The past decade has been dominated by an acceleration of the process of globalization that has modified an entire series of power relationships within and between countries and continents. In certain parts of the globe, progress has been made in the establishment of more democratic governments. In other parts of the globe, the situation has stagnated or has deteriorated.
Since the first World Social Forum, Eastern Europe, systems of representative democracy have been more firmly implanted and in several Latin America countries, progressive governments have been elected and in some cases have implemented constitutional changes to reinforce the democratic functioning of the State. At the same time, particularly in certain countries or sub-regions in Africa and Asia, repressive regimes have maintained their control. In several parts of the globe, regional conflicts are so intense that national and international institutions are unable to maintain any form of governance.
At an international level, the prospect of a system of global governance has made no real progress. The United Nations has not been able to impose its authority or advance the peace process in key regional zones of conflict. The failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change is the most recent example of the absence of an efficient system of global governance to resolve the most pressing challenges of our era.
In fact, a review of the past decade tends to confirm the premise on which the first World Social Forum was founded, that civil society has a fundamental and strategic role to play if we are to move forward in imposing a progressive agenda at a national and international level. In North America and Europe, representative democracy is in crisis; participation in the electoral process has declined in many countries and cynicism towards the political elite has reached new heights. At the same time, civil society organizations have been more active than ever and have succeeded in imposing many key issues at the centre of the political agenda. In countries in the South, civil society has been active not only in combating repressive regimes but also in drawing attention and in some cases forcing action in crucial question such as the food crisis, environmental issues or the rights of women.
Civil society organizations, through local, national and international networking, have become central actors in the exercise of democracy. Is this a temporary phenomenon or part of a fundamental transformation of the exercise of political power? Given the obvious incapacity of the more institutionalized forms of political power to resolve the most urgent issues facing humanity, it is necessary to ask some fundamental questions on the way political power is exercised both in the North and the South.
As traditional forms of democracy are proving inadequate to take on the major issues confronting the planet, as it has become increasingly clear that civil society must play a fundamental role in redefining power relationships and political power within nations and at an international level, it is essential to widen the debate on the mechanisms that would be necessary to implement new forms of democracy and new ways to exercise political power.
Based on our experience in Quebec, particularly in the construction of a movement for a social and solidarity economy, here are a few questions to be put on the agenda of progressive movements concerning state organization and political power. I have not included any reference to international institutions as this is not my area of expertise.
1. Representative versus participatory democracy
The right to vote in free elections is a fundamental component of democracy which unfortunately is still inaccessible in too many countries across the planet. But even in countries with strong democratic traditions, representative democracy has shown its limits. Some limits are linked to the control of the wealthy and powerful over the electoral process: lobbies, control of the media and outright corruption have undermined the legitimacy of elections in some of the richest nations.
At the same time as the legitimacy of representative democracy has declined in many countries, more participatory forms of democracy have risen and continue to grow. Local development based on community empowerment, new forms of local governance, participatory budgets, citizen assemblies, and other forms of democratic civil society institutions are playing important roles in redefining the exercise of political power. The rise in the number and diversity of associations, and particularly solidarity economy organizations and enterprises, have opened new political spaces to intervene in fundamental issues such as the environment, quality of life, the role of culture etc.
In fact, the mobilization of civil society has put into question the traditional forms of representative democracy (elections) in order to democratize all aspects of society, including the economy, culture and social development (participatory democracy).
This evolution raises questions on the forms of organisation of the State. What is the type of political organisation that best allows for a diversity of democratic forms? Is the traditional model of progressive governments in the form of strong centralised institutions that take responsibility for all aspects of socioeconomic development through direct intervention the most appropriate model for the 21st century? How to assure more decentralised, participatory forms of democracy without undermining certain principles of universality, equity and equality in the organisation of government?
2. Economic versus political democracy
Even in countries where democratic institutions are functioning well, inequalities between the rich and the poor have grown over the past decade. The fundamental source of these growing inequalities resides in the economic system that globalisation and neoliberal ideology have imposed on all countries. Nation states can no longer fully control their economies as international trade agreements undermine the sovereignty of nations. Populations living in the South have been the primary victims of this form of development, but even in countries in the North, the poor have become poorer and the rich more wealthy over the past decades.
Economic power cannot be dissociated from political power. The growing movement for economic democracy that has manifested itself principally through the social and solidarity economy are indications that the issue of political power has taken on an important economic dimension. This growing social and solidarity economy is rooted in relationships of proximity based on territory; its development is closely associated with local development and new forms of partnerships between different actors in an inclusive process of sustainable development, encompassing economic, social, cultural and ecological objectives.
The last decade has clearly demonstrated that, even at the level of the enterprise, there is a need to change the forms of organisation and the exercise of power. The short term vision of ‘good management’, based entirely on the need to reward outside shareholders, has led to repeated economic, social and ecological disasters. The Nobel prize for the economy in 2009, Elinor Ostrom, has demonstrated that true good management’ is exercised through democratic citizen control, the very basis of the solidarity economy!
Despite these growing grassroots movements, national governments responded to the recent financial and economic crisis in a very traditional way, bailing out banks and multinationals with public funds without confronting the underlining reasons for these crises. The incapacity of the growing movement in favour of new economic alternatives to influence governments’ action in this crisis is a clear indication that the capacity to influence economic policy on a national and international level is still very weak. Despite this apparent weakness, the incapacity of neoliberal economic policy to prevent the crisis has widened the debate on the need for new regulatory mechanisms and new forms of state intervention in the economy.
In order to impose a new progressive economic agenda, what are the mechanisms necessary to influence the exercise of political power over economic policy? How can civil society play a more influential role in assuring public policy that supports democratic economic development? What forms of state organisation should be favoured to achieve this goal (decentralisation, constitutional change, nationalisations, public policy in favour of the social and solidarity economy etc.) What is the role of national governments and international bodies to regulate the marketplace? What is the role of territorial forms of governance in the exercise of political power?
The principles that inspired the initiators of the first World Social Forum are more important than ever. Perhaps the most important change since 2001 is the sense of urgency that is confronting us. We have almost reached the point of no return on global warming. The hundreds of millions of people, whose basic needs (food, housing, security) are not being met, constitute another type of urgency that must also be confronted at a local, national and international level. If we want to move forward, the need for a common vision is more important than ever. Hopefully, the World Social Forum will be able to play a positive role in building that common vision on which we can and must change our world!