Renewing the Left: The next big idea

The Left must learn from its ideological enemies and restore its lost focus on the individual in society if it is to survive as a political doctrine, PASOK deputy Maria Damanaki said on Tuesday during the launch of her new book on participatory democracy and the renewal of social democracy. In remarks that were certain to spark controversy among leftist pundits, Damanaki admitted that political liberalism had so far done a better job than socialism in protecting the individuals’ private sphere from state encroachment. «This is the reason we lost the game in the previous century,» she said on a self-critical note, referring to breakdown of the socialist system and the triumph of free-market liberalism. However, Damanaki said that the Left is by no means out of business, stressing that the doctrine of participatory democracy is offering the Left one last chance to redefine itself. «Participatory democracy is a challenge for the Left which should respect what the Right can bring to the political scene through its blending of political liberalism with equality and social justice,» said the former leader of Synaspismos Left Coalition during the presentation of her book «A Guide to Participatory Democracy» (Kastaniotis, 2004) at the Old Parliament in Athens. Like the Third Way, the much-hyped reincarnation of socialist democracy that flourished in Britain and Germany in the 1990s, participatory (or associative) democracy has been portrayed as an attempt to steer an alternative route between bankrupt old-style socialism and the excesses of market fundamentalism. Nevertheless, the doctrine’s adoption by opposition leader George Papandreou’s «new PASOK» (Papandreou was taking notes throughout the presentation) has been little more than a vague mishmash of more direct citizen participation and electronic democracy. In a much-debated move a few weeks short of the March national elections, Damanaki defected from Synaspismos Left Coalition – a local brand of the reformist Left – to Papandreou’s Socialists. Papandreou, who had just taken the helm of the PASOK party from Costas Simitis, was at the time running on the slogan of participatory democracy in a bid to rejuvenate his crumbling party. He had himself been triumphantly elected party chairman in an open election by members and so-called «friends» of the party in what was at the time heralded as a living example of participatory democracy. However, Papandreou’s plans to reinvent PASOK on that basis appear to have been stymied as a result of in-party opposition and ideological confusion. Although admitting that participatory democracy is by no means a fully fledged political doctrine, most speakers stressed that the proposed model could alleviate some of the ills of modern-day democracies – particularly of the ordinary public’s limited impact on the political process. Nikos Mouzelis, sociology professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), said the Left’s main goal in the 21st century should be the diffusion of civic rights through the enhancement of non-governmental groups, decentralization, and education reform – all stated objectives of participatory democracy. But despite praising its educational value, Athens University Professor Constantinos Tsoukalas remained rather skeptical of the true potential of participatory democracy. He said the diktats of the global capitalist economy are forcing governments to adopt more or less the same policies. That, Tsoukalas said, has led to the convergence between the parties’ political platforms and to disenchantment among the public. «It is not that people are apathetic. It is just that they are conscious of their inability to influence decision-making.»