What role for democracy in progressive mobilisation in Europe today?

Ada Regelmann

Event report on the launch of our new volume «The Crisis and Future of Democracy»

How can the left mobilise in times like these? What lessons to draw from earlier protest movements? Those were the questions put to a panel of authors of the recently published volume “The Crisis and Future of Democracy”, published by the Brussels office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

Is democracy in jeopardy?

Starting point of the discussion was a brief examination of the most important challenges to democracy today. David Bailey of the University of Birmingham (UK) embedded his analysis in a political economy approach, pointing to the immense pressures global economic competition is putting on institutions, thus limiting democracy. For Bernd Bonfert, Aarhus University (Denmark), the normalisation of the far right is the most worrying development of recent years. Following up on this point, Laura Roth, Universitat Jaume I (Spain), emphasised the need to develop better responses to the far right, also among the left, seeing how our old recipes are no longer working.

Linking these initial observations to a critique of structures and institutions of liberal representative democracy, panellists elaborated on both institutional shortcomings and potential for democratisation. All speakers agreed that the institutions of traditional representation were ill-designed to live up to their own promises and even lost in capacity in recent decades.

Limits of representation

Referring to ideas promoted by the “new municipalist” movement, Laura presented a critique of the centralist (and patriarchal) state. Top-down decision-making and the distance between institutions and individuals as well as social movements violate the “all-affected” principle and keeps organised grassroots voices and interests at the margins of policy-making. At the European level, this distance is most evident. Here, Bernd highlighted that the introduction of various participatory measures, such as the European Citizens Initiative, are welcome, yet insufficient. He pointed to the high hurdles for participation. Citing data according to which two thirds of European Commission consultations are with representatives of corporate interest, he also drew attention to the immense power imbalance that persist.

How to bring about change?

Differences between the panellists transpired in their assessment of the potential to democratise the status quo institutions and the way that would get us there. David described the current struggle for democracy in neoliberalism as cycle of hardship, anger (as well as more autonomous grassroots solidarity initiatives) and authoritarian response by the state – as seen in the case of the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK. He thus presented the analysis put forward in the chapter he co-authored with Mònica Clua-Losada and Saori Shibata. However, as the state closes down mobilisations, this dialectic struggle also opens up room for, or even generates, new forms of mobilisation. While we should not overestimate the impact of public expressions of grievance, the most promising route to achieving democratic change lies in working with and amplifying them.

Laura again adopted the perspective of “new municipalism”, a political strategy to change politics and build power from the bottom-up. This approach is radically democratic in that it strives to implement politics important to those affected by them and giving a (final) voice to these people. The focus is on the local level, as this is where strong participation and prefigurative politics work best. She cautioned against “participation washing” or an instrumentalisation of citizen participation. Rather than complementing liberal representative democracy, new municipalism promotes a different type of politics: one that is about sharing power, understanding democracy as equality, including economic democracy.

In his response to the question, Bernd, in turn, built on the in-depth analysis presented in his book chapter. He compared the different approaches and successes in achieving change of three transnational movements: disruption and protest (1 – Blockupy), advocacy aiming at institutional reform (2 – Change Finance) and a decentralised transnational movement (3 – European Action Coalition for Housing and the Right to the City). He concluded that the most important trade-offs are, respectively, with regard to visibility versus a more long-lasting impact (1); professionalisation and knowledge production versus detachment from constituencies (2); and decentralised prefigurative mobilisations versus slow pace and sometimes inefficiency (3). Overall, Bernd argued, that local, decentralised protest could best ensure horizontal and democratic decision-making. Effectively, he spoke out in favour of a division of labour between actors developing alternatives and others bringing them into the institutions.

Democratise democracy – lessons learned?

The penultimate round of interventions homed in on the role “democracy” should or does play among the left today. David opined out that most reforms were “probably winnable” in the short term, however in the long run would inevitably be watered down by the constant erosion of concessions granted as a necessary aspect of democracy. According to Bernd, for democratisation to last it is paramount to push back the market from key areas and replace it by civic ownership. Laura, finally, cautioned again relying too much on the “right leader” to mobilise and determine the direction of change, instead work from the bottom up at all levels. Importantly, she argued, social reproductive needs (like food, health, care, housing, energy) would need to be met to put democracy on a stable footing.

“Democracy” is a crucial concern of progressive mobilisation in Europe today. As societies are facing enormous challenges, it is no longer sufficient to focus on issues and policies alone. The very system by which we are trying to resolve the deep, multiple and intersecting crises, we find ourselves in need to undergo fundamental revisions. Democratic institutions themselves, the processes of agenda-setting, decision-making and implementation, require a radical transformation. As the panel discussion showed, the lessons learned from progressive movements regarding mobilisation, participation, knowledge production, institutional transformation and the link between people and institutions provide invaluable guidance about pitfalls to avoid and, importantly, about how to “democratise democracy”.


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