are several articles written following the latest WSF, Porto Alegre
2003. Through them, we wish to illustrate the diversity of the Allies’
contributions to this event.
will also find the short presentations of the four Dialogue and
Controversy Round Tables, which was one of the innovations of this
latest edition of the WSF.
and tension between social movements and political parties and
institutions: how can the fight for participatory democracy be
Memo presenting the problem
The vitality of social movements and the
emergence of civil society on a global scale are widening the
scope of politics and participatory democracy.
Over the last few decades, new and powerful
social movements have gradually emerged, whether to respond to
the challenges and damage done by economic and financial globalisation
under the aegis of neo-liberal policies, or to influence the major
conferences organised by the United Nations, or to take on more
universal responsibilities such as ensuring human rights, protecting
our common environmental heritage, and guaranteeing equality in
sexual and ethnic diversity. By forming alliances and coalitions
and by acting as networks, these movements pay no heed to national
frontiers and barriers. From local to global, and from international
to national, social actors interconnect and constitute new political
agendas. In itself, this represents a major challenge for democracy
and an ideal of democratisation for all human relations. What
potential and limits does this historic process of participatory
democracy have? How is it possible to maintain people's autonomy
and sovereignty vis-à-vis an increasingly global civil
society that threatens the legitimacy of national governments
and might-is-right diplomacy at international level?
In practice, we are witnessing the expansion
of the public arena and the "degovernmentalisation"
of politics, a process from which new social actors are emerging
to define new rights. The very notion of citizenship appears to
refer less and less to government and increasingly to universal
rights, influenced by the ethical awareness and natural heritage
common to all human beings. This fact leads to tension, even within
civil societies themselves, particularly in relations between
traditional popular movements, such as labour unions and rural
cooperatives, and new movements representing women, environmentalists,
human rights, etc. What impacts do such changes have on democratic
political culture, on forms of community organisation and participation,
and on the capacity of communities to influence public policies?
The World Social Forum is a means of getting this diversity to
resonate via its concords and discords, and by the challenges
it takes up for participatory democracy.
The necessary and difficult reinvention of
political parties to make democratic progress.
The crisis of the party system can be seen everywhere.
It is even more patent when compared to the vitality of social
movements and civil society. Still worse, the development of social
movements is inversely proportional to the loss of confidence
in political parties and politicians. Perhaps the situation in
Brazil with the Workers' Party remains an exception. What does
this reveal? What are the risks that characterise it? Don't dead-end
crises, such as that in Argentina, have anything to do with this
"vacuum" generated by the crises through which the political
parties themselves are passing, and with building viable historic
alternatives? Political parties in democracies are by definition
instruments of expression and means of exercising political management
over forces and coalitions of social forces; however, they are
also the instruments for winning and wielding power in societies.
Is the way in which they are organised outmoded, making them incapable
of acting in harmony with the major movements of civil society?
Or are they more the very expression of the State and the logic
of power rather than the desires and demands of society presupposed
by representativeness? Regarding this, isn't the problem to be
found within the parties themselves and in the very structure
We are now undoubtedly faced with a major historic
challenge resulting from new tensions between direct democracy
and representative democracy. The pugnacity displayed by social
movements calls into question the monopolisation of "general
politics" by established political parties. Nonetheless,
we are obliged to admit that these parties are incapable of dealing
with this new and more universal citizenship, with its sometimes-contradictory
methods. Participatory democracy needs strong movements. On the
other hand, there is an urgent need to democratise the methods
of social movements and NGOs. However, these movements fail to
solve legitimately the equation of power within society, thereby
displaying that it is impossible make rights universal. Hence,
democracy is only viable if it fuels powerful movements and tangible
forms of political representation by parties, otherwise, it simply
boils down to a simple corporative demand made by a movement.
What should be done to reinvent political parties?
What forms of institution are required for
Apart from political parties and their dilemmas,
we are now perceiving real dangers from the institutions that
uphold democracy. The neo-liberal principles that impose free-market
ideology over all other rights – with its power to deregulate
and render flexible the foundations of constitutional law, labour
laws and social policies – have created substantial institutional
disorder in most countries. What is more, the organs or government,
whether executive, legislative or judicial, are becoming more
bureaucratic, distancing themselves from reality and will soon
become dehumanised. We should never lose sight of the cost of
institutional advances in terms of the energy expended by movements
and democratic struggle. However, it is easy to destroy them.
These recent decades of neo-liberal hegemony have seen the gap
between civil society and institutions widen dangerously in most
countries. Social movements and civil society, with its means
for global communication, have developed on the sidelines, only
manifesting their pugnacity on rare occasions, by renewing their
own institutions and making them more democratic and democratising.
The result is that even existing institutions are often called
into question and with them the notion of democracy.
The political risk that such a situation leads
to is obvious. There is a huge deficit of strategic political
reflection in this area, though one thing is certain: it is better
to have shaky democratic institutions than none at all. But how
is it possible to reverse the current trend of bringing democracy
into discredit, as much in the social conscience as in political
methods? Strengthening democratic institutions does not guarantee
democracy as such, since this strength is forged by social pressure.
How can the movements and dynamic forces of society be channelled
so as to renew democracy? Lastly, can participatory democracy
constitute a radical means of creating sustainable changes or