Prefigurative Politics and the European Spring

In this essay I will discuss, whether and how DiEM25 as part of the European Spring can be connected to prefigurative politics. For this, I will first define the concept of prefigurative politics, and then introduce DiEM25 and the European Spring. Supported by interviews of two members, I will then discuss how the European Spring can be connected to prefigurative politics but still cannot be understood as a solid example for this theory of social movements.

Prefigurative politics

Prefigurative politics are described as a manner of doing politics, in which activism and activists of a group anticipate the kind of alternative or utopian society they want to constitute in the future. Often, it is applied on an individual level, but due to the thematic focus on the European Spring, I will discuss it on an organizational level.

According to Darcy K. Leach, “a prefigurative approach seeks to create a new society in the shell of the old, by developing counter-hegemonic institutions and modes of interaction, that embody the desired transformation” (Leach, D. K. 2013:1). Its strategy is based on direct action and the implementation of desired change in the lives of the involved individuals. Just as Darcy K. Leach, Luke Yates as well strongly associates prefigurative politics with direct action and, furthermore, with the concept of micropolitics. In his article ‘Rethinking prefiguration’, he describes prefigurative politics by identifying five core characteristics or dynamics, which I will now briefly illustrate. First (Yates 2015:13), he names the involvement of collective experimentation in people’s political practice, meaning an openness towards and the will to implement unknown methods in a groups projects, mobilization and internal work. Second (Yates 2015:14), Yates counts the imagination, development and debate of political meaning, which can be understood as an ongoing process of creating, framing and circulating experimental political ideas. The third dynamic he describes, is the establishment of collective norms inside the respective group. This concerns collective codes, rules and routines in processes. Yates fourth point touches the material intervention or consolidation of the before mentioned norms as a reinforcing inscription of these. As a last characteristic, Yates names the demonstration and diffusion of the developed ideas, practices and goals to the public (ebd).

The European Spring and DiEM25 as part of it

DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement defines itself as a social movement and – somehow – a political party at the same time. Founded in 2016, DiEM25 declares to seek for and work on pan-European progressive answers to combat socio-economic problems in the European Union, while trying to improve people’s representation in European Politics. DiEM25 understands itself as a grassroot-movement with many diverse local and thematically constituted groups, which shape and influence DiEM25s agenda ongoing. But it also consists of so called nationally organized electoral-wings, as for example in Germany. These are registered political associations, preparing for the Election of the European Parliament in 2019, working against further European disintegration. Together with small political parties and movements throughout Europe, they build a transnational progressive coalition.

The European Spring movement pursues DiEM25s vision for a progressive pan-European agenda, calling for a renewed, solidary European Union in opposition to national oriented politics. It is supported by left, green and liberal political ideas and currently works on policy papers for a shared agenda, which they call ‘European New Deal’. Moreover, this movement wants to effectuate a constitutional assembly process to gain a democratic constitution for the European Union.

We will now focus on this coalition called European Spring with DiEM25 as part of it and analyze, in how far it can be understood as a prefigurative political movement.

The European Spring as an example of Prefigurative Politics?

As Panayotu states:

“What makes them stand out of traditional political parties is not their ability to position themselves in relation to major pan-European issues – such as migration or the economy – but also to take action and successfully mobilize their supporters on these issues transnationally” (Panayotu 2018:5).

So why or how can the European Spring be understood as a matter of prefigurative politics? First of all, it does establish practices in anticipation of an advantageous future vision: the democratic transformation of the European Union with actors and actions beyond national interests with its transnational list. This happens in contrast to contemporary politics of the European Union, as international lists were decided not to be allowed to run for the Elections of the European Parliament in May 2019. Still, even after this decision, the European Spring further works on its idea of a transnational list and plans to let the registered associations it consists of, run for the elections in their respective countries (Vgl.Panayotu 2018:3). This idea has been subject to international conferences, as well as internal discussions of the parties and movements the European Spring consists of.

As mentioned, the European Spring works on a political agenda, the European New Deal, and wants to build a constitutional assembly process to strengthen the European Union with a democratic constitution. This movement has come together on the consensus of the necessity of a progressive counter-hegemonic bloc to aim pan-European politics – in collective experimentation and interaction and therefore in accordance with Yates second and third prefigurative characteristic. The people involved are imagining, producing and circulating political meaning as a practice of doing politics while reinventing them. As a member describes it:

[…] The European Spring wants to raise hope into a possible positive change, change that supports the people and their rights – in the first place. And that’s also what the name European Spring represents to me very much, to raise hope in Europe. For me, personally, it is strengthening to see this movement. Our wish is to show people that there are European movements aiming at sustainable, equality-oriented politics for Europe.[…]I have always been a political person and have always been looking for a movement with a visibly positive outcome, right away, in a direct manner. That’s what I find interesting about DiEM25 and the European Spring, how this movement imagines alternatives to today’s politics, which would actually work out! Because that’s the usual critique utopias are confronted with. […] deconstructing old structures of power by saying ‘well, all that was invented, let us invent something else, something rather useful for us, the people!’ To transform democracy, to try to fill democracy with what people expect from it.[…] DiEM25 and its European Spring just dare to do so. It’s promising to dare to let go of old dogmas and build a base like the European Spring, with its growing connections to social movements in different countries, connecting them transnationally.”

As another member explains, the movement tries to create social change through community organizing as a culture of doing politics. In addition to these prefigurative characteristics, the formation and practice of the European Spring also clearly involves shared political symbolism and its materialization in its organizational structure, work- and communication methods.

An example of earlier described “diffusion of practices, orders, devices and perspectives” (Yates 2015:14), might be the ‘Diem25 Academy’ held in Belgrade this August. It was set up as a place for open debate and critique on the topic of organizational structure and political perspectives; still it was framed by an agenda. Therefore it could not really be a space for collective experimentation of existential political dimension to the European Spring and DiEM25 as part of it.

Nonetheless, it needs to be understood as part of a community organizing campaign, in which people are educated on how to get organized politically – and also, how to pass this knowledge on to others.

Even though the European Spring consists of a diverse set of political parties and social movements, who are co-shaping its image and politics – the general structures and hierarchies are set, stable and no longer a matter of an open process or experimentation.

Since neither the European Spring, nor DiEM25 do understand themselves as a radical- or basic-democratic organizations, their internal hierarchies are not in contrast or opposition to its goals, there still are many ways to participate in the manifold political processes. All members are asked to get involved, for example in writing on policy papers for the so-called European New Deal.

Still, I do not think DiEM25 can be understood as prefigurative political movement.        My critique on this attempt starts with the growing impossibility of collective experimentation and the herewith connected missing condition of openness in its processes, due to its advanced institutionalization – in opposition to DiEM25s local groups and its wider movement beyond electoral-wings, which do embody those two characteristics.

Conclusion

In this essay, I tried to define, why the European Spring and DiEM25s electoral-wings as part of it cannot really be understood as a movement of prefigurative politics.

DiEM25, as part of the European Spring is diverse by nature but its political agenda is set and therefore, it could rather easily be compared to a reformist political party. Still, the European Spring does have a prefigurative momentum, as it truly builds a counter-hegemonic alliance in opposition to European politics, which has long been and still is an ongoing internal process of developing and debating political perspectives and ideas. Doing so, it acts trans-European in participatory and transparent processes – just as they wish the European Parliament would. Furthermore it strongly affects the people involved, as they are taught about community organizing in a system of reciprocal transfer.

The question remaining is, whether a political party – even in a special constellation as this and with goals far from contemporary political reality – can ever be understood as prefigurative. Which grade of institutionalization allows a movement or group to keep its practices prefigurative? Can it actually be a stable characteristic of a certain group or should it rather be understood as a way of protest or activity of an unsetteled movement at all?

A contribution from Maria Potthoff

Literature:

Breines, W. (1989). Community and organization in the new left, 1962-1968: The great refusal. Rutgers University Press.

Leach, D. K. (2013). Prefigurative politics. The Wiley-Blackwell encyclopedia of social and political movements, 1004-1006.

Murray, D. (2014). Prefiguration or actualization? Radical democracy and counter-institution in the Occupy movement. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 11.

Panayotu, P. (2017). Towards a transnational populism: A chance for European democracy (?) The case of DiEM25 (No. 5). POPULISMUS Working Papers.

Yates, L. (2015). Rethinking prefiguration: Alternatives, micropolitics and goals in social movements. Social Movement Studies, 14(1), 1-21.

https://diem25.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/An-open-call-to-Europeans.pdf (Zugriff 15.09.2018)

https://europeanspring.net/ (Zugriff 15.09.2018)

Urban, J (2018) Interview on DiEM25 and the European Spring.

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