The specificity of ‘democratic radicality’ is by no means a bulwark for the Greens against developments or rationales that run counter to this ‘democratic requirement.’ Nonetheless, it is a progressive component of the Greens’ heritage, one that must be constantly revived and that commits individuals to their responsibilities.
“Democratic Radicality” as an Integral Part of the Greens’ Project
Castoriadis was one of the first to have discerned the emancipating potential, both for individuals and for societies, that is unique to political ecology. He placed ecology within the realm of autonomy, conceived as a form of self-government closely linked to a heightened consciousness of limits. Autonomy calls upon a critical consciousness that results in a fundamental questioning of the consumption and production habits that are inflicted upon us. In this way, autonomy emerges as a fertile dissidence of thought and behaviours through which individuals can reclaim their lives, while finding themselves in a common ‘destiny.’ Ecological thought has unquestionably widened our view of the world and transformed our experience. It has managed to allow for the complexity and pluralism specific to contemporary societies. In the temporality of politics, it has also restored the future as a fundamental element of the present. Political ecology, by establishing a specific blueprint for society, one that individuals can subscribe to freely and critically, takes part in the forming of ‘plausible utopias’ to be determined within the democratic political space. The democratic ambition and argumentative contents of political ecology plead, without a doubt, in its favour. Yet, if we consider the impact that the Greens have had purely in terms of election results – since they are actually not in a position to have a determining impact on the policies enacted by the parties in power – it must be noted that they have only been able to convince in part. The Green discourse, when it doesn’t simply try to mimic the conformist attitude of the majority parties, is undoubtedly complex. I would even go so far as to say that it is rendered more complex considering that the current climate is not conducive to political innovation, to empowerment, or to progressive views. Suffice to look at trends in Europe to gauge the amount of ideological backtracking and the success of conservative parties. The rise of conservatism in Europe draws little or no attention, but is nonetheless a reality. It is all the stealthier because the rise of the extremist parties occupies centre stage. Conservative parties, often complacent towards openly reactionary rhetoric – when not integrating it directly into their own discourse of course – are able to draw voters through their minimalist approach to Europe. What’s more, it is interesting to note that they often brandish their renationalised take on the European Union as a way of setting themselves apart and sidelining any and all type of sovereigntists. This game of subtle opposition is rattling to say the least. And it explains how a “monstrous complementarity” is gradually being established between acceptable conformist conservatism and a nauseating extremism that is increasingly shrinking the room available for any type of discourse that is even slightly more enlightened.
Too often, we forget that the European project, by definition, is capable of taking numerous forms. It is far from living up to its full, and in my mind promising, potential.
Putting Democracy Back at the Core of the European Political Project
Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Greens to argue in favour of a European Union structured around the values of the democratic rule of law – with its legitimacy stemming from its ability to democratise globalisation – without being relegated by some to the camp of the extremists of irresponsible utopias or being reduced, by others, to just another conformist like the majority parties. This was illustrated in July 2013 at the time of the discussions on the 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). With the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Parliament for the first time had the power to stand up for a European budget able to support the interests of Europeans. Everyone agreed that the budget defended by the member states did not respond to the social and economic crisis rocking the continent. But, when it came time to vote, the three majority parties (conservatives, socialists and liberals) wound up accepting a conservative European budget, pushed notably by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron… Obviously, up against that overwhelming united front the opposition Greens, with less than 8% in the European Parliament, were crushed. Too often, we forget that the European project, by definition, is capable of taking numerous forms. It is far from living up to its full, and in my mind promising, potential. I would even go so far as to say that it currently exists in its worst possible form. In so far as the European Union is a ‘political project’ it is neither a given nor unequivocal. Its current morphology is the product of the interaction amongst the political forces in power which are updating a European project, and more comprehensively a blueprint for society, that is their own. The old refrain, “there is no alternative” certainly has its supporters in political circles, but it is worth pointing out that it is by no means an immutable truth. No matter how much conviction it is affirmed with, it is a clear argument from authority: no more, no less. When well understood, democracy is a ‘risk shared’ by political forces and citizens. A one-dimensional solution likely to solve all problems and answer all questions is a pipe dream. Currently, what worries me the most is the decline in pluralism, which has come so far as to border on ideology. Today’s grammar of politics is astoundingly poor. Political thought has become monochromatic and caters to simplistic binary logic, even among our ranks.
Breaking the Mould
Some are satisfied to denounce a legitimacy crisis in Europe without realising that, in reality, it runs much deeper than that. The crisis affecting the European institutions is to a certain extent an amplification of the one that has been affecting national politics for a long time. Defiance towards democratic representative institutions and the political class should particularly pique our attention. It forces us to re-evaluate the scope of politics, and, among other things, the role of political parties, whose modus operandi and traditionalism no longer meet the expectations of individuals. Political parties, when they are not simply serving as machines for consolidating power for one person or another, are often out of touch with reality. And experience has shown us how difficult it is for the party apparatus to reform on its own. Understandably, many people refuse to constrain themselves to rigid structures. Changing commitments and the picking of political battles often result in some not feeling the need to join a specific organisation or to commit to a political party. Therefore, the Greens would do well to undertake an open process of transformation towards structures that are permeable to life. As I prepare to leave the institutional political sphere, I feel as though we have a duty to go back to some issues that at first glance might seem elementary, but that, in reality, are essential: What is the purpose of politics? What is the blueprint for society that drives the various political parties and groups? How far are they willing to go to explain them and compare and contrast them in public debate? To what extent do political parties recognise the role of individuals in the development of their political platform? Just how far does our democratic ambition go? Let us be so impertinent as to put democracy back at the core of the political project even if, and especially because, it is inconvenient to the customary practices of the parties. It is a risk, but one that seems necessary to me if we are to strengthen the progressive spirit and political maturity of our societies, and restore the vitality of pluralism.
This article is the translation of the foreword to “Ecolo, la démocratie comme projet” by Benoît Lechat (Editions Etopia, 2014).