SCHIRN MAG met Italian professor Donatella della Porta from Scuola Normale Superiore to talk about the dynamism of social protests and the bliss and curse of so-called movement parties.

Professor Della Porta, in your research you focus on movements that have transformed into political parties, such as the Italian Five Star movement. What characterizes such parties?

I am focusing on political parties that have especially strong links to social movements: the organizational structures are open to people sympathetic to the movement, uniting different forms of protest with conventional forms of participation and have a program that embodies central demands made by the movement.

How do such parties arise?

Research shows that the origins are often linked to the history of social movements. If we look at the party system, what immediately strikes the eye is that some movements prompted the foundation of new parties. For example, the labor movement spawned the foundation of socialist parties. Regional parties frequently had their roots in ethnic movements, confessional parties in religious movements, and green parties in environmental movements.

Supporters of the Five-star-movement, 2016, Image via:

And what provides the substantive content for such parties based on movements?

They interact with both established parties and social movements. They compete with other parties and have to carve out a niche for themselves. And the social movement behind the party feeds them key materials and ideas. To this extent, the content results first from strategic considerations and second from visions and norms, not to mention emotions.

And that often leads to transgressions.

Movement parties try to shock, to shatter existing structures by their actions and statements. Much is done by trial and error, by experimentation. The parties explore their limits and in this way produce the opportunities and resources they need for success in the elections.

Julius von Bismarck, Fuguration #5 (May Day Riot Police), 2009, © The artist, Courtesy alexander levy, Berlin; Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf

Many claim that a party represents the people and the people’s true interests. How do you see this?

Often movement parties differ by organizational structure, their repertoire of actions, and their ideology. Although some of them reference the people, others openly identify with the interests of a specific social class or a large group that the party members consider “progressive” in the broadest sense. The large family of socialist and communist parties often fell into that category. They were of the opinion that the workers were fighting not only for their own interests but for those of humanity as a whole.

And do you think globalization fosters or inhibits the success of the parties spawned by movements?

One major problem all parties face, of course, is to realize an ambitious manifesto that can mobilize the voters while also not succumbing to national compulsions and international pressure. For this reason, the globalization processes that often go hand in hand with international supervisory measures constrain the scope for democratically elected parties. Conditionalities imposed by lending institutions, such as the EU or IMF, as well as pressures for fiscal restraints drastically reduce the space for democratic decision-making at the national level. Take, for instance, Greece as an extreme example, or Ireland, not to mention southern and eastern Europe in general. This, in turn, leads to tension, specifically in economically tougher times.

Do you believe that protest movements in recent decades have been more of a curse than a blessing?

Of course there have been protest movements pursuing very different goals. Some of them support, others combat democracy. Some support more civil rights, others seek to abolish them at least for a part of the population, which often entails sexism and racism. On balance, protest was used more frequently by movements campaigning for more democracy and integrative values.

Andrea Bowers, Radical Feminist Pirate Ship Tree Sitting Platform, 2013, Installationsansicht "Power to the People. Politische Kunst jetzt", © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt 2018, Foto: Norbert Miguletz

And did championing democracy bear dividends?

Social movements do indeed play an important role in democracies. They uncover social problems and develop solutions. They criticize rulers in the name of those who have little institutional power and few resources. Moreover, they create and spread knowledge. They are of fundamental importance to the socialization of responsible citizens who advocate the common good and bring creative and innovative concepts to bear.

Finally, what influence has art had on the success of social movements?

Art was always highly relevant to such movements, even if historically speaking the impact varied. Music, painting and literature are all extremely important in fostering communities. They can shore up new forms of social co-existence by linking ideas and emotions.

Conversely, social movements are important for art, and not just because they have triggered the emergence of new currents in art, but also because they enable the dissemination and cross-fertilization of new artistic approaches and innovations across national borders.