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Final Report Summary - CPAA (Contentious Politics in an Age of Austerity: A comparative study of anti-austerity protests in Spain and Ireland)

The Marie Sklodowska Curie Research Fellowship has been very successful, with all work packages agreed in the work plan completed. This includes extensive fieldwork in both research sites and over 70 interviews with key informants and participants. This research has put together a unique and valuable data set on both research sites and case studies, and will allow for a full, original and rich analysis on anti-austerity protests in Europe, specifically Spain and Ireland. Significant research outputs have already been published during the period of the fellowship, with a monograph, four peer-reviewed articles in JCR indexed journals, and six book chapters published (see list of publications and outputs below). Two further articles and a book are in preparation.

In addition, research dissemination has surpassed the expectations of the work plan of the fellowship, as the research has attracted considerable attention from a range of publics (media and speaking) and the researcher has been in demand for public speaking at venues across Europe and North Africa. The public speaking has significantly contributed to research dissemination and knowledge exchange, professional development, and promotion of the host institution and the Marie Curie. The host institution also provided numerous additional opportunities for engagement and professional development, researcher training activities, transfer of knowledge activities and integration activities.

The project methodology followed a strategy of paired comparisons, starting with a most similar systems design, showing Spain and Ireland to be “twin” cases along a series of indicators, and then identified independent variables that could potentially explain differences in the political opportunity structures in each case. Finally process tracing with rich qualitative data was used to develop the explanations further and to generate hypotheses that could then be tested across a larger number of cases.

The project generated important research findings that advance our knowledge about mobilization processes in general as well as in times of crisis and engage with central debates in the literature. One important finding relates to the debate on the role of ICTs in mobilizing processes. Despite similar levels of overall knowledge and skills on ICT use, the digital tools used for mobilization and organization varies greatly between settings suggesting that culture and not technology per se plays a key role in the adoption and use of digital tools across settings. This points to an understudied yet potentially crucial factor in the dissemination of ICT use across local and national settings. What is still not understood is how initial resistance to the introduction of new tools is overcome in social movement communities. Digital ethnography among 15-M activists in Madrid also showed that current dominant narratives about the role of ICTs overstate the degree to which technology provides organizational infrastructures that replace or can replace activist networks. This is likely due to the methods frequently used to observe and measure digital media use that do not actually observe activist media use in situ but rather rely on online participation to gather data and make assumptions about the role of technology. This finding is currently being developed into a peer-reviewed article for publication and is potentially an important contribution of the project.

The overall findings about comparative levels of mobilization (which would need further research to test across other cases) is that macro structural factors (such as overall levels of deprivation, propensity to mobilize, perceived grievances or outrage about the crisis) are much less important in the development of a sustained challenge to austerity politics than the development of a pre-existing network through a strong occupation style mobilization. In other words, it is likely that sustained resistance to austerity is much more likely to develop in cases where a pre-existing network with established practices is revitalized and transformed via a strong occupy type encampment than in cases where the establishment of the occupy camp is the result of a more spontaneous desire to replicate the occupy tactic as practiced elsewhere and develops in a more contingent ad hoc way.

Whereas the camp in Dublin, for example, lasted longer than the one in Madrid, its origins were derivative of the Occupy Wall Street camp (with some early but short lived influence from the 15-M movement) and did not generate a sustained cohesive sense of a shared political community, nor did it generate a series of strong or new movement initiatives afterwards. This stands in stark contrast to the case of Madrid, where the encampment , although initially established by a few activists who were not tightly connected to each other, was quickly developed through the mobilization of experienced activists who drew on resources and pre-existing networks and tools to generate a vibrant camp that drew in high numbers of new participants who were rapidly socialized into long standing autonomous assembly practices and logics of action, which were then developed further. The decision to lift the camp in Madrid when it was still very strong (although degenerating in some respects) and expand into neighbourhood forums was viable because of the strength of the camp itself and the organizational infrastructure that had been developed there but also because other pre-existing spaces and resources (such as social centres and neighbourhood associations) were revitalized and regenerated by the influx of 15-M activists searching to continue what had started in the squares.

In contrast, in Dublin the camp dragged on past its zenith and degenerated into a space in which only a few groups marginal to the camp assembly (freemen and homeless people who had not effectively integrated into the camp) remained as a constant presence. Although personal connections were forged and the camp served as an important learning experience for some participants, it did not evolve into further projects that would generate or sustain anti-austerity mobilizations. Dublin had neither the spaces (social centres) nor the pre-existing networks to provide resources for what had been a more ad hoc aggregation of people in an Occupy that was replicating an outside example (OWS) than a movement. 15-M not only transformed public opinion across Spain, but also eventually transformed the institutional political landscape by generating numerous political party and party related initiatives. In Ireland, despite the desire of some to attempt this sort of transformation, the essential relations between political parties on the left was not transformed nor were new forms of party developed.

Another key factor is that although on the surface the two cases can be classified as anti-austerity movements, in reality the central claims were very different. Spain’s 15-M first and foremost was a movement for greater democracy in the face of a global crisis that was affecting citizens in extreme ways. Ireland’s camps shared some slogans and practices (a horizontal participatory assembly) but the focus was on correcting economic and social injustices, and calling attention to the actions of politicians around the debt. Neither the camp itself, and certainly not the mobilizations that later can be categorized as anti-austerity (the strongest of which was the water charges movement) were about a fundamental questioning of democracy in Ireland. Certainly a critique of a democratic deficit was present in activist narratives, but the movement (if one could call it that) did not rest on a radical critique of Irish democracy. Understanding anti-austerity mobilizations therefore, is not just a question of measuring the frequency and intensity of protest events that can be linked to austerity politics, but exploring the dynamics of the social movement networks and communities and the wider field of contention, as well as delving deeply into the way that critiques of austerity tie in (or not) to a more fundamental questioning of really existing democracy.

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