New political movements for real democracy in Europe

Extended version of talk delivered in Barcelona (May 2015)

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to attend and contribute to your conference. The reason I am thanking you is because being a member of a left party that supports the new anti-austerity government in Greece puts me in a very weird position. After 5 years of hard fighting against austerity, under the pressure of seeing our society dismantling, we managed to overthrow the neoliberals from the government. And the very same moment that we thought that an important step has beem made, I am realizing that we are in front of a totally different level of duties that challenges decisevely many aspects of our established conceptual framework.

And your conference touches upon some of these aspects in a creative and positive way which is very important. For there can be no empty space in people’s minds and collective action; challenging what you know is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for changing it. For a change to take place something new must replace the old, and I am feeling that you are exploring exactly that. That’s why I am thanking you.

Apart from the ongoing negotiations in which the austerity and the implementation of neoliberal policies have been blocked, but a different policy is not allowed – it’s like the right has lost power but the left cannot govern – the weird situation I am in is related mostly with the fact that the new perspective, as I said, reshapes what I thought I knew about the left, our organisational principles, our methods etc.

The new level requires qualities that we – and I am speaking as a member of traditional left – tend to underestimate for a number of reasons. So, what I am about to say reflects a growing awareness inside SYRIZA.

1. There is no doubt that today in Europe the popular classes and civil society are facing a total attack. People are deprived from the right to satisfy their basic needs. The promoted strategies of life based on unrelenting and flashy consumption cannot be fulfilled and the majority of people are excluded from the prospect of having a decent life.

A situation like this creates a crucial existential gap in people’s lives and in our societies as a whole:

what we consider to be a desirable life is no longer available to us.

There are two directions to follow trying to bridge the gap. You can either challenge the first part (what is a desirable life) or the second one (its unavailability).

The second direction is often regarded as the common sense thing to do. Let’s try individually or collectively to regain our place among those that have a chance of tasting the “benefits” of consumption, that is to acquire a place inside the constantly shrinking European middle class. The “door” is closing rapidly – excluding the majority of people – and we must fight hard not to be left outside.

Neoliberals are actually inviting individuals having the necessary qualifications from all over Europe to move to the big cities of Central and Northern Europe in order to shape the new, multinational but much smaller European middle class. The largest part of the European population will be deprived of fundamental rights. The precarious status of the illegal immigrant today may help us visualize what awaits the majority of Europeans in the future.

Extreme-right wing political powers are proposing a national (collective) enclosure as a response to the loss of the relevant availability. Both of these options only confirm the brutal decline of Europe. In fact, the domination of the extreme right-wing forces in European countries will be the end product of neoliberalism and austerity. European societies will fight each other, not over who is going to rule the rest of the world, as in the past, but over who is going to be less miserable in a declining region.

So, trying to restore “availability” without challenging and eventually changing the neoliberal coordinates of social and individual life is a dead end.

2. On the other hand, new political movements sparked around the globe and on our continent, are putting the issue of democracy very high in their demands. The democratic uprising taking place around us looks towards the desirability of the promoted form of life. It dares to question the prevailing view and challenge its assumptions. I will come back to it shortly, but here I would like to underline the fact that the gravitational force of the dominant form of life is still strong inside these new political movements.

Under the pressure of austerity, unemployment and poverty, there is a tendency of differentiating democracy from the urgent satisfaction of the basic needs. There is a tendency to focus on the loss of the “availability” leaving the issue of “desirability” – and eventually real democracy – at the backstage or at the rhetorical level. The vast majority of people that was hit by the brutal policy of austerity mobilizes and fights for food, housing, health services and work but it often fails to make the connection between them and democracy. It seems that even political powers sensitive to people’s needs and their despair fail to appreciate fully the strong interdependence between them. And there is a good reason for this.

Our societies suffer from the syndrome of the “end of history”. People were raised believing that a good life is essentially an individual achievement. Society and nature is just a background, a wallpaper for our egos, the contingent context in which our solitary selves will evolve pursuing individual goals. The individual owes nothing to no one, she lacks a sense of respect and responsibility to the previous or the next generations, and indifference is the proper attitude regarding the present social problems and conditions. Democracy has lost its meaning. It is identified with the corrupted political personnel – who are pursuing their own goals – or the boring and indifferent electoral processes that do not really affect people’s lives.

Today, at the dawn of a new era of total threat, our societies – and political movements and parties as part of them –seem to seek quick and easy ways to restore availability. Ways that will not disturb the naïve and comforting conception of the “end of history” that we do not really need to engage profoundly into collective practices. The only thing we are willing to give is singular moments of participation. The idea is that through demonstrating and voting we can somehow solve the urgent problems of our societies with orthodox means, through the state and governments that are sensitive to our demands.

Demonstrating and voting is a necessary but not a sufficient condition if we really want to change the course of things, to seriously question the hegemony of an inhuman transformation of human societies. For neoliberalism is not just a policy; it is an ambitious strategy of changing radically our mode of existence.

Let me be clear on this. I do not mean that representative democracy has no value. On the contrary I think that it is a crucial dimension of a mature society. But we often ask too much from it and its failure to deliver on our expectations generates a misguided devaluation. Neither do I mean that governments sensitive to people’s needs are not crucial factors in this battle. I am just stressing the fact that we must have a broader view of the agents and the processes needed if we want to change things.

A bundle of important policies and powers once belonged to the state has been tranfered either to external (european or domestic but “independent”) authorities or directly to the elites – in both cases out of the reach of the people. At the same time a vast number of neoliberal regulations and norms governs the function of the state and sections of social life. These two conditions combined, render the governmental power not the political power but just one of the poles of such a power, shaping a hostile environment in which considerable effort is needed just to open some space for the implementation of different policy.

In order to respond adequately in these suffocating conditions, new organizational standards and methods are needed for the engagememnt of thousands of people in this day-to-day and multi-level fight. Here the role of the internet and digital technology in general can help in the transition needed, but we must be aware that this is not just a matter of incorporating new technology in the old paradigm of doing politics; a paradigm change is required, an immersion into a new conceptual and practical framework is necessary. Aspects of the new paradigm of politics are being developed in several communities that are not identified as purely political (and they are not in the traditional sense of the term). Additionally, some aspects of the old paradigm will be present in the new one as well, albeit with different function.

So, without the people with the knowledge needed, aligned into groups of collaboration and embedded in a vast network of democratic decision-making that produces policies of our own logic no government will be in a position to wage this battle.

But in order to engage in such a swift to our organizational and methodological principles, we must abandon the tendency – generated by the syndrome of the “end of history” – that things will change easily and quick through the revival of the previous institutional and political configuration of post war liberal capitalism. We must finally confront the reality that neoliberals are “burning” the bridges behind them with the past. We can only move forward by accepting the fact that we are entering a long period of hard fighting in which we must drastically change the coordinates of our political imagination. We must escape from the fascination of the post war ideals of social configuration.

3. It is time to wake up in a collective way. The new political movements are the first glimpses of such an awakening. They represent a desicive emancipatory moment of swifting the focus from availability to desirability. Defending or reclaiming our dignity, our access to work, food, health services, education and housing requires the radical redistribution of power from the elites to the popular classes and the emergence of a new ideal for social and individual life that will radically transform the present desire for a status quo that is no longer available to us as a response to the existential gap we are facing today. And in both of them (redistribution of power and transformation of desire) the issue of real democracy and cooperation acquires its full significance and purpose.

Let me stress a few points regarding our effort to reinvent democracy and based on that to create a huge and operational alliance inside our societies that is needed if we want to change their course.

– Democracy means that people without substantial economic power have access to crucial decisions regarding the course of societies. Neoliberals are openly against it: access to crucial decisions must be an exclusive privilege of the economic elites and the technocrats that serve these elites i.e. that decisions must be taken according to the criteria of competition and profit without the intrusion of values connected to the needs of people through the democratic process. So, deepening democracy, engaging people in effective democratic decision-making processes, is the ultimate threat to neoliberalism precisely because real democracy is the only way to obtain the necessary power in order to restore dignity and a measure of equality in our societies.

– Democracy is not indifferent or boring. Democracy is not something ‘nice’ and ‘polite’ but somehow inappropriate for the hard times we live in. It is not a waste of time and a dismantling phenomenon. It is not just an institutional or bureaucratic system of governance that is detached from the people, but a powerful tool in their hands. Democracy is an irreplaceable instrument for the revival of our societies. It is a way of doing things. Actually, it’s the most efficient way of doing things. Why? Because democracy is co-operation on a large scale. And co-operation is the most distinctive of human traits.

– Democracy is the best way to activate fully the embodied capacities that people have. Instead of rendering people as obedient, silent, labor place-holders under the control of others – a conception that overlooks, diminishes, and eventually squanders the huge potential of human abilities – people can be seen as autonomous, pro-active agents of democratic decision-making and productive units. Democratic processes and units of co-operating individuals or a large network of co-operating groups –allow people to fully manifest and cultivate their capacities – both as individuals and as societies. By transferring the decisions to the people, by giving them the space and the freedom to realize and mobilize their capacities, we can unlock crucial reserves of creative power. Unlocking these reserves will change substantially the balance of forces between the popular classes and the elites. If we elaborate effective ways and means of democratic functioning we will realize that we are actually much stronger than we think.

That’s why the work you have been doing on developing technological tools and applications that enhance the participation of the people in democratic decision making processes is an essential dimension of the battle that has been intensified the last years between the popular classes and the elites. You are actually working on how we – both as political powers fighting for emancipation and societies running a severe risk – are going to mobilize the human reserves of creative power which are the only form of power we can have at our disposal in this struggle. Moreover, this is a process that cultivates these reserves even further. That’s the beauty of human capacities – by using them they are not exhausted but enhanced.

People don’t like being the passive objects of change. They possess the human need to be the agents of change. People do not have to be trained in democracy because they should, or because that’s the goal and the belief of a political power. People should not be viewed as the raw material that must be transformed according to some plan. Instead, we need a narrative that frames our current situation and a goal that will inspire people to make it their own. Through the struggle to achieve this goal people will be transformed and developed fully. The expansion of a democratic mentality and culture will be a side effect of this process. In the same way exploitation and repression is not the explicit goal but it is always the unquestioned way of achieving a goal.

Democracy as practiced in co-operative groups of common interest can provide us with the optimal organisational configuration we need in order to reverse the severe deadlocks that human societies are facing today. Within a new framing of regenerative democracy and human co-operation for the common good it will seem reasonable that the revival of our societies should be based on people’s own capacities. It will seem obvious to everyone independently of particular origin that having people with so many capacities in our societies can no longer be considered as a problem but as an essential advantage to achieve our goal. Democracy must be the self-evident choice of doing things, a means of generating real social value and quality of life; not merely an ideological persuasion.

– Humans tend to identify with what they know best. It is a way of self-determination, a way to think of ourselves in a favourable light. Generative Democracy – a democracy that engages and enhances people’s capacities through co-operation is preferable because it respects and liberates people’s capacities – the same capacities that people tend to be proud of. It is of vital importance to reclaim the sense of self-esteem and personal fulfillment from the corporate fantasy that now rules our culture. A democracy that is seen and promoted along these lines can have a transformative impact at this fundamental level.

4. Let me conclude by stressing the fact that reshaping the notion of democracy is not only a task for the rest of our fellow citizens in society. We, those who are politically engaged on the left, must also engage with the others to modify our own ways of thinking, organizing and acting.

We continue thinking, speaking, acting, and organizing with inadequate forms. Our established conceptual apparatus doesn’t let us see the full potential of our own logic. Our standard ways of doing things prevents our collective empowerment through a radical unlocking of people’s capacities.

The political movements for real democracy are only the current stage in a long and hard fight for the survival of our societies and of humanity as a whole. The struggle for democracy is an old one. But the forms and conditions of repression are constantly shifting. It is absolutely critical to get rid of those traditional beliefs and practices that no longer serve our goals and to sweep away the dust of the post war social and political configuration on such crucial ideas as democracy.

Perhaps democracy as it has been thought and practiced till today is just a small fragment of what is possible, situated in an incompatible social framework that prevents us from grasping its real content. The task before us is the survival of the democratic idea. In turn, the democratic idea is central to saving our societies and humanity from an inhuman future. The fulfillment of the democratic promise is identical with opening a fascinating new chapter in the social, economic, and cultural history of our species.

In terms of today’s potentials, we as humans have never before been so close to achieving an emancipated and mature society. At the same time we have never been so close to total destruction. The duty of our generations is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize. And democracy seems to be one of the crucial features of the new form of life, of the new paradigm that our duty calls for.

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