Analysis successful and resilient Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil. In one of the most unequal countries in the world the MST has managed to settle 337,000 landless families on arable land. It has done so not by top-down management, but within a non-hierarchical, non-sexist structure in which decisions are made by consensus, rather than voting. As one Hopi Indian put it: ‘If you vote for someone, you vote against someone else. That’s divisive.’
In Bolivia’s El Alto, the massive shanty town near La Paz, residents rose in protest against plans to export the processing of the country’s gas reserves that would only benefit the country’s wealthy élite and foreign capital. In 2005 they marched on La Paz, causing the government of Carlos Mesa to topple. Microgovernments sprang up in El Alto, providing an enduring model of autonomous local democracy, and paving the way for the election of Evo Morales and his MAS party, itself a coalition of social movements.
In several Latin American countries – Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia – national
WomenWomennow have the vote in most countries – though not all these have fair and free elections.
Women still can’t vote in: • Vatican City • Saudi Arabia In UAE and Brunei no-one votes.1
Political power • Of the 192 UN member states only
17 have women as heads of state (as of July 2010).1
• Women hold 19%
of seats in single or lower chambers of parliament (as of May 2010), compared with 11% in 1995.2
• Women make up
42% of single/lower houses in Nordic countries; the Americas 22%; the Pacific region 13% and the Arab states 9%.2
1 UNIFEM Report ‘Who answers to Women? Gender and Accountability 2008/2009’. 2 Inter Parliamentary Union, ‘Women in National Parliaments’, June 2010.
Variation on a quote by MK Gandhi (when asked about Western civilization).
Jason Alvey / www.flickr.com /
lewishamdreamer constitutions have been rewritten, not by a handful of experts, academics and lawyers, but by citizens and their organizations. It’s a slow process, but that’s democracy.
Latin America, more than any other region, carries a history of domination by the US and multinational corporations keen to exploit mineral and agricultural wealth. In the name of ‘free market liberalism’ dictatorships, such as Pinochet’s in Chile, were backed and genuine democratic impulses violently crushed.
Yet it is in Latin America that the world’s most hopeful incarnation of democracy is taking shape and where the strongest challenges to global corporate power are being honed.
At the forefront are not the educated élites that have traditionally dominated political life but the most downtrodden – poor and indigenous people – who are organizing and demanding that the profits from natural resource wealth are shared. The consequences of this confluence of democratic foment and control over natural resources could be profound.
In his latest book, Hopes and Prospects, Noam Chomsky writes: ‘Today, the popular struggles in Latin America show promise of serving as an inspiration to others worldwide, in a common quest for globalization in a form that should be the aspiration of decent people everywhere.’
Similar challenges are happening in more established democracies too. In Canada, indigenous people are playing a key role in resisting the exploitation of tar sands (see NI 431). In Britain, direct action by protesters played a significant role in getting the government to shelve plans to build a new coalfired power station at Kingsnorth, Kent.
Some actions are more symbolic – but the radically different ways of organizing are real enough.
The actions of Climate Camp campaigners at the meeting of the G20 in London, April 2009, were a clear riposte to anyone who thinks that radical democracy is bound to be shambolic and inefficient. Thousands of police were primed to stop activists taking over a key street in the City of London, but they didn’t stand a chance against Climate Campers who, armed with playful ingenuity, military precision, tents and bicycles, took control of Bishopsgate for the next 12 hours.
Concentration of power does not necessarily mean efficiency; the beauty of dispersed power and collective action is that it is empowering, motivating and, ultimately, liberating. The psychology of this is obvious – but perhaps it needs to be lived to be believed. Big Society The language of participatory democracy is appealing – no less to those who would like to maintain old power in the old ways. Britain’s new old-Etonian Prime Minister David
18 ● New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010
18 ● New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010 Cameron has launched, to great fanfare, his idea of the ‘Big Society’ as opposed to ‘big government’. Let the people run society, he says. Let’s reduce the overbearing state and encourage citizen initiative and community participation. Let volunteers set up and run publicly funded schools. This is accompanied by savage cuts in government spending on public services. But, hey, let’s be really democratic about that too and let the people decide where the axe should fall!
The government recently launched its ‘Spending Challenge’, inviting members of the public to suggest public spending cuts. But who took the decision to take publicly owned services away from the public in the first place? It’s rather like inviting victims of an imminent burglary to choose what the burglar takes – though possibly less honest because the ‘choice’ is then ignored.
A previous attempt – soliciting knowledge and expertise from the public to find solutions to problems – produced 9,500 online replies but ended without a single government department altering any policy.8
Because we’re worth it! To combat corruption and unfair influence, most Western-style democracies have rules about party financing.
THE LAW • In Canada the law prohibits corporations and trade unions from making political contributions • In Australia, non-Australian individuals, businesses and governments may donate to political parties • In Britain, all donations of over £7,500 to a party’s central organization must be declared. There is also a cap on campaign spending before an election.
WHAT HAPPENS • In 2009 an ‘expenses scandal’ revealed that scores of British MPs had been using the public purse to pay for private benefits – including pornographic films, mortgage payments, garlic peelers, a duck house and ‘moat clearing’. • In Canada, the abuse of $100 million of public funds (paid to various communications agencies) in Quebec lost the ruling Liberal party the 2006 federal election. • In the US, oil and gas interest groups spent more than $354 million on lobbying activities between 1998 and 2004. George W Bush received more campaign contributions from oil and gas than any other candidate – a total of $1.7 million.1
The beginning of hope If ossified parties are to have any kind of plausible democratic future they need to learn from social movements. Perhaps some parties that have their roots in social movements can do this, before they too become institutionalized, bureaucratic and retentive of power. The tensions that are currently emerging between the social movements in Bolivia and the MAS party they gave birth to are ones to watch in the coming months. (See Raúl Zibechi, page 26.)
• Mexican Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, makes lavish donations to his country’s PRI party (including a one-off $25 million at a fundraising dinner). Slim used his ‘influence over the government’ to secure a telecoms monopoly on the best possible terms, according to The New York Times (in which he later bought a substantial stake). 1 Center for Public Integrity, ‘Big Oil protects its interests’, Washington 2004.
the help of the internet – is crossing national frontiers. And some of the most vital activity is coming from the Global South.
Simply adopting the language of social movements isn’t going to fool anyone, but learning from them could nourish democracy and enable it to grow into something stronger, more vibrant, engaging and mature.
Paradoxically, the impulse for that maturity may come in part from younger people turned off by the current state of politics – but savvy enough to see through the PR spin that is supposed to win them over.
In several Latin American countries national constitutions have been rewritten, not by a handful of experts, but by citizens and their organizations
‘When politics is most popular with young people,’ says Noel Hatch of the Young Compass, a left-leaning youth group, ‘is when it’s not called “politics”. They feel a sense of powerlessness with the structures that are in place, whether it’s political parties or trade unions. But where initiatives exist to help them express their views, they get involved.’3
Local and national initiatives are important. But much pro-democracy activism – with
Current disillusion with party politics reminds us that democracy is not a static entity or set of rules but, rather, a process. It may not even have an achievable end in the sense of ‘the ideal democratic society’ – but as with equality, the process of working towards it makes things better.
Enchantment is what happens to naïve princesses in fairy tales. Disenchantment is the beginning of wakefulness, the beginning of empowerment, the beginning of hope.
1 Freedom House www.freedomhouse.org 2 Government of New Zealand www.socialreport.msd.govt.nz/civil-political- rights/voter-turnout.html 3 Libby Brookes ‘Young people don’t think their vote will make a difference’, The Guardian, 6 April 2010. 4 Neil Nevitte and Mebs Kanji, ‘Authority Orientations and Political Support: A Cross-National Analysis of Satisfaction with Governments and Democracy’, University of Toronto, 2002, www.worldvaluessurvey.com/Upload/5_ Nevitte.pdf 5 www.opendemocracy.net/charles-barclayroger/truth-about-public-trust-in-government 6 Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, Hamish Hamilton, 2010. 7 Paul Waldman, Boston Globe, 6 September 2006. 8 Patrick Wintour, ‘Coalition’s first crowdsourcing attempt fails to alter Whitehall line,’ The Guardian, 2 August 2010.
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