INSTITUTIONAL POLITICS, SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND NONVIOLENCE
KEY CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Presentation at “Democratic Transition in the MENA Region: From Revolution to Active Citizenship, Nonviolence and Regional Solidarity - Strategic Dialogue to enhance regional cooperation between emerging civil society actors” November, 1st, 2nd and 3rd, 2012 Gammarth, Tunisia
transformation of consciousness, and precisely not through dogma or
violence, is the inaugural moment of discovering new worlds―not by
willing what does not exist but by seeing what is unfolding.”
(H.Dabashi: “ the Arab Spring: the End of Post-colonialism”,
“We are not starving, we want democracy”, a Tunisian woman activist once told us at a dinner meeting when we asked her to explain the connection between the uprising in Tunisia and almost the whole of the Maghreb, and the rise in food prices globally. That statement was a clear indication of the need for any outside observer of the groundbreaking historical >> process that unfurled throughout the Middle East and was then known as the “Arab Spring”, to make an effort and not offer plain cause-and- effect motivations to explain the outburst of rebellion and mobilization. Cause-effect analyses are part of a worldview characterized by mere geopolitical constructions, where people are always victims of grand schemes or superior dynamics beyond their reach – be it the distorted dynamics of global neoliberalism or of superpower power games - rather than moved by strong determination and awareness to reclaim their public role as active citizens. I have since then tried to apply a model of reading processes of political change under the lens of “agency”, of who is the “agent”; and thinking about how to deconstruct those cultural mindsets that narrow or ignore the “agency” of citizens and social movements, thereby denying their potential to be active subjects of political transformation.
This is the first principle that I try to put at the center of my political activities and actions, as a human rights activist, currently working with indigenous peoples ( a major challenge that involves also a lot of cultural mediation and decolonizing of thought and action) , and as an active “politician”, first sitting in Parliament and now engaged in international politics in Italy and as a co-promoter of the Mediterranean Cultural Parliament. Hence, the recognition of “agency” is a first step towards characterizing individuals and collectives not exclusively as stakeholders under the classical concept of “good governance”, but as “rights-holders” reclaiming their space in collective decision-making and in the construction of a better and fairer society where dignity is the key pillar.
The recognition of being rights-holders and rights-bearers brings with it the acknowledgement of dignity as the main goal and responsibility as the key value. Each individual as a citizen bears the responsibility of contributing to the advancement and improvement of the living conditions – the dignity - of the other. Hence, the connection between the recognition of agency, the definition of citizens as rights-holders, and the recognition of the other is the driving force behind political activism. “Je suis l'autre”, as the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas used to say. You subsequently get involved in a movement as a reaction to an unjust state of things, as the result of emulation, or as a natural consequence of your being a citizen and in recognition of the fact that the right to dignity of the other is part of your own same right to dignity.
The initial motivation might differ, what I consider crucial is the capacity of creating processes, enabling tools and spaces to allow anybody to reclaim his or her role in shaping a collective present and building a collective future.
Here comes the second block of conceptual frameworks that should permeate social action and political change, notably the definition of the landscape and the public space within which change can be achieved. It goes without saying that without addressing the root causes of injustice that define - directly or by default - the public space, or even transform it into a privatized space, no matter whether you recognize the principle of “agency” this will remain suspended and unable to generate any transformational outcome. Hence the need to place our political action in a broader scene, trying to articulate the links between the urgency for change in our specific space, and the need to address the root causes of injustice and the potential threats to the creation of a new public space.
We go back to the initial issue of agency, and the proper analysis of root causes of injustice. For instance, any action at the local and national level, say for instance to reclaim real democracy or community and public control over the “commons”, (water, food, culture for instance) will have no impact if it is not connected to common platforms with other movements challenging the power of private enterprises and of market institutions. This is the case with Italy, where any effort to reclaim the commons through the instruments of direct democracy - as has been the case with the public consultation on water that rejected water privatization - has to be brought to the European level, to challenge the key rules set by the European Commission and the European Central Bank on the terms of debt reduction and cuts in public expenditure by means of commodification of the commons.
This is also the case with the need to constructively challenge the concept of “conditionality” , which risks undermining effective processes towards real democracy. Consider for instance the “more for more” approach attached to EU policies towards the Maghreb, according to which more money would be made available in exchange for more democracy and more good governance. The risk is creating a perverse incentive to accelerate formal democracy without strengthening real democracy and the capacity of “subterranean politics” to engage in a collective endeavour.
Another important opportunity is represented by the announced intention of the government of Ecuador to collaborate with the Tunisian government in renegotiating the country's foreign debt. The Tunisian government had earlier announced the intention of launching an audit on Tunisian debt, as a way to reclaim public citizen and democratic control over finance and the economy. Challenging a hurdle to social development in this context generates the tools to strengthen the direct engagement of citizens, make institutions more accountable and identify modalities and options for political solutions to financial problems.
Hence a critical analysis of external factors that might catalyze or affect opportunities for real change is required. This is somehow reflected in the most recent development in the US Occupy movement that is now morphing in into the Strike the Debt movement.
In my country, Italy, challenging the Fiscal Compact (i.e. The package of debt reduction and austerity measures that Italy, together with other countries in Southern Europe, i.e. Spain and Greece had to ratify) does not necessarily mean reiterating as a mantra its unjust and contradictory character, but rather engaging in actions aimed at overcoming its assumptions, and proposing concrete solutions to the dire living conditions of those affected. For instance resisting the austerity dogma by launching public campaigns for basic income through the mobilization of wide sectors of civil society, and social movements and the use of direct democracy.
In a word, the second underlying principle is the internalization of the local-national-global character of any political action. An action that contributes to the further determination of the “agency” of its proponents and goes beyond an ideological assumption to address the real needs of people and proposing solutions to reclaim dignity.
The third principle is nonviolence, meant to be a modality to create links and exchanges, recognizing conflict as a key element in any living democracy but at the same time metabolizing it, deconstructing conflict into positive efforts to create linkages and solidarity among actors. Nonviolence presumes a different relationship between citizens and power, citizens and the state. In a word, I agree with the suggestion made by Hannah Arendt, in her analysis of the French and American revolutions which is quoted in a very illuminating interview to Arab writer Hamid Dabashi on Jadalyya, according to which the political space is a “haven from violence” rather than a systemization of violence.
What can be therefore the relationship between the common space created and reclaimed by citizens and the public space occupied by institutions, or between what a renowned sociologist Mary Kaldor calls “subterranean politics” and “institutional politics” ? Keeping in mind that the definition of this relationship is also key to creating a nonviolent approach to systemic change?
In order to answer these questions I will use a concept that is dear to “post-colonial studies”, that of a third space or “hybridity”. In my activity as a member of Parliament I have always believed in the autonomy of civil society and social movements and in the potential of cross-fertilization between them and institutional politics, not only in terms of achieving specific issue-related goals but also in terms of “democratizing politics” and “politicizing the public space”. The principle of the recognition of autonomy of social movements and civil society is key to ensuring a lively, real and dynamic democracy. Hence the need to develop new concepts and practices that would define the relationship between the two. The concept of a third space helps in defining the landscape in which institutional politics and citizens' power meet and interact in a less ideological and more pragmatic manner. In a third space, different models can coexist, because what counts is the highest common denominator. What counts is not so much the form but the content, that common political element that would allow different cultural approaches and world-views to proceed towards the same direction. No shortcut is allowed, however, neither that of rejecting institutional politics (with the subsequent risk of authoritarian populism), nor that of accepting cooption. . The challenge is to create a space where actors meet, share common goals, but retain their very nature, by re-elaborating it in the process. In a word, building real democracy by practising it and retaining the right to confront critically or to mobilize outside of that third space. Civil disobedience and nonviolent direct actions are some of the possible modalities, as suggested by the Occupy movement, the experiences in Tahrir Square and the Indignados. The way you engage also becomes a political statement and content.
And what kind of action would be possible in concrete terms in such a hybrid space? Revolution? Cooption? Critical engagement? Dialogue? Participation?
Again, let me quote a very intense debate generated some years ago between two philosophers I admire a lot, Slavoj Zizek and the British philosopher Simon Critchley, author of what I consider a key book on political engagement titled: “Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance”. In an exchange of letters in a US magazine, Zizek accused Critchley of not contemplating the conquest of power in his proposal to resist power. Critchley responded by saying that in an authoritarian view the conflict in politics is between the power of the State or the absence of power. He rejected the statement that these are the only two solutions in fact. Real politics – he said – is the movement between these two poles, and occurs in what he described as an interstitial space within the State. These interstitial spaces are not given or pre-existing, they are created by political practice. In a nutshell I believe that our commitment today is that of defining, cultivating, enriching the interstitial distance between the power of the State and the absence of power, between critique and the construction of alternatives. What struck me in observing the mobilizations in Tunisia and in Tahrir Square was the clear evidence that those engaged were not necessarily aiming at conquering power, they were exerting their power as citizens and people. And I found many resemblances with the modalities of mobilization of indigenous peoples in Latin America. The difference between the two concepts is easier to explain in the French language and is the difference between “pouvoir” and “puissance”. I believe that political action, and also the action of anybody engaged in institutional politics should be that of restricting the sphere of “pouvoir” , and contributing to enlarge that of “puissance”, notably practicing the paradox of his or her obsolescence. This means that those who sit in power positions should always have in mind that they are transient, they are part of a broader process of social, political, economic transformation, which does not exhaust itself in exerting power, but rather in nurturing a vibrant and critical society.
Going back to our “third space”, a famous Indian post-colonial thinker, Homi Bhabha wrote in 1990 about the concept of hybridity, according to which “ in any political struggle new spaces are open but if we continue to link them to old principles then we would never be able to participate in a creative and productive manner”. Hence “when a new situation or alliance is created, this would mean that our own principles will have to be extended and re-elaborated.” This means engaging in a continuous effort to go beyond traditional approaches or simply importing external patterns but rather constantly searching. “Questioning while walking”, a Zapatista would say. This is the future challenge.