Reform, Transformation, Emancipation

Conceptualizing Political Protest in Modern Democracies

in Democratic Theory
Author:
Christian VolkProfessor, Department of Social Sciences, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany christian.volk@hu-berlin.de

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Abstract

This article outlines a theoretical framework for interpreting the meaning and function of political protest in modern democracies and develops normative criteria for assessing its democratic quality. To allow for a better understanding of how social structures, legal institutions, and political engagement interact in protest, I combine analytical perspectives from social theory and democratic theory. A useful first distinction, I argue, is between reformist and transformative forms of protest. While reformist protest does not challenge the given framework of the modern democratic order, transformative protest politicizes the basic principles of that order. Finally, I develop four criteria to identify emancipatory traits within protest movements: 1) expanding the circle of those who benefit from the fulfillment of democracy's promises; 2) the establishment of discursive democratic spaces; 3) a balance between dramatization and exchange; and 4) a willingness to become someone else.

Protest is an important means of political expression in modern democracies. Yet, we still find it hard to make sense of its meaning and consequences for society. It is difficult both in terms of assessing its transformative potential—that is, assessing the degree to which the protest challenges the functional logic and normative imaginaries of the respective democracy or the extent to which it seeks to transgress the basic socio-economic order—and in terms of determining the normative quality of the demands. Consider, for example, the Black Lives Matter, G20 protests, or climate strikes. How can we distinguish the normative value of their claims, their significance for democratic coexistence, and their transformative impact on society from rightwing and anti-refugee/anti-migration protests?

In an attempt to answer these questions, this article develops a theoretical framework for interpreting the meaning and function of political protest in modern democracies, deploying analytical tools from both social theory and democratic theory.1 What can seem at first like an unusual marriage of methodologies becomes compelling once we acknowledge that modern democracies are in fact modern democratic societies. If we conceive of political institutions, procedures, normative ideals, and aspirations as intertwined with the social structures and functional logics of society, we need the combined perspectives of social theory and democratic theory to gain meaningful insights.

Modern democracies rely, for instance, on a public sphere to negotiate questions concerning society at large, presumably on the basis of free access to information and an independent press. Yet at the same time, media outlets remain subject to market imperatives. By following a selective attention economy, they contribute to the marginalization or even exclusion of peripheral positions (Meyer and Hinchmann 2002). Accordingly, the idea of popular sovereignty in democracies is realized through the election of representatives rather than bottom-up citizen participation. And while the ideal of political inclusion in territorially circumscribed democratic states is organized around the ambivalent concept of citizenship, and its (sexually, religiously, ethnically) pluralistic social order is supposedly protected by equal individual rights, modern democracies are capitalist market economies. By embracing the principle of private ownership of the means of production, they generate social and economic inequality and an allocation and distribution of goods that is determined by market prices rather than guided by need.

My aim is to theoretically unlock this complex and ambivalent picture of modern democracies. By carefully tracing the interaction between social structures, legal institutions and political engagement, I attempt to reconstruct the structural and systemic context in which protest takes place and to clarify its function and meaning in modern democracies.

The core part of the argument relies on distinguishing between two ideal types of protest: reformist and transformative protest. The former contributes to a vibrant democratic life but remains within the regulatory framework of a modern democracy; the latter applies to acts of resistance against depoliticizing dynamics inherent in modern democracies by publicly articulating a dissident interpretation of basic principles of a democratic order. As I will outline in the first section, depoliticization is not an epiphenomenon of the modern democratic order. Rather, it is the central mechanism of domination, against which acts of resistance should be read as politicizations of the current historical realization of democracy. While they involve a contestation of the predominant interpretation and implementation of basic normative principles—equality, freedom, justice, citizenship, representation, parties, rights-based mode of integration, public sphere orientation, capitalist market economy, and so on—they also point to that which cannot be realized as long as the key practices of order reproduction are sustained, that is, new modes of relating to oneself and others, new forms of allocating goods, the reinvention of the idea of rights, and so on.

Nonetheless, it is important to stress that not all transformative protest is emancipatory per se, but that a critique of domination can be regressive as well (anti-LGBT protest, white supremacist protest, etc.). In the third section of my article, I develop four criteria to identify emancipatory traits within protest, be it enacted by movements, campaigns, networks, initiatives or other kinds of collectives, and contrast them with key practices in right-wing movements: 1) the expansion of the circle of those benefiting from the promises of democracy; 2) the instituting of discursive-democratic arenas; 3) the balancing of dramatization and exchange; and 4) the readiness to become someone else.

Towards a Critical Democratic Theory of Domination

The attempt to combine social theory and democratic theory for the analysis of protest, while not new (see Butler 2015), encounters important theoretical challenges. First, a tacit but deep tension exists between the two approaches in terms of political agency. Whereas social theory assumes that processes (e.g. functional differentiation), structures, power relations, and ideology substantially (and often behind our backs) predetermine our actions, choices, thinking, desire, and being—thus posing limits or at least requiring specific (if differing) collective or individual strategies to influence or change these—democratic theory insists on the primacy of the political. Methodologically, it operates on the fairly explicit assumption that political agency can influence all domains of human life, either by keeping the social, economic, and political realms separate from each other (even if they are actually intertwined) and away from the center of political decision-making, or by balancing them out.

Closely related to this is a second theoretical challenge. In order to process complex societal interrelations, social and democratic theory must be conceptualized in a multidimensional and non-reductionist way. At the same time, their conceptual underpinnings have to account for the exclusionary mechanisms that structure, regulate and discipline the social and political relations in modern democratic societies; and for the mechanism's resistance being reshaped by democratic politics.

In my view, these challenges call for a critical theory of democratic politics and society, with a critique of domination at its programmatic core. I use the term domination to describe a political order that has become alien to the people, and whose practices of reproduction are simultaneously being blocked from contestation. Instead of enabling political action and exchange to creatively shape public affairs, domination makes people feel detached from the supposedly invariant structures they inhabit.

However, a critical theory of this kind must also be a critical democratic theory. It must be a theory sufficiently sensitive to recognize the specific effect that the democratic order has on the conflicts that shape society and its interactions on the one hand, and the specific strategies or forces at work in democracies which prevent the central practices for reproducing the existing order from being challenged on the other. The first aspect accounts for the possibility that—unlike in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes—activist contestation of a democratically instituted order is guaranteed by the constitution to a certain degree. To the extent that modern democracies are based on abstract (constitutional) principles such as equality, freedom, justice, non-discrimination, etc., it makes promises to be realized within its framework. These promises include being heard and having a voice in political affairs, engaging with others in shaping public life, “to be able to make as many effective decisions without fear” (Shklar 1989: 21), receiving recognition, experiencing relationships of solidarity, and so on. The unceasing possibility to reclaim these promises and to reinterpret their underlying principles is a distinctive feature of every democratic political order.

With respect to the second aspect, we learn from critical social theory that in democratic societies a “panoply of social powers and discourses constructing and conducting us” (Brown 2011: 53) are at work, which in themselves pose a limit to democratic control. At the same time, however, the forces and mechanisms that inhibit changing the practices in place are distinct from the forces employed in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Modern democracies cannot resort to terror, massive physical violence, extensive intelligence surveillance of citizens and the general negation of political rights—at least not without violating their basic normative principles. Which mechanisms are prevalent in modern democracies instead?

The contention I want to defend is that depoliticization is the central mechanism of domination in modern democracies. Depoliticization describes a set of social processes and regimes that impedes people from using their political voice. It produces a disconnect between the rights and institutions that enable political action and their effective exercise, or, in the words of Hannah Arendt, it creates a situation where the “preliminary conditions for political action no longer open the channels for action” (Arendt 1970: 81). For obvious reasons, the channels for action in modern democracies are never entirely unavailable. Unlike in totalitarian systems, political participation and autonomous involvement do not disappear completely from public life; yet for large segments of society, acting politically is not considered to be an option in everyday life.

How can we analyze the mechanisms that sustain the gap between enabling and exercising political agency—between the democratic promise and its fulfillment? Scholars have pointed out various processes responsible for producing and reproducing this cleavage. For them, one important cause is the presence of sexualized and racialized oppression, combined with a socio-economic basic structure that generates poverty, isolation, and social alienation and eventually leads to political disaffection, disenchantment, and disengagement—in other words: to non-participation (Schäfer 2012). They have blamed the mediatization of politics, turning citizens into consumers, targeting them with political marketing campaigns, and thus narrowing the interpretation of political participation (Hay 2007). Some accounts attribute the estrangement from organizational structures designed to facilitate political action to the erosion of the institutional framework of modern democracies and the transformation of parties (Dalton 2007; Flinders 2012).

We can certainly think of many other forms of depoliticization. All of them are inherently connected to the particular historical materialization of the idea of democracy and the ways in which we practice democracy today. Consider, for example, the modern notion of citizenship for achieving political inclusion and integration. It is an ambivalent if not contentious organizational principle that often enough fails to protect people and produces exclusion. Or consider the restrictive implementation of the idea of equality in purely legal terms, the realization of solidarity via a competitive welfare state, political participation as active and passive electoral rights in a representative party system, or modern democracy's entanglement with capitalism and the social inequality and “economization of political life” (Brown 2015: 201) that follow from it. These are the specific historical expressions of the basic tenets of democracy, which produce specific ills and consequences accordingly. Some of these consequences, like an unequal distribution of social and political power or social and political exclusion, are themselves responsible for causing democratic and political alienation in citizens. But most importantly, I argue, it is the very particular materialization of democracy as such that has brought about a political constellation in which people refrain from using the channels available to claim the unredeemed promises of democracy. The result is that, even if the status quo blatantly fails to deliver on these promises for everyone, the central political practices responsible for inequality, exploitation, and exclusion remain unchallenged. This is the core idea of my conceptualization of a critique of domination for modern democracies.

Domination and the Forms of Protest

What are the consequences of this understanding of domination for political protest in modern democracies? To answer this question, I propose to draw an ideal-type distinction between protest that politicizes the dominant materialization of basic democratic principles, and forms of protest that do not. I will call the first type reformist and the second transformative.

What characterizes reformist protest in conceptual terms is that it stays within the confines of the overall political order. It calls on the legislators to write the protest's demands into policy or law and by doing so recognizes both the hierarchical logic of the system and its decision-making authority. Note that the means of protest as such is not critical here. Protest that employs radical means or performs acts of civil disobedience can still be classified as reformist as long as it does not intend to undermine the political order in place. Reformist protest is considered essential by the protagonists of a democratic order (parliaments, courts, parties, public authorities) and is protected constitutionally (by the right to freedom of assembly, the right to free speech, the right to form political associations, etc.). Imagine a protest campaign against the building of wind turbines in a nearby neighborhood or a rally by flight attendants for better working conditions. By getting organized, taking to the streets and putting pressure on the government, these actors temporarily close the gap between the democratically established right to object to the conditions in place and the act of objecting itself. Protest of this kind demonstrates that a democratic order is never wholly crippled by domination, but rather that the scope of domination in democracies is limited; it is partial, never total. As soon as the political demands are met, the citizen—usually the true political subject of reformist protest—returns to her assigned place. This return is possible for two reasons: first, the protestor as citizen with her general concerns is accounted for and represented by the existing structures of and vocabulary in politics. Second, the grievances that the protest addresses can be remedied with the instruments available in the existing order.

Much like the reformist variant of protest, transformative protest temporarily closes the aforementioned gap between existing democratic possibilities and taking to the streets to claim them. But things look different with regard to the substance of the claims of transformative protest. The concerns voiced by transformative protest will always touch on issues that are significant for society as a whole and affect democracy as a form of life. What do I mean by this?

Transformative protest movements, campaigns, initiatives, etc., with their particular concerns and supported by a critical crowd of people, put forth an alternative interpretation of the basic principles of the existing democratic order. I will discuss examples in more detail shortly. For now, think of a protest network such as No-one-is-illegal or NoBorder. Their claims and actions against state borders and deportation subvert the territorial boundedness of the democratic state, force a refashioning of political belonging beyond the concept of citizenship (Chamberlain 2016), and question neocolonial and racialized notions of inclusion and integration. This fundamental dispute of the predominant interpretations of citizenship, statehood, and inclusion becomes necessary because the protest's demands regarding asylum and migration policies cannot be accommodated by the democratic system in place. Instead, the attempt to implement the specific concerns of these activists necessarily produce an irreconcilable conflict with the authoritative framework as well as with the practices reproducing the established order. It is this particular tension that I intend to capture with the concept of “politicization.” It is the main feature of what I have deemed transformative protest.

Let's take a closer look at this crucial phenomenon. I understand politicization to be the publicly articulated, dissident interpretation of the basic principles of a democratic order by a critical amount of people. These public articulations not only deviate from the implementation of the democratic principles in place. They also expose what cannot be realized on the basis of the central practices of order reproduction at work and in turn make apparent that only a profound and pervasive change in the interpretation and materialization of basic principles of democracy can remedy the situation. This is why politicization always involves a critical perspective on domination. It reveals the shared experience of living in a political system that hovers above and constrains the people and can no longer be appropriated by them. Moreover, it exposes the rigidity of the social, economic, and legal-political practices in place once the institutionalized political channels for change are exhausted.

What is particularly interesting about transformative protest is that its politicizing dimension is often already interwoven with the protest practices—squatting, factory occupations, or occupations of squares—themselves. Take for example Europe's political squatter movement of the seventies and eighties. Their initial objective was not to become homeowners, but to withdraw residential housing from the liberal logic of private property and cultivate alternative ways of living that broke with the Fordist model of society at the time (Vollmer 2020: 97). This type of request, explicitly rejecting one of the linchpins of capitalism, can obviously not be implemented within the boundaries of a modern democratic-capitalist society. Rather, it attains its political symbolism precisely because it contradicts the capitalist order. Which is also why its symbolic power vanishes as soon as squatters become homeowners and re-subject themselves to the liberal capitalist order.

The protest camps and occupations of squares on the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, in Gezi Park in Istanbul, in Zucotti Park in New York, at the G20 protests in Hamburg, and elsewhere can also be read as acts of politicization. These encampments are—metaphorically speaking—acts of “siege”: instead of articulating concrete demands and thus acknowledging any established political authority, they express their desire for fundamental change (Graeber 2011: 4). They do so by “enacting a parallel world” (Volk 2019: 112), where they experiment with new forms of subjectivity, new forms of political, social, and economic life, and new ways of relating to oneself and others that run counter to the reproductive forces of the prevailing order.

Alternatively, politicization is possible on the basis of concrete demands. Pertinent examples would be some forms of migrant protest, which require new answers to questions of belonging and legal status that go beyond national citizenship—the slogan “No one is illegal” is programmatic in this case. Their activism both seeks to shift the boundaries of democracy, and articulates demands for equality and recognition that criticize the concept of personhood at the center of Western thinking and the racialized element of exclusion intrinsic to it. Despite democracy's noble promises, in reality the fundamental rights that come with being recognized as a person are reserved for some and denied, for example, to the thousands of non-white people who drown in the Mediterranean year after year or who are confined in camps under catastrophic conditions. As long as democracy is realized in terms of the nation-state and our society doesn't address its deeply racialized fabric, there is no satisfactory remedy available to end this great catastrophe. Any viable remedy must necessarily entail a fundamental renewal of our social, economic and legal-political practices and find a new form of political organization.

Contrary to the impression so far, the interpretive scheme sketched above does not pertain to leftist protest only. Right-wing protest can politicize as well in the above-mentioned sense of fundamentally questioning the common materialization of democracy. Take for example the German PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) movement. By using the tagline, “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”), a former slogan of the East-German civil rights movement, it takes aim at the established liberal-pluralist conception of citizenship. In their view, only white, non-Muslim, non-leftist Germans without migration background are legitimately part of “the people,” in whose name and for whose benefit the government must act. By appropriating and deliberately reinterpreting a GDR civil rights slogan, PEGIDA tries to characterize itself as a protest for democracy, while it represents a very different idea of democracy. They depict identity and citizenship in terms of ethnic belonging to a community, promote segregation between ethnic groups, preclude inclusion as a necessary dimension of democracy, and seek to establish a friend-enemy distinction, creating a dynamic of permanent tension and delegitimization that undermines the public sphere.

The observation that right-wing protest can qualify as transformative protest warrants a deeper theoretical inquiry into the meaning of political protest and what is arguably its central question: How can we distinguish emancipatory articulations of protest from non-emancipatory ones?

Emancipatory Protest and the Democratization of Democracy

When we look at protest in terms of the distinction between transformative and reformist protest, an increase in protest will not automatically signify a loss of legitimacy for modern democracies. Rather, the rise of non-politicizing reformist protest indicates a general acceptance of the current democratic system, in the sense that citizens have faith in the system to meet their publicly articulated demands. And it may be exactly this kind of trust that motivates others, in turn, to initiate a protest campaign. However, empirical research has suggested that we are currently witnessing an increase in transformative protest as well (Della Porta 2020: 8ff.). If this is true, should this heightened politicization of the basic political order lead us to conclude that modern democracies are weakening?

A conclusion of this sort is tempting. But, I argue, it runs the risk of declaring as a normative ideal the specific contemporary implementation of the idea of democracy as modern democratic society, and of evaluating every protest campaign against it. We can avoid this risk by recalling the account of modern democracies developed in the first section. It advanced the claim that modern democracies are also marked by domination; they are orders of domination as well. And in their failure to realize fully and for everyone the promises of democracy, they are deserving of criticism. The important question is whether this politicization is emancipatory and contributes to its democratization—or not. In the following section, I will discuss four criteria that can help identify these emancipatory traits within protest initiatives, movements, networks, etc.

Two criteria stand out in view of the recent history of political protest: the widening of the circle of those who benefit from the promises of democracy, and the establishment of discursive-democratic arenas through protest. My contention is that both of these criteria have to be met before protest can claim to have a democratizing impulse. For only then are those who enter the public sphere as new political subjects (perhaps for the first time) both likely to experience solidarity and empowerment through protest, and likely to learn about the polyphony and ambiguity of democratic practice through engaging with their opponents or opposing views in an open political debate.

Expansion of the Circle

Emancipatory protest seeks to extend equality, freedom, solidarity, etc. to people that have previously been excluded. The feminist movement, for example, has been insisting that established interpretations of political principles such as equality, freedom, participation, etc. are too narrow and effectively exclude and oppress women in social and political terms. They campaigned for a more inclusive interpretation and substantiation of these principles, anticipating already that their demands would cause irreconcilable conflict with existing social and political power structures which led to exclusion in the first place. Mere inclusion could therefore not be the solution, but only a fundamental change in the order itself. However, as many scholars and activists have brought to our attention, large parts of the feminist movement primarily catered to the concerns of wealthy, white, and heterosexual women. By paying little to no regard to intersectionality, its demands for inclusion reproduced existing social structures of domination (see, e.g., Combahee River Collective 2014: 271).

Surely, the critique of sexist and patriarchal structures is different if it intersects with racism, economic inequality, and heteronormativity (Crenshaw 1989). Eventually, however, it was possible to incorporate this intersectional critique into the feminist movement, thereby expanding the scope of feminist struggle against systemic forms of sexism and patriarchy in society. So, the crucial question is, how does a movement, initiative, or collective succeed in establishing a site of political struggle, while still remaining a “learning site” (Welton 1993) throughout, where forms of exclusion and oppression that operate with the same category of critique but are informed by different experiences can be taken into account. For only the development of protest as critical sites of learning enables them to acquire a comprehensive knowledge on how particular forms of domination play out in society, how they deny the promises of democracy to specific people, and how they can be countered through non-patronizing and empowering structures of solidarity.

In a manner not too dissimilar from leftist protest, right-wing protest also set out to establish new sites of struggle and re-configure political conflict in their interest. It can even be credited with pointing out and politicizing ossifying inclinations inherent in representative democracies, negative effects of mediatization, and the precarious realities of capitalist society (Miller-Idriss 2020: 11; Mudde 2019: 37). However, right-wing protest formulates these criticisms with the intent to exclude other people on the basis of essentialist attributions (religion, sexual preferences, nationality, ethnicity, etc.) and to keep them from enjoying the promises of democracy. It is never about making society more democratic or about exposing or fighting the effects or dynamics of domination. Instead, these protests negate the notion of open-endedness and indeterminacy as part of the promise of democratic politics but strive to tighten the regime of domination in the name of democracy—domination of the alleged “autochthones” (see Yuval-Davis 2018: 71).

Instituting Discursive-Democratic Arenas

One of the reasons why right-wing protest does not advance the democratization of democracy has to do with its mode of integration, which is characteristically exclamatory rather than discursive-democratic. Of course, it is important for citizens to be able to express themselves; in fact, most people would agree that publicly expressing one's political opinion is a central trait of protest. Yet in its articulation, right-wing protest is mostly reactive and passive and hardly allows people to engage in any creative activity. Right-wing political leaders shape the eruptive discontent and dissent of the public for their purposes, play with emotions, stir up the masses, feed resentment against minorities, reinforce the idea that we are puppets for a corrupt elite, appeal to lower instincts, encourage a retaliatory mindset and the fiction of omnipotence, employ simplistic accounts of problems and half-truths to consolidate the worldview of their audience, and provoke strong indignation and false or artificial outrage (Wodak 2015: 60). All of these strategies reinforce a hierarchical and paternalistic relationship between right-wing political leaders and their followers, and, as Nadia Urbinati has rightly observed, they serve to refashion “the role of the forum to building the authority of the leader” (Urbinati 2014: 6).

In contrast, protest movements in Madrid, New York, and Istanbul have inspired and encouraged people to actively participate in political debates in discursive-democratic arenas, such as general assemblies. Since these arenas are open to everyone, they become the site of new experiments in democratic practices that redeem the promise of democracy for a participatory moment in politics. By entrusting socially marginalized people with the representation of the movement or by drawing lots to determine who speaks, these movements ensure a certain representational balance and prevent a takeover of the assembly by organized groups. And even if these “democratic innovations”2 do not prefigure a possible future democracy, they should be considered democratic exercises par excellence in the way they free people from political passivity and invite them to entertain different political opinions.

Another reason for deeming right wing protest non-emancipatory, despite it being able to exhibit transformative features, has to do with the language it employs. Riddled with tropes of totality and unity—“traitors to the people,” “enemy invaders,” “lying press,” or “Islamization”—it seeks to absorb fears, rage, and hatred, and makes these feelings appear reasonable (Nguyen et. al 2022: 146). Ideologically, the opponent is portrayed as a negation of “one's own form of existence” (Schmitt [1932] 2007: 27), that is, as enemy, which can moreover significantly reduce the threshold for using violence.

Arguably, there is one aspect in which right-wing protest can broaden the discursive-democratic arenas. This kind of argument claims that hierarchical structures as well as strong leadership in protest are better suited to assert demands. This in turn may attract people who, because of their social background and education, tend to shy away from voicing their opinions publicly. According to this view, right-wing populists can contribute to democratization by opening up new lines of conflict in the public sphere and by reconfiguring political problems in a way that includes the demands of those who have been overlooked or neglected in public debates.

There is a certain merit in this analysis. However, I argue, the politicization of democracy is not the same as its democratization. Introducing new lines of conflict is never a contribution to the democratization of democracy per se. Of course, more competition of ideas often implies a livelier democracy. But for protest to be truly democratizing, it must also foster an open and experimental discursive democratic exchange.

This assumption could be substantiated by referring once more to the feminist movement. In our discussion, we learned that sites of learning need to form within protest. These knowledge-building processes serve to draw a comprehensive picture about the exclusionary dynamic of modern democratic societies and can cultivate corresponding counter-strategies for empowerment. As Donatella della Porta and other social movement scholars have pointed out, this requires “discursive processes” (Della Porta 2020: 11), that is, “talk and conversations—the speech acts—and written communication of movement members that occur in the context of, or in relation to, movement activities” (Benford and Snow 2000: 623). The internal structure of a protest collective needs to ensure that an exchange of different points of view can take place, that learning from each other is encouraged, that marginalized voices are heard, and that, last but not least, these measures bring about critical subjects, that is, people who can conduct these debates (see. Casas-Cortés et. al 2008: 22).

Balancing Dramatization and Exchange

Some scholars see the defining characteristic of contemporary protest initiatives in their “negative politics” (Rosanvallon 2008: 182). They argue that today's protesters are primarily against something (racism, sexism, homophobia, pollution, etc.) and articulate their negative criticism in a moralizing and thus “unpolitical” (ibid.: 22) way. Pierre Rosanvallon, for example, complains that recent protest initiatives fail “to develop a comprehensive understanding of problems associated with the organization of a shared world” (ibid.). This, he adds, “lead(s) to fragmentation and dissemination where coherence and comprehensiveness are needed” (ibid.: 23f.). Is he right to assert that protest needs to focus on a common good for it to be considered a democratizing protest?

I would contest the premise that the common good is the appropriate yardstick to assess the democratic potential of protest. What I find problematic about this view is the implicit assumption that any concern, simply by achieving substantial and far-reaching support in the public arena, could sway political decision-makers. According to this perspective, the democratic character of protest is essentially a matter of how convincingly political demands are presented to the public and how successfully they can appeal to a the common good and draw support from other social groups, milieus, or classes.

Rosanvallon's account is a good example to illustrate the deficits of a democratic theory that doesn't take into account insights of a social-theory-based critique of power. By failing to acknowledge underlying social dynamics and structures, theories like his ignore that some social interpretations of needs and interests—due to their systemic entanglement with the practices of reproduction of the given order—“have an exorbitantly higher chance of triggering consequences at the level of executive action than others” (Offe 1969: 164, translation by the author). So, no matter how common-good oriented a protest turns out to be, whether it gains momentum “at the level of executive action” mainly depends on other factors. Let us consider, for example, the protests of refugees, migrants, or sexual minorities. And let's leave aside for a moment the disproportionately difficult task of marginalized groups, those in economically precarious circumstances, or criminalized people to form a protest collective. For this is a minor obstacle in comparison to the great challenge facing these groups: getting their needs and demands recognized by the majority society. Generally speaking, it is not intelligible for the majority society to see the specific needs of minorities as equally important and worthy of political consideration. What happens instead is that these needs are marginalized in public debates and their political demands are frequently dismissed as exaggerations or—in the case of refugees—deemed ungrateful, immodest, and greedy. (I won't even mention the right-wing and racist counter-mobilizations.) But then, what channels of protest remain open for people who have come to realize that their grievances and needs are of no interest to the general public, at least in the foreseeable future?

One option would be to call out specific instances of oppression and exclusion by the majority society as moral shortcomings: “You turn a blind eye and allow this to happen! How is that consistent with your moral conscience?” The rationale behind criticizing every citizen's individual moral failing is to gradually broaden the horizon of understanding, such that a particular problem could eventually become a problem of general concern. It is particularly interesting to note that in this view—and contrary to the claim of Rosanvallon—moralization is not only a conscious strategy of protest, but can in fact be constitutive of political protest.

This far, we have explained why the focus on the common good is not a suitable normative criterion for determining whether protest is democratizing. But what could be a good criterion instead?

I argue that two core principles of the idea of democracy must be taken into account when assessing transformative protest. The first principle requires making the political dispute visible. The second principle insists that exchange and negotiation of these conflicting viewpoints should take place in public in a way that makes agreement or compromise at least possible. Within protest initiatives, a balance has to be found between practices of critique, disruption, confrontation on one side, and justification, debate, and readiness to tolerate ambivalence and confusion between opinions on the other.

Given the power asymmetries in modern societies, political protest requires de facto confrontation; it is a core characteristic of protest (Celikates 2021: 143). However, if every moment of protest is consumed by confrontation, and communication-oriented interaction with political opponents disappears from the political repertoire, protest risks losing some of its emancipatory and democratizing appeal. Without open exchange, without uncertainty and discomfort, discursive practices within transformative protest networks, movements, or initiatives tend to adopt positions that are in absolute opposition to the political establishment. This development will in turn weaken the reflexive democratic practices internal to such collectives, reducing debate to ideological disagreements. Discussions become dominated by platitudes, stereotypes, and ‘half knowledge’ that serve the purpose of self-assurance. Rather than fostering critical thinking and political judgment, this tends to confirm entrenched beliefs, biases and prejudice. If legitimate objections or compromises by those with differing views are not entertained, it renders democratic disputes and debates not only futile but also impossible (see Volk 2018: 15).

Protest collectives in modern democracies, I argue, carry political responsibility, even if the responsibility differs from that of parties and politicians. It is rooted in what Claude Lefort called the “democratic experience” (Lefort 1986: 20). Besides being an organizational regime, democracy is a social form of life that is shaped by democratic constitutionalism, the protection of fundamental political rights, rule of law, the history of protest, etc. One crucial aspect of the democratic experience is the knowledge that protest in democracies does not require a great heroic deed and is rarely a matter of life and death. This may sound banal, but it is reflected in how protest manifests in democracies: in its campaigns and organization, its practices, and the emotional and affective constitution of activists, and so on.

Readiness to Become Someone Else

From the point of view of a critical democratic theory, protest collectives face a paradox, the paradox of democratic protest. In their protest, political activists often take to the streets with the immanent conviction (from which they derive self-legitimation and which fuels mobilization) that they are morally more credible, politically more convincing, or scientifically more conclusive than the majority society, its policy proposals, party programs, or media coverage. I would even claim that it is the very condition of existence of transformative protest that it believes in a fundamental superiority (capitalist society vs. anti-capitalist protest; sexist and racist society vs. anti-sexist and anti-racist movement, pro-migration elite vs. migration as a threat to national identity), while the truthfulness of its assertions is never questioned within the movement, initiative, or network itself (Luhmann 1995: 205). Just imagine an anti-capitalist movement in doubt about whether capitalism is the central problem. This would certainly put its existence at risk.

The paradox comes into play when we remind ourselves that this kind of risk is required for democratization. If we accept that public exchange and the negotiation of conflicting viewpoints is a pillar of democratic practice, the willingness to have one's own moral judgments and political convictions questioned by others and to enter into political disputes is a necessary process. Hence, democratic disputes about moral values are both socially divisive as well as constitutive. By critically examining the reality of moral convictions, we are able to revise them. This readiness to revise who we are, to become someone else by debating political opponents is what democratic practice asks of us.

But I am advocating neither to discursively accommodate racist or sexist positions nor to engage in any other kind of debate that questions human dignity. Nor do I intend to downplay the contribution that a rigorous moral standpoint and a decisive political critique plays for the sense of self-worth, the ability to mobilize politically, and the empowerment of those social groups who are sexually or racially oppressed. And yet, the anything but trivial question remains: How should criticism be articulated to be compatible with the idea and promise of democracy?

If we take a look at the history of political protest and its theorization, both Mahatma Gandhi's and Martin Luther King's writings can help us clarify this point. Gandhi as well as King were convinced that they were on the side of justice, and they firmly believed that their political opponents were wrong. Yet, it was especially King who asked himself how to fight for his convictions without undermining democracy, how to frame the political opponent, what political rhetoric and means to use, etc. His philosophy of non-violence, his conviction that the struggle must be directed against an unjust system and not against individuals caught in it, and his plea not to humiliate the opponent but to awaken a sense of moral shame and to win his understanding, all stand testament to his concern for democratic practice.

Of paramount importance in this context, however, are his and Gandhi's reflections on the idea of “self-purification” (King [1963] 2002: 3; Gandhi [1911] 1999: 39). Self-purification can be understood as a technique of subjectivation that anchors the willingness for questioning and transforming the self in protest.

In his famous letter from Birmingham jail, King writes that the Black Americans’ frustration, anger, and rage with the ongoing repression and racial exclusion must be articulated through demonstrations, singing, and shouting. The Black American, King continues, has “many pent up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. . . . If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence” (King [1963] 2002: 12). However, as King points out, another essential element of the “nonviolent campaign” is “self-purification” (ibid.: 3). Workshops and training sessions need to ensure that protesters do not take to the streets in hatred, he argues. It is of paramount importance to see and understand that, for King, one central idea of protest (apart from its expressive dimension, from its raising pressure and dramatizing issues) is to regain one's dignity and to refuse to be guided by one's hatred and frustration. Thus, for King, realizing the possibility of free democratic coexistence vitally depends on us changing, on us becoming someone else.

King as well as Gandhi, from whom King takes the idea, add to the imaginary of protest a dimension of self-questioning. This opens up the possibility of discussing the social implications of domination, that is, of examining how repression, social disciplining, and shaping have an effect on the individual or the collective, and how they distort perceptions of the self and the world, and thus affect the interaction with the political opponent. Against this background, self-purification as the readiness to become someone else can be seen as a democratic act par excellence, because it creates a basis on which understanding and democratic exchange become possible—and this despite or precisely because of the fact that “we and the social world are relentlessly constructed by powers beyond our ken and control” (Brown 2011: 53), which itself in turn has the consequence that domination in democracy will probably never be completely overcome. Protest that enables such reflexivity and self-purification can be characterized as emancipatory. Against this background, self-purification as a willingness to become another can be seen as a democratic act par excellence, because it creates a basis on which understanding and democratic exchange become possible.

To further illuminate this point, it will be helpful to contrast self-purification both with an inherent feature of right-wing populist mobilization strategy and with the mode of subjectivation that right-wing protest cultivates.

Sociological studies of right-wing populist voters by, among others, Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016) for Southern United States, Steffen Mau (2019) for East Germany, and Didier Eribon (2019) for France, have shown that the majority of these people feel powerless, ruled by a disconnected elite, vilified, and degraded. Feeling powerless and inferior leaves them unable to see themselves and large parts of their lives in an affirmative way; they harbor ressentiment. If we leave aside the central fact at this point that this ressentiment or desire for revenge by parts of a historically dominant white population in the face of lost entitlements must not be equated with the anger and outrage that historically disadvantaged groups express in the face of racist, sexist, and other forms of oppression—an aspect too often neglected in the debate, as Gurminder Bhambra (2017) points out—then we find in these studies an analysis of a particular form of subjectivity that right-wing populist protest has brought to the surface: At the moment of revolt, the only thing that matters for individuals subjectivized in this way is to express themselves and their resentments publicly. First and foremost, they demand recognition for the insults, betrayals and humiliations they have suffered. Speaking up about feeling cheated and ignored takes precedence over facts.

Right-wing protest cultivates and instrumentalizes a self-righteous and affective type of subjectivation by providing a public political stage where fear and anger are claimed to be taken seriously, while they are being translated into racist, etc., political demands. Simultaneously, populist politicians are keen to bring about the very world in which hatred, anger, and fear appears to be justified. The most successful means to do this are the proliferation of fake news, alternative facts, defamation, half-truths, and propagandistic agitation. The deeper rational and real function of right-wing populist protest is to reassure people that they can stay exactly as they are, and that everyone else is wrong, corrupt, and must change. This protest pursues an absurd political agenda, namely to revive an allegedly ideal and idyllic past in which ordinary people, the autochthones, held political power and the political leaders stood up for their interests.

Conclusion

The aim of this article has been to develop an interpretative framework for protest in modern democratic societies, both in order to determine more accurately its function and meaning, and in order to develop normative criteria for evaluating its democratic credentials. I have argued that we can identify two types of protest, which exhibit different functions and meanings, respectively. The political function of reformist protest in a modern democracy is to express dissatisfaction, to dissent, to criticize, to raise awareness for hitherto neglected issues in the public political arena, and to push policy makers to meet its demands. Its meaning in terms of democratic theory consists in making clear that the political enabling structure of modern democratic societies is not only guaranteed by constitutional law, but that civil society's collectively and publicly articulated dissent instills in citizens the knowledge and experience that protest is a central element of a living democratic culture and an option to express one's concerns.

The central function of transformative protest, in contrast, is to offer an alternative interpretation of the basic principles of democracy. It fundamentally criticizes the existing implementation of these principles and reveals the unrealized promises of the democratic order caused by the key practices of order reproduction in place. The meaning of transformative protest in modern democracies is its critique of domination. Transformative protest reveals those structures, mechanisms, and practices of reproduction in modern democratic societies that are responsible for people perceiving this order as an alien coercive power that determines their lives. Whether and when such coercive power is legitimate or whether such a discourse of legitimacy makes sense at all from the point of view of a theory of politics is beyond the scope of this article.

In a final step, I focused on identifying four criteria by which to distinguish emancipatory from non-emancipatory features of transformative protest. I looked at the kind of political interaction that exists within protest collectives, between political opponents and with the public. I was not interested in analyzing under what conditions political protest was successful in asserting its demands, since this depends on various factors in complex societies. Neither did I focus on the duration of these interactions or their society-wide applicability.

Political protest in democracies is an important source for exploring alternative social relations, political experiences, and forms of decision-making. As such, they should have the possibility to try out new forms of democratic life that, viewed from the status quo, can seem absurd and utopian. To assess these forms of protest in terms of their immediate, overall social feasibility fails to recognize precisely this emancipatory function of protest. Rather, I argue, in evaluating the function and meaning of protest, we should study its ideational dimension: how protest influences the way people perceive the democratic order and whether they can feel part of it or not, what horizons of experience are opened up by protest, and what social imaginaries about agency, community, and conflict resolution emerge.

Notes

1

This article is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Grant agreement No. 757452). I am particularly grateful to the team of the research unit “Theory of Politics” at Humboldt University, the POWDER team, the editors of Democratic Theory, and the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.

2

See Flesher-Forminaya's contribution in this special issue.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Brown, Wendy. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books.

  • Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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  • Flinders, Matthew. 2012. Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosanvallon, Pierre. 2008. Counter-Democracy: Politics in the Age of Distrust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Schmitt, Carl. (1932) 2007. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Shklar, Judith (1989). The Liberalism of Fear. In Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum, 2138. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Urbinati, Nadia. 2014. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth and the People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Volk, Christian. 2018. “On a Radical Democratic Theory of Political Protest: Potentials and Shortcomings.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 24 (4): 123. https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2018.1555684

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Volk, Christian. 2019. “Enacting a Parallel World: Political Protest Against the Transnational Constellation.” Journal of International Political Theory 15 (1): 100118. https://doi.org/10.1177/1755088218806920

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vollmer, Lisa. 2020. “Changing Political Collectivities in Times of Crisis: Tenant Protest in Berlin and New York.” In Urban Change and Citizenship in Times of Crisis, ed. Bryan Turner, Gregor Fitzi, Hannah Wolf, Jürgen Mackert, 97117. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schäfer, Armin. 2012. “Consequences of Social Inequality for Democracy in Western Europe.” Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft, 6 (2): 2345.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Welton, Michael. 1993. “Social Revolutionary Learning: The New Social Movements as Learning Sites.” Adult Education Quarterly, 43 (3): 152164. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713693043003002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wodak, Ruth. 2015. The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. London: Sage.

  • Yuval-Davis, Nira. 2018. “Autochthonic Populism, Everyday Bordering and the Construction of ‘The Migrant’.” In Populism and the Crisis of Democracy. Volume 3: Migration, Gender and Religion, ed. Gregor Fitzi, Jürgen Mackert, Bryan S. Turner, 6978. London: Routledge.

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Contributor Notes

Christian Volk is Professor of Political Theory at the Department of Social Sciences at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Since 2018, he has been leading the ERC-funded research project “Protest and Order. Democratic Theory, Contentious Politics, and the Changing Shape of Western Democracies” (POWDER). His research focuses on political theory and philosophy, democratic and social theory, and legal and constitutional theory. His work has been published in the Journal of International Political Theory, Philosophy and Social Criticism, Constellations and Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. E-mail: christian.volk@hu-berlin.de

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Democratic Theory

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

  • Benford, Robert D. and David A. Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26: 611639. http://www.jstor.org/stable/223459.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2017. “Brexit, Trump, and ‘Methodological Whiteness’: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class.” The British Journal of Sociology 68: 214232.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, Wendy. 2011. “‘We Are All Democrats Now . . . ’” In Democracy in What State? ed. Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaïd, Wendy Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, Kristin Ross, and Slavoj Žižek, 4457. New York: Columbia University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brown, Wendy. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books.

  • Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Casas-Cortés, María Isabel, Michael Osterweil, and Dana E. Powell. 2008. “Blurring Boundaries: Recognizing Knowledge-Practices in the Study of Social Movements.” Anthropological Quarterly 81 (1): 1758. https://doi:10.1353/anq.2008.0006.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Celikates, Robin. 2021. “Radical Democratic Disobedience.” In The Cambridge Companion to Civil Disobedience, ed. William E. Scheuerman, 128152. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chamberlain, James A. 2016. “Minoritarian Democracy: The Democratic Case for No Borders.” Constellations 24 (2): 142153. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8675.12236

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • The Combahee River Collective. 2014. “A Black Feminist Statement.” Women's Studies Quarterly, 42 (3/4): 271280. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24365010.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989): “Demarginalizing the Intersection: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1: 139167.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dalton, Russell. 2007. Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Della Porta, Donatella. 2020. How Social Movements Can Save Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.Eribon, Didier. 2019. Returning to Reims. London: Penguin Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Flinders, Matthew. 2012. Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Gandhi, Mahatma. (1911) 1999. “Letter to W. J. Wybergh.” In The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol. 11, (Electronic Book). New Delhi: Publications Division Government of India. https://www.gandhiashramsevagram.org/gandhi-literature/collected-works-of-mahatma-gandhi-volume-1-to-98.php (accessed 11 August 2022).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Graeber, David. 2011. “Occupy's Anarchist Roots.” The Anarchist Library, 29 November. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-occupy-s-anarchist-roots.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hay, Colin. 2007. Why We Hate Politics. Cambridge: Polity.

  • Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.

  • King, Martin Luther. (1963) 2002. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lefort, Claude. 1986. The Political Forms of Modern Society. Cambridge: MIT Press.

  • Luhmann, Niklas. 1995. “Protestbewegungen.” In Protest: Systemtheorie und Soziale Bewegungen, ed. Kai-Uwe Hellmann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mau, Steffen. 2019. Lütten Klein: Leben in der Ostdeutschen Transformationsgesellschaft. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.

  • Meyer, Thomas and Lewis P. Hinchman. 2002. Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Politics. London: Polity Press.

  • Miller-Idriss, Cynthia. 2020. Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Mudde, Cas. 2019. The Far Right Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Nguyen, Christoph G., Mikko and Christian von Scheve 2022. “From Specific Worries to Generalized Anger: The Emotional Dynamics of Right-Wing Political Populism.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Populism, ed. Michael Oswald, 145180. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Offe, Claus. 1969. “Politische Herrschaft und Klassenstrukturen: Zur Analyse Spätkapitalistischer Gesellschaftssysteme.” In Politikwissenschaft. Eine Einführung in ihre Probleme, ed. Gisela Kress and Dieter Senghaas, 155189. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosanvallon, Pierre. 2008. Counter-Democracy: Politics in the Age of Distrust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Schmitt, Carl. (1932) 2007. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Shklar, Judith (1989). The Liberalism of Fear. In Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum, 2138. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Urbinati, Nadia. 2014. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth and the People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Volk, Christian. 2018. “On a Radical Democratic Theory of Political Protest: Potentials and Shortcomings.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 24 (4): 123. https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230.2018.1555684

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Volk, Christian. 2019. “Enacting a Parallel World: Political Protest Against the Transnational Constellation.” Journal of International Political Theory 15 (1): 100118. https://doi.org/10.1177/1755088218806920

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vollmer, Lisa. 2020. “Changing Political Collectivities in Times of Crisis: Tenant Protest in Berlin and New York.” In Urban Change and Citizenship in Times of Crisis, ed. Bryan Turner, Gregor Fitzi, Hannah Wolf, Jürgen Mackert, 97117. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schäfer, Armin. 2012. “Consequences of Social Inequality for Democracy in Western Europe.” Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft, 6 (2): 2345.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Welton, Michael. 1993. “Social Revolutionary Learning: The New Social Movements as Learning Sites.” Adult Education Quarterly, 43 (3): 152164. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713693043003002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wodak, Ruth. 2015. The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. London: Sage.

  • Yuval-Davis, Nira. 2018. “Autochthonic Populism, Everyday Bordering and the Construction of ‘The Migrant’.” In Populism and the Crisis of Democracy. Volume 3: Migration, Gender and Religion, ed. Gregor Fitzi, Jürgen Mackert, Bryan S. Turner, 6978. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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