The ‘Movements of the Squares’ and the Contested Resurgence of the ‘Sovereign People’ in Contemporary Protest Culture

22 Pages Posted: 21 May 2014

See all articles by Paolo Gerbaudo

Paolo Gerbaudo

King’s College London - School of Humanities

Date Written: May 20, 2014


The movements of the squares of 2011, encompassing the indignados in Spain and Greece and Occupy Wall Street in the US, have manifested a resurgence of the discourse of the “sovereign people” and of “popular identities” in protest movements. Drawing on first-hand observations and in-depth interviews with movement participants in this article I argue that in adopting “the people” as their subjective framework these movements have attempted to exploit the widening political opportunities opened by the financial crisis of 2007-08, and move away from the self-ghettoising tendencies that have dominated previous movements and the anti-globalisation movement in particular. In adopting a popular identity activists have cast themselves as an expression of the vast majority, of the “99%”, in contrast to the valuing of minorities of previous movements. Moreover, they have made claim to normality and common sense counter to the antagonistic heroism dominant in many predecessors. Finally, they have reclaimed a sense of belonging to the national community, to balance the cosmopolitanism of previous movements. The political implications of this "popular turn" in protest culture have been highly ambivalent and contested. The re-appropriation of a discourse of the sovereign people has served the positive purpose of providing a unifying banner to reverse the fragmentation of the “identity politics” dominant in previous decades. However, the association of the “popular” with the “national”, its strong connotations of uniformity and its inherent haziness have also raised serious concerns among activists.

Keywords: Anti-austerity protests; Collective identity; Financial crisis; Indignados; Majoritarianism; Occupy Wall Street; Popular identity

Suggested Citation

Gerbaudo, Paolo, The ‘Movements of the Squares’ and the Contested Resurgence of the ‘Sovereign People’ in Contemporary Protest Culture (May 20, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Paolo Gerbaudo (Contact Author)

King’s College London - School of Humanities ( email )

London, WC2R2LS
United Kingdom

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