The Defence of Real Democracy: Boaventura De Sousa Santos

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This is a translation of an article by sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, published in Spanish website Público 31st May.

Manifesto for change

Many are wondering what is happening in Portuguese society that personalities, political actors and social organisations are leaving their differences to one side to unite in actions of struggle against the present Government and its austerity policies. There are various reasons and different levels of convergence, meaning that the strength of this convergence may be based on creating conditions to re-define democratic divergences in a new and forthcoming political cycle. Here are some of the reasons:

The new antifascism. Portuguese democracy is suspended because the political decisions that most significantly affect citizens do not derive from their own elections, nor do they respect the Constitution. A basic conflict between the rights of citizens and the demands of the financial ‘markets’ has exploded, and this conflict is going the way of the ‘markets’. Decisions that are formally democratic are substantively impositions by international finance capital to guarantee the profitability of their investments, and in this they have at their service multilateral financial institutions, the European Central Bank, the European Commission, the euro, and the national governments that allowed themselves to be blackmailed.

By contrast with historic fascism, the current financial fascism, rather than destroying democracy, it strips it of any power that might allow it to confront it, and it turns it into a political monstrosity: a Government of citizens that governs against the citizens; the Government legitmated by the rights of citizens that rules by violating and destroying those rights.

The defence of real democracy demands a union of the kind that united the antifascist forces that struggled so much for the democracy which we had until a short while ago and which we conquered less than 40 years ago. Since fascism is different, the forms of struggle are also different. But the objectives consist of the same: building a democracy worthy of the name.

From alternation to the alternative. The financial crisis of 2008 meant the end of what post-war became known as “democratic capitalism”, an always tense co-existence between the interests of those interested in maximising their profits and the interests of workers in having salaries that were just and work with rights. The coexistence was the result of a pact through which workers gave up their most radical demands (socialism) in exchange for concessions from capital (taxation and regulation) that made the welfare or social State possible.

This pact began to enter crisis after the 1970s, but it collapsed definitively with the 2008 crisis, not only for the way in which it got resolved, but also in the way in which it was settled: in favour of the financial capital that created it, which, instead of being penalised and regulated, was rescued and liberated in order to quickly to restore its profitability and that of its bondholders. The political parties who sought to govern were distinguished in the post-war period by their way of managing the pact. That is what alternation consisted of. Since 2008 this pact ceased to exist and hence alternation ceased to have any meaning.

In Portugal, the signing of the Troika memorandum sealed the end of the pact and of the alternation that made it democratic. From now on, instead of alternation, it is necessary to seek an alternative. The divergences within the Government coalition have nothing to do with the alternative and show that the alternation of the alternation (with the same parties or some of them and the Socialist Party) would be the reproduction, in the form of farce, of the tragedy we are experiencing.

The alternative entails deciding between the logic of financial capitalism and the logic of democratic politics. In the present, the two logics cannot be reconciled. Portuguese democrats converge on the idea that democracy must prevail and they know that for this to happen acts of disobedience are necessary against the demands of the ‘markets’, which will surely bring with it some degree of social and political turbulence, whose costs must be minimised. Above all, there must be a confrontation of the intimidation and the manipulation of fear, of the drones that the ‘markets’ use to destroy the rights of citizens cost free. The disobedience may take on various forms, but all of them entail the stance that the debt as it exists is unpayable and unjust, because you cannot liquidate a country in order to liquidate a debt.

Opting for democracy is the alternative, but the way of putting it into practice is not unequivocal, since nothing is unequivocal in democracy. That is, the alternative itself encompasses alternatives. And it is here that the divergences emerge that are going to define the new political cycle.

The real Europe and the ideal Europe. The divergences hinge on three issues: whether or not to articulate disobedience to financial capital whilst remaining in the euro; centering efforts on renegotiating the position within the EU or opening up new geopolitical spaces; and, given that the end of this EU is a question of time, whether or not to struggle for another, one that is unequivocally subject to the logic of democracy. As with any paradigm change, every position carries with it risks and it will not always be easy to calculate them.

But even within the divergences there is a certain convergence: the present EU is totally colonised by the logic of the ‘markets’; the deepening of integration underway is being carried out at the expense of the democracies of the South of Europe; it would be better for the stances of disobedience to be taken by different countries in an organised way.

The extra-institutional political struggle. Left political parties are the most timid in this convergence process because they have too many interests vested in the current political cycle and fear for their future. They have difficulty in admitting that, if they do not take on risks, they are condemned to be the democratic varnish on the nails of financial fascism. The dilemma they are confronting is serious: if they go along with a social movement that aims at a new democratic cycle, they may be committing suicide; if they do not do so, they will be seen as part of the problem we face and not as part of the solution, running the risk, at best, of becoming irrelevant, which is another form of suicide.

Given this dilemma -which all of us must understand-, citizens have no other option but to get onto the streets to demand the fall of the Government and force the parties of the left and centre-left to take risks, by helping to minimise the social and political costs of the approaching political turbulence without getting into party calculations. We are, perhaps, entering a strong moment of participative democracy, serving as a revitalising source for representative democracy. Of the institutions that survive the suspension of democracy, Portuguese democrats have little hope remaining in the Constitutional Tribunal. Out of the respect they have for the institution of Presidency of the Republic, they prefer to say nothing about its current incumbent.

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