“Democracy has been one of the greatest aspirations of Modernity and one of its greatest disappointments. The passing of centuries between the collapse of the Ancient Greek precursor and the reestablishment of democracy as a viable system makes its recent globalisation all the more remarkable. The revival of democracy was achieved in part through the victories of social movements over entrenched interests.” (Esche 2001: 17)
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It is true that social movements were determinant for the implementation of democratic systems throughout the world. However, the question concerning this paper is whether democracies are determinant to social movements. Therefore this paper will explore in which ways does democracy enable and/or disable social movements. It will conclude that although democracy is, in theory, the system more prone to the appearance of social movements it is also a regime that, in practice, can prevent and restrict them. The first section of this paper will briefly overview the concepts of democracy and social movements in order to provide a framework for the argument. The second will explore in what ways democracies have provided spaces for social movements to occur. The third, will discuss the opposite. That is, how democratic systems, intentionally or unintentionally, have constrained the rise of associational forms. Both arguments will be illustrated with case studies from experiences within the developing countries. Finally, some concluding remarks will be offered in the end.
As Tilly (2003) explained democracy – as oligarchy, autocracy for example – is a kind of regime and that means that it is ‘a set of relations between a government and persons subject to that government’s jurisdiction’ (p.25). Democracy can also take many dimensions and forms and they differ greatly from one another. For instance, there are liberal democracies and there are representative democracies; there are pluralistic democracies and there are constitutional democracies. This is relevant for the argument because the level of democracy, being the liberal democracy the most flexible one, might have an impact on the creation or restriction at the civil society level. Nevertheless, although they might differ in their construction they also share common values. One of the most important is that it should serve the best interests of their constituents echoing Abraham Lincoln’s ideal of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. In other words, a democracy allows for debate and for decisions to be made according to the will of the majority. It also allows for the creation of spaces between the private sphere and the state.
These spaces are the ones where mediation is made between the state and the people or formally known as civil society:
“Civil society could be viewed as but one form of the political relationship between state and society. [It is] an intermediate associational realm between state and family populated by organisations which are separate from the state, enjoy autonomy in relation to the state and are formed voluntary by members of society to protect or advance their interests and values” (White 1996: 181-2).
From this definition an important characteristic is worth pointing out. Indeed, an independent civil society is the one who can truly voice people’s discontent. This is because any association with the state can severely undermine their intentions. Without an independent civil society the balance of power can never be challenged; the level of accountability cannot be increased and the chances of having grievances transformed into favourable legislation will be impossible. Furthermore, if the civil society is not independent there is the risk of social movements becoming institutionalised as it will be discussed in a further section. Now that both democracy and social movements it is time to look at the main argument and explore in what ways democracy promotes or disables democracy.
It was with the introduction of democracy that the world has seen a dramatic increase in social mobility levels, in more opportunities for education and above all a feeling of individual freedom allied with the right to associate without fear of persecution. Stories from North Korea or China stand to make the argument that democracy is the most open and flexible system. It was with the advent of democracy that previously unrepresented groups began to have both political representation and protection in the form of legislation. One of the most visible social movements throughout history has been the women’s movement. Seeking to have representation in the political world women have been fighting in traditional patriarchal societies for their equal place in society. In Ghana the transition to democracy opened a space for women to target their grievances by mobilising women to engage in political activity. This was due to two main factors. First, the pre-democratic regime made impossible for women to even consider the debate of their situation. As soon as democracy was installed women were quick to mobilise and bring the issue into public debate. Second, if a democracy means representation of different groups in society surely women had to be also part of the political life of Ghana (Fallon 2008). This is, however, problematic and sometimes even undesirable. If all groups demand representation then it will be harder to reach consensus, especially in countries with a large number of different ethnicities or religious beliefs.
Another feature of democracy, besides the right of freedom of association, is accountability. That is, people have the right to question and protest against any measure or action taken by their government. A key feature for the success of social movements is working government’s institutions such as an independent judicial system where everyone, including the government itself, is not free from obeying the law. This was the case in Brazil where President Lula’s government faced corruption charges due to misuse of public money. A free press, independent from the government, led the people in ‘searching questions and demanding answers’ (Flynn 2005: 1260). However, accountability is not only related to the rule of law. It is also attached to a government’s position on certain issues as previously mentioned. For instance, the United States (US) ‘war on terror’ has created much discontent within their own borders and caused an anti-war movement due mostly to unilateral decisions such as going to war with Iraq and Afghanistan – ironically in the name of democracy and as leaders of the ‘free world’. In 2002, Kellner recommended that the war should be fought not on military terms but by a global movement condemning terrorism. Since then there has been a movement, or several, but condemning US use of violent means. Perhaps the best example on how a democratic system allows for social movements lies in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. In a country with high-levels of inequalities both between classes and between regions the city of Porto Alegre, with an alternative model of participatory democracy, ‘exhibits a high level of social re-distribution’ (Ponniah and Fisher 2003: 181).
There are, however, several ways in which democracy or the process of democratisation disabling or restricting social movements. The first one has to do with the transition from any kind of authoritarian rule to democracy. A transversal problem across several transitions in the developing world is the fact that the same power structures and elites remain in place (Garretón 1997, Gibbon 1997, Prevost 2006, White 1996). Usually, movements that attain power are not organised or powerful enough to constitute a secure government. Therefore they have to make concessions with old power structures such as the military in order to form a government. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) had to accept that:
“[â€¦] the old government bureaucracy would have to be maintained. [â€¦] It did not have the people to fully replace the existing government bureaucracy both in terms of their sheer number and out of a lack of appropriate skills in a wide range of areas” (Prevost 2006: 170).
As a consequence the same kind of policies and reluctance in accepting a black majority rule prevented in specific the actions of the black movement to be fully realised and in general democracy to be deepened. In South Korea a similar pattern, of restrictive democracy, emerged in the late 1980s. With democracy a large number of organizations entered civil society causing some social and political unrest. However, the political elite joined the two opposition parties into the government and formed a new hegemonic party. White (1996) explains the advantages of forming the latter. First, it absorbs opposition leaders. Second, by doing that the ‘established elites’ maintain their power and influence in decision-making.
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The second way in which democracies disable social movements happens when democracy is already in place. If the movements were focused on one aim – to overthrow the government – then when they achieve it they lose their main thrust and, eventually, become fragmented. As mentioned, democracy opens spaces for unrepresented groups and because within any society there are so many different groups demanding political representation it becomes difficult to mobilise any kind of collective action as there is not a coherent and unique grievance (Melucci 1988, Menon 2000). In some cases, and because there is not a wider movement to support it, some forms of protest are not organised and are destined to fail (Dong 1997). Furthermore, movements might actually compete with each other which further weaken the movements (John 2000, White 1996).
A third way in which movements might be disabled is when they become institutionalised (Berger 2003, Flynn 2005, Melucci 1988, Prevost 2006). Becoming institutionalised is when movements lose their independent status. This can happen in three ways. Firstly, in order to have access to power, or resources, social movements might need to associate with mainstream political parties (Houtzager 2000). Secondly, governments in order to gain support but also to avoid contestation co-opt ‘key community leaders’ into the political system (Prevost 2006: 169). By doing so they are eliminating the radical and influential individuals from their natural habitat – the civil society. Both the ANC in South Africa and President Lula’s Partido Trabalhador (PT) have used this tactic to gain acceptance and to diminish to possibilities of social movements to mobilise. But movements can also be co-opted by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Disillusioned with the lack of political space offered by the government and lacking funds, movements often resort to NGOs for support. Eventually, this relationship turns into dependency and because of that they have to accept external policies from NGOs which in turn restricts organizations’ agenda-setting as this becomes set by western donor’s priorities. In Guatemala, the women’s movement known as Guatelmatacas became a provider of social services replacing government’s functions. This was in part because they were representing the interests of NGOs and not their own. As Berger (2003) described it ‘women’s groups in due course shifted from a strategy of confrontation to one of conciliation’ (p. 205).
A fourth way that accelerates the weakening of social movements is the advancement of capitalism and its instrument – neo-liberalism. Esche argued that capitalism and democracies have developed a special relationship, that it to say that capitalism prefers democratic environments and that democracy favours the introduction of capitalism. He also argued that this simple account of democracy and capitalism should be avoided mainly because capitalism is also able to penetrate in authoritarian governments. However, Roberts (1998) points out that capitalism and market forces at work in democracies accelerate ‘the fragmentation and weakening of popular collective subjects, the labour movement in particular’ and that neo liberalism has ‘the remarkable capacity to neutralise and dissolve its opposition’ (p. 270). Capitalism thrives on inequalities and therefore these have to be maintained in an elegant way by governments. This shows that governments and for that matter democracy itself are unable to protect the interests of their citizens.
To finalise the argument on how democracies disable social movements it is important to explore the role of the media. One might think that media and specifically the internet, is only used as a propaganda tool in authoritarian countries but the fact is that it is also used in democracies such as the US. In other words, ‘internet technology can be used [..] for democratic or non-democratic means’ (Hand and Sandywell 2002: 212). If the internet is restricted and controlled in China it is also used as a propaganda tool for democratic countries. The ‘war on terror’ ideology of ‘good versus evil’, the election of Barack Obama as president of the US have shown how democratic countries can also use the internet as a political tool. More recently the Tea Party movement is using the internet to mobilise a grassroots movement with vested interests – ‘pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulation’. (Monbiot 2010: 29) However, in the context of social movements this is to ignore the fact that it is also a tool for movements to mobilise groups and create networks of activity beyond the physical world. It is true that the internet is not at the moment a democratic arena but like the majority of the transitions to democracy it will take several social movements to democratise it.
This paper has shown that democracy can enable and disable social movements. These possibilities are dependent on the type of democracy but also on how much the civil society sphere can remain autonomous from government’s apparatus. If it remains truly autonomous then it is possible to alter the balance of power. As an enabler it was discussed in this paper that democracies allow for the creation of a space between the state and the private sphere. It also allows, on the one hand, for people to associate and express their grievances and, on the other hand, for previously represented groups to engage in political activities. One would say that these two allowances should be enough to guarantee success for all movements. However, there are several ways in which democracy disables movements. First, the transition to democracy does not mean that old elites and power structures are removed meaning that although the terminology has evolved maybe the ways of doing politics have not. Second, on the instalment of democracy movements become fragmented. Movements fight different, smaller, and unfocused battles and this lead to either their extinction or their relevance. As democracies mature so do their governments. In order to control possible future movements, governments co-opt leaders and thus, movements lose their autonomy. This is aggravated with western NGOs advocating westernised ideals. Finally, the spread and level of capitalism penetration in developing countries means that no means are excluded in order to maintain both inequalities and special interests in place. Regarding the media, and with special attention to the internet it was explained that it can work as a force for both democratic and non-democratic fields but above all it allows for the creation of virtual transnational networks of social movements.
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