Democracy and its definitions: a talk by Donatella Della Porta

Presenting the data gathered through an extensive, cross-national research project carried out in different European countries, Della Porta argued that the idea of democracy proposed by contemporary social movements is radically different from the logic of representation and delegation proposed by liberal governments.

A report on the latest 'Democracy from Below' seminar, organised by the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy. 

One of the most interesting challenges of our times has become that of understanding and defining democracy. What do we mean when we talk about democracy in the UK today, and beyond? How are the ideas of liberal democracy proposed by neoliberal political leaders clashing with the ones of the people involved in the Occupy movements on our streets?

On Thursday, 9 February, Donatella Della Porta gave a talk about the multiple definitions of democracy, and the many contrasting visions and experiences of democratic practice today.

The talk was organised as part of the ‘Democracy from Below’ seminar series organised by the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, at Goldsmiths, University of London. The next event of the series will take place on the 8th of March, when Professor Engin Isin from the Open University, Professor Sanjay Seth, from the Politics Department at Goldsmiths, and Dr Ipek Demir, from the Sociology Department at the University of Leicester will explore the notion of Citizenship after Orientalism.

Donatella Della Porta is one of the world’s leading sociologists of social movements and social protest, and has written many books on the topic, including Transnational Protest andGlobal Activism (2005), Social Movements: An Introduction (2006) and The Global Justice Movement (2007), and the latest book Meeting Democracy.

She began her paper with an important reflection, on the social paradox that we are confronted with when we think about democracy today. Democracy seems to be embedded in a tension between opportunities and challenges.  

On the one hand, the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the world, seem to suggest that calls for freedom and participation in the political process have extended to a wide variety of countries.

On the other, however, the Occupy movements across the US and the UK, the indignados movements in Spain, Italy and Greece, and the many examples of grassroots uprising against global capitalism in so called ‘western democracies’, are raising critical questions on the quality and fairness of a political and economic system that is based on practices of representation and delegation. 

The same tension between opportunity and challenge, the same social paradox, can also be found if we consider everyday life in UK and elsewhere in Europe where the decline in people’s participation in institutional politics has been coupled with the rise of unconventional forms of political engagement.

So how can we make sense of this social paradox? How can we understand the complexity of this historical moment, and its implications for democracy? 

Della Porta argued that one important step is to explore the contribution of social movements, and recognise the fact that on our streets, today, fundamental questions are being asked about inclusion, integration and the creation of a different idea of democracy. 

Presenting the data gathered through an extensive, cross-national research project carried out in different European countries, Della Porta argued that the idea of democracy proposed by contemporary social movements is radically different from the logic of representation and delegation proposed by liberal governments.   

The type of democracy that social movement actors are fighting for, which is often defined as radical participatory democracy, is grounded on the understanding that we need to take a step back. We should start from the organisation of spaces and practices; transform the way in which we relate to one another, in everyday life, in factories, universities, squares, institutions.

Through everyday practices, social movements seek to find the right balance between deliberation and political participation. In doing so they remind us that democracy is something ever-changing and contested; it is a ‘work in progress’ in which we all can and should participate.

By drawing attention to the democratic visions and practices of social movements Della Porta’s talk was inspiring. But, as Professor Fenton noticed in a inspiring response to the paper, we need to question how ‘social movement democracy’ can be translated in institutional forms and whether these forms of democracy from below are really deepening democracy or are somehow letting global capitalism off the hook. 

Veronica Barassi is a lecturer in the Department of Media and
Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.