Last October I participated in the The European Civic Forums Civic Day and I was subsequently invited to write an article for their magazine ‘Activizenship’ which has just been published. I include the article below, it’s a bit of a rant but little has changed since the time of writing, if anything we continue to see the rise of right wing populism across Europe. The magazine tackles this issue head on with leading articles on the rise of Illiberal Democracy so labelled by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. While I offer a few examples of how citizens initiatives in France, Italy and Spain are challenging neoliberalism and austerity at the regional level the lack of alternative left opposition to austerity and neoliberal policies at the European level remains.
Europe in Crisis and in Transition
Europe is in crisis. It is a crisis of identity. Earlier this year the Eurogroup of finance ministers threatened the Greek people with economic collapse. They refused to negotiate with Syriza on debt and forced the Greek people to accept further austerity. This mockery of democracy and national sovereignty revealed the emptiness of any rhetoric of European solidarity and the true allegiance of Europe’s political elite.
In their action and inaction, again and again politicians tell us that these faceless ‘markets’ are our masters now. They invoke ‘markets’ as if calling on some mystical force, they tell us to ‘tighten our belts’ that we must offer sacrifice to inspire ‘confidence’ in the hope that we might receive blessings in the form of improved credit ratings. You know that you are dealing with ideology when it’s logics (free markets = free people) are blindly assumed as norms. The markets cannot fail. This belief that there are no market failures, only human failures, and that the only solution to human failures are market solutions is the dead end of the Neo-Liberal imaginary.
It was neo-liberal ideology of deregulation that led to the economic crisis but for Europe’s political elite to accept responsibility for their role in the crisis would mean admitting they were wrong. Those in power cannot accept they were wrong for to do so could be perceived as a sign of weakness. So they reject this interpretation of events and work twice as hard to convince themselves and their peers that they were right all along by forcing more and more of their neoliberal fantasies on the rest of us.
Debt, debt and more debt. In this Debt-tatorship, Democracy is only tolerated as long as it doesn’t interfere with hegemony of the markets. When ideology failed to produce results, as it has, the so called ‘centrist’ parties sought to distract people from the economy by blaming social ills on those least able to defend themselves. Politicians talk tough and play a dangerous game of divide and rule. Pitching struggling unemployed and working class people against minorities, migrants and refugees, ruling parties pandered to the sentiments of far right nationalists in turn giving legitimacy to their hateful narrative. The far right thrive on fear and uncertainty and depend on this to secure their path to power. As long as traditional establishment parties stay in power and continue to serve up more of the same zombie ideology Europeans will continue to live with uncertainty.
It seems that there is little today that inspires confidence in European democracy. Given the scale of the crisis it is understandable that many feel a deep cynicism about the capacity of government to contribute anything more than tokenistic gestures of support for greater democratic participation, social justice or care for the environment. The lack of political imagination on the part of the establishment has contributed to a weakening of democracy. However, flawed as it may be, if representative democracy is rejected by social movements the seats of power will continue to be occupied by the forces of tedium. There is one simple solution to a democratic deficit and that is more democracy, not less.
I admit I too have been cynical but I have probably paid too much attention to mainstream news media. If there is anything that the past year tells us it is that for better or worse political culture can change. We may not hear about it in the national and international news but at local, municipal and regional levels things are changing, citizens are organising and taking action, building inspiring alternatives, putting radical participatory democracy into practice and making politics and economy work for their communities. There are many examples but I share here just a few that I have found personally inspiring in 2015.
To our collective detriment the electoral cycle keeps politicians minds focused on short term gains and quick wins. One size fits all government schemes almost inevitably run into conflicts. To overcome this it makes sense that the people most affected by decisions should have a say in the decision making process. Participatory Democracy aims to give citizens a greater say in decision making, it recognises the importance of the principle subsidiarity that nothing should be done by a large organization that can be done as well or better by a smaller and simpler organization. Putting legal mechanisms and structures in place that bridge this knowledge gap between citizens and government enables and empowers citizens to take a more active role in civic life. These efforts foster a culture of participation where citizens feel they have an impact and see the results in their communities. This is why participatory democracy is so important.
One of the most well known mechanisms is participatory budgeting and it is being adopted in many places from small rural municipalities to major cities. In 2014 the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo committed 5% of the city’s budget an estimated €426 million over 5 years to participatory budgeting. This is the largest amount that any government has committed to participatory budgeting in history. Citizens initiatives that received support include community gardens, coworking space, composting and recycling initiatives, and more.
How can active citizenship be enabled and supported?
‘The Bologna Regulation for the Urban Commons’ is an inspiring document. It’s full title is the “Regulation on Collaboration between Citizens and the City for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons”. Re-imagining the city as a Commons the document outlines how the city of Bologna provides a platform that enables and supports active citizenship, citizen driven social innovation and vibrant creative cultural life.
What is it that citizens need for an active civic life? First of all the regulation provides a framework enabling local government, civic and cultural institutions and citizens to collaborate and work together. Through these partnerships structural support is provided to citizens initiatives this includes access to work spaces, covering the costs of insurance, technical and administrative support, training and more. Neighbourhoods and citizens develop proposals for community and cultural initiatives or respond to tenders from local government to co-govern and co-manage community assets, such as public spaces and amenities. Citizens are not solely consumers of public services, when they participate in the decision making and management they inform the provision of those services in way that responds much more effectively to local needs. In this vision Citizens are co-creators. The Civic space is a Commons.
Few could have predicted that a housing activist could become the Mayor of Barcelona and yet this is what Ada Calou and Barcelona en Comun have done. Barcelona En Comun are deeply committed to radical democracy this is most evident in their non-traditional party structure which includes a federation of neighbourhood assemblies. It was through participation in these assemblies that activist won the respect and confidence of citizens and it was this popular support that enabled them to win the election. During their short time in government Barcelona en Comun have made big changes in the provision of social housing and introduced protections for residents threatened with eviction by the banks. They also introduced legislation that makes unused properties in the city available to citizens initiatives. Their achievements expand the horizons of the political imaginary and open the possibility for a transformative participatory politics in Catalunya. A politics that places the welfare of all citizens above narrow interests that serve only private profit and rent seeking. Barcelona En Comun are are joined across Spain by parties such as Podemos that share a vision for a new kind of politics. With national elections these parties aim to transform politics in Spain for the better.
It is vital to recognise and show solidarity with all those that dare to challenge the cynicism of our times. Each of these examples offers a different approach, but all represent important steps towards a more inclusive politics and offer a glimpse of what democracy in Europe can be. In learning and sharing in each others experience we can translate inspiration into action wherever we live.
Further Reading –