The European protests against the management of the pandemic, although led by the right, do not have a single reading: there is a material basis for the discontent.
By Nuria Alabao
After the harsher confinements of 2020 that locked most Europeans at home, a series of protests against the anti-virus measures began to take place. Those of the last few months have triggered strong riots in places such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. In the latter country, one of the protests against the covid passport – which is compulsory for work – ended with an assault on a trade union, so that the most widespread reading is that this movement is identified only with the extreme right. It is undeniable that it is the right – extreme or otherwise – that is exploiting the discontent against the management of the pandemic in most of Europe, especially as there is little criticism from other quarters. The left is not contesting the direction of the mobilisations at all.
It is clear that in Spain, where there has been hardly any non-right-wing criticism of the restriction of fundamental rights, which have been produced to combat the pandemic – such as the right to assembly and demonstration. There is no criticism even when there is already scientific evidence that some of these measures, such as the ban on outdoor activities or the covid passport to enter bars, are ineffective in stopping the spread of the virus. It seems that in our country the position of most of the left has been one of “responsibility”, identifying this with compliance with government positions. Vaccination rates in our country are, in fact, extremely high in relation to the surrounding area and protests so far have had a lower profile than elsewhere.
From an apparently pacified Spain, it is difficult to understand the demonstrations in other European countries or to discover their nuances. Especially amidst the prevailing noise, anti-vaccine paranoia and conspiracy theories that make it difficult to unravel those other contents that might point to wider discontent. The temptation is to dismiss them as “fascist”. But perhaps it is worth asking whether we are not witnessing the kind of protests that do not fit into traditional political frameworks, as was once the case with the yellow waistcoats; whether they are not taking on the ambiguous or impure texture of the demonstrations that we will no doubt see more assiduously in the future.
The unemployed, the inactive, temporary or hyper-precarious workers and people at risk of poverty are beginning to make up the majority in several European countries.
To which subjects might these new bastard political repertoires correspond? What is certain is that the unemployed, the inactive, temporary or hyper-precarious workers and people at risk of poverty, taken together, are beginning to form a majority in several European countries. In France, these social segments with little life security now account for 51%, 59% in Portugal and Spain, almost 68% in Greece, and 69% in Ireland. This “invisible majority”, as researchers Emanuele Ferragina and Alessandro Arrigoni call it, is also growing significantly across Europe – from 35 % of the European working-age population in 2002 to 49 % in 2016 – including in core countries such as the Netherlands and England, both with 49.6 %. According to these researchers, this group they delineate are invisible because they are not fully represented by the political system. It is true that among these categories that Ferragina and Arrigoni count together, there are very different starting realities: someone with a temporary contract can have security if they have, for example, a real estate income, and it is not the same to chain together temporary contracts in well-paid and socially respected sectors as it is to do so in the care or service sector. However, it has been evident for some time now that society is divided between workers with permanent contracts and rights, with access to credit and a certain amount of peace of mind, and those who are temporary, false self-employed or long-term unemployed and who find it more difficult to project themselves into the future. Thus, grouping these categories together aims to account for an affective texture of disaffection and vital insecurity that is beginning to become a majority or almost a majority in our societies and which is associated with relatively recent transformations.
The invisible have become a generalised phenomenon since the 2008 crisis, as have its consequences: the rise in unemployment, poverty – even of many who do work -, the precariousness of employment and the progressive dismantling of the welfare state – replaced by private initiative financed in the form of health insurance, pension funds, etc. -. This trend is structural and, as Ferragina and Arrigoni explain, will eventually affect “the majority of the population, unless neoliberal regulatory mechanisms are slowed down or reversed”.
These new sectors no longer seem to be governed by the old logics of class stratification – François Dubet speaks of a “transformation of the regime of inequalities” that gives rise to a politics of frustration and resentment. They grow, fuelled in part by the slowly declining middle classes which until now were in the majority and which are the main social stabiliser. The social integration machine that underpins the functioning of representative democracy is broken. The cracks that are forming will give rise to political phenomena that are difficult to interpret using old codes.
We are already seeing the consequences of this decomposition in the increase in support for the extreme right and political disaffection – two related phenomena. According to Ferragina and Arrigoni, the invisible have less confidence in the institutions of representative democracy, in trade unions and across Europe they vote less for mainstream parties than the rest of the population. Many of them are also migrants from the global south or second generations and many have already been excluded from political representation from the outset.
The social integration machine that sustains representative democracy is broken. These political phenomena, which are difficult to interpret, will emerge from the cracks.
In some countries, moreover, they share a lack of faith in the system with other more integrated social segments. In other words, political disaffection is not only a consequence of walking on the wire, but of the very threat of falling. After 2008, many people who considered themselves middle class have realised that what they thought were their life securities are under threat. They see this clearly in the difficulty of reproducing themselves as a class in their own children, who find it more difficult to reach the standard of living of their parents – above all because of job insecurity but also, in places like Spain, because of the high cost of housing.
In Spain, 54% believe that the political system needs a complete overhaul and 32% believe that it needs major changes.
In our country, the anti-political tendencies, the lack of faith in political representatives and parties is still very pronounced and resurfaces in survey after survey. Beneath the apparent tranquillity, discontent remains. In Spain, 54% believe that the political system needs complete reform and 32% major changes – 86% in total – according to a survey by New Research. Indeed, conspiracy theories also feed on this political disaffection. Less faith in the system – in science, academia or politics – means searching for answers in affinity groups, social networks or the internet. It is not difficult to see the link between conspiracy theories and support for the extreme right that some studies confirm.
In fact, Vox has tried both to lead mobilisations against anti-covid measures and, paradoxically, to represent institutionally the distrust of politics in a broad sense – as the first Podemos did. They claim to be an alternative to the traditional parties: “There are all the parties, and then Vox against all of them”. “Does an ordinary citizen feel that he or she is in the government of things? No, and why? Because the political parties have created a network, whereby all the important decisions are taken by them,” says their spokesman, Jorge Buxadé.
And while the far right partly addresses these invisibles with its false solutions based on tradition, sovereignty or nationhood – whether it works for them is another matter – Yolanda Díaz’s more “radical” institutional left claims to work “for society as a whole” or again enunciates “governing for all”. Is this a message capable of reaching those growing discontented or excluded masses who no longer feel represented by the political system?
Perhaps instead of dismissing out of hand these impure mobilisations to come, we can be attentive to try to understand them.
The latent political crisis will continue and will be a long one. Inflation is stimulating the demand for economic orthodoxy in the centres of economic power and the current levels of public indebtedness – part of the funds are loans – could end up in an austerity adjustment at the level of 2008. With this political landscape, what scenarios might this decomposition lead to in the future? How much social peace is left?
Turning to the European demonstrations against the anti-equality measures, it is clear that while it is almost more reassuring to blame the far right, it is clear that there is a material basis for the discontent, perhaps not an unambiguous reading. As we have seen, the rise of the invisible, of those left on the margins, drives the growth of distrust in the system, of the extreme right, polarisation, the birth of conspiracy theories and probably electoral demobilisation.
And if the political map is not the same, we cannot expect the same repertoires of protest. As the Italian writers Wu Ming say, “the uprisings of the future will always be more impure and surprising, at least in their early stages. We already saw this in 2018, on the occasion of the Yellow Vests protests in France, and they will become more and more so as capital, in a vertiginous acceleration of its real subsumption, devours more and more stock, even making the lives of social strata that previously had a guaranteed situation more precarious. These uprisings begin in impurity because the people who will lead them do not have the background we would like them to have: the memory of workers’ struggles and social movements, a class consciousness, a family tradition of social conflict, etc.”. Perhaps instead of dismissing from the outset these impure mobilisations to come, we can be attentive to try to understand them or even support the potential emancipatory threads that emerge from them.