Through the electoral crossfire the debate about what David calls “a decent society” gets constantly logged down by various labels of a partisan nature or attributions of partisan intent. I decided to ride my high horse back to the ivory tower and raid the archives of a good debating site like opendemocracy.com to come up with some snippets regarding a few issues as a taster of what it is we would like to be discussing when the clouds of war have cleared.
Article: Parties for Everyone
Insecurity grows but so too does a positive demand for self-determination. People want to be responsible for their own choices. Traditional politics manipulates both the desire and the concern, playing on fear. And the traditional political party demands that its members leave their brains at the door when they enter a meeting. What were once broad bodies that expressed a social and class interest and developed their members’ role in the world, have become prisons for ‘policy delivery’ – usually decided by small cliques around the leadership based on evidence from focus groups and attitude surveys under the gravitational pull of the media.
Article: What the hell is civil society?
It seems to me that unless “civil society” is thought of as meaning specifically the public space in which people meet, discuss and engage with politics and public policy, any description of it will tend to look more and more like “society” itself and become indistinguishable from it. Society can be conceived of as the entirety of social practices in a polity. Civil society can be seen as that part of society where people, as rights-bearing citizens, meet to discuss and enter into dialogue about the polity. It is in this sense that civil society is absolutely indispensable for democracy, in its promise of an engaged citizenry. However, fine terms such as “engagement” become sticky ones when we test what they really mean. Yes, human beings fashion their worlds in dialogue. Unless we talk to others and familiarise ourselves with their different perspectives, we cannot possess informed judgments. Even though we enter public forums from radically divergent positions, through deliberation our horizons enlarge, our perceptions expand, and our sensitivities and sensibilities deepen. Participants come to realise that what we call impartiality is not a “view from nowhere” but a matter of viewing the world from the perspective of other people alongside our own. Politically, as we establish our readiness to listen to others with respect, we establish that we regard them as free, equal partners in an ongoing deliberation. It means we do not sign a once-and-for-all contract like Hobbesian individuals. Our signatures are erasable; they will need to be written again in different times and places. In fact, to arrive at one final truth would be to proclaim closure on discussion. Deliberation is a process of open inquiry into the human condition, not a conclusion.
We’ve become a wealthy consumer society, where we’re constantly bombarded by advertising messages and other pressures, telling us to treat ourselves, buy what we want, strive to have it all. We’re not actually very good at taking tough choices in this arena either – as shown by the scale of consumer debt. But the key thing is that it’s a culture very much focussed on the individual and individual choice. This makes the fundamentally collective nature of political decision-making really quite alien. And this is particularly so, given the tendency that politicians have developed to play down the collective aspects of politics and treat voters more like consumers in a market where the parties are the product.
Article: Michelle Bachelet’s triumph
Michelle Bachelet has pledged to change the binominal (or first-two-past-the-post) electoral system that Pinochet bestowed on Chile’s infant democracy. This effectively guarantees the political right the same parliamentary representation as the Concertación with as little as 33% per cent of the vote; smaller parties, notably the communists, are denied any representation. The right agreed to vote through a raft of constitutional reforms in 2005, eliminating the post of life-senator (also granted by Pinochet to other heads of the armed forces) and restoring civilian authority over the military. Introducing a system of proportional representation to replace the binominal system is widely regarded as the last step in Chile’s long transition to a fully entrenched democracy.
Parties play a well-known role in presenting their policy manifesto at elections. Their leaders exert party discipline in parliaments and executive councils to ensure that legislation and decisions pass. But manifestos have slid toward marketing tools: undemocratic in their compilation, treated cavalierly after elections, they are anyway too general to determine every decision in the years that follow. In today’s complex and fast-moving world, the processes by which authorities operate – their ongoing systems of “governance” – have taken on increasing importance. These workshops of power, some permanent, some informal or transitory, often lack transparency or are dominated by experts.
It is in the meat of politics that we find the greatest potential tension between empowering party members and listening to the wants of the population at large. Most parties are far distant from the ideal “sovereignty of the congress”, in which the membership’s delegates gather together to determine party policy. This model has never lacked advocates, but its eclipse has followed from the frequent electoral failure of delegates’ manifestos.
Party memberships have generally been unrepresentative of the population at large. Their worldview and the priorities of voters are seldom naturally synchronised. So the party leadership takes it upon itself to decide a raft of policies that will appeal to the wider public, brokering conference votes, sometimes not even seeking the sullen membership’s consent.