Peoples' movements and protests




Real and formal democracy







Alternativ Stad, the Stockholm bransch of Friends of the Earth Sweden, was founded in 1969 in protest against an increasingly formalised democracy. The closest pretext was the demolition of Klara, the most central part of Stokholm, which had been decided "democratically" but in reality by a small number of professionals in closed rooms after the issue had been "depoliticised", as the leading municipal politician of the time, Hjalmar Mehr, put it, i.e. removed from public debate.

To that extent, we have failed as formalisation is worse than ever. Back then, politicians were still keen to have some sort of popular mandate for much of what they did –"I don't understand politics nowadays" said legendary Minister of Finance Gunnar Sträng in his last interview just before he died in 1992, "when I was a minister, I didn't put forward a bill until I had discussed it in at least a hundred meetings with party members, today there are bills that have never been out of the Government Office".

It would be easy here to launch into a catalogue of complaints about the EU, the WTO, the IMF and other closed rooms where today's policies are decided. However, I will take it from a different angle.

The aspiration of professional politicians to free themselves from the control of the citizens, the laymen, has always been there. No sooner had the world's first democratic republic, the United States, been formed than leading politicians began discussing how to avoid too much popular control. Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, came up with the redeeming formula. Suppose, he said, that we define democracy as the politicians elected by the people. Then, by definition, it would be anti-democratic for ordinary people to protest against what they do.

His view would eventually be appreciated by an increasing number of elected politicians and their followers.

However, there is another approach. It is that we laymen can from time to time appoint trustees to do some things for us that we cannot do ourselves. But we always reserve the right to dismiss them or show them the error of their ways.

Just as any employer can hire someone to do what he/she can't do himself/herself. But always has the right to reprimand or dismiss if the employee can't do the job.

Now these are not just two views that exist in the minds of two different kinds of people. They are two approaches that arise in two different practices.

The formal approach arises in municipal and state (and of course supranational) administration, where more or less professional administrators are keen to be able to quickly stitch together compromises and preferably also earn a little from the deal themselves. Then they are keen that not too many people interfere, which only complicates the administration.

The second approach, which we can call the real one by analogy, arises from the involvement of laymen in common affairs. That is to say, in the endeavour to maintain our common public goods in such a way that they are sufficient to satisfy our spontaneous expressions of life.

Expressed in this way, it is understandable that real democracy has been increasingly eroded throughout the post-war period. For throughout the post-war period, ever larger administrations have been built up in which professional civil servants manage our affairs. Not only in Sweden but in the entire industrialised world, even though Sweden is probably one of the countries where the development has gone furthest.
And throughout the post-war period, the commons we manage ourselves have become increasingly less fundamental to our survival than the commons managed by professionals.

I think it is particularly devastating that the organisations specifically designed to protect our interests in conflicts have also been taken over by civil servants.
Indeed, Neil Harvey has argued from the Chiapas uprising that citizenship and civil rights cannot exist without people collectively fighting for them. Partly because it is in such a collective struggle that the idea of real democracy, i.e. the primacy of laymen, can emerge.

Expressed in this way, the bureaucratic hierarchies of officials will always try to push us out of transparency and decision-making. While collective popular movements will always try to push back. Who is the strongest determines whether formal or real democracy will prevail.



Published by Folkrörelsestudiegruppen: