Tag Archives: Participatory Democracy

The Commons: Caught Between Sovereignty and Property

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

One of the main purposes of this blog is to pluralize fields of thought which on the surface present themselves as stable and indisputable dichotomies. We maintain that theories presenting themselves in such a fashion are potentially dangerous, intrinsically exclusionary and often serve narrow ideological ends. One of such discourses is the dichotomy between the categories of the “public”, understood as the domain of the state, and the “private”, the domain of free markets. The quintessential contrasts between government and private enterprise, between centralized planning and free markets, or between bureaucracies and corporations are ones which have conquered the way we conceptualize the world and the institutions governing it.

The point that this essay attempts to make however, is that there might be something lost by conceptualizing the world in such a narrow fashion. Are the domains of “public” and “private” adequate and efficient paradigms through which to categorize our world and our institutional arrangements?

A growing field of thought thinks otherwise. The movement in defense of  “the commons” claims that both the state and the private sector are inadequate stewards when it comes to managing the long term sustainable use of common resources. Common resources may consist of water basins, forests, fisheries, oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity as well as ancestral knowledge or cultural memories. They are things which not do not belong to anyone in particular, but which are fundamental to environmental sustainability and the fulfillment of human and civil rights (the right to water, food, education, etc.).

This movement believes that such resources belong to mankind in common, and that the private sector as well as governments have no right to exclude stakeholders from their management through instances of privatization or bureaucratization. As corporations and governments are unable to overcome their short-term visions, due to quarterly profit targets or election cycles, common resources –when possible- should be governed by local institutions through participatory and democratic practices.

And yet, the idea of local stakeholders governing the resources on which they depend (think of fishermen governing the sustainable use of coastline fisheries) appears outlandish and unfeasible. Surely, across-the board regulation or the privatization of such resources would lead to their more efficient use. Alas, as we well know, this is not so. Callous exploitation of natural resources, environmental disasters, privatization of education and healthcare, and the embarrassing incompetence of governments to produce anything resembling an agreement on climate change are proof of this.

So why does the idea of local self-government of common resources appear to most as naïve? As suggested by this essay’s introduction, one possible reasons is because the categories of “public” and “private” have successfully saturated socio-political discourse to the point where “alternatives” are hastily dismissed as the utopian fantasies of un-pragmatic idealists. It is therefore worth exploring this apparent dichotomy further, as what we find at its heart are not two mutually excluding and fundamentally opposed concepts, but rather two categories functioning along the same logic.

Let us turn to one of the greatest theorists of the modern nation, Max Weber, in order to understand some fundamental characteristics of modern governments. For Weber, modern states exercise a type of domination over their territory called “rational-legal” domination, based on the strict following of  legal rules carried out by stiff bureaucratic administrations. In fact, bureaucracies are a defining feature of modern governments, they are hierarchical structures of authority concerned primarily with efficiency. Bureaucratic administration is characterized by “precision, speed, un-ambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination” (Weber, 1948). They are thus “blind” to cultural norms, religious beliefs or traditional values:

“the more bureaucracy is dehumanized the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from all official business love, hatred and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation.” (Weber, 1948)

For Weber, modern politics is about domination through the bureaucratic apparatus: communal institutions and traditional modes of collective organization are thereby excluded from government through legislative means (or coercion) in the name of state sovereignty.

On the other end of the spectrum we find the proponents of the private sector. For neo-classical economists such as Milton Friedman the centralized bureaucracies of modern nations are inadequate regulators and inefficient distributors of goods. Free markets and private enterprise, on the other hand, are able to cater to individual and very specific needs of both consumers and providers. Moreover, competition between rational individuals motivated by their self-interest will lead to overall beneficial outcomes. Private property is the cornerstone of this theory, based on the assumption that private possession of a good, as opposed to public, leads to its most efficient use and management. Privatization of all kinds of goods, resources and services -at the expense of other types of possession- is thus to be actively pursued. (Steger & Roy 2010)

The public and private domains appear to be diametrically opposed, but a closer look will actually reveal a few fundamental similarities. Private property functions on a principle of exclusion: it excludes others from what is properly one’s own. The modern state is based on the same exact principle: excluding others from the government of what it has sovereignty on. The exploitation of natural resources, for example, is pursued by all governments in absolutist and exclusionary fashions no different from corporations. Both Weber’s bureaucratic state and Friedman’s free market therefore govern their respective property by excluding stakeholders from the government of common resources. Furthermore, a corporation and a state bureaucracy share the same hierarchical structure, with decision-making powers concentrated in the hands of senior administrators and a lack of stakeholder inclusion or participation.

As such, the “public-private” dichotomy effectively rules out possibilities such as joint or mixed forms of government of common resources. It exhausts the field of possibilities and displaces viable alternatives: only a private company or a government agency may legitimately govern a common resource. Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist and long-time advocate of the defense of the commons, calls this a zero sum game, in which less government leads to more privatization and more government yields less private enterprise. This zero-sum game excludes a priori ideas of participatory governance of common resources (Mattei, 2011)

The dichotomy between public and private, therefore, serves a specific ideological purpose: that to confute and exclude any theory advocating an inclusive, collaborative and diffused government of resources belonging to all in common. It is high time to refute the indisputable status of this dichotomy and open up the managing of the commons to other forms of joint government. Both the future and the universal access to common resources depends on it, as neither state sovereignty nor private property are capable of ensuring their sustainable use for generations to come.

For more information regarding the movement in defence of the commons, please consult the following links:

Bibliography:

  • Mattei, Ugo, 2011. Beni Comuni: un manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Steger, M. B. & Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Weber, Max, 1948. “Class, Status, Party” in From Max Weber: essays in sociology. Ed. Gerth, H. & Mills, C.W. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, neoliberalism, Participatory Democracy, political economy

Participatory Budgeting in the Age of Fiscal Austerity

By Giulio Caperchi

A Crisis of Legitimacy

Following the financial crisis, the ensuing bailouts and the passing of austerity measures, American and European voters increasingly feel alienated by their political representatives. The Tea Party in the US rails against politicians they believe to be incompetent, far removed and corrupt. Similarly, the Occupy and Indignados movements see their elected representatives as catering to the corporate elite, lobbyists and the so-called 1%. A recent Gallup poll (12-2011) reports that the approval rating for the US congress is at an all time low: only 11% of Americans think it is doing a good job while a whopping 86% believe they are performing abysmally[1]

Both our elected representatives and our economic institutions are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy. Notwithstanding our politicians’ talk of balanced budgets, fiscal responsibility and austerity, most of us -on both sides of the aisle- are angry at how our political system has handled the “great recession” and its aftermath. Many feel betrayed by the so-called experts which head the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and other such financial institutions which for years have glorified the self-regulating virtues of unfettered markets.

This resentment highlights a fundamental flaw in our political systems, namely the lack of democratic control over the economic policies which affect our lives. As our politicians fail to stop Wall Street’s “irrational exuberance” from spilling into Main Street we cannot but ask ourselves: how may we, as citizens, control the excesses of twenty first century capitalism?

Participatory Budgeting

An initial answer is suggested by an increasingly popular idea practiced at the level of local governance. Participatory budgeting is a democratic instrument through which members of a community collectively decide on how to spend part or all of the community’s budget. It was first experimented in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and now occurs in well over a thousand cities worldwide including New York and Chicago[3]. Participatory budgeting allows for ordinary citizens to engage in a deliberative process through which they may propose and debate projects on which to spend public money. In this way, discretionary power over the allocation of public resources is delegated from the elected representatives directly to citizens[4]. It is an instance of direct and participatory democracy through which the citizenry is empowered and rendered responsible for its own fiscal governance.

In most participatory budgeting processes neighborhood and thematic meetings are held monthly, where citizens along with elected officials propose ideas on how to spend public resources. For example, the citizens of the 49th Ward of Chicago decided to spend their $1.3 million budget on projects related to public safety, parks, the environment and transportation[5]. South of the equator, high in the Peruvian Andes the citizens of tiny Condebamba spent their town’s budget on micro-reservoirs for rural irrigation[6]. And still, on the other side of the Atlantic in the Tower Hamlets neighborhood of London, citizens used £2.4 million to improve local public services such as street lighting and education[7].

The positive effects that participatory budgeting engenders are worthy of notice. First of all it ensures transparency: the steps of project formulation, ratification and oversight occur in open and inclusive public assemblies. This reduces instances of corruption and clientelism afflicting local governments in many parts of the world. With transparency comes accountability: citizens know who is responsible for a given public project and who is responsible for its implementation[8].

Another positive effect of participatory budgeting is its ability to restore confidence in governmental institutions. Once citizens experience more control over their elected administration, public institutions are perceived as more trustworthy and accountable thereby garnering increased legitimacy. In fact, there are many cases in which tax revenues increase after participatory budgeting processes are implemented[9].

Above all however, participatory budgeting offers a deliberative space through which to democratize decision making processes. As such it allows for the inclusion of previously marginalized groups in the running of their towns and neighborhoods. Many participatory budgeting processes, particularly in Latin America, have empowered women, children, indigenous groups and the rural poor, thereby breaking negative cultural inertias such as machismo, paternalism and racism[10].

A lesson to be learned

Participatory budgeting is ultimately a democratic instrument which works best at the local level. It requires the active participation of citizens and time for lengthy deliberative assemblies. However, does it not highlight major problems within our national and international governance institutions? The lack of public oversight over financial decisions taken by unaccountable supranational institutions is a major source of contemporary popular discontent. The lack of transparency over incomprehensible financial instruments such as “collateralized debt obligations” and the unfathomable ramifications  of the derivatives market is another undeniable problem. The trends towards unelected technical governments such as Italy’s and Greece’s highlight the same issue: increasingly citizens are losing democratic control and oversight over vital economic and financial decisions.

However small and local, participatory budgeting teaches us that public oversight over fiscal policy is necessary. It restores legitimacy to those institutions which many feel have betrayed their trust as citizens. Participatory budgeting shows us that transparency and accountability are sacrosanct attributes and absolute prerequisites for any functioning democracy. And yet, increasingly we have neither: deals are still being made behind the closed doors of G8 summits.

Participatory budgeting’s fundamental lesson is that when the “experts” guiding our financial institutions -along with the politicians who appointed them- fail, we must ultimately rely on our own capabilities as citizens to set our nations’ priorities straight once more. Its renowned success as a democratizing practice teaches us that, at least locally, citizens are capable of fiscal self-determination. Only increased democratic participation in our economic and political institutions will restore the legitimacy which they dangerously lack today. Continuing on the path our politicians are presently following will increasingly alienate citizens from the political process and drastically reduce confidence in our democratic institutions. And this is a dangerous path indeed.

Bibliography


[3] Participatory Budgeting Project

[4] UN Habitat 2004

[5] Moore 2010

[6] Lindemann & Llambí 2010

[7] Participatory Budgeting Unit UK 2009

[8] Wampler 2000

[9] UN Habitat 2004

[10] Cabannes 2004

1 Comment

Filed under democracy, Participatory Democracy

“Real Democracy”: Negotiating Difference within Consensus

Caught Between Habermas and Mouffe

From Syntagma Square to Zuccotti Park many protesters claim to be exercising a novel idea of democratic politics, one which breaks away from the worn-out paradigms of representative democracy by presenting itself as genuinely inclusive, direct and participatory. One of the most visible slogans amongst the European Indignados movements is that of “democracia real”, meaning “real democracy”. Similarly, in the US Occupy movements many speak of new kind of democracy called “consensus democracy”[1].

This new type of politics is exercised in the hundreds of open assemblies occurring worldwide in various occupied squares. It is referred to as “real democracy” because decisions are not taken by majority vote but rather through extensive deliberation over decisions which all consent to.

And yet we may ask, what is actually “new” about consensus democracy? And is it bringing any significant contribution to democratic theory? It is useful to compare consensus democracy with other democratic theories which claim to be just as participatory, direct and inclusive. Consensus democracy in fact shares many traits with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “deliberative democracy” and Chantal Mouffe’s theory of “agonistic democracy”. From this brief analysis, we will see that the major challenge faced by these theories is the accommodation of social plurality within the process of achieving a collective consensus.

How does Consensus Decision Making Work?

Consensus decision-making offers a procedure through which participants of an assembly may take decisions collaboratively through deliberation. The decisions taken through this process are not necessarily ones that all individuals support wholeheartedly, but ones that everyone can live with[2]. As such, its goal is the facilitation of a deliberative procedure in which proposals may be reworked so as to accommodate as many interests as possible.

Consensus decision-making is an inclusive, participatory, collaborative, agreement-seeking and cooperative method of deliberation. It therefore attempts to remedy the exclusionary byproducts of majority vote and top-down approaches towards decision making[3]. However, it is not a process limiting itself to the achievement of compromise; rather, it attempts to construct new proposals from the confrontation of different ideas[4].

Participants in the assembly are helped by facilitators, which aid the smooth running of the discussion. An impartial moderator keeps the discussion on track and makes sure that anyone wanting to speak is allowed to do so. Other facilitators keep time and take down the minutes (this guarantees transparency). In order not to interrupt the discussion with applause, jeers or boos, sign language signals are practiced: the waving of open palms (twinkling) expresses consent, the crossing of the arms signifies dissent[5].

Assembly discussions produce proposals which are tested for consent. Participants have four choices when faced with a proposal. Firstly, they may express consent. Secondly, they may stand aside, signaling that they don’t fully support the proposal but that they are not against it. Thirdly, they may raise concerns and ask that it be modified. Lastly, they may block it, thereby effectively vetoing it. If this occurs, the proposal returns to assembly discussion, where it is modified/amended and re-tested for consensus until all consent to it. Blocking a proposal is a serious matter. It means that a participant deeply disagrees with it and that she/he will leave the assembly if it passes[6].

This type of democratic politics has been adopted by the Occupy and Indignados movements as an alternative to the “politics as usual” paradigm which has crippled our democratic institutions. Its leaderless and non-hierarchical mode of organization -which finds its only legitimate voice in the open, egalitarian and transparent popular assembly- provides an alternative to both traditional party-politics as well as vanguard-driven political struggle. Consensus democracy is more than anything a procedure: a process which allows for a more inclusive, direct and participatory exercise of democracy.

Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

In a similar way Jürgen Habermas’s democratic theory aims at creating a type of consensus based on extensive deliberation.  Habermas asserts that there exists a type rationality implicit in the act of communication between individuals. Communicative rationality grants legitimacy to deliberation in virtue of its intelligibility, correctness, sincerity and truth. If two individuals feel that the discussion they are having is characterized by these attributes the outcome of their deliberation will be perceived by both as rational and therefore legitimate[7].

Habermas then develops the concept of the “ideal speech situation”, an ideal space in which perfect and balanced deliberation occurs: where there is full participation, where all are equal, all have a voice, and where there are no asymmetrical power relationships. These conditions allow for the maximization of communicative rationality. If we were to re-model our political institutions on the ideal speech situation the decisions reached through such a process would be endowed with a rational consensus, and thus garner increased legitimacy. Decisions taken through this process are legitimate and enjoy a rational consensus when they are determined by the quality of the better argument rather than power[8].

He is therefore arguing that increased democratic deliberation and participation grant legitimacy to the decision making process . Introducing something akin to the ideal speech situation within our political institutions (and in civil society) would begin to restore the democratic legitimacy which they currently lack[9]. Deliberative democracy therefore attempts to produce a rational consensus between rational participants, achieved through a deliberative procedure which ensures inclusion, participation and communicative equality.

Mouffe and Agonistic Democracy

Chantal Mouffe wholeheartedly rejects the possibility of a consensus reached through the procedures of deliberative democracy. For her, Habermas fails to recognize the true nature of the political, which is not underlined by rationalism but rather by political antagonism. Mouffe believes that society is irreducibly plural, in the sense that there exist a multiplicity of different identities and ideologies which often possess irreconcilable and diametrically opposed positions. The idea that all identities may deliberate on the basis of a shared communicative rationality is therefore implausible. Also, the idea that an unadulterated and unbiased ideal speech situation should serve as a model is unrealistic[10]. Mouffe’s main critique is that Habermas understands of a rational consensus specifically in Eurocentric and liberal terms, a consensus founded primarily on individual rights and the rule of law. This excludes, a priori, individuals and collective identities who do not fully identify with liberal tenets. Such groups are therefore perceived as irrational or premodern (aboriginal peoples or Islamist movements for example) whom often react antagonistically towards impositions of liberal consensus. As such, a rational consensus may perversely exclude difference as it would not allow irrational ideas into the deliberative process[11].

For Mouffe, the future of democratic politics lies in the transformation of antagonistic social conflict into agonistic political confrontation. Instead of absorbing social plurality into a universal liberal-democratic framework we must erect the democratic institutions and discourses which allow for increased political confrontation between different ideas and identities. The sharing of the symbolic spaces and participatory democratic institutions in which to exercise our democratic rights attempts to defuse antagonism by transforming it into “agonistic” confrontation. This implies a confrontation not between enemies but between political adversaries[12]. Mouffe concludes that the “stuff” of democracy is political confrontation. Attempting to reach a final rational consensus spells the death of democracy because it puts an end to political confrontation which is the life-blood of democratic politics[13]. The type of consensus emerging from such a Mouffe’s theory is therefore not a universally shared consensus but one emerging from democratic confrontation:

“This is how I envisage the agonistic struggle, a struggle between different interpretations of shared principles, a conflictual consensus: consensus on the principles, disagreement about their interpretation”[14]

Occupy: deliberative or agonistic?

While Habermas justifies his democratic theory on the possibility of an universal rational consensus, Mouffe founds hers directly on political confrontation. The first seeks the absorption of political confrontation within consensus, the second makes political confrontation its raison d’être. But where does consensus decision-making enter this debate?

Deliberative and consensus democracy share the fact that they both offer a procedure through which to democratize decision making. However the main difference between them is that underlining deliberative democracy is the assumption that all participants share some understanding of what constitutes rationality. Yet, Mouffe has revealed that the understanding of this alleged universal rationality is specifically a liberal one, and hence is capable of excluding individuals whom do not identify with it. Contrarily, consensus decision-making makes no such assumptions. Its primary goal is to create the space and process in which egalitarian deliberation and decision-making between different political identities may occur.

In respect to the accommodation of social plurality, consensus democracy as practiced by the Occupy and Indignados movements is closer to Mouffe’s agonistic democracy. It does not seek to absorb different political identities into a rational consensus but attempts to accommodate difference temporarily precisely through deliberative confrontation. The assemblies in the Occupy movements are very confrontational as their participants hail from disparate political positions on the ideological spectrum, from the liberal to the anarchist. Discussions are both lively and intense. And yet, consensus is more than often reached precisely because they are allowed to confront each other politically and forced to reach temporary collective decisions – which may always be improved and modified in the future. This allows the assemblies to recognize what Mouffe calls the irreducible plurality of the social; they understand that we are all different politically, culturally and socially, and that difference cannot be absorbed by any idea of universal consensus.

Moreover, the ability of any participant to block a proposal forces the assembly to recognize and negotiate with minority views, an issue which most democratic orders systematically ignore and overrule. The consensus reached in the Occupy movements is therefore a contingent one: the product of temporary and negotiated discursive articulations and the child of an open, egalitarian and participatory democratic procedure. And these few facts alone, are truly breaking new ground within the field of political theory.

Bibliography

Habermas, J. 1996, Between Facts and Norms. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK

Hartnett, T. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making [online] Group Facilitation, available at http://www.groupfacilitation.net/Articles%20for%20Facilitators/The%20Basics%20of%20Consensus%20Decision%20Making.html

Mouffe, C. 2000, The Democratic Paradox. Verso:  Essex, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, On The Political. Routledge: Abingdon, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, Articulated Power Relations – Markus Miessen in conversation with Chantal Mouffe [online] available at: http://roundtable.kein.org/node/545

Seeds for Change, 2010 Consensus Decision Making. Seedsforchange.org.uk, available at: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/consensus

Seeds for Change, Making Decisions by Consensus. Seedsforchange.org.uk, available at: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/practicalconsensus.pdf


[2] Making decisions by consensus

[3] Hartnett, Tim. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making, http://www.grouopfacilitation.net

[4] Consensus decision Making seedsforchange.org.uk

[6] Consensus Decision Making, seedsforchange.org.uk p6

[7] Habermas 1996,  p119

[8] Habermas 1996,  p226

[9] Habermas 1996,  p304

[10] Mouffe 2000, 49

[11] Mouffe 2000, p46

[12] Mouffe 2005, p16

[13] Mouffe 2005, p31

[14] Mouffe interview

9 Comments

Filed under Chantal Mouffe, democracy, Democratic Theory, Habermas, Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Participatory Democracy, social movements

Why Occupy?

Neo-liberalism’s false choice

The politico-financial system which has led to the present crisis has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions. People have lost their homes, students are beholden to enormous amounts of debt, rating agencies downgrade our bonds, and unemployment remains stubbornly high –just to name a few of our ailments. But perhaps the greatest violence perpetrated by this unsustainable system is presenting itself as the only solution to the problem it was responsible for in the first place.

By Barcex (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Under the pressure of financial markets and supranational institutions, sovereign nations were forced firstly to bail-out a system on the brink of collapse and secondly forced swallow austerity measures devised with the aim of easing the markets’ fears of sovereign debt insolvency. The complex “packages” the European Central Bank is concocting to save debt-ridden countries in the Euro-zone are aimed not at reforming an unsustainable system but at keeping the show going on just as it has. We are still working within the “business as usual” paradigm, accepting harsh measures with no strings attached.

This occurs because of the false choice presented to us by our political and economic institutions, namely that there is no alternative to the neo-liberal hegemony: we must therefore choose between saving an inherently unsustainable system on the one hand, and an Armageddon of financial meltdown, chaos and anarchy on the other.

Such a false choice is nurtured by a well-rehearsed narrative: since the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union, we are told, capitalism has remained the “last game in town”. Increasingly, more and more nations have followed Huntington’s fabled “third wave of democratization” and embraced the American model of the liberal capitalist democracy[1]. The triumph engendered by this progressive trend has led some to proclaim its universalization and to declare the end of history, for no better system could possibly be devised by human intellect[2]. The lesson is clear: there is simply no alternative to this political and financial system.

The Logics of Occupying

In the light of this situation, the American and British Occupy movements along with the European Indignados merely appear as a knee-jerk reaction to the crisis. They are portrayed as having no demands, no propositions and as a ramshackle puzzle of heterogeneous identities unable to formulate a common statement of intent. It seems essentially an anti-capitalist mobilization simply venting out its “rage against the machine”, no different from the 90s no-global movements of Seattle and Genova. However this time it’s different.

Naomi Klein has pointed out one important characteristic of this new phenomenon. While past protests against neo-liberalism have targeted periodic meetings such as WTO and G8 conventions, this time the Occupy movements are here to stay indefinitely. This means that the protest against the system is not transitory but sustained[3]. There is therefore a particular logic behind the act of indefinite occupation: it is a symbolic re-appropriation of democratic space in which to exercise our rights as democratic citizens. Reclaiming that space therefore openly challenges the false choice presented to us by neo-liberalism.

Occupy: a space for difference and social plurality

The Occupy and Indignados movements are indeed a collage of heterogeneous identities. Pacifist, feminist, gay, environmental, and all sorts of other movements have pitched their tents together in hundreds of cities worldwide. This is often seen by the media and political pundits as an inherent weakness, as it contributes to the inability of producing common statements and proposals. Yet, this is no weakness. Contrarily, it is a conscious expression of difference and has at its heart a precise message, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong with our democratic institutions: political representation has ceased to reflect  the multiplicity of identities and demands found in society. Our political delegates are distant, unaccountable, over-privileged and in many cases corrupted by the power of organized crime and/or of campaign contributions and donations from the private sector.

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The act of occupation by this multitude (I am referring to Hardt and Negri’s multitude) of social movements and private citizens expresses the discontent caused by years of government by unresponsive, dysfunctional and far-removed legislative assemblies. Occupying the public square means reclaiming a space in which diversity may be publicly expressed: a space which is not provided by our liberal-democratic constitutional orders and our representative system. The occupied public square reflects social plurality: it shows us that society is intrinsically different and plural on ethnic, political, cultural, economic and spiritual levels and that these differences have a sacrosanct right to be expressed and represented. Occupying the square provides a platform of democratic representation for difference which has been systematically excluded and silenced by the neo-liberal hegemony.

Occupy: a space for transparency

Occupying a square is also an act of openness. Inclusion and participation are the main attributes of the public assemblies of these movements. Every action, decision, thought or idea is formulated collectively and openly in the square[4]. The fact that the decision-making process is exercised in a public location and on public property is a symbolic assertion of the need for transparency in our political and economic institutions.

In this way, not only is the occupied square a democratic space in which diversity is adequately represented, it is also a space in which power asymmetries (gender, cultural, economic, etc.) are laid bare and may be denounced precisely because of its inherently open and transparent character. This is in stark contrast with the obscure, distant and unaccountable ways our governing bodies are run. It is the reclaiming of a transparent space which is not provided to us under the neo-liberal hegemony.

Occupy: as space for an alternative

Above all however, occupying the square intends to reclaim a space in which an alternative to the status quo may be constructed. This is by far the most radical and successful achievement of the movement. Its success lies not in the presentation of a fully defined new paradigm which will serve as an alternative to the neo-liberal status quo, but the demonstration that there is the need for a space in which alternative ideas may be expressed, deliberated, contested and experimented. How can any alternative to, or reform of, the present system ever emerge if we lack the space in which to express them?

Through the reclaiming of public squares the Occupy and Indignados movements have shown us that our political orders are lacking the democratic institutions and the democratic instruments through which new ideas may be proposed. They have shown us that our western democracies are in desperate need of institutions which foster participation, transparency and inclusion so that new ideas may emerge and change this system which grotesquely feeds on its own inherent contradictions.

In this light, the over-rehearsed slogan “another world is possible” does not present itself as a naïve hippie’s dream of a tree-hugging utopia, but as an active challenge to the idea that neo-liberalism is “the last game in town” and that no alternative may even exist. None of these nascent movements will propose a new economic or political system to replace this one. But they will invite us all to participate in an open, transparent and inclusive public space so that we may collectively debate, converse and construct it together through democratic deliberation and  political participation.

Conclusions

Ultimately, the very fact that such a movement is actually in the squares occupying indefinitely is presently the only check on the un-democratic excesses of this unsustainable system. There is no political effort on behalf of any elected government in the world (except Iceland probably) that is willing to reject the false choice of neo-liberalism – which increasingly looks more like an ultimatum. Bailouts, austerity measures and these so-called un-elected “technical governments” are giving up the hard-earned democratic rights that define us as democratic citizens: they are giving in to the neo-liberal ultimatum.

In this context, the Occupy and Indignados movements are the only mobilizations  standing up to this blatant assault on popular sovereignty and human dignity. They are the only movements which have rejected this false choice and reclaimed a public space in which people may be truly represented, where an effort for transparency reigns, and in which to collectively construct an alternative through democratic confrontation. And this fact alone, for me, has won half of the battle already.


[1] Huntington, S.P. 2003 “Democracy’s Third Wave” in eds. Dahl, Shapiro, Cheibub. The Democracy Sourcebook. MIT Press: Boston

[2] Fukuyama, F. 1992 The End of History and the Last Man. Penguin: London

[3] Klein, N. 14 Oct. 2011 “The most important thing in the world”, The Occupied Wall Street Journal [online] available @ http://occupiedwallstjournal.com/2011/10/the-most-important-thing-in-the-world/

[4] takethesquare.net 2011 “Quick Guide on Group Dynamics in People’s Assemblies” [online] available @ http://takethesquare.net/2011/07/31/quick-guide-on-group-dynamics-in-peoples-assemblies/

2 Comments

Filed under Indignados, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, Occupy Wall Street, Participatory Democracy, social movements

The Democratic Deficit, Crisis and Participatory Democracy

Why is Participation Important?

In the past decade, the theme of participation has increasingly gained more prominence within the fields of governance and development. It is being mainstreamed within the policy making process, in public planning and in public monitoring, slowly gaining legitimacy and taking a place as a viable alternative (or valuable contribution) to standard development and political paradigms. Simply put, participation entails the right of citizens to be included within decision-making processes.

However, we must still ask the question of why participation is important, or, perhaps a more pressing question is: why is participation necessary in the first place? Participation is necessary because the modes of thought, disciplines and institutions which have traditionally informed the fields of governance and development in the past century are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy and accountability. Moreover, novel contingencies such as the ecological crisis, food insecurity and the global financial meltdown are putting such institutions under unprecedented levels of pressure. Participation is thus seen as a way to render existing institutions more accountable, transparent and efficient. Mainstreaming a re-invigorated conception of democratic citizenship within contemporary governance institutions is therefore the answer to the economic and political crisis of liberal democracies.

Some, however, would still raise the question: but is our present system that bad? Does it actually need to be re-conceptualized? Does the frightening word “participation” (which evokes the terror of Isaiah Berlin’s positive liberty) be included within the discourse of a system which, after all, has generated wealth for many, defeated totalitarianisms, instituted countless democracies and defended human rights? One might detect here a hint of Fukuyama’s thesis and reach the conclusion that our system, namely the capitalist liberal democracy, is not perfect but it’s the best system we have (as put by Churchill), and that giving it sufficient time to fix its present problems is better than risking a “citizen revolution” (see Ecuador) that could spiral out of control and into a totalitarian regime thereby losing our sacrosanct individual rights.

It is exactly these questions and deductions which we must contest by demonstrating that this system really is in a serious crisis, and that time is running out. I therefore agree with Zizek’s statement of how liberalism died twice at the dawn of the 21st century: knocked out firstly by the jab of 9-11 and secondly by the hook of the financial meltdown (Zizek 2009). To this we must add the utter failure of developed and developing nation’s governments of reaching any form of meaningful agreement aimed at halting global warming and dealing with the looming ecological crisis.

Yet, the problems are not only to be found in the realm of power politics and political economy. The root cause of crisis, I believe, resides not in a “mismanagement” of the political and economic institutions of the system per se, but in the very epistemological framework which upholds the system and its institutions in the first place; and, taking it a step further, in the symbolic framework within which democracy is exercised (Mouffe 2001). Fixing the system would therefore require us to challenge the very notions of what a democratic regime actually is. Without a radical challenge and critique of these notions, proposing alternatives becomes impossible, for the simple fact that they would build upon the faulty foundations of a system whose alleged “sustainability” is inscribed within the logics of crisis.

The Democratic Deficit

In the past decade there has been a growing consensus regarding the democratic deficit affecting the liberal representative democratic model. This is often referred to as a crisis of accountability, a crisis of legitimacy and a general loss of trust in political representatives and in democratic institutions (Cornwall 2001). Robert A. Dahl points out that citizen confidence in democratic institutions of the trilateral democracies (North America, Europe and Japan) has rapidly declined since the 1980s. Although citizens still believe in democracy as the appropriate model of governance there is a widespread feeling that key democratic institutions are increasingly removed from and unaccountable to the citizen. (Dahl 2000)

In the U.S.A., Theda Skocpol denounces the loss of civic political participation in government as a cause for the grave contemporary democratic deficit. For her, the loss of the Tocquevillian characteristics of civic association which had nurtured U.S.A. democracy in the past have been replaced by a conception of the citizen understood as a consumer rather than a member of society. As a result “early twenty-first-century Americans live in a diminished democracy, in a much less participatory and more oligarchicly managed civic world.”(Skocpol 2003)

Gaventa and Cornwall point out that within the context of the blurring of the lines between state, civil society and market actors we are experiencing a serious crisis of accountability. As responsibilities are transferred from the state to NGOs and the private sector the question of who is accountable to who for the provision of vital public services (particularly in the developing world) remains unanswered, therefore potentially threatening citizen and human rights (Cornwall 2001). This has contributed to a “greater crisis of legitimacy in the relationship between citizens and the democratic institutions affecting their lives”. (Gaventa 2006)

Finally, in Voices of the Poor, a World Bank report by Narayan et al., surveys conducted on tens of thousands of people in the global south reveal that the poor of the world perceive a serious crisis in governance and are experiencing a growing loss of trust in domestic and international governance institutions. (Narayan 2000)

The Cause of the Deficit

We are, however, in need of a critique of the very foundations of the liberal model in order to explain the above mentioned loss of accountability, legitimacy and trust our democratic institutions are currently experiencing. We can find such a critique in the work by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Their most important contribution to our discussion lies in challenging the notion that democratic subjects possess an a priori identity. Liberalism attributes to the individual a conception of subjectivity which is inherent, objective, inalienable, which exists universally and is not created nor influenced by culture or society: humans are rational individuals before they are members of society. This particular articulation of identity is one of the root causes of why liberal democracy is now in crisis and cannot address the issue of the continuous alienation of the citizen from the sphere of decision making:

“The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject which sees individuals as prior to society, bearers of natural rights, and either utility maximizing agents or rational subjects.” (Mouffe, 2000)

For Laclau and Mouffe, the liberal conception of the nature of man is limited, and its acceptance (and at times imposition) defeats one of democracy’s main tenets: pluralism. The hegemony of the individualist framework precludes the possibility of existence of different forms of identification, namely a more communitarian one. If democracy is the realm of contestation amongst a plurality of different demands, identities, ideology etc. (legitimized by our inalienable right to freedom of expression) then the acceptance of only one form of identification defeats democracy’s purpose in the first place. Democracy, therefore, is the very terrain in which identification is constructed and articulated.

In this way, the cause of the democratic deficit resides in the crisis of the very individualist paradigm which has shaped, molded and informed democracy as we know it today. The tension between the conception of a rational individual and new (and potentially dangerous) forms of identification such as ethnic, fundamentalist, nationalist or religious ones are putting liberalism under incredible amounts of stress.

It is here that the dimension of participation enters the discourse of democratic theory. Participation, informed by radical plural democracy, embraces the moment of democratic contestation and condemns attempts at defining once and for all democracy’s ultimate nature. For Laclau and Mouffe, the very act of naming and defining what the terms democracy, liberty, equality or justice entail (these being prime examples of empty and floating signifiers) always involve an act of exclusion. Therefore the only legitimate democratic framework would be one which would consider the continuous contestation between different ideals to be the most “just” expression of democratic exercise rather than trying to fix meaning once and for all. Hence participatory democracy’s stress on inclusion, extension of rights and extension of citizenship so that the moment of contestation can be nurtured by as many different forms of identification and demands as possible. We will return to the specifics and consequences of participatory democracy later.

A Reflection

We must however still ask a paramount question: if liberalism is not delivering its promise for a bright new democratic future and the pursuit of happiness for all, then why are we not able change system? Why do we still consent? Zizek is right in pointing out the fact that we were able to mobilize billions of dollars of tax-payer money in the matter of hours in order to fix a financial system which is still dependent on booms and busts, yet we are unable to face up to the environmental crisis or world hunger (problems created by the inherent contradictions of the financial system in the first place).

The root of our consent lies in our total unconscious acceptance of the individualist paradigm with its strongest component being the inseparable binomial: individual freedom-free markets; and that is why, deep down in all of us, we thought it necessary to save a faltering capitalist order rather than seizing the opportunity to create meaningful and sustainable change. Within the liberal collective unconscious, changing or reforming free markets equates to giving up individual freedom.

In its struggle to emancipate itself from the yoke of tyranny (namely through the historical sequence: enlightenment-II WW-fall of the soviet bloc), I believe the West has lost its ability to confront problems collectively. Liberation discourse, in its purest sense, has effectively freed the individual from all external influence exerted on it. And free we are indeed, yet the process of liberation from government, from collective responsibility, from tyranny, etc. has left us, well, with nothing. We are free from all constraints: the individual has been emancipated and is autonomous…but what is he or she left with? This is probably one of the most important cruxes at the heart of the liberal crisis. All the individual creativity, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (actions which are possible only because of  the individual’s autonomy from the collective) cannot ever dream of dealing with the financial meltdown or the environmental crisis for the simple reason that individual action cannot resolve problems which are global. So what are we missing? What have we lost in our glorious pursuit of freedom? I believe we have quite simply lost the “we”.

The key point here is to realize that the crisis we are experiencing now is a collective crisis: it is affecting all of humankind across cultures, classes and continents. The crisis has not been caused by individual irresponsibility nor can it be fixed by virtuous individual behavior. Our unsustainable system can be transcended solely if it is understood that the problem is rooted in a “we” and not in fact in an “I”.

The answer, however, does not lie in the institution of a “we” as a tree-hugging “global village” where brown, yellow, and white children hold hands in a circle and sing “we are the world”. Nor does it lie, as Marxists and radical Libertarians alike see it, in freeing the “we” through the (violent) removal of a conspiratorial corporate elite which “puppeteers” the politico-economical infrastructure. The radical dimension of recognizing the “we” allows us to detect that the root of the problem lies in our consent to the liberal order, and, more specifically, in our consent to the symbolic, ontological and teleological dimensions of liberalism.

On Participation and Plurality

So we return to our initial question: why is participation important? Participation, in the terms proposed to us by the likes of Laclau and Mouffe, is important because it is not presented as a panacea. Liberalism, Marxism and Nationalism have been presented as paradigms with which to achieve a “just society”, yet we have witnessed the disastrous consequences that all three ideologies have had on the past century. The relativist point here is that there is no panacea in the first place, and that the heart of democracy lies exactly in the confrontation amongst different interpretations of what constitutes the “we” in democracy. Recognizing the moment of contestation between differing demands is realizing the radical plural dimension of democracy. Especially in Laclau’s most recent work, it is increasingly clear that it is the very act of contestation (antagonism) and alliance building (equivalential chains) which produces subjectivity, identification and ultimately a hegemonic order (popular identities) (Laclau 2004). Denying healthy confrontation through the imposition of one “objective” and “universal” form of identification is dangerous.

Therefore we must resist saturating democratic theory solely with notions of representation, the rule of law and consensus building, and understand that extending rights and citizenship coupled with the inclusion of citizens within the decision making process is at the heart of democratic theory and can begin to provide alternative venues through which we can begin to solve our collective problems and reduce global injustices. Participatory democracy is therefore a perpetual process of democratic contestation which must provide a venue for all, and include all in democratic deliberation and contestation alike.

“And the fact that this must be envisaged as an unending process should not be cause for despair because the desire to reach a final destination can only lead to the elimination of the political and the destruction of democracy.” (Mouffe, 2000)

“It is only when the democratic discourse becomes available to articulate the different forms of resistance to subordination that the conditions will exist to make possible the struggle against different types of inequality.” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1989)

Bibliography:

Cornwall, A. Gaventa, J. (2001) “Bridging the Gap: Citizenship, Participation and Accountability” In PLA Notes No. 40: 32-35. International Institute for Environment and Development

Dahl, R. (2000) “A Democratic Paradox?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 115, No. 1 PP. 35-40

Gaventa, J. (2006) “Triumph, Deficit or Contestation? Deepening the “Deepening Democracy” Debate”. IDS Working Paper 267. Institute of Development Studies

Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason. Verso

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Verso

Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. Verso

Narayan, D. et all (2000) Voices of the Poor: Crying out for Change. Washington, DC. World Bank

Skocpol, T. (2003) Diminished Democracy: from membership to management in American civil life. University of Oklahoma Press

Zizek, S. (2009) First as Tragedy, then as Farce. Verso

1 Comment

Filed under democracy, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, Participatory Democracy, political theory, post-structuralism