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'It's about democracy not austerity'

LSE-led research reveals new political phenomena in Europe

A new report from LSE on recent protest movements and ‘subterranean politics’ across Europe reveals a level of political disillusionment that goes beyond frustration with austerity cuts.

St Pauls protestLSE's Professor Mary Kaldor, who led the study, says: “Mainstream political circles portray the current crisis in financial terms. Our study suggests that the crisis in Europe is primarily political. These protests are not about austerity per se, but rather about the failures of democracy as currently practiced.”

The report, supported by the Open Society Foundations, shows a widening gulf between European politicians and the public. While politicians concentrate on saving the Euro, people are growing increasing distrustful of political elites. 

Led by the Civil Society and Human Security Unit at LSE, the research involved interviews and discussions with activists from many of the European protest movements and burgeoning political groups of 2011-2012. The field teams undertook case studies in four countries (Germany, Italy, Spain and Hungary), one global city (London) alongside two trans-European studies. 

Key findings include:

  • Contemporary protests in Europe are resonating with mainstream public opinion in a way that has not been true for decades. This ‘bubbling up’ of ‘subterranean’ politics can be seen most dramatically in the success of non-mainstream political parties of both right and left, as seen in the French and Greek elections or in the rise of the Pirate Party in Germany and Sweden, among others;
  • Despite the relatively positive economic situation in Germany, there is political unrest amongst its grassroots groups, just as in other European countries;
  • Concern with process, accountability and transparency for many activists is more important than a programme of specific demands; 
  • A re-thinking of democracy is taking place, witnessed in the new techniques of consensus building in public squares and in campaigns for the recent referendum in Italy;
  • This generation are the children of the Internet;  they use the methods of social networking and they are preoccupied with internet freedom, particularly issues of anti-piracy.

 “There’s a lot to be said about frustrations with political processes,” says an Occupy LSX activist. "This is a screwed up system in terms of allowing people to have a say, policies for the common good, informed debate and critical media coverage.

The report is launched in Brussels on Thursday 21 June. To request an interview with one of the authors, please contact the LSE press office on +44 (0)20 7955 7060; or email pressoffice@lse.ac.uk|.

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Notes for editors:

• The full report, entitled ‘The ‘Bubbling Up’ of Subterranean Politics in Europe’ is available from http://www.gcsknowledgebase.org/europe/|

• Active in more than 70 countries, the Open Society Foundations work to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens. Working with local communities, the Open Society Foundations support justice and human rights, freedom of expression, and access to public health and education. Visit www.soros.org for further information.

• The country case studies were conducted by local research teams under the leadership of experienced scholars. Each of the teams used a set of social science research methods ranging from interviews and surveys to media analysis.

• Groups studied included the 15-M Movement (indignados) in Spain, Occupy London, UK Uncut, Italian trade unions, women’s groups and environmental organisations, Anonymous and Occupy Berlin, community organisers, local food producers and Hungarian media freedom activists. 

• In addition to the original data gathered through case studies, the study made use of existing data, such as the ECRP-funded Protest Survey Project, The Guardian Datablog’s extensive list of Occupy-related protests throughout the world, and European public opinion and demographics surveys including Eurobarometer and Eurostat data.

• Professor Mary Kaldor is director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, LSE. For further information please visit: lse.ac.uk/cshs|  

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