Disruption helps drive social change

G20 protests: Social movements are critical instigators of change, say Governance Report authors Donatella Della Porta and Andrea Felicetti.

When the world’s leaders and their entourage come to town, so do their critics. Generally, protests are peaceful and coordinated, but they can occasionally be more disruptive, as many are expecting in Hamburg at the G20 summit on 7-8 July. This political activism shouldn’t be dismissed as the discontent of a few isolated troublemakers. Such movements can be a symptom of a democratic system that is out of kilter. Sometimes radical social movements can be a breeding ground for important institutional changes and democratic innovations.

Social movements are a central component of democratic systems. They express fundamental critiques of conventional politics and can transform democratic states through struggles for policy change. They have an enormous capacity to mobilise people to participate in democratic processes and even experiment internally with different forms of democratic involvement.

But they can also embrace exclusionary and populist positions and are not always champions of progressive values. Far right social movements like Pegida in Germany mobilise people by leveraging a fear of outsiders, a critique of the political class and the mainstream media, and by rejecting outright progressive values. They pave the way for policies that may restrict liberal, free and open democracy.

Interestingly, the political activism of such nationalist movements and that of more progressive movements seem to share one source: citizens’ dissatisfaction with institutions that govern them.

Like the Hamburg protests or the Blockupy movement against the European Central Bank in 2015, also nationalist movements often claim that decision-making has been delegated to institutions not accountable to citizens. Much of today’s political activism, particularly in Western Europe and the United States, has emerged in the wake of neoliberal policies that led to the Great Recession starting in 2008. These events catalysed bottom-up, grass-roots movements of people who felt disenfranchised.

Especially when challenges to justice and freedom are mounting, looking at social movements’ claims helps us understand the roots of these challenges, what is being challenged and what can be done to revamp democracy in a way that strengthens it. In The Governance Report 2017 (Oxford University Press), we show how some movements have played a key role in contributing to innovative democratic solutions. For example, social movements helped bring about participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil – a process that involves citizens in deliberating where tax money should be spent. This has been cited as one of forty best practices globally by the United Nations. More recently, the crowd-sourced Icelandic constitutional review process was the first in the world, and holds great promise for future similar experiments.

Even when movements do support democracy,  they can also run into problems that are not so easy to overcome. A close look at how movements contribute to democracy can help address the growing challenges democracy faces today. The tendency to delegate public decisions to institutions with little or no democratic legitimacy and accountability is one such challenge, one that movements react against and that should be of great concern to a democratic society. Indeed, Western countries are riddled, once again, with authoritarian mobilisations that find fertile ground in democratic institutions.

In view of the current threats to democracy, it’s time to assess our own democratic governance. Giving movements their due is an important step forward, as popular participation is a core element of a living democracy. The extent to which governance can be made more democratic depends on our ability to sift through contemporary movements and support mobilisations striving for a more inclusive and egalitarian society.

Donatella Della Porta is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the Institute for Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. Andrea Felicetti is a researcher at the Institute of Human and Social Sciences. Both authors are contributors to the Hertie School's Governance Report 2017: Democratic innovations.  

This article was originally published by Handelsblatt Global Edition on 6 July 2017 under the headline "Disruption Helps Drive Social Change".