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They Can't Represent Us!: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy

How the new global movements are putting forward a radical conception of democracy.

Mass protest movements in disparate places such as Greece, Argentina, and the United States ultimately share an agenda—to raise the question of what democracy should mean. These horizontalist movements, including Occupy, exercise and claim participatory democracy as the ground of revolutionary social change today.

Written by two international activist intellectuals and based on extensive interviews with movement participants in Spain, Venezuela, Argentina, across the United States, and elsewhere, this book is an expansive portrait of the assemblies, direct democracy forums, and organizational forms championed by the new movements, as well as an analytical history of direct and participatory democracy from ancient Athens to Zuccotti Park. The new movements put forward the idea that liberal democracy is not democratic, nor was it ever.

Reviews

  • “This book is written as a clear-eyed study of what the great popular uprisings of 2011, from Greece and Spain to Egypt to Occupy Wall Street have in common, and what movements in Latin American preceded them. But it might as well be a manifesto, a pamphlet like Common Sense or The Rights of Man or The Communist Manifesto, because it announces the failure of the centuries-long experiment of representative democracy and defines some of the characteristics of these direct democracies that have arisen in the ruins. It's a fierce book, a hopeful book, a brilliant book, and a necessary book, in this age when libraries are also arsenals of direct democracy.”
  • “The most substantial and comprehensive work on workers’ control and self-management today.”
  • “The movements documented in this volume succeeded in shutting cities down through tremendous shows of force. And when you shut down a city, you can actually stop capital accumulation … Until we start building a truly democratic society, we will continue to see our good ideas co-opted by capital.”
  • “Sitrin and Azzellini not only analyze what activists are doing but also let us hear what activists are thinking. The multitude of voices they gather here demonstrate the extraordinary wealth of theorizing in movements, particularly regarding democracy, and how activists engage creatively with political concepts and problems that are both abstract and concrete. This book clarifies some of the primary challenges facing movements today and helps us see paths beyond them.”
  • “... it's inspiring stuff, politically and intellectually, while the personal accounts vividly bring to life what it is like to be a part of what Sitrin calls 'everyday revolutions”

Blog

  • The desire for a leader

    Sophie Wahnich's reflection on the first round of the French presidential election was first published in L’Obs on 27 April. 



    What I take from the campaign and the result on 23 April is French people’s increasingly powerful desire for a leader. The three figures who dominated the debates expressed this same aspiration: Marine Le Pen, of course, but also Emmanuel Macron, acting solo against the parties, and finally Jean-Luc Mélenchon, even if he claims not to be doing so.

    This aspiration to be led by a powerful incarnating figure is a worrying one. For the people crying out for this are often the same ones who often refuse themselves to engage in the invention of the society of tomorrow. The desire for a leader often goes hand-in-hand with a refusal to take responsibility. Certainly, the presidential election encourages this. In my view, this desire is a symptom of the present day world, and is not specific to France.

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  • Let’s lose interest in elections, once and for all!

    This text by Alain Badiou first appeared on the Mediapart blog. Translated by David Broder.



    I understand the bitterness of those remonstrating after the first round of the elections, particularly those left disappointed by Mélenchonism. That said, whatever they do, or say, there was no particular aberration, no swindle, in this vote.

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  • Representation Against Democracy: Jacques Rancière on the French Presidential Elections

    For the philosopher Jacques Rancière, France’s strange presidential election campaign is no surprise. He thinks that a French system that entrusts all power to professional politicians mechanically churns out candidates who claim to represent a "clean break." Éric Aeschimann spoke to Rancière for the 9–15 March 2017 edition of L’Obs. Translated by David Broder.


    Emmanuel Macron at a March 2017 press conference. 

    From François Hollande’s decision not to stand, to François Fillon’s legal woes, the current presidential campaign has been a succession of dramatic twists. And you, Jacques Rancière, are a unique observer of this spectacle. For years you have denounced the impasses of representative democracy, which you see as incapable of producing a genuine democracy. How would you analyse what is happening?

    "Representative democracy" is a more than ambiguous term. It conveys the false idea of an already-constituted people that expresses itself by choosing its representatives. Yet the people is not a given that pre-exists the political process: rather, it is the result of this process. This or that political system creates this or that people, rather than the other way around. Besides, the representative system is founded on the idea that there is a class in society that represents the general interests of society. In the minds of the American founding fathers, that was the class of enlightened landowners. This system creates a people that identifies its legitimate representatives as coming from within this class, periodically reconfirming as much at the ballot box. The representative system gradually became an affair for professionals, who then reproduced themselves. But in so doing this system generated its own reverse, the mythical idea of a people not represented by these professionals and aspiring to provide itself with representatives who really do incarnate it. This is the piece of theatre — of constantly declining quality — that each election now reproduces.

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