Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Social movements and democracy: can the ECB be challenged?

Elites like the word "democracy", when it means "our right to make decisions for everyone". The reality of democracy, even in the most banal forms, is something else again. Like the Irish in recent referenda, the Greeks are now being told that they have voted the wrong way, and threats have been quick to follow.

Conversely, "cautious hopes are being expressed" by the great and the good that M. Hollande, despite his election promises, will not be ruled by "ideology" (meaning the voters' massive rejection of austerity) and will instead behave "responsibly" (i.e. in ways that suit political and financial elites).

Another version of "we're democratic, but only when it suits us" comes from the city of Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank, which has been the hard core of austerity politics, outgunning even the IMF in its commitment to making the poor pay for the crisis. The city has served twelve separate bans on a planned weekend of demonstrations against the troika, and responded to a request for talks with a thirteenth.

Irish people with longer memories will remember something similar around the 2004 EU summit, when the presence of demonstrators within earshot was too embarrassing for our then leaders. It is worth remembering who they were not embarrassed by: Bertie Ahern (Mahon Tribunal), Tony Blair (WMD), Jacques Chirac (suspended prison sentence for misuse of public funds), Silvio Berlusconi (where to start...)

In both cases, of course, people refuse(d) to let governments suspend the freedom of assembly, the right to demonstrate or the freedom to have your voice heard: these things are human rights, not within the gift of leaders to grant or withdraw as it suits them. They will try to do so with sad predictability, just as every few years Dublin Corporation tries and fails to stop people giving out leaflets and putting up posters - among the few means of getting political voices heard without vast advertising budgets.

Human rights, like democracy, are not something "they" give us. They are something which we have to make real despite our current rulers - in practice, and around controversial issues. This is one reason why social movements are so important: once elites are really committed to something, they will clamp down on other voices, and other needs, and the reality of democracy and human rights (rather than endless official rhetoric about how important they are) has to come from below.

The writer Ken MacLeod put this very clearly, expressing some genuine "European values":

"Hey, this is Europe. We took it from nobody; we won it from the bare soil that the ice left. The bones of our ancestors, and the stones of their works, are everywhere. Our liberties were won in wars and revolutions so terrible that we do not fear our governors: they fear us. Our children giggle and eat ice-cream in the palaces of past rulers. We snap our fingers at kings. We laugh at popes. When we have built up tyrants, we have brought them down."

Of course the Frankfurt city administration don't want protests against the European Central Bank. And of course people are going to protest anyway. That's democracy.