occupy movement, Rebecca Solnit (2011) explains; “Nothing has been more moving to me than [the] desire, realised imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.”

After presenting this paper at the Collaborative Struggle Conference I was asked what I meant when I talked about love. In response I pointed out that the vast majority of books on the subject of love work hard to avoid giving clear definitions. According to Scott Peck (1978: 81 & 107) love lacks clarity because it “is too large, too deep ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words” and “our use of the word ‘love’ is so generalised and unspecific as to severely interfere with our understanding of love.” None-the-less, when asked to produce a short response, I usually define love as the struggle to create, maintain and develop caring social relations. When we consider love as a struggle, and our struggles as love, it is important to think about how we can democratise love. Love can be hard work and women disproportionally carry the burden of ‘labours of love’; the work of kinship, the maintenance of family and friendship networks and the organisation of material and emotional support and sociability.The ability to democratise and share caring labour can break down distinctions between the work of love and other forms of work, so that all work becomes the labour of love. The extension of love weakens the power of capital and its state forms, making loving easier, increasing collective human capacities for self-organisation and alternative sociality. This is an active struggle to build the capacity to love through communication, cooperation and collaboration in order to produce more love.

Global Political Crisis

The current Global Political Crisis reflects both the flourishing democratic struggles of millions of people as well as the rise of authoritarianism in response to these democratic struggles. The depth and breadth of global revolt is a serious challenge to political and financial elites. It involves rising anger at governments, political parties, banks and the rich, a revolt against dictatorship – against oligarchs, oppressive military regimes, the rule of the market and the dictatorship of capital – and a widespread recognition that the mounting crises for which they are responsible require democratic responses. Yet, the reaction from elites has mainly involved attempts to curtail democracy while escalating attacks on those who are struggling to defend and create it. Since the start of the financial crisis it has been clear the ruling class considers there is an excess of democracy and wishes to restrain it. Existing representative institutions are considered too democratic and we see a growing crisis of administration through electoral bodies, along with the appointment of agents of finance capital to positions of state power, while decisions favouring the elite are made elsewhere, often in secret, as government itself is gradually privatised (Klein: 2007). The ideological facades that defend corporations and corporatised state forms are being exposed and the ruling class is being left with little more than the exercise of force to defend itself, further demonstrating the nature of violently oppressive regimes that should be demolished. This is why revolts erupting across the globe have included mutinies against security and surveillance states, against the power of the military and police, against unending war, against the militarisation of society, police repression, and the expanding of security regimes.

Although civil war, counter-revolutionary violence and social crisis continue, military juntas remain in power and the struggles for social dignity that brought people into the streets have not been won, the desires for democracy that have been unleashed by the Arab Spring, Anti-austerity and Occupy movements, and the resulting manifestations of alternative society and sociability, will not end. Recent setbacks and failures shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating how democratic movements continue to develop practices and strategies that can avoid, bypass and challenge dictatorship and authoritarianism. Movements of revolt have demonstrated they can disrupt the power of the ruling class and challenge the established order.

This paper is not meant to deny the obstacles to, or complexities of, the struggles for democracy. Instead I have considered  some of the ways democratic struggles, desires and experiments have helped to more deeply connect those in revolt and how the collaborative creation of democratic times, spaces, practices and processes have demonstrated the possibilities of mutual aid, socialisation and community, autonomous of capital and its state forms. Of course, the struggles for democracy will be very long. In fact they will take the rest of our days. For, if we want rich and rewarding lives, authentic and loving relationships, decent work and living conditions, sustainable development and environmental protection, these are things we need to create and recreate every day. It is when we stop looking to those who hold power over us for solutions, and start to create those solutions ourselves, that democracy is understood not just as a goal to be struggled for, but as the immanent ability of people to self-organise and govern themselves. However, it remains unclear if recent collaborative struggles can maintain their multiplicity of organisational forms and extend participatory democracy. Questions now facing those in revolt are; can the spaces, times and experimental practices of real democracy be widened and extended? Are new subjectivities, capable of genuine democratic relations, creating the practices, processes, infrastructures or institutions that can sustain and expand a long-term global revolution?

Nick Southall


Ainger, K., 2012, ‘The indignados make change contagious’, The Guardian, May 8,

Graeber, D., 2011, ‘Occupy and anarchism’s gift of democracy’, The Guardian, November 15,

Hardt, M., and Negri, A., 2011, ‘Arabs are democracy’s new pioneers’, The Guardian, February 24,

Hardt, M., and Negri, A., 2012, Declaration,

Klein, N., 2007, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Allen Lane, Victoria.

Klein, N., 2011, ‘Capitalism vs. the Climate’, The Nation, November 28,

Peck, M., 1978, The Road Less Travelled, Touchstone, New York.

Sitrin, M. (ed.), 2006, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, AK Press, Edinburgh.

Solnit, R., 2011, ‘Compassion is our new Currency’, TomDispatch, December 22,

Vradis, A., 2011. ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Square: Thoughts in the Middle of the Athenian Autumn of 2011’, In Occupy Everything: Reflections on Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere, (ed.) Lunghi A., and Wheeler, S., Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, pp. 62–67.

  1. Karen says:

    Thanks Nick. I like this article, especially when you get to the question a definition of love and feminist sentiment/ politics. One of the things I find most appealing in David Graeber’s work is his acknowledgment that anarchist practices are feminist practices.

    I am a little confused by your section on the future, I guess because I see immanence as both coming and here. In terms of your final questions. Personally the whole discussion of subjectivity is problematic for me, I like Tim Morton’s Object Oriented Ontology and have a bit of a rave critiquing the quest for ‘new’ subjectivities in my thesis.

    In terms of the sustenance of long term revolution the answer has to be yes because the practices of creating autonomous loving communities, or democratic uptopia as you so nicely put it, is what humans have consistently struggled to practice. Thanks again for the article. I will definitely be sharing it.

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