eipcp Policies democratic policies in europe
01 2006

Strategies of (Self-)Empowerment and Spaces of Resistance

Therese Kaufmann

Therese Kaufmann


How can the relentless process of individualisation in the world of cultural work be kept apart from the seeming inevitability of local and global neo-liberalism and be re-directed as a force for re-vitalising the democratising process?
Angela Mc Robbie[1]


The coming community is whatever being... (...) Whatever is the figure of pure singularity. Whatever singularity has not identity, it is not determined with respect to a concept, but neither is it simply indeterminate; rather it is determined only through its relation to an idea, that is, to the totality of its possibilities.
Giorgo Agamben[2]

Only a few years ago, it was daring to even mention “European Cultural Policies” in many European circles. At the same time it appeared to be a theme as heavily charged as marginalised. Those who saw their national “cultural identities” endangered through common action resorted to the so-called principle of subsidiarity, which allows the EU action only complementary to national policies.  The legal framework for such action at EU level remained as limited as it had been since the inclusion of an article on culture in the European Treaties more than 10 years ago, and due to the failure of the constitutional process in the EU, Qualified Majority Voting that could have led to a certain dynamisation in decision-making processes concerning culture was not introduced either. In addition, it is not very likely that there will be an increase of the ridiculously low budget allocated to culture – although the very fact that a budget increase is even under debate could be interpreted at least as a partial success.

Yet notwithstanding all this, it seems that “culture for Europe” is becoming an issue - not least in connection with the overly ambitious aims of the Lisbon agenda to “make Europe the most competitive market in the world”, to which qualities like “creativity” and “innovation” should contribute in general as well as through the so-called creative and cultural industries in particular. Is this the direction we envisage for European cultural policies?

From Identitarian Exclusiveness to Creative Competitiveness?

Already in 2003 the European Parliament in one of its reports called upon the EU to devise “a cultural policy which sets out the economic conditions for the development of the European cultural model”[3]. This model, as evoked by the report, is built solely on economic aspects, and I what I would like to argue is that – at this moment when there is a slight increase of interest in cultural policy issues at the EU-level - this might indicate a shift from the hitherto prevailing, either identitarian or hollow, sanctimonious discourse of a “European culture”, to a neoliberal conception of culture, in other words the “cultural” and “creative industries” as the new motors for economic growth. The idea of a “European cultural space”, based on the assumption of a “common cultural heritage” and the construction of an outside “other” has been deployed in the discussion about the accession of Turkey, for example, and not only ignores the demographic and social developments of this space, but explicitly excludes migrants and asylum seekers. However, this has not contributed automatically to a more intense debate on policy action – on the contrary.

The central question, which does not come to the fore in either of these contexts, involves the relationship between culture and democracy and, more concretely, between cultural policies and democratic policies: What is the role of culture and of the cultural field for a democratisation process in a Europe? What is its role in a future Europe, which is neither to become a fortress nor merely a competitor in the world market? How can counter-strategies be developed against prevailing tendencies to make cultural policies a space for neoliberal governmentality, where notions like “intercultural competence” [4] are no more than business tools or strategies of policing and regulation? How can tendencies be fought that diminish the cultural field to experimental grounds for developing the “creative competitiveness” of the postindustrial workforce, and where artists are given the role of “motors for innovation” and serve as models for the self-reliant, flexible, independent, project-oriented, young and fashionable subject of the New Economy?

Towards a Radical Cultural Democratisation in Europe

Against these approaches, which seem to be gaining increasing importance in today’s policy developments, stands the conviction that the cultural field can and should take an active role in the overdue democratisation process in Europe, that the cultural field can be the place of the development of a number of preconditions for political processes of active citizenship, participation, negotiation of difference and debate. But what kind of a policy would be needed for this? What should such a policy focus on and are there concrete exemplary practices already in existence, which could serve for orientation?

A cultural policy that aims at a cultural democratisation in Europe would no longer fetishise the idea of “cultural diversity”, thus still following a 19th-century logic of equating “culture” and “nation”, while at the same time implicitly excluding all those who do not happen to belong to the “European peoples” from its only framework programme for cultural exchange [5]. A cultural policy that is part of democratic policies in Europe would not mainly invest in flagship projects like the “European Cultural Capital”, which connects city marketing with large-scale visibility campaigns for the EU. Instead, it would rather favour a political approach, which deals rigorously with one of the most pressing challenges in Europe, namely the permanent recomposition of its societies. New, proactive approaches in policy-making would have to be combined with the exploration of new forms of cooperation, exchange and alliance-building within the cultural field and beyond, within Europe and across its boundaries. This would help to create spaces of collective engagements and of a shared mutuality, which does not resort to the stability of an “identity”, but contributes to multiplying discourses and practices “that produce democratic subject positions”, towards a “radical and plural democracy” in Europe[6].

Strategies of (Self-)Empowerment and Spaces of Articulation

Three aspects could be defined as central objectives of such an approach to cultural polices in Europe: access and participation, the pluralisation of transnational public spheres[7] and the support of new forms of collaboration, partnerships and alliances. All these aspects are interconnected and enable strategies of (self-)empowerment and the articulation of subject positions. Thus, enhanced access does not mean to revive the 1970s slogan of “culture for all” or to further invest in populist mechanisms to increase the consumption of cultural mass products. Instead it indicates the necessity of not only making cultural products more accessible, but also the means for cultural production and dissemination – especially for those who experience political and social discrimination and marginalisation in Europe. In the meantime the formulation of such an objective has been conceded to the UNESCO to call in its “Convention for Cultural Diversity” to not only to protect, but specifically to promote cultural expressions, “paying due attention to the special circumstances and needs of women as well as various social groups” (Article 7)[8]. This is also a precondition for more participation in all kinds of cultural and political processes.

The cultural activities of various different groups are interconnected with the development of different forms of cultural initiatives and organisations, which in turn contribute to the creation of a differentiated and public sphere of the political. European cultural policies that support these activities and organisational forms could thus play a role in providing the conditions for a public sphere, which should not be perceived as one singular, totalizing or uniforming space, but as a plurality of different and dynamic (partial) public spheres for a transnational mutual exchange of ideas and positions as well as for the articulation of specific political interests and concerns. A cultural policy, which supports new modes of collaboration and alliance-building among self-organised groups or initiatives across different fields as well as across borders as an emancipatory practice, would help to create the conditions to deal constructively with cultural difference. It would help to create “spaces of appearance”[9] and articulation, where everyone speaks for themselves instead of letting others “represent” them or what Jacques Rancière calls the “part of those without a part”[10].

Democratisation of Borders

In his book “We, the people of Europe”, the French Philosopher Etienne Balibar identifies Europe’s borders as one of the central issues in the discussion about its future in the 21st century.[11] What Balibar calls for is a fundamental democratisation of the borders of Europe – in his view the only way of to prevent Europe from becoming a “fortress”. These borders are no longer situated only at the outer limits of its territories, but “they are dispersed a little everywhere, wherever the movement of information, people, and things is happening and is controlled – for example, in cosmopolitan cities”[12]. Furthermore, these borders are to a considerable extent invented or constructed borders, e.g. through the whole idea of a “European identity” and lead to the political and social exclusion of immigrants, asylum-seekers and all those who do not seem to “fit”. How Europe deals with its illegal immigrants and the excluded, he says, will be the gauge for how democratic Europe actually is. This puts a different perspective on  apodictic claims, recently often heard again, of the borders of Europe as “cultural borders”, which additionally evoke a current tendency to obsessively translate political and social processes into cultural ones.

A dismaying example for the brutal imposition of new borders against an “outside other” within Europe, specifically in conjunction with the efforts of the EU for common action towards a “European cultural space”, is provided by the city of Patras in Greece in the course of preparations for being European Capital of Culture in 2006: Local authorities in Patras repeatedly and systematically tried to expel the Roma population from the city by destroying their living spaces as part of some “cleaning operations”.[13] The makeover of a city for the purpose of cultural representation and the “improvement of the knowledge and dissemination of the culture and history of the European peoples”, as stated in article 151 of the European Treaties, here turns into a ruthless instrument of violent exclusion and discrimination.

This touches on another thesis developed by Balibar, that is the confrontation and interpenetration of two different concepts of a “people”, or “the people of Europe”. In his view this is also the precondition for the existence of a public sphere: On the one hand there is the ethnos, an imaginary community of descent and affiliation, on the other hand the demos, a “politically defined community of public negotiation and thebalancing of interests and conflicts”[14]. The systematic construction of a “European cultural identity”, which draws a demarcation line between those who seem to belong and those who don’t, not only perpetuates historical-political mechanisms of suppression under the flag of European culture. It also runs the risk of reducing “democracy”  “from a model for balancing conflictual political and social interests, which has to be permanently re-established and developed in terms of constitution as well as in terms of the concrete social interrelations” to a pre-existing “European value” and “‘cultural heritage’ – a property so to speak – of a fictitious European ethnicity.”[15]

Transversal Alliances Across Borders: Cultural Commons and Precariat!

What is needed, to cite Balibar again, are “independent initiatives of thought and action from below”, and - as already mentioned – these kinds of networks, temporary platforms or experimental collectives in the cultural field provide the space for debate, negotiations and exchange as fundamental preconditions for democratic participation. No matter whether these spaces are real ones or virtual, the transnationalisation of a cultural-political discourse that materialises in processes of networking across different fields and across borders ideally leads to the articulation of concrete proposals and demands. We can find these spaces in socio-cultural centres and their networking activities across Europe, for example, in interventionist or community arts projects, independent radio or media networks, net culture projects, intellectual forums etc. A decisive advantage of these projects and initiatives lies in the fact that they create spaces for minority positions, that they enable access and participation, the sharing and exchange of information outside the hegemonic mainstream, and small-scale decision-making processes.

In recent years we have been able to observe the participation of the cultural field in forums such as the European Social Forum or as part of different movements and actions against the effects of economic globalisation. This participation is no longer a decorative measure of contributing a “cultural programme”, but is – along with other social and political fields – one specific realm of thought and action. On the other hand, a number of extremely interesting, often only temporary alliances and partnerships have been initiated between the cultural field and political activism. Examples can be found in a collaborative projects between cultural projects and feminist or anti-racist initiatives, for example, or with different migrant organisations, such as – to name only a few - Precarias a la Deriva[16], the No Border No Nation Network[17], K.u.d.a.[18], the Universal Embassy[19], Maiz[20], etc. These initiatives relate directly to the current social struggles and depart from political concepts such as the “autonomy of migration”. These practices, collaborations and alliances are often risky, conflictual and very demanding. For example, the cooperation between migrants and members of the dominant society – in spite of the wish and a commitment to work together in partnership on equal grounds - can never assume a symmetry between the different subject positions[21], but always has to face the realities of – often multiple – exclusions and discriminations of those involved. It has to deal with realities of state violence, illegalisation, criminalisation and deportation.

Finally, I would like to mention two examples for currently emerging struggles and common action in relation to specific cultural-political conditions in a European as well as a global context: EuroMayday[22] is an initiative connecting part-timers, migrants, cultural operators, etc. against the precariousness that defines the conditions under which more and more people in Europe have to work and live. In the practices of the aforementioned Precarias a la Deriva in Madrid, the Glücklichen Arbeitslosen in Berlin, the French Intermittents, the EuroMayDay Parades in Barcelona, Milan and Vienna, or the devotion to “Saint Precarious”, we see components of a new concatenation of a movement against exclusion, exploitation, precarisation across different fields, which does not leave the neoliberal appropriation of urban, discursive and artistic spaces uncontested.[23]

The idea of establishing a realm of “Cultural Commons”[24] – to turn to the second example – is not only targeted against the current hype of the cultural and creative industries, but also in general against the increasing commercialisation of culture coupled with increasingly rigid intellectual property regimes, which reinforce mechanisms of exclusion and discrimination and surveillance and control. In the worst cases,, as we have seen more and more often in recent times, these lead to criminalisation, censorship and the persecution of political artists, such as in the case of the Critical Art Ensemble. Against this, a conception of culture as a common or public good is strongly linked to the strategic development of alternative modes of production and dissemination, e.g. in so-called Open Source Alliances or Free Software movements.

One specific hope that may be connected with these activities and initiatives is the coming-into-being of new forms of collectivity and a new commonality against the current governmental strategies of individualisation, a “coming community” that lays no claims to identity, a community that can be formed of singularities that refuse any criteria of belonging. It “relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property (so a concept, for example, being red, being French, being Muslim) but only in its being as such as it is”[25]:

“We are precarious. Which is to say some good things (accumulation of diverse knowledges, skills and abilities through work and life experiences in permanent construction), and a lot of bad ones (vulnerability, insecurity, poverty, social exposure). But our situations are so diverse, so singular, that it is difficult for us to find common denominators from which to depart or clear differences with which to mutually enrich ourselves. It is complicated for us to express ourselves, to define ourselves from the common ground of precariousness: a precariousness which can do without a clear collective identity in which to simplify and defend itself, but in which some kind of coming together is urgent. We need to communicate the lack and the excess of our work and life situations in order to escape the neoliberal fragmentation that separates, debilitates and turns us into victims of fear, exploitation, or the egotism of 'each one for herself.' Above all, we want to enable the collective construction of other life possibilities through the construction of a shared and creative struggle.”[26]

This text was published in: Sabine Kock (Ed.), EUROPEAN OFF NETWORK.
Visions and conditions in the field of indipendent / fringe / off theatre work in Europe, Vienna: IG Freie Theaterarbeit 2006. http://freietheater.at/material/Doku_EON.pdf

[1] Angela Mc Robbie: Everyone is Creative. Artist as Pioneers of the New Economy, in: T. Bennett and E. Silva (eds), Contemporary Culture and Everyday Life, Sociology Press, 2003

[2] Giorgio Agamben: The Coming Community, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 67

[3] European Parliament Draft Report on Cultural Industries, 3 June 2003, Rapporteur: Myrsini Zorba (2002/2127(INI))

[4] see Therese Kaufmann: Speaking With, Not For. The politics of ‘intercultural competence’, in: Beyond Borders 8, 2005

[5] Article 151

[6] Chantal Mouffe: "Democratic citizenship and the political community". In Ch. Mouffe, ed. Dimensions of Radical Democracy. New York: Verso, 1992 and Chantal Mouffe: The Return of the Political. New York: Routledge, 1992

[7] for both concepts see also Therese Kaufmann, Gerald Raunig: Anticipating European Cultural Polices, Vienna 2003, http://eipcp.net/policies/aecp

[8] Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, http://www.unesco.org/culture/culturaldiversity/convention_en.pdf

[9] Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1968, p. 198

[10] Jacques Rancière: Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, University of Minnesota Press, 1998

[11] Etienne Balibar: We, the people of Europe: Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, Princeton University Press 2004

[12] Ibd, p. 1

[13] see Der Standard, 23/24 July 2005

[14] Etienne Balibar: We, the people of Europe

[15] see Stefan Nowotny: Ethnos or Demos. Ideological implications within the discourse on "European culture", eipcp, http://www.eipcp.net/diskurs/d01/text/sn02.html

[21] Rubia Salgado: Participation and Documentary. Artists and Migrants in Participatory Art Projects, in: Martin Krenn: CITY VIEWS. A photo project: migrant perspectives, Wien: Verlag Turia + Kant 2004, republicart, Bd. 3, http://www.republicart.net/publications/cityviews_index.htm

[25] Giogo Agamben: The Coming Community, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 67

[26] From the invitation to participate in the first derive, 2002: http://www.republicart.net/disc/precariat/precarias01_en.htm