11 Mar

How can a crisis be good for democracy?

Posted By polity_admin_user

By Donatella della Porta

As huge waves of protest are developing in places as far apart as Lebanon and Chile, Hong Kong and Barcelona, it is important to think about the role that social movements can have in triggering democratization and deepening democracy. Social movements shine a light on existing grievances, of course, but they can also do much more than this. They prefigure new ideas and can work their way into the institutional fray, by promoting constitutional processes, pushing for referendums, creating movement parties, or – as is most visible in the current Democratic primaries in the United States – transforming existing parties from within.

The Great Recession that hit the world in 2008 was an event of far-reaching impact, nurturing not only socioeconomic but also political transformations. Increasing social inequalities have spiralled, with growing mistrust of established institutions fuelling a sense of insecurity and xenophobic reaction. While scholars are debating how much inequality democracy can withstand without breaking down, resistance to the backlash is also developing, with citizens mobilizing for social justice and ‘real democracy’, as well as proposing and practising democracy in innovative forms.

Democratic practices and the very concept of ‘democracy’ itself certainly need constant innovation. With various crises converging to challenge existing institutions, it is all the more important now to reflect on what can be done in order to save a form of democracy which has perhaps been taken for granted. Throughout history, progressive social movements have been at the forefront of deepening democracy, elaborating and prefiguring alternative visions that have often been subsequently constitutionalized in democratic institutions. At a moment of increasing attacks on democracy from the populist Right, it is all the more important to focus on attempts to improve democratic institutions through a strengthening of their participatory and deliberative qualities.

Following up on my 2013 book in which I asked Can democracy be saved?, this new book addresses innovative proposals, emerging from progressive social movements, that aim at increasing participation and deliberation in order to save democracy. Exploiting windows of opportunity that have been offered by institutions of direct democracy, social movements have promoted referendums or infiltrated ‘from below’ those that have been otherwise orchestrated in a top-down fashion. Party systems have been dramatically shaken by the breakdown of mainstream parties and, in some cases, an unexpected rise of movement parties on the left (as well as right-wing populist ones). Similarly unexpected rejuvenation has come to those wings of old-Left parties that appeal to social justice and citizens’ participation, among them Labour in the United Kingdom and the Democratic Party in the United States.

Times of crisis are times of rapid change, presenting challenges to existing institutions but also opening opportunities. In intense moments such as the ones we are living through, changes can happen quickly in different directions. Indeed, challenges to ‘really existing democracy’ also come from regressive movements in forms and with content that should not be confused with the ones put forward by progressive movements. However, it is important to restate that these are not only times of threat, but could also be (or become) times of opportunity for democratic deepening. For sure, these are highly politicized times. Moments of crisis can be expected to fuel both pressures for progressive change and regressive backlash, utopias and retrotopias. While movements remain transient, alternating between phases of visibility and latency (and we can expect the lifespan of such movements to be increasingly short), some movement-produced knowledge seems to survive, becoming embedded in new institutions, that often go on to spread beyond their original examples.

Donatella della Porta is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre on Social Movement Studies at the Scuola Normale Superiore. Her new book, How Social Movements Can Save Democracy, is now available from Polity.