“I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate…they decide” — Anonymous graffiti
In my previous post, dealing with the issue of the 15 M movement in Spain, I pointed out the demands of the demonstrators for participative democracy and their criticisms of the dominant politics. These are demands that I share. However, on this point (and confusion over it) I want to sound some alarms that I find necessary not only as a result of the current conjuncture, but also to favor a new radically sustainable agenda on the left.
Frequently people point to (I believe correctly) the deficiencies in the dominant politics; however, we should analyze the contexts and contours that serve as the framework of these politics. Contemporary democracies occupy extensive territories (within the borders of modern nation states) and they possess structures made up of classes, groups and diverse social identities.
Such complexity by no means implies simple processes (nor simplifiable ones) for the regulation of collective life. This entails the need for institutions capable of channeling the demands and actions of citizens and that they organize the response to these from the authorities of state power. But this isn’t the case; we don’t live in Ulysses’ oikos1 or in a bucolic Swiss canton of the 17th century.
As the news reminds us, there exists a real loss of quality in these authorities and of the democracies they govern. Every day we learn of parliaments controlled by media or corporate powers, by parties that represent groups of power above ideologies and activism, by businesspeople converted into presidents.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Ortega or Putin, Bush or Berlusconi, Gaddafi or Donald Trump. What’s certain is that there is a type of “public person” willing to treat citizens like telenovela viewers, approach voters like customers, and deal with critical voices like inconvenient bedbugs. These are arrogant characters who bury any ideal of democratic policy.
Apples and Oranges
But it’s one thing to criticize the existing deficiencies in the existing forms of political representation and another very different one to bet on an illusory (and dangerous) replacement of the spaces that shelter those processes through diffuse mechanisms of direct or participative democracy.
I appreciate that a part of the movement in support of participative democracy and change within the capitalist system (several of whose members are friends of mine) share those dangerous illusions…which usually cost dearly.
It turns out to be even more harmful when one confuses the possibility of exercising direct democracy voluntarily in a small assembly and for a certain time, with massive concentrations of party members supporting a political position, social organizations blocked from autonomous participation, or restricted mechanisms for the approval of laws in public forums (by the simple raising of hands and without a minimum amount of deliberation worthy of that name) and in other complex initiatives.
Between the ideal of the emancipatory participation of social activists and the “participationist” manipulation of governments (including those considered “progressive”) there is a long and dangerous stretch that the defenders of a new left should not overlook.
Frequently the just demands to overcome those “problems of liberal democracy” appeal to participation, but when combining the authorities with representation, this winds up consolidating authoritarianism. By this we understand a type of political regime where control is privileged, over and above consensus; it concentrates power in a man, an organization or a clique. The value of the representative institutions is reduced and the autonomy of the political subsystems and social organizations is undermined or eliminated due to their potential for political opposition and social activism.
Authoritarianism can assume diverse ideological robes — occasionally “anti-authoritarian” — and emerge in multiple historical contexts, as demonstrated by experiences over the past two centuries (fascist, Stalinist, corporate, catholic, modernizing, neoliberal…).
But in their hearts, people always end up being the monkey wrench in the machinery of the state leviathan, directed by those who “know how to get things done.”
I believe that we should defend the widening of institutional and social forms and opportunities where common people (and not only experts or professional thieves) can participate, starting from clear rules and open to their development.
Informed and binding deliberation, the rotation of positions, civic advice on public policies, budgetary transparency and accountability are necessary mechanisms that don’t have to replace parliaments and parties if these they are effectively representative of their populations, activists and constituencies.
The content and quality of participation and representation (just as in the cases of state and social action) are mutually presupposed anywhere in this world.… the rest is an innocent or perverse fallacy, which are positions so actively advocated by the convinced liberals, naive communalists or those nostalgic for state socialism. This is what we must clearly understand to prevent us — in our defense of the demos against the oligarchy — from ending up embracing a new leviathan.
1 The oikos was the micro-world of Homeric Greece, where properties — especially the house, as well as its residents, goods, culture and myths — formed an indivisible and communal whole.