Double Standards on the Left
In 2004, residents of a neighborhood in the Norwegian town Lier, were invited to a participatory process by the municipality, where they were consulted on whether to put up a new four-lane highway through their locality or not.
Of course, the residents of the area disliked the idea. They started mobilizing their neighbors and used a participatory process – consisting of public assemblies, citizens workshops and cooperative forums – to the fullest. Against them they had the Mayor, the majority of the town council, the national Public Roads Administration, the business community, the county hospital and the regional health authorities, as well as other powerful agencies who thought that this particular neighborhood was the best location for the highway. With the odds stacked against them, the inhabitants were able to temporarily stop the projected highway, and press through an alternative route for the highway outside the residential areas of the municipality.
Power in Lier
There is no doubt that the highway would have been forced through and built right through the neighborhood were it not for this participatory process. Without the public assemblies and citizen’s workshops, the residents wouldn’t have gotten organized, formulated a position on the matter that large numbers were willing to defend, or exercised the moral power that ultimately delivered their victory.
In many respects the Lier story shows how unexpected things might happen when politics is not done more directly. However, even though the administration of Lier invited public assemblies where all the residents could participate this doesn’t itself make the town a direct or participatory democracy.
I believe that the readers of New Compass most probably agree with this claim, but let’s for the sake of the argument sum up the main reasons of why it is not: First of all, the development and spread of infrastructure in Norway – including the highway through the town of Lier – is determined by strong economic forces and actors. These are private companies and oil-industrial complexes, over which we as ordinary citizens have extremely little control. And second, the concrete decisions regarding the funding of road construction and other infrastructure are made on a State level by high-ranking bureaucrats and professional politicians.
The fact that the residents in Lier managed to delay and then modify the highway construction is the exception that confirms the following rule: The fate of the town of Lier is decided by other institutions and forces external to the citizens themselves.
The Limits of Rhetoric
Moreover, Lier won’t become a direct or participatory democracy just because somebody declares it as such. Rhetoric has its limits: Regardless of the label someone puts on the town, the realities of what governs the lives of the residents of Lier will be the same. Democracy is first and foremost a question of power. If the members of a society collectively can make the substantive decisions governing the means of production and other social conditions in society – and if all the members of that society have equal opportunities to participate in those decision-making processes – we can talk about a direct or participatory democracy. If we cannot, it is not a direct or participatory democracy.
This is really a quite simple and decent standard to assess the level of democracy in a given society. And in terms of assessing the political and economic system in Norway, the socialist and communist organizations and parties applies it for all that it is worth. Their spokespersons normally scoff at “parliamentary democracy” for being nothing else than a ruling instrument of the bourgeoisie, and claim that capital holds an iron grip of over Norwegian society. They say that a true democracy is not possible until the working class has liberated itself and taken power over the means of production. In debates, when I have pointed out that might actually be possible to use participatory processes like the one in Lier to advance radical demands and claim more democracy for ourselves, the predominant response from the communist and socialist Left is that such processes are just a ruling class strategy to make the population content with participating in minor issues.
In terms of assessing other countries, however, these socialists and communists apply a very different standard. Places like Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia and not at least Venezuela are often celebrated for their socialist or participatory democracy, by the same spokespersons who denounce the capitalist and undemocratic system of government in Norway, the U.S., or other northern countries.
But don’t the same kind of limitations and shortcomings about the situation in Lier also apply in a similar manner to what is going on in the participatory process of small towns in any of these countries? Isn’t the development of major infrastructure projects determined by other economic forces and actors than the citizens themselves, and aren’t decisions regarding funding of these infrastructure projects made on the State level by high-ranking bureaucrats and professional politicians? Even in Venezuela where a far-reaching system of communal councils is being developed, these councils have a spending cap of between about $14,000 and $28,000 per project, which means that they cannot really initiate any large projects. Nor do they have any real say over macroeconomic or national politics that impact their communities, since their powers are limited to their neighborhoods. In other words, even in Venezuela, the population is basically participating in minor issues, the official rhetoric of a revolutionary democracy notwithstanding.
I guess most of the socialists and communists who denounce Norwegian democracy would agree that a direct and participatory democracy is incompatible with a capitalist market economy (or even a democracy in itself). The term democracy is a combination of the words demos (people) and kratein (government), and as such means a government by the people. A capitalist society, on the other hand, is not ruled by the people, but rather by capitalist forces and those who have accumulated this capital into their own hands.
But this accumulation of power does not only happen at the market, but also in the political system. The State is, to follow a widespread definition, a system of centralized government with a monopoly of violence within its territory. In addition, it is professionalized system of government where an elected few has as their job to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us, and to instruct an army of bureaucrats to get us to behave in a certain manner (normally as productively as possible).
All countries today are nation-states, and both Norway and Venezuela are based on the same system of centralized and professionalized government. In both countries the population is invited to decide upon minor issues in between the periodic elections, even though the Venezuelan government has a much more outspoken commitment to build a more participatory type of democracy.
So why do these socialists and communists regard Norway as a bourgeoisie quasi-dictatorship, but Venezuela as a socialist utopia in the making? Why do they apply one standard to assess the level of democracy in Norway, and another to the level of democracy in countries elsewhere governed by left-wing parties? I believe that one of the main reasons for this is their anti-imperialist politics. As we have documented before on New Compass, the Left has traditionally supported brutally oppressive regimes in the name of anti-imperialism by either evading criticizing them or even defending their actions.
The assumption behind much of what passes as anti-imperialist politics today, is that the most important priority is to support these new radical regimes against foreign and domestic imperialist forces. This often means avoiding criticism of these regimes by overrating their achievements, underestimating their limitations and overlooking their negative actions.
A Sane Approach to Participation
My intention here is not to assess of the level of participatory democracy in Latin-American countries, but rather point to the fact that socialists and communists apply a double standard when they assess the level of democracy of let’s say Norway and Venezuela. This might not seem very severe, but what happens if these regimes do things to oppress their own populations in the name of socialist democracy? Or what happens if Leftist parties come to power in Norway, and claim they are creating a bottom-up democracy even though they are only relegating ordinary citizens to decide on minor issues such a paving roads or improving sewage systems?
If we are to create a direct and participatory democracy, we minimally have to apply the same standard (although it doesn’t have to be the same model) of democracy whether it is in our own country or in other parts of the world. If we do not accept the limitations being put on us in our own country, we should not defend it in other countries.
The categorical denunciation of popular participation in official politics in countries such as Norway, and the categorical appraisal of participation in countries such as Venezuela are not only hypocritical and dangerous – it might also severely limit our own capability to achieve a social transformation in our own countries. Although the assemblies and citizen workshops in Lier does not make the town into a direct democracy, it created a space where the residents could claim power for themselves and actually challenge the more “bigger” actors in their community like the municipal administration or the business organizations. (A similar dynamic has also been explored in an earlier article in New Compass on Town Meeting advocacy).
With a more sane approach to participation we could, at least in Norway, see that there exist openings in our society to radicalize and deepen democracy. I think that by engaging ourselves in participatory processes such as the one in Lier, we can start to create a new type of politics from below even though these public spaces are not perfect. And who am I to know, maybe this would also be a sane strategy in Venezuela?