DAY 11: ‘RECLAIMING’ DEMOCRACY: UNDERSTANDING THE POLITICS AND ETHICS OF CONTEMPORARY PROTEST MOVEMENTS

By Wieke Meilink from the Netherlands

August 7, 2015

The twenty-first century was often referred to by scholars and activists as a century of movements, as it witnessed some of the most momentous uprisings in human history. By means of different movies and texts, prof. Ram Kakarala took us on a journey through the history of cyber-movements, new social movements, and counter-publics.

He explained that a new wave of global social movements started to arise after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the WTO, a paradigm shift in the global order started. Different well-known movements have been taking place ever since, fighting issues such as deprivation of life and liberty, deprivation of the right of free and peaceful expressions, equal treatment regardless of individual background or gender, and opposition to economic injustice.

Typical of global movements is usually that universal ideas are widely shared and acknowledged, whereas meanings and implementations of these ideas are debatable across different sectors. Besides, the notion of pluralism has always crept into these kinds of movements. Feminist movements for example differ from location to location as values, norms and legislations are interpreted differently everywhere.

A certain movement we covered today is the Occupy Wall Street, which started in 2011 as a protest against social and economic injustice worldwide. It started in the USA and sparked a worldwide wave of protests, with well-known scholars such as Noam Chomsky supporting the case.

What particularly interests me about this topic is the relation between democracy and pluralism and the influence of social movements on this. Are movements a part of democracy? How should social justice be seen in the 21stcentury? What is the way we look at networks? The power of the counter-public seems unprecedented, with the free flow of information, virtual communities and online entrepreneurialism. Technology may come to have a role in formulating policy, as well as disseminating calls for action. For example, in October 2012, ‘Anonymous’, an online ‘hacktivist’ collective, took down a bunch of websites in the UK as a protest against efforts to extradite Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to Sweden.

Although the rise of movements through technology is still too recent to judge whether progressive politics is guaranteed, our recent history has shown that the emerging use of the Internet by activists creates a counter-public that challenges the dominant sphere. The Occupy movement, the revolutions across the Middle East, the Anonymous ‘hacktivist’ movement, all had good or bad influences on the status quo of world politics. Some believe that the true potential of the Internet is to reshape what people can do, rather than to campaign for particular benefits. In other words, Foucault’s ‘governmentality’ is ready for a complete new interpretation, or as Ram put it: ‘concepts should never have a closure, and should always be left open for new interpretations’.

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Wieke Meilink works at the Digital Defenders Partnership, a program of Hivos headquarters in the Netherlands. She holds a Masters in International Relations and a Bachelor in International Communications. Before working at Hivos, she lived and worked in Egypt