Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
09 October 2020

Democracy from below: practices and limitations

Insights and video of our webinar with Mary Kaldor, Niccolò Milanese and Shalini Randeria

What does it mean to act democratically in Europe today? Can trans-national civil society groups meaningfully influence European politics? What are the challenges faced by activists and movements seeking to practice ‘democracy from below’?  The Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy invited Mary Kaldor, Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit in the LSE Department of International Development, and Niccolò Milanese, director of European Alternatives to discuss these issues in a webinar moderated by Shalini Randeria, Director of AHCD. Both Kaldor and Milanese are not only scholars of civil society but are also activists, who have mobilized and campaigned for nuclear disarmament and human rights, for instance, and most recently against Brexit.

The webinar Democracy from Below: Practices and Limitations on 6th October 2020 held in association with the Geneva Democracy Week re-framed Pierre Rosanvallon’s idea of ‘counter-democracy/alter-democracy’ that was this year’s theme for the Democracy Week. Moving beyond its original framework of monitoring and surveillance practices by citizens to hold the state accountable, both panellists analysed the challenges involved in counter-democracy at the transnational level. The discussion focussed on past and present predicaments of constructing a pan-European democratic politics, especially from the point of view of civic activism.


Activism: Past and Present

Mary Kaldor drew on her rich experience as an activist involved in the anti-nuclear and human rights movement in the 1970s and the 80s in Europe, when she worked closed with dissidents in Eastern Europe as well as her recent advocacy against Brexit in UK. She pointed out that the rediscovery of ‘civil society’ as an important category to understand and organise political practice emerged from these exchanges between East European human rights activists and their peace-movement counterparts in West Europe. Their mutual engagement laid the foundation for important institutions and concepts in human rights politics, including the International Criminal Court and the idea of ‘safe havens’ in conflict zones. Niccolò Milanese spoke of the challenges faced during his own involvement with the movement “European Alternatives” when it attempted to engage with the proposed EU Conference on the Future of Europe and struggled for citizens’ voices to be heard by intransigent EU institutions. But he also noted some of its remarkable successes as, for instance, the registration of a European Citizens Initiative (ECI).


The changing forms of Civil Society

In Rosanvallon’s understanding of ‘counter-democracy’ democracy has always contained within itself “durable forms of distrust” that compliment the episodic (elections) and formal mechanisms of representative democracy. We have come to associate many such forms of distrust as constituted by the workings of the modern civil society. However, the panellists noted that with the rise of soft authoritarian regimes in Hungary, Turkey, Poland or India, civil society organisations are not immune to the very tendencies widely perceived today as inimical to liberal democracy.

Kaldor argued that this is because the form and content of civil society have continually changed and evolved from its early instantiations within the East European human rights movement to contemporary civic engagement in Europe and beyond. Both speakers compared their experiences with media, especially social media. Social media and web 2.0 were supposed to herald a new, participatory mode of engagement in the public sphere, and did play an important role at one point in toppling corrupt regimes in the Arab world and elsewhere. However, social media today has created a complex media environment that has often exacerbated fissures and fragmentations rather than primarily ‘surveillance’ from below by citizens as postulated by Rosanvallon. Milanese noted that activists engaged in progressive movements might only be beginning to learn how to engage productively with new forms of media in pursuit of their goals.


Democracy from below: levels and temporality

Mary Kaldor argued that in order to re-imagine democratic oversight from below in Europe, one has to think of multiple scales of action: for instance, a trans-national scale of engagement, scrutiny and oversight enabled by EU institutions that can protect and bolster attempts for democratic empowerment at the local level. We need to move beyond the scale of the nation-state that seems to have dominated much of our thinking on democracy. Milanese, although sceptical of the category of the “local” as it too is transnationalized in many ways, concurred that democratic action must move beyond nation-state in a world where decisions concerning the life of communities are no longer exclusively made at the level of the nation-state. But he also pointed to the importance of temporality. Wondering if we can construct a ‘now’ of political action while tackling issues that are complex and laden with historical baggage, Milanese cautioned that many of the movements that are currently seen as newly emerging – for instance, Black Lives Matter – have long years of organisation and trust-building at the community level that accounts for their recent resurgence and success.


Organising trans-national movements: right of assembly and other questions

As someone grappling with concrete questions of trans-national organisation in Europe today, Niccolò Milanese pointed to the obstacles activists face due to the absence of basic legal structures in Europe that could facilitate associational activity across borders. He also expressed his dismay at the omission of the Right to Assembly in the Rule of Law Report by the European Commission. Entrusting international institutions with the function of oversight can be problematic. While EU oversight provides ammunition to authoritarian figures for their populist rhetoric against intervention from ‘outside’, it also increases dependence on institutions detached from the will of the people  on something as fundamental as the right of citizens to organise themselves across borders, for instance. ‘Where to assemble,’ as Shalini Randeria pointed out, is an equally important question for transnational movements, especially when citizens are forced to assemble virtually due to the pandemic. Responding to questions from the audience the panellists also reflected on the pros and cons of direct democracy (the use of referendum, for instance), the efficacy of human rights institutions and the role of social media.

Democracy from below: Practices and limitations
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Read more about the other events organised by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy as part of the Democracy Week.