Street Politics: Power Back to the Square

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

In the last three years we have witnessed a return of the street politics, or we should better call it “square politics”. The results of this new square politics have been astonishing: presidents, prime ministers, and head of states have been forced to resign by the people’s pressure from below. While the subsequent state of affairs has not always been better or simply more stable, the mere fact of having protest demonstrations so forcefully influencing institutional politics constitutes a novelty in the more recent political landscape.

From the first protests in Syntagma Square in Athens (2010) against the austerity measures imposed by the Troika to the Jasmine revolution in Tunis (2010), we have then observed the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo (2011), in Santiago de Chile (2011), at the Zuccotti Park in New York (2011), and at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona (2011). Later on, just to mention other well-known events, new protests erupted in Paris (2013), Brazil (2013), Taksim Square (Gezi park) in Istanbul (2013), with the “Movimento dei forconi” in Italy (2013), in Thailand (2013), and just few days ago again in Maidan Square in Kiev (2013). In many other countries indeed, street protest took place, often occupying squares.

Of course, demonstrations have always characterized any political system, from the most open to the most close ones. However, from 2010 onwards a new series of protests occurred which are different in nature and have had a much deeper impact on the targeted political systems. A few considerations are therefore in order.

What did they want? In terms of policy demands by grievances and issues, we might refer to a recent study [1] which formulated the following table:

Grievance/Issue N. of Protests Main Policy Demands
Lack of Real Democracy 218

Policymakers must serve the interest of all citizens (instead of elites); participatory/direct democracy

Anti-IMF-ECB-World Bank 164 International Financial Institutions should not interfere with national development; current IFIs should be closed down and new institutions be put in place to promote development for all
Corporate influence/Deregulation/Privatization 149 Rent-seeking practices should be forbidden; public institutions must respond to priorities for all citizens instead of prioritizing the private interests of corporations, financial and other elites
Environmental Justice 144 Policymakers to secure adequate taxation/public revenues from natural resource extraction; Policymakers to solve conflicts related to infrastructure construction with negative social and environmental externalities; Policymakers to stop nuclear plants and use other more environmentally friendly forms of energy
Reform of public services 143 Stop reforms based on fiscal savings - the state to guarantee the right to food, water, housing, health, education, social protection and rest of human rights
Corruption 142 Prosecute corrupt practices and ensure political and economic systems that respond to citizens
Tax/Fiscal Justice 133 Fair taxes that raise greater revenue from upper income groups and corporations, fight tax fraud and evasion, crack down on tax havens; stop/reverse transfers and bail-outs to the financial sector and austerity measures; lower taxes/VAT on basic products that poor people consume
Jobs, higher wages, Labor conditions 133 National and global crisis recovery strategies should focus on employment-generating real-economy growth, raising wages, social protection and living standards to promote national demand and socio-economic development
Inequality 113 Policymakers must put an end to gross economic inequalities as well as other inequalities (eg ethnicity/race, gender, etc) as established by human rights standards
Ethnic/indigenous/racial Justice 92 Minority groups are to be defended and their rights preserved, the existence of an external majority should mean reinforcing their rights, not infringing on them
Low living standards 84 Policymakers to end poverty and raise living standards including wages
Right to the Commons 67 Commons are cultural and natural resources available to all as a product of the efforts of a whole society and need to be widely accessible
Labor Rights 62 Policymakers to protect labor rights as fundamental to social democracy; labor rights to allow workers and their families to live in dignity
Legal justice 56 Policymakers to ensure that national judicial systems enforce justice for all, without discrimination
Agrarian/land reform 49 Policymakers to redress inequalities in land ownership and land use to allow for decent incomes in rural areas
Women Rights 50 Half of the world population (women) still lacks basic rights; Policymakers to ensure gender equality in policy-making
Freedom of assembly /speech/press 43 Freedom of the assembly, press, speech and dialogue are essential driving forces of a democracy and must be strongly protected
Transparency and accountability 42 Stop the formal and informal (eg. G20, financial sector, vested interests) influence in national policy-making and ensure that policymakers respond to people
Anti-imperialism 41 World/regional powers must stop interference in national policy-making of weaker nations; respect for national sovereignty; stop wars and military intervention
Fuel and energy prices 32 Policymakers to ensure affordable fuel and energy to populations, keeping equitable subsidies when necessary
Pension reform 32 Stop pension reforms driven by cost-savings and pressures from private insurance; instead focus on old-age income security
Anti-free trade 32 Policymakers to stop the drive to free trade agreements that hinders national productive capacities and employment
Food prices 29 Policymakers to ensure affordable food to populations
Housing 28 Policymakers to ensure the right to a decent home and stop evictions
Citizen Surveillance 27 Stop surveillance/spying on citizens and restricting the internet
Governance of the Global Commons 25 Ensure good governance/stewardship of the global commons eg. internet, climate, biodiversity
LGBT Rights 23 Ensure lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered rights; sexual orientation is a personal choice that must be the sole decision of the person involved without external coercion
Religious Issues 22 Religious freedom needs to be guaranteed in its various expressions
Anti-war/Military-Industrial Complex 20 Enforce peace, stop wars and military intervention; rent-seeking practices by the military-industrial complex must be forbidden
Denial of Rights 15 This category refers to conservative majorities opposing the rights of minorities (eg sexually straight against gay rights, religious against women’s abortion, nationals against migrants’ rights)
Immigrant Rights 15 Promote immigrant rights and better conditions of living
Prisoner Rights 11 Human rights are to be equally enforced for prisoners
Sovereignty 11 Policy-making to focus on national interest
Anti-G20 9 The G20 (or the G8) are non-legitimate and non-democratic organizations that should not set policies that interfere with national development

Source (Ortiz et al. 2013: 40-42)


From this table a clear predominance of the government as the main target of criticism emerges. In particular, economy and corruption tend to be the most important issues of discontent. Also international issues related to main financial institutions (such as IMF, WB, G20, ECB) are relevant, though they are mentioned in around of quarter of the demonstrations. In time of financial crisis, economic policies have moved to the center of stage in the public perception. The mix of economic under-performance and perceived inadequacy of the government (often explicitly accused of corruption) constituted an explosive combination of grievance. Often neo-liberal globalization has been identified as a key detrimental dynamic going on. At times, the legitimacy of the very democratic system has been put into question in many countries. The slogan “we, the 99%” became very famous. However, beyond the issues of contention, there are a number of characteristics of these protests that call for a further examination.

First of all, we need to notice that all together they form a sort of global, although thin, wave of protest. While all of them are centered in specific national political contexts, and as such their inner reasons cannot be traced to any global movement, there is also a transnational component underpinning them that we should not overlook. It is clear, in fact, that in an age of smooth communication, information about other protests somewhere else travel quickly and the spirit of emulation might be galvanized by protest successes in other countries. In this, a special role is played by media. Accordingly, while grievances are local, inspiration might be transnational. If we assume this, then we might talk about a thin global wave of protest, within which protests and movements in different countries are reinforced by each other simply by example. An indirect domino effect seems to have taken place, linking somehow demonstrations taking place in very faraway places and making possible the sharing of organizational strategies, interpretative frames, and forms of action.

Second, what these demonstration prove is that politics, and even more power, has partially moved into the streets, or better into the squares. The squares are now competing with parliaments, congresses, and national assemblies, as the place to “do” opposition. In the eyes of the protesters, public institutions are delegitimized. On the one hand, as said, the dialectics between institutions and streets has always been present in the political system. On the other hand, however, it seems that in an age of increased communication—in terms of both information sharing and social connectedness—public institutions, and more generally politics, need an extra degree of legitimacy. If this is not shown, then protests may erupt more easily than in the past.

Third, the street gatherings prove once again that politics cannot but be interpersonal. Yes, of course, the IT revolution, the new social media and so on are important vehicles of information sharing, but politics in the real sense can only take place when people gather together. And it is not by chance that so many of these demonstrations took place in squares, the public place par excellence, and lasted for so long. There, people camped together, spending days, weeks, and months to the bitter end, in a process of political resocialization that has, this indeed did it, revolutionized our political systems, too often detached by any personal politics.

Finally, the issue of violence. These demonstrations testify of the inherent risk of violence that characterizes such a confrontation behavior against public institutions. In no case we have witnessed completely peaceful demonstrations. Sometime, direct action was taken by the demonstrators, but most often violence was generated by the attempt of the government to repress those demonstrations. Several citizens died in those squares.
[1] The study analyses major 843 protests occurred between 2006 and 2013. See Ortiz I., Burke S., Berrada M., Cortés H (2013) World Protests: 2006-2013. Initiative for Policy Dialogue and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, New York, Working Paper (at