A flawed vision

Issue: 118

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Reinventing Social Emancipation: Toward New Manifestoes

Volume 1: Democratizing Democracy—Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon (Verso, 2007), £24.99

Volume 2: Another Production is Possible (Verso, 2007), £24.99

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a radical social theorist active in the international movement against capitalist globalisation. Democratizing Democracy and Another Production is Possible are part of a projected five-volume edited series, which de Sousa Santos hopes will theorise and advance “an alternative, counter-hegemonic form of globalisation” in its “confrontation with neoliberal globalisation”. The other volumes—Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies, Voices of the World and Reinventing Social Emancipation—are forthcoming.

The first three volumes contain case studies by a range of contributors, largely conducted in the late 1990s in the Global South. Volume four will comprise extensive interviews with activists in the “new social movements”. The final volume is projected to be de Sousa Santos’s own reflection on the project. This work claims to go beyond the challenge to capitalism presented by the “old left”, but it offers little fundamentally new.

Introducing Democratizing Democracy, de Sousa Santos declares that the purpose of this volume is to overcome two complementary “hegemonic” proposals resulting from 20th century debates on democracy. The first assumed that “the abandonment of the role of social mobilisation and collective action” was necessary for the “construction of democracy”. The second assumed that there was “an elitist solution to the debate on democracy”, and therefore placed too much emphasis on “mechanisms of representation”, without “linking these mechanisms to societal mechanisms of participation”.

De Sousa Santos proposes an alternative “counterhegemonic course”. This strategy draws on both forms of democracy—representative and participatory—in such a way that they “deepen one another”. In practice, this apparently radical approach becomes indistinguishable from various forms of autonomism criticised in several previous issues of this journal.

Several essays by de Sousa Santos and Leonardo Avritzer study the model of participatory budgeting pioneered in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. This involved an active minority of the population in a year-round process of delegation and negotiation, weighing local groups’ requests and city-wide priorities. Participatory budgeting succeeded in redistributing some social services and cultural opportunities, but, as is clear from these accounts, it was severely curtailed by the need to negotiate with a neoliberal state tied in to the global capitalist system.

Moreover, the volume does not cover the period since the election of President Lula, a member of the Workers’ Party. Lula’s “social-liberal” policies and attacks on the left inside his own party are a testimony to the limitations of a strategy of creating spaces within the state without directly challenging the power of the ruling class. A similar dynamic is visible in an essay on a participatory system in the Communist-run state of Kerala in India. Other essays in the collection also depict a very limited and unstable liberation of “spaces” from the neoliberal logic.

Another Production is Possible offers a parallel strategy in the economic sphere. De Sousa Santos and Cesar A Rodriguez-Garavito propose “non-reformist economic reforms to global capitalism”. This volume is divided in three key sections: “Toward an Economy of Solidarity”, which offers examples of cooperative networks, mainly from Latin America and India; “The Land Question”, which discusses the landless movement in Brazil; and a section on a “New Labour Internationalism”. The volume concludes with several theoretical overviews of production and internationalism that draw on the case studies.

One of the overview essays notes of the “economies of solidarity” that, “in virtually every single documented case, cooperative will depends on outside financing from the state, the Church, an NGO, or, less frequently, on bank loans”.

The discussion of the MST, Brazil’s landless movement, is even more suggestive. Zander Navarro is distrustful of the lack of accountability in the “liberated spaces” created by the MST. This leads Navarro to ridicule the MST’s attempts to delegitimise the state and to dream of “storming the Winter Palace”, while all that its constituency actually wants is reform. In response, Horacio Martins de Carvalho argues that the MST, under pressure from a range of complex demands, has moved from a “subject-centred reason” that “privileges the solitary ego”, towards “consensual agreement achieved by communicative interaction between equals”. However, it seems to have done so though self-restraint and balancing different interests, rather than by developing democratic mechanisms of accountability.

The section on a New Labour Internationalism contains two useful discussions on the existing literature, but the three case studies hardly touch on the issue, instead concentrating on sub-national unionising efforts.

Overall the project initiated by de Sousa Santos is an inadequate response to the challenges facing the anti-capitalist movement. It offers radical phrases and the glorification of the banal, but it faces the danger of slipping into reformism or enlightened authoritarianism when faced with an impasse. Witness de Sousa Santos’s advice to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, following his defeat in last year’s constitutional referendum. Here he called for “a mixed property regime” and for “competition over a long period of time between the economy of selfishness and the economy of altruism, shall we say, between Microsoft Windows and Linux”. In essence, he has implored Chavez to take a certain path against social emancipation.