Democracy

Re-Engineering Politics Through Civil Society

Innovation is a sine qua non to facing up to the stakes: regulating globalisation, climate change, regulating the financial sector, reducing inequality, overhauling the welfare system, further EU integration, fending off populism, and naturally cross-cutting all of these challenges, regenerating our democracy. This is not so much about technological innovation since ecologists would rather focus on social innovation.

“…although men must die, they aren’t born to die but to create.” – Hannah Arendt, A Human Condition

To provide sustainable, fair and effective solutions – that is to say environmental solutions – to these challenges, the temptation of conservatism must be avoided. Conservatism concerns determining what is desirable and acceptable based on past successes and failures, or existing ones elsewhere (as in ‘benchmarking’). However, it is through innovation that constraints and difficulties are transformed into opportunities. And the first requirement of innovation is open-mindedness. To clarify, having an open mind is not to surrender to pragmatism, nor abandon one’s values, but to agree to renew one’s language and modus operandi.  It is not to make ‘tabula rasa’ either of the past or of what exists elsewhere, but to invent anew with boldness and courage.

This is the context in which the foundations of the Greens must reassert their essential mission: to be of service to social and political innovation, to think and act differently. To do so, they must rely on the creativity of civil society. As ecologists, we must reaffirm that, more than ever before, civil society has become the harbinger of social change. Through civil society and the pressure it can exert on both the state and market, we hope to leave the crisis behind. By opening up to civil society’s vigour, the intellectual capital required to intelligently manoeuvre the environmental transition can be harnessed.

The respective position of green foundations and parties in Europe – separated by a ‘benevolent distance’ – is a central lever to achieving this. It all comes down to determining the right balance between them, according to the specificities of national and political contexts. Generally speaking, the optimal distance should be: ‘Far enough’ to give foundations the means to reflect far from the pressures of short-term political trepidations and to engage in dialogue with civil society, partially removed from the burdens of partisan politics; and ‘close enough’ to enable them to stand as closely as possible to political reality and contribute to party strategy and development, sowing seeds for the future.

As ecologists, we must reaffirm that, more than ever before, civil society has become the harbinger of social change.

Driving Force for a ‘New Democratic Deal’

As mediators between civil society’s creativity and the exercise of power, Green foundations can contribute to the emergence of a new way of doing politics, thereby driving a ‘new democratic deal’.

Representative democracy is in crisis everywhere. Estrangement from politics has perhaps never been as strong as it is today. European democracies are being undermined by the political impotence resulting from increasingly globalised problems, growing mistrust among constituents and the resulting populist or abstention repercussions at the polls (namely in countries where voting is not compulsory). At the same time, never have we seen so many petitions, memoranda, strikes, demonstrations, transitional initiatives and so much activism embodying a true form of citizen involvement, thereby refuting the so-called withdrawal into individual private lives.

Thus, only far-reaching reforms will reignite the vibrancy of democracy. This new democratic deal can be found in civil society’s ‘reservoir of creativity’ where new forms of citizen involvement able to restore people’s power over their lives are experimented with on a daily basis. Furthermore, new technologies bring new potential implications, which have yet to be explored. The mission of a Green foundation is to stay close to initiatives, to the field, to the in-between spaces, to public or collective labs, where such practices are literally invented.

Etopia’s Contribution

As ecologists, at the heart of our project and since its inception, we have yearned for a more ethical, more transparent and more participative democracy. We reject the idea that democracy is reduced to its representative component. In French-speaking Belgium, the recent years have not changed us.

Against the conservatism of traditional power structures and while the Greens were occupied with ‘government affairs’, both in Brussels and Wallonia, from 2009-2014, Etopia was busy promoting a new democratic paradigm. Here are three examples of our contribution to this vibrant bottom-up approach to politics and policy-making, often carried out with the help of Green MEPs.

Let us start by mentioning the Green Minister of the Environment and Urban Renewal’s support for conceptualising ‘Sustainable Citizen Neighbourhoods’ (“Quartiers Durables Citoyens”) in Brussels. Focusing on citizen empowerment in transitional towns, this policy aims to encourage and accompany collective and sustainable civic initiatives at the neighbourhood level. As for the state, its role is to provide resources and encourage citizen participation.

Mention should also be made of the assistance given by Etopia to designing the first Interdisciplinary Congress on Sustainable Development. This event was organised by Wallonia’s Green Minister of Sustainable Development: a vigorous scientific community aiming to involve civil society in research networks and thus remove the barriers among researchers.

Calling Growth Into Question

Finally, let us refer to the work Etopia has carried out on an issue that remains taboo in the current political climate: economic growth, the alpha and omega of all public policies. It is especially difficult to question growth from a governmental point of view – particularly in a typical Belgian coalition system – but with Etopia’s assistance and after a long participatory process, Wallonia’s Green Minister of Sustainable Development has nevertheless succeeded in implementing new ‘flagship’ indicators to complement Wallonia’s regional GDP. One pressing task for green foundations is to prepare the kind of ideological groundwork which can boost those medium-term policies that are not indexed to an outdated GDP fetish. Far from being technical, this debate is fundamentally democratic in nature as different conceptions of the means and purposes of social organisation are confronted. In addition, a growing disaffection for politics is not unrelated to the increasing number of unfulfilled promises related to growth. To find other more sensible and more sustainable promises is one of the most exhilarating mental exercises for our collective democratic imagination.

Mention should also be made of the assistance given by Etopia to designing the first Interdisciplinary Congress on Sustainable Development.

Moreover, with various civil society partners, we have sought to promote new themes in the public debate.

First, Etopia has translated and co-edited in French Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity Without Growth”. We organised a well-rounded programme of publishing activities and events among various participants (including universities, journals, etc.) in order raise awareness around the theories in the book. The goal was to propagate a high-level exit from the caricatured ‘growth vs. degrowth’ public debate in the French speaking community. Thanks to help from civil society associations, similar work was done to translate and co-edit Wilkinson and Pickett’s “The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone”.

Finally, every year, Etopia organises ‘Encounters of New Worlds’, mobilising youth around an innovative topic and involving a large number of civil society participants. The latest edition sought to bring to light the importance of the collaborative economy.

A Vital Strategy

In light of the magnitude of democratic challenge, these achievements may seem derisory, which in effect they are. However, they show that it is possible to ‘move the boundaries’ of the political system, providing we invest in civil society, where citizens do not expect to be confronted with politics.

This political strategy will find the means for fulfilment on a wider scale – where citizens come together as a society – when a political coalition capable of prioritising such a strategy can be constituted. Evidently, for Ecolo – the French-speaking Belgian environmentalists reduced by half in the last general elections – betting on such a strategy is vital.

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