Talking about a Revolution

01 May 2006

You've been studying democracy movements in various parts of the world for some time now. What is your sense of the lay of the land? What stands out to you? In Europe? Latin America? Asia? Africa? Middle East? North America (US and Canada)?

My main focus, in terms of systematic research as distinct from short visits and general reading has been Latin America - particularly Brazil - and Europe. I can't say that I've mapped the territory sufficiently to know the lie of the land. But one or two things do stand out.

Everywhere I have found people struggling to hold on to the importance and possibility of purposeful organization aimed at bringing about social change (against the idea that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all there is is the market and that all conscious purposeful attempts at social change are a 'great deceit'.). Not only this I find people reinventing in their daily practice, the idea of socialist and more broadly left transformative agency in a huge variety of ways. In many places (Eastern Europe in particular) people are not using the language of socialism because' actually existing socialism' has left a legacy of meanings quite the opposite of these new inventions, deeply imprinted on the minds of the mass of people. I'm struck by how widely shared are the values underpinning this international process of practical rethinking. I'm aware that my research has not led me to any in depth understanding of the Islamic world but I've found from my discussions with Muslims in the UK, that many Muslims are also seeking to reinvent egalitarian democratic and socially responsible politics and seek to use their interpretation ofIslam to do so. Finding forums for this dialogue is very important and not yet really successful.

My focus has been on new thinking, from practice, on the means of democratic and egalitarian change, in particular ways of creating popular participation in and control over such change. I'll give you an idea of the range of thinking I have come across: In Hungary I met a network of young people involved in co-ordinating and stimulating local struggles against attacks on the environment and against privatization. They connect these to a wider resistance to corporate globalization, GATS and the WTO. Their goal at present is simply to create a space of active public engagement. The political system is so discredited that the idea of a political party would not connect with disaffected citizens.

Across the globe in rather different circumstances is Venezuela where political parties are equally discredited but where the combination of a radical leadership of the army, most notably Hugo Chavez, and growing popular organization in the barrios has produced a forceful power for change but one that is unstable because too many state institutions remain unreformed, corrupt and chaotic. The process of reinvention is unfinished, lacking democratic mechanisms connecting the new participatory space with executive power.

This leads us of course to the problematic concept and reality of political parties. Two laboratories are especially revealing for this: Italy and Brazil. In Italy, Rifondazione Communista is trying to remake itself as a 'movement party: immersed in the movements as 'one actor amongst many' as they put it, raising many issues concerning the role of the party and the dynamic and sustain ability of social movements.

The other is Brazil where a party of a radically new kind has hit the rocks as a result (in my opinion) of not following through its innovations and ending up using the same corrupt instrumental methods to win office as every other party. Activists are rethinking, reforming and with some returning to grass roots organizing but without losing the memory and ambition of what the PT could have been.

In the Philippines too there is an interesting laboratory for a new politics. There, 'People Power' did not bring democratic government, but only replaced one corrupt elite with another. Consequently activists and campaigning organizations have formed a new alliance rooted in movements but ready to engage with political institutions. It's not a party but it works closely with a new' movement party', Akbayan.

And then there are the foundations for many of to day's new politics: The creation of activist or activist intellectual political networks like the World Social Forum itself or the many specific networks that have been strengthened through it. The key point here is the development of a method of achieving unity based on the autonomy but connectedness of different organizations and initiatives. It's an idea which has many forerunners in the politics of the 1970's but which the internet has allowed to be sys'tematized and which has been understood and developed especially by the new generations who desire connection and coherence but have not been formed by the frameworks of the traditional left.

Do you see any com mon elements that make for a global democracy phenomenon, that is, that tie these regions together in a global democracy movement? Is there something distinct about this historical moment in this respect?

I'm not sure we can yet talk about a global democracy movement in the sense of a self conscious subject but I think the creation of sources of power for genuine democracy in all spheres of life, eco- Hilary Waii nomic, environmental and cultural as well as politi~ cal, is a common theme to movements and radical left parties across the world and to the networks that so many of us are building on a global scale.

I'll risk making a general observation drawn from observing the evolution of the World So cial Forum from the beginning up to Caracas last month: There has been a noticeable shift from issues of trade, international finance, corporate power, the institutions of the global market to problems of political power and political democracy. There has always been a strong interest in participatory democracy but it was almost a specialist issue, mainly associated with municipal government. Now the search for new, stronger forms of democracy, linked to questions of power is center stage. Issues of economic power have not been forgotten; on the contrary the struggles to block the WTO's latest phase of deregulation and privatizations gets more and more sophisticated. But it's combined with efforts to address questions of political power. And to address them in new ways. I guess this was partly to do with two repercussions of 9/11: first the notably aggressive assertion of US political power; secondly, the experience from Feb. 15th [largest peace protests in world history - ed.] of our power but also,ofits limits. The latter brought home to people the crisis ofliberal democratic institutions but also the fact that unless we the movements invented effective forms of democracy, no one else would and various forms of reaction and fundamentalism would triumph.

Another striking thing is the widespread confidence especially amongst younger people, that another world is possible even before its shape is clear. I guess this indicates another important shift that people see themselves and the movements they are creating as the creator of another world. This confidence is a collective selfconfidence. On the whole they do not look to political parties to provide the programme or way forward which they will then support. They see themselves as makers of policy and builders of power. Political parties are seen as organizations that need to open up the institutions to the more radical transformative power of the movements; to use their electoral legitimacy to challenge the institutions of the corporate market, triggering the follow up power of the social movements.

I'm not sure I'd call this a new historical' moment' but I think it's definitely a new historical period in which new paradigms of transformative politics are being invented. We are definitely at the 'laboratory' stage, the final shapes are not clear. But then maybe an unbuilt experimental capacity must be part of the final shape.

How does this set of developments either fit with or diverge from mainstream interpretations (whether popular, academic, or government) of the international spread of democracy?

Mainstream interpretations tend to stress the disaffection with the political system and in particular with political parties. They rarely pay attention to the process of innovation. Radical theorists like Negri on the one hand or Ulrich Beck on the other are developing very stimulating concepts, that certainly help my thinking but I suppose my focus is more empirical, more concerned to reflect on the innovations of practice in a way which is quite close to .the practitioners and which they would recognise and indeed have contributed to. I feel this new politics research is part of a very extensive process of developing the self-consciousness of new subjects or agents of transformation.

To what extent is the United States a part of this global phenomenon?

Of course it is. The anti-war, anti-occupation, for-peace movement has been an inspiration, especially to us in Britain. For example the families and military against the war, Michael Moore's film, the voices of relative~ of victims of9/11, the investigative work of Counterpunch, the consistent arguments of the Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies and generally, the breadth of public opposition to the war have all given us hope. Without resistance within the belly of the beast we'll never bring the empire down. I remember being so happy at the second World Social Forum that there was a strong delegation from the US; including the US labor movement, beleaguered as it is. Also I think - but I'm not as knowledgeable as I'd like to be - that there are a lot oflocal alliances of community, trade union, black, environmental, feminist and other activists who are working always, trying to reach out to middle America. I'd like to know more about the US laboratory and the kinds political strategies you are inventing, against the most difficult odds.

What lessons can the people of the United States learn from struggles for democracy in other parts of the world?

I think that str,uggles for democracy in the US share a lot with struggles in the UK. We both face a completely anti-democratic electoral system. Inevitably then, the radical and green left in the US like in the UK is going to come late to mass electoral politics. But in addition to campaign ing more wholeheartedly for electoral change, we should turn this into an advantage and learn from the ease with which radical parties like the German Greens have been incorporated and weakened by their participation in the political system. Let's use our exclusion to strengthen forms of co-operation and voice that are independent of the political institutions, so that whenever we are able achieve an effective electoral voice, we've built strong autonomous movements which truly have the capacity to open up and transform parliamentary politics.

This means recognizing, without romanticizing, the ways in which radical social movements exemplify the methods of a wholly new kind of politics. Such a new kind of movement-based politics does not eliminate the need for electoral politics or for political parties but it does change their character and role in a wider process of social transformation. I For example, most of the movements of recent years are a lot more than single issue campaigns. From the women's movements in the 70's to the 'alter-globalization movement' of the present century, their protests also hold out the values and actual social relations for a different kind of society. They have invented different ways of doing many of the things that parties have done: connecting general ideas about society to particular campaigns or issues; generating the knowledge necessary for strategic thinking, policies, and building an organization; producing cultural initiatives - publications, films, music, art - which reach out to a wider public.

Their ways of building up an alternative view of society as a whole and of connecting different struggles have tended to be horizontal, based as I said earlier, on using the concept of network as a form of unity which respects the autonomy of participating groups.

Their approach to knowledge incorporates practical and experience based knowledge as sources of understanding and policy. They have also produced in practice, even if not yet theorized, distinct approaches to leadership, emphasizing co-operation, self-management and the importance of realizing the capacities of all.

It would be no bad thing to systematically strengthen these innovations so that when opportunities arise for engaging with the political institutions we can do so more on our own terms. The point here is the importance of building a struc- . tured movement through strengthening networks, debate and common policies as a foundation for electoral initiatives. A break through in the UK, the Scottish Socialist Party, was after all, was built on the rock of such a structured movement: four years of the Scottish Socialist Movement and then Socialist Alliance preceded and prepared for the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party after the Scottish Parliament was founded on the basis of proportional representation.

Are there any promising paths, strategies, and/or opportunities that the people of the US might pursue in attempting to build a democracy movement in the US?

I think the aim of a structured movement partly answers this, while plugging away at independent left green political representation wherever it is possible. (And I think here it is a matter of' wherever possible' which means being flexible and generous spirited about the form it should take. So it might often be the Green Party is the best vehicle but on some occasions some local alliance might have a better chance and it's important that the Greens through themselves behind this. It is important to avoid the temptation of party chauvinism - a strong temptation when any attempt at left political representation is beleaguered). Also I think 'exemplary' or illustrative politics is a way forward in circumstances where there is a wide but unrepresentated desire for change. What I mean by this is the need to build on any strong bases of the left (broadly understood) to illustrate alternatives (e.g. participatory forms of democracy or alternative international economic links) which you don't have the capacity to generalize in practice but will help to win the argument, that an alternative is possible.

I think another possibility is to really concentrate resources on trying to get an electoral breakthrough in areas where disaffection is strong. Certainly that's what we should be doing in the UK. It's the only way that the Greens here have got any foothold.

To what degree are people around the world in solidarity with the people of the United States and their struggle for democracy in the US?

This sense of the importance of your struggle for all of us and of the difficulties it faces is growing all the time. Certainly, here in the UK we feel part of it. I think we should be doing more to develop our version of 'the special relationship: Maybe we should get a number of organizations to come together to plan a simultaneous conference on the theme, in New York and London, with a cross-over of speakers too. Or in Madison and Manchester. And involve other Europeans. I think the World Social Forum helps and the tours of people like Michael Moore and now Cindy Sheehan. For obvious reasons the movements in Latin America are especially alert to the importance of your struggle. They know it's US public opinion that holds back the US from planning overt intervention in Venezuela. In Europe we must reinforce your solidarity with the Latin American countries that are in the front line.

In general we must educate each other about our movements and find out what kind of solidarity will be most strategic and useful. We shouldn't be satisfied with the generalities of solidarity. It's time to be specific!