6-31 August, 2007
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Democracy, Social Movements and Governance in the South
The democratization of world politics is perhaps the most exciting project of our times. However, given that the precise meaning of the term democracy has been in contestation from time immemorial, the historical experiences of the South and the perspectives derived from them could, if duly taken into account, help to enrich the theoretical literature and the policy debates that are currently going on. In contrast to earlier efforts at exploring it from different, multiple perspectives and vantage points, democracy is nowadays seen to be nothing more than a shorthand for electoral politics which has become the unchallenged yardstick for measuring “good governance”. This, in turn, has spurned a one-size-fits-all notion of democratic processes which can be applied on the basis of a set of technical criteria. So convinced are the proponents of this perspective that they have also transformed their version of democracy into a key component of the political conditionality that is applied to the developing countries of the global South in their endless bargaining with the international financial institutions. In the hands of the officials of the South, this has, in turn, led to a limiting of democracy to periodic elections (whose rules are frequently rigged and organization seriously flawed). In the light of this situation, it is necessary to go beyond the prevalent but narrow - and narrowing - notions of democracy and governance that have taken hold and, in so doing, retrieve the concept in order to enhance our understanding of the processes and challenges faced by the global South in building truly representative governments. In whatever way the term is understood, democracy must be located in its local, national, and global contexts. It is also imperative to relate democracy to issues of culture, history, ideology, economic development, interest groups, social movements, gender, class, caste, ethnicity and so forth. Along similar lines, democracy should also contribute to ensuring effective citizenship and the enjoyment of the whole array of rights that inhere in the democratic promise, as well as the impact of popular social forces on the policymaking processes. For this, the study of civil society and the public sphere are important elements to be taken into account.
As noted earlier, the external and internal processes of democratization and democracy building are always intimately interconnected. For this reason, it is important to evaluate, firstly, the problems and prospects the democratization of world politics itself as the processes and structures of global governance get expanded and entrenched. Secondly, there is a need to evaluate the impact of globalization and global processes originating from international structures and relations, such as hegemony, the dynamics of the global capitalist system, dominant norms and laws, organizations including NGOs, and so forth. This comparative exploration would enable us to sharpen our insights into the fate of the human condition in the South. In connection to this, particular attention would need to be paid to the issue of agency. Democracy, after all, is government by the demos and this highlights the perennial issues of sovereignty, conflict, peace and sustainable livelihoods and development.
The proposed research agenda on democracy will be undertaken in a comparative and collaborative perspective involving the different regions of the South. Three key areas will be focused upon, namely:
Democracy, Social Movements and Local Politics
The reduction of democracy to a buzzword has had as one consequence: the narrowing of scholarly focus to the actions/inactions of the elite to the exclusion of the interventions of the lower strata and their political organizations and social movements. And yet, the question of how the demos actually governs, and what it does when it rules directly or indirectly, through some form of representative and accountable government can be observed in the myriad of ways in which popular organizations and popular social movements are constituted and run. The democratic concept also speaks to the notion of a social contract or bond existing between the governed and those who govern. Ironically, the idea of the social contract was itself a centerpiece of classical liberal thinking on democracy. Yet, this idea in the hands of the neo-liberals has become devoid of meaning after key economic, social and welfare issues were removed from the equation and progressively displaced outside the public sphere and into the domain of the marketplace. As a socio-historical process, democracy, in the dominant discourses, has supposedly become detached from the local and global histories and socio-political processes through which the demos is constituted, and its boundaries continuously redefined. Much of what is at issue in the conflicts and tensions in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and the Middle East has to do precisely with the patterns of prolonged exclusion/inclusion from the demos in a dialectic which broaches upon the issues of citizenship, identity, recognition, participation, rights of access to resources, and patterns of distribution of power. This in itself is worthy of a careful, comparative, investigation and it is proposed to carry the investigation out across the South through an assessment of the articulation of interests at the local level by social movements that seek, through the struggles which they bear, to enrich the democratic experience and extend its frontiers.
Democracy and Global Processes
Democracy is an important and indispensable feature of any modern society. For this reason, it is pertinent to examine the relationship between democracy and a range of socio-economic factors that are at play in the wider global order and which underpin the international system of governance. Power is not confined to political and military institutions and processes only, as its manifestation can also be observed in the realm of international economics. Important in this regard is the role of international institutions, particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as agents that, with the policies they sponsor, can facilitate or hinder democratization. But no discussion on the international political economy can be complete without reference to global capital. In a sense, the end of the Cold War also symbolized the victory of capitalist, free-market forces over socialist conceptualizations and proposals of macroeconomic management. But capitalism and democratization have a history of tense and even sometimes antagonistic relations, especially in peripheral countries, such that it cannot be taken for granted that where capital goes democracy will necessarily flourish. In this regard, a relevant research question from the point of view of the countries of the South relates to the conditions under which the increased democratization of world politics can be expected to produce a fairer distribution of resources and promote the dissolution of entrenched dependency structures in the international political economy. Finally, we would also need to consider the relationship between trade regimes like the World Trade Organization, the ASEAN Free Trade Area, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, ECOWAS, SADC, ECA, COMESA and other regional economic groupings in Africa, or South America´s Mercosur on the one hand and the process of democratization in the South
on the other. Does free trade promote or hinder democracy? What does the historical record says? What are the concrete policy choices?
No assessment of democracy in the international system can be complete if its relationship with international norms, rules and regulations are not taken into consideration. In this connection, it will be worthwhile to reflect on a number of norms that buttress the modern international system and their correlations with the ideal of democracy. For instance, peace is a desired objective in international society. Has democracy contributed to global peace? To what extent is self-determination – perfectly congruent with democratic ideals – practical without risking the disintegration of states and compounding regional conflict? Has global democratization improved the human rights condition in the Third World? Related to international norms is the issue of international law. Has global democratization enhanced the prospects for reforms? Finally, in the context of the international system, it is imperative to consider the relationship between democratization and globalization. Are these mutually reinforcing variables or are they strange bedfellows? This question is all the more intriguing when global capital becomes a crucial intervening factor between these two variables. A subset of globalization is the revolution in information and communication technologies (ICT). It would be interesting to examine how the ICT revolution as manifested in the cell-phone, internet and cable television, among others, has or has not provided the stimulus for the third wave of democratization and aided the socializing aspects of democratization.
Democracy and Governance
Democracy is a system of government. It informs us how the lives of citizens are ordered and how citizens relate to the state and its structures. Governance entails more than the institutions of state: it also includes the strategies, tactics, and knowledge that inform state, and more generally, political action. Many citizens have legitimate expectations that one of the dividends that should flow from democratic governance is the facilitation of access to a broad range of social services. So too do they demand that the democratic state which they help to bring about through their struggles should also be socially responsible and representative. A comparative study of the struggles that have been waged around these issues is likely to reveal the emergence of new forms of popular participation and protest, new experiments in collective action among the new social movements that have developed, and innovative ways of organizing, strategizing, expressing solidarity and reinventing social ties. In order to be able to capture these developments and integrate their import them into our analyses, we need to go back to less normative teleological conceptions of democracy and governance and move towards in-depth analyses of “really existing” democratic systems.