18 Mar 2005

What the hell is 'civil society'?

By the mid-1960s political parties seemed to have exhausted their capacity to represent the aspirations of their constituencies, becoming hierarchical, bureaucratic and involved in a mediacratic chase for power.
The failure of political parties, and the crisis of representation it creates, does not result in the disappearance of the activity we call politics. Instead, political practices look for other channels. The agents that were supposed to have the capacity to aggregate interests defaulted. New, political mobilisations began to cluster around immediate, single, often localised issues.
It is for these reasons that the attempt of the Greek politician George Papandreou to transform the nature of his Pasok party comes as a much-needed, welcome intervention into the entire debate on the crisis of representative democracy. In his interview with Anthony Barnett on openDemocracy, Papandreou makes it clear that, for two reasons, the way “politics has been done” until now has to be rethought and reconceptualised.
First, the nature of political life has changed irrevocably in the wake of social and economic transformations wrought by globalisation. Traditional class and social cleavages have given way to new identities which can veer between the local and the global at the same time. Any party that seeks to reinvent itself – if it wishes to chart democratic agendas which can meaningfully address these felt but contradictory experiences – must tap these new aspirations, needs, and their accompanying fears.
Second, in order to counteract both public apathy and the closed machine-like structure of the party, citizens need to be invited into new ways of “doing politics”. For example, through open processes of deliberation and participation that serve to include rather than exclude the ordinary human being from the rather specialised processes of decision-making.
More important, the power of the leader has to be replaced by the power of deep and participatory democracy . “What we would like to do as a party”, suggests Papandreou,
“is to develop a culture of debate, dialogue, and critical understanding of issues, where people can set priorities and are not simply told by the experts or their leaders what is right and wrong for them”
 Posted by Hello


akikonomu said...

Steve, Ronald Inglehart has done empirical studies on this phenomena since the 70s. Do check out the World Values Systems survey that he eventually designed...

His hypothesis was (very roughly): sustained periods of economic growth are correlated to liberalisation of political attitudes and sensibilities.

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