Fifteen theses on the party-movement

Playing Cards The Cloisters, ca. 1475-80. (Met collection)


At this time of defensive struggles, it is important to defend liberal, representative democracy to neutralize the fascists and to radicalize the democratization of society and politics from there.

1 – There are no depoliticized citizens; there are citizens who do not allow themselves to be politicized by the dominant forms of politicization, be they parties or organized civil society movements.

Citizens are not fed up with politics, but with this policy; the overwhelming majority of citizens do not mobilize politically or take to the streets to demonstrate, but they are full of anger at home and sympathize with those who demonstrate; in general, they are not in a position to join parties or participate in movements or have any interest in doing so, but when they take to the streets, they only surprise the political elites who have lost contact with “the grassroots”.

2 – There is no democracy without parties, but there are parties without democracy.

One of the antinomies of liberal democracy in our time is that it is increasingly based on parties as the exclusive form of political agency, while parties are internally less and less democratic. Like liberal democracy, the party-traditional form has run out of historical time. The democratic political systems of the future must combine representative democracy with participatory democracy at all levels of governance. Citizen participation has to be multiform and multichannel. The parties themselves must be internally constituted by mechanisms of participatory democracy.

3 – Being on the left is a point of arrival and not a starting point and, therefore, it is proven in the facts.

The left has to go back to its origins, to the excluded social groups, which it forgot a long time ago. The left stopped talking or knowing how to talk with the peripheries, with the most excluded. Who speaks today with the peripheries and with the most excluded are the evangelical Pentecostal churches or the fascist agitators. Today, left-wing activism seems to limit itself to participating in a party meeting to make (almost always listening to those who do) an analysis of the conjuncture. Leftist parties, as they exist today, are not able to speak to the silenced voices of the peripheries in terms they understand. To change that, the left, or rather the lefts, must be reinvented.

4 – There is no democracy, there is democratization.

The left's responsibility lies in the fact that it alone genuinely serves democracy. It does not limit it to the space-time of citizenship (liberal democracy). On the contrary, it fights for it in the space of the family, the community, production, social relations, school, relations with nature and international relations. Each space-time summons a specific type of democracy. Only by democratizing all space-times is it possible to democratize the space-time of citizenship and representative liberal democracy.

5 – The party-movement is the party that contains within itself its opposite.

In order to be a fundamental pillar of representative democracy, the party-movement must be built through non-representative processes, rather participatory and deliberative. This is the passage from the traditional party form to the party-movement form. It consists of applying to the internal life of parties the same idea of ​​complementarity between participatory/deliberative democracy and representative democracy that should guide the management of the political system in general. Participation/deliberation concerns all domains of the party-movement, from internal organization to defining the political program, from choosing candidates for elections to approving lines of action in the current situation.

6 – Being a member of the political class is always transitory.

Such quality should not allow one to earn more than the average salary in the country; elected members of parliaments do not invent themes or positions, they convey those that come from discussions in the grassroots structures; party politics must have faces, but it is not made of faces; ideally, there should be collective mandates that allow regular rotation of representatives during the same legislature; transparency and accountability must be complete; the party is a service provided by the citizens to the citizens and therefore it should be financed by the latter and not by companies interested in capturing the State and emptying democracy.

7 – The movement-party is a counter-current against two fundamentalisms.

Conventional parties suffer from an anti-social movement fundamentalism. They consider that they have a monopoly on political representation and that this monopoly is legitimate, precisely because social movements are not representative. In turn, many movements suffer from an anti-party fundamentalism. They consider that any collaboration or articulation with the parties compromises their autonomy and diversity and always ends up in an attempt at co-option.

As long as representative democracy is monopolized by anti-movement parties and participatory democracy by social movements, or anti-party associations, no articulation between representative and participatory democracy will be possible, to the detriment of both. These two fundamentalisms must be overcome.

8 – The party-movement combines institutional action with extra-institutional action.

Traditional parties favor institutional action, within legal frameworks and with mobilization of institutions, such as parliament, courts, public administration. On the contrary, social movements, although they also use institutional action, often resort to direct action, to protests and demonstrations in the streets and squares, to sit ins, the dissemination of agendas through art (artivism). In view of this, complementarity is not easy and has to be patiently constructed.

We cannot generalize the conditions of collective action: there are political conditions in which the classes that are in power are very repressive, very monolithic; there are others where they are more open, less monolithic, and there is a lot of competition between them. The more competition between elites, the more gaps open for the popular movement and participatory democracy to enter through them. The important thing is to identify opportunities and not waste them. They are often wasted for reasons of sectarianism, dogmatism, careerism.

The practice of movements often has to oscillate between the legal and the illegal. In some contexts, the criminalization of social protest is reducing the possibility of both institutional and extra-institutional legal struggle. In these contexts, peaceful collective action may have to face the consequences of lawlessness. We know that dominant classes have always used legality and illegality according to their conveniences. Not being a dominant class lies precisely in having to reckon with the consequences of the dialectic between legality and illegality and protecting oneself as much as possible.

9 – The information revolution and social networks do not constitute, in themselves, an unconditionally favorable instrument for the development of participatory democracy.

On the contrary, they can contribute to manipulating public opinion to such an extent that the democratic process can be fatally disfigured. The exercise of participatory democracy requires today, more than ever, face-to-face meetings and face-to-face discussions. The tradition of party cells, citizen circles, culture circles, ecclesial base communities has to be reinvented. There is no participatory democracy without proximity interaction.

10 – The party-movement is based on depolarized plurality and on the recognition of specific competences.

Depolarized plurality is the one that makes it possible to distinguish between what separates and what unites organizations and to promote articulations between them based on what unites them, without losing the identity of what separates them. What separates them is only suspended for pragmatic reasons.

The party-movement has to know how to combine generalist issues with sectoral issues. Parties tend to homogenize their social bases and focus on issues that encompass all or large sectors of them. On the contrary, social movements tend to focus on more specific themes, such as the right to housing, immigration, police violence, cultural diversity, sexual difference, territory, popular economy, etc. They work with languages ​​and concepts that are different from those used by the parties.

Parties can sustain a political agenda with more permanence than movements. The problem with many social movements lies in the nature of their social and media irruption. At a given moment they have enormous activity, they are in the press every day, and the following month they are already absent or they start to ebb with people not going to meetings or assemblies. The sustainability of mobilization is a very serious problem because, in order to achieve a certain continuity in political participation, there needs to be broader political articulation involving parties. In turn, parties are subject to transforming the continuity of public presence into a condition for the survival of bureaucratic cadres.

11 – The party-movement thrives on a constant struggle against inertia.

Two inertia can be generated: on the one hand, the inertia and reflux of social movements that fail to multiply and densify the struggle and, on the other hand, parties that do not change their policies at all are subject to bureaucratic stagnation. Overcoming these inertias is the biggest challenge for building the party-movement.

Working with concrete experiences, it is noted that parties, when having a vocation for power, usually deal well with the issue of imbalances within the public space. But because they compete for power, they don't want to transform it, they want to take it. Social movements, on the contrary, know that the forms of oppression come both from the State and from very strong economic and social actors. In some situations, the distinction between public and private oppression is not too important. Trade unions, for example, have notable experience in fighting private actors: bosses and companies. Both the social movements and the trade unions are today marked by a very negative experience: the leftist parties have never broken their electoral promises so much when they came to power as lately. This non-compliance causes the delegitimization of parties to be greater and greater in more countries. This loss of control over the political agenda can only be recovered through social movements as they are articulated in the new party-movements.

12 – Popular political education is the key to sustaining the party-movement.

The differences between parties and movements are insurmountable. For this, it is necessary to promote inter-knowledge through new forms of popular political education: conversation circles, ecologies of knowledge, workshops at the Popular University of Social Movements; discussion of possible articulation practices between parties and movements: participatory budgets, plebiscites or popular consultations, social or public policy management councils. So far the experiences are mainly on a local scale. Complementarity needs to be developed at the national and global level.

13 – The party-movement goes beyond the articulation between party and social movement.

After more than forty years of neoliberal capitalism, of colonialism and patriarchy ever renewed, of scandalous concentration of wealth and destruction of nature, the popular classes, the working people, when they explode or erupt with indignation, tend to do so outside parties and social movements. Some and others tend to be surprised and go after the mobilization. In addition to parties and movements, it is necessary to count on spontaneous movements, with collective presences in public squares. The party-movement has to be attentive to these irruptions and be in solidarity with them without trying to direct or co-opt them.

14 – We live in a period of defensive struggles. It is up to the party-movement to stop them, not losing sight of the offensive struggles.

The ideology that there is no alternative to capitalism – which, in fact, is a triad: capitalism, colonialism (racism) and patriarchy (sexism) – turned out to be internalized by much leftist thinking. Neoliberalism managed to combine the supposedly peaceful end of history with the idea of ​​a permanent crisis (for example, the financial crisis). For this reason, we live today under the domain of the short term. Their demands must be met because anyone who is hungry or is a victim of domestic violence cannot wait for socialism to eat or be freed.

But one cannot lose sight of the civilizing debate that poses the question of medium-term and offensive struggles. The pandemic, while turning the short term into a maximum urgency, created the opportunity to think that there are life alternatives and that if we don't want to enter a period of intermittent pandemic we have to heed the warnings that nature is giving us. If we do not change our ways of producing, consuming and living, we will head towards a pandemic hell.

15 – Only the movement-party can defend liberal democracy as a starting point and not as an end point.

At a time when fascists are getting closer to power, when they are no longer in power, one of the most important defensive struggles is to defend democracy. Liberal democracy is of low intensity because it is little. It accepts being a relatively democratic island in an archipelago of social, economic and cultural despotisms. Today, liberal democracy is good as a starting point, but not as a finishing point. The point of arrival is a profound articulation between liberal, representative democracy and participatory, deliberative democracy. In this moment of defensive struggles, it is important to defend liberal democracy, representative to neutralize the fascists and to radicalize the democratization of society and politics. Only the party-movement can wage this struggle.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (Authentic).


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