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Defending democracy, reinventing the left

Representative democracy can only strengthen if it resorts to more participatory and deliberative mechanisms, a new generation of public action built on co-construction.

Jean-Louis Laville
18 May 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

We are at the end of a cycle that started in the second XIXth century. During this cycle, including in the XXth century, the left was governed by the ideology of progress and economic determinism. After the collapse of the so-called ‘communist’ countries, the question of the relevance of a new left for the XXIst century was raised. Different elements are necessary to answer it, the growing number of citizen initiatives all over the world (that is the subject of the today’s launch text by Laville), the ambivalent experiences of left governments in South America (second subject raised by Coraggio tomorrow), and the structural crisis of European social democracy (to follow, third and fourth texts by Hulgard and Lévesque). The analysis of these complex background issues opens up new perspectives for collective action and emancipation (fifth and sixth, closing texts by Wainwright and Hart). Very different from those of the traditional left, this week’s opinions and debates are also to be found in detail in Spanish (Reinventar la izquierda en el siglo XXI – Hasta un dialogo Norte-Sur) and French (Les gauches du XXIe siècle – Un dialogue Nord-Sud ). Jean-Louis Laville, economist and sociologist, supervised 'Les gauches du XXIe siècle – Un dialogue Nord-Sud' (Bord de l’eau, 2016).

A Nuit Debout orchestra gathers on the Place de la Republique, in Paris, April, 2016, in public protest.

  A Nuit Debout orchestra gathers on the Place de la Republique, in Paris, April, 2016, in public protest. Kamil Zihnioglu /Press Association. All rights reserved.

The left seems to get ensnared today in a modernisation that does not allow the majority of our fellow citizens to distinguish it from the right. Many have come to reject the adequacy of a divide between right and left. Whereas in France the 'Nuit debout' movement demonstrates an appetite for spaces of discussion, this endeavour takes on another meaning when the focus is shifting away from the hexagon, or even from Europe, and turns instead to the experiences taking place on various continents. In fact, common traits begin to appear beneath the ambivalences of multiple experiences. These traits outline a number of reference points for a left of the twenty first century.

The first point pertains to the dynamism of citizens’ initiatives on all continents. A real resurgence of associationism is in progress - a movement which had a great impact on the first nineteenth century but was then obscured by the evolutionist discourse. It was misinterpreted as a naive and immature utopianism. However, a very similar phenomenon is resurfacing today.

The tragedy of it is that a chasm still separates those initiatives from public institutions. The people involved are wary of a political takeover and the policy-makers neglect actions they deem too minor. However, despite their being scattered, these initiatives acquire a real importance because they prove that citizens won't remain waiting passively in the frustrating expectation of an imminent recovery which keeps on falling flat. Rather they make efforts to resolve social problems.

All these experiences have however hardly been understood. Numerous intellectuals wanted to dissociate themselves from the economic determinism that dominated critical approaches during two-thirds of the twentieth century. They have thus laid their stress on aspects relating to the identity and culture of the 'new' social movements during the last decades. Their analytical frameworks, based accordingly on a separation of records, have failed to grasp the emerging dynamics which have articulated political and economic dimensions, mixing up questions of potential for action and collective property and aiming at once to transform society and to improve everyday life.

The second point, logically, is the aggregation of these initiatives. The peril of exhaustion lies in wait. The mobilisations can do nothing but wither if no concrete horizon of change materializes and if the unofficial leaders insist on the monopoly of their interpretation. Many gatherings launched in a coalescing enthusiasm have already faded or split under the pressure of dogmatisms.

What is most crucial in the fight against resignation and de-politicization are not centralizing catchphrases but rather the extension of public spaces which, thanks to their links to social experiences, are open to plurality. In fact, a second pitfall must also be avoided, namely the capture of social innovations by a new capitalism which pleads for a reconciliation with the big companies that care for social responsibility. Dispositions are being developed to initiate a social capitalism to finance social actions (venture philanthropy), to combat poverty (social impact bonds), to merchandise the environment (biological patents, exchange of pollution rights...). This recent panoply of instruments tries to give credibility to the idea of a private sector composed of companies and organized civil societies that takes over from the public sector. Given this disposition, the choice concerning solidarity remains crucial. Now as before, philanthropy and private solutions risk justifying a fresh plutocracy.

Democratic solidarity therefore remains topical, provided however that we don't content ourselves with a social-democratic redistribution: but that we anchor it to an egalitarian reciprocity embodied in the above-mentioned initiatives. The welfare state historically was the successor to nineteenth century associationism. The challenge of the twenty first century is to combine the two forms of democratic solidarity to respond to the depoliticisation of environmental and social questions, combined into a cultural uniformity.

This observation leads us to a third point. The multiplication of initiatives won't change much if they fail to impact on changes of the institutional framework. The architecture of the twentieth century has had as its foundation the dualism between market and state. It is now necessary to include the pole of civil society, which cannot be reduced to a non-profit private sector nor to a humanitarian action devoid of any economic scope. The focus of attention needs to be redirected towards attempts which consider civil society in its public but also in its original economic dimension.

In this regard, two topics are sketched out: on the one hand the common, on the other hand the solidary economy. Thriving forms of collaborative economy are relaunching a reflection on ‘the common’ beyond private property rights. As to solidary economy, it has inspired recent laws and public policies in several dozen countries all over the world. In some few cases the two converge, as for instance in Bolivia and in Ecuador, where the constitutions that had been promulgated in 2008 have abandoned growth maximization as their goal and have instead preferred to fix on an objective of well-being for everyone, adding that this new goal entails a pluralist economy.

In other words, in addition to the private and public sectors, the constitutions acknowledge a solidary economy composed of popular dynamics and supported by public institutions. The possibility of a top-down movement backing up a bottom up campaign is being tested through solidary economies, local social currencies or support for circuits-courts [short-range distribution networks between producer and consumer]. Whatever their presidential excesses, these regimes therefore bring forward elements for the institutionalization of a different type of economy comparable to the steps taken by new local and regional powers in Europe – from Barcelona to southern Italy and in Portugal.

A step in the direction of a plural economy further entails a plural democracy, which is the fourth point to consider. Representative democracy can only strengthen if it resorts to more participatory and deliberative mechanisms. What becomes indispensable in order avoid summoning up a democratic regression is a new generation of public action built on co-construction. In several Latin American countries, innovative cooperation initiatives already bring about what is being described as a new institutionality in some Spanish publications. These initiatives involve citizens’ collectives who reconfigure local public services.

Finally, fifth point, together with the initiatives of civil society the difficult underpinning of an economic and political plurality needs the work and engagement of researchers on a local and global level. This does not imply a militant science, as many guardians of the scientist sanctuary, who shun all contact with the world, would want us to believe. The claims of scientists are legitimate but cannot aim to dominate. They now have to participate in a multilateral discussion, an iterative production process of possible worlds. The international detour furthermore becomes indispensable to avoid getting stuck in the feelings of regret and resignation which are so incisive in the French context. The current situation does not only indicate the destruction of a world, it also contains a democratic hope thanks to these dawning developments. These developments need first to be made visible, in an intellectual atmosphere which often denies them. They can then feed into the public debate, fully aware that a living democracy cannot arise from a consensus but is the result of conflicts resolved peacefully.

Thus, the point is not to constitute a centrist configuration which plays into the hands of extremist demagogueries. Rather, the point is to construct a confrontation of projects, entailing a left which reinvents itself by being open to a diversity of emerging entities. Such a re-organisation can however only be achieved if the Eurocentric approach is replaced by larger Nord-South dialogues.

Intercultural translation passes from awareness efforts to statements which, depending on their context, can astonish and even destabilize others. Thus, what is articulated in North America or Europa as a wish to re-establish social democracy may contrast with South American or Asian formulations, which originate from the importance of popular economies and which are more centred on the criticism of development and on a philosophy of de-growth and well-being.

But all these points of view converge around the common desire for constructive confrontations, and the necessity of conceptual activities that cannot be separated from public commitment.

How to cite:
Laville J-L.(2016) Defending democracy, reinventing the left, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,17 May. https://opendemocracy.net/jean-louis-laville/defending-democracy-reinventing-left

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