The Renewal of Democracy: An Interview with Paul Ginsborg

Paul Ginsborg is Professor of Contemporary European History, University of Florence and a frequent public commentator on politics and life in Italy.  His books include A History of Contemporary Italy, Society and Politics 1943-1988, Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society and the State, 1980-2000, and the bestselling biography Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony.

He spoke to Daniel Finn of Irish Left Review about his most recent book Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, democracy in the EU and how the currently weak state of democracy internationally can be renewed.  Democracy: Crisis and Renewal was reviewed in Irish Left Review last December.

Democracy: Crisis and Renewal Daniel Finn: The title of your latest book is Democracy: Crisis and Renewal.  I’m sure a lot of people would look at that title and think, ‘What’s he talking about?  What crisis?’  Because surely, Western-style democracy has never been more successful; in purely geographic terms it now covers the whole continent of Europe, with very few isolated exceptions, and many other places where dictatorship was once the norm have some form of democratic system.  So what is the crisis that you are talking about?  What are its main features?

Paul Ginsborg: There is a paradox of democracy.  What we have is a quantitative expansion of democracy in some form or another, not only in Europe but throughout the globe.  But there is a real crisis in the quality of democracy, particularly in its homelands.  The crisis takes various forms, but perhaps the most important is the feeling of distance that separates what goes on in parliaments from people’s opinions and everyday life, and we can explore its manifestations in various forms.

One is that, whether we take Sweden or Britain or Italy — where the rates of confidence in institutions weren’t very high anyway — we see there is a decline in faith in democratic institutions.  Not just in the political class — that’s a separate subject — but in democratic institutions.  Parliaments are less trusted, people are less confident that the job will be well done and responsibly done and transparently done by modern parliaments.  Then there’s the decline, with some exceptions, in voter turnout, and there is that deep cynicism about the political class.  Those are some of the elements of the crisis that one can immediately point to, and the result of this is that representative democracy is really in quite a weak position in terms of having the confidence of the population.

If you extend that to the EU, the problem becomes gigantic, because in the last European elections in Eastern Europe the turnout was extremely low.  And even where the voting is a bit higher, like Italy and Spain (let’s not talk about Great Britain), we find people expressing extreme dismay about the democratic gap that separates what is happening in the Commission and the Council of Ministers, and the citizens of Europe as a whole, so I think there is a problem.

DF: So how can democracy renew itself?

PG: Well the argument in my book is that we need to return to first principles and in particular we need to return to discussion of the two models of representative and direct democracy, going back to the Athenian model.  Not because you can use the Athenian model straight away, just transfer it, but because there has always been a discussion — one can find it particularly strongly in the late 19th and early 20th century — about trying to give people more control over their lives whether in work or in the political system, through local government or new forms of participatory democracy.  I try to explain this in my book through examples like Porto Alegre in Brazil and other cities, major cities of a million inhabitants which have experimented with things like the participatory budget, really giving people a sense that by turning up at meetings and by voting, they are contributing in a way that representative democracy could never offer them.

DF: Is it realistic to expect mass participation in politics?  Don’t people want to leave politics up to the politicians and go about their private lives?

PG: This is one of the objections most often thrown at those of us who believe participative democracy is possible.  And I think the answer is not to say ‘oh that’s just a silly point of view’, but to take it on fully and to acknowledge that people who say that are right at one level, one certainly doesn’t want to sit for endless evenings on uncomfortable benches.  But I don’t think that’s the only part of the story.  If we look at the number of people who take part in a variety of voluntary associations and who are active in civil society then we see that people are willing to participate — not every day, not for every aspect of their lives, but for certain parts and moments of their lives.

I see this sort of participation, whether it’s civil society participation or in democratic forms, as something that comes and goes within the arc of a single life cycle.  So that you may be very active and interested in your twenties and then you may come away from it when you have small children, then you may want to come back to it later — this would be a form of sedimentation in terms of democratic practice and in terms of getting away from the family, getting out from in front of the television and doing something, and I don’t think people — particularly as waves of economic crisis hit us — are so alien to those ideas at all.

DF: One of the aspects of the democratic crisis that you talk about in your book is the dominance of the mass media by a small handful of private corporations.  Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is probably the best known example of that, but you could also talk about Silvio Berlusconi in your own adopted country of Italy.  What do you think we could do to democratise the mass media?

PG: Well that’s a very big and complicated question.  I think that the simple answer is that we have to recognize differences in markets.  As it stands at the moment, by the very nature of the capital investment in launching a TV station and mass media companies, the whole market points towards huge oligarchies of companies which are very heavily funded by either a single person or in corporate terms, and the question is ‘how can you break that up?’  Well I think here — and it’s not only in the field of mass media but in other fields as well — the role of an interventionist state is very important.

If the state puts as one of its priorities the growth of local new stations, the growth even of television stations that extend over one quarter of a city, if encouragement is given to independent film makers and there is a very clear sense that those films will get a viewing on public television, then I think a government initiative in this key cultural area could turn the tide.  The one thing that is happening now that is totally negative is that public television is totally on the defensive and trying to ape in very many countries the commercial model.  And the only way that public television can get out of that troublesome role is if government decides to back it — not on viewing numbers but on pedagogical principles and fair news.  If governments will back that sort of television as well as independent producers and local television, local networks, I think that’s some sort of a program which could break the oligarchical controls.

DF: You spoke about the example of the participatory budget in Porto Alegre in Brazil.  Could you say a little about how that has worked in practice and how it might work in other societies?

PG: It has been experimented with throughout Europe with mixed success, but basically the way it works is that at the beginning of every year the mayor and the municipal council in Porto Alegre, which has 1,300,000 inhabitants, report back to the populace as a whole in a mass meeting about what they have done the previous year and then the cycle begins.  People meet at a very micro level — at a street level, or a neighbourhood level — to formulate their first demands, and then there are larger meetings, thematic ones, and whole areas of the city meet to decide on part of the budget; it’s not the whole budget because of course a lot of municipal council budget goes in salaries and fixed overheads and all the rest.

Then these various thematic and other meetings elect a budget council, and that’s the most innovative moment of all this process.  So you have a municipal council which has been elected in traditional representative democratic ways, but you also have a budget council which has come up from the base, from this local direct democracy, and these 40 delegates will then debate through the summer with the municipal council, and particularly with the mayor, to hammer out the details and priorities of that part of the budget that is up for grabs in a democratic fashion.

They report back to the neighbourhoods and then, at the end of the whole cycle, which is an annual cycle, the mayor assumes that as his own program and starts to put it into action.  What is very interesting about Porto Alegre, and really runs counter to European experiments, is the number of working-class people, both male and female, who are involved in it, as well as the large number of ethnic minorities.  In Europe these experiments have seen the participation largely of the middle classes, and one of the great problems in Europe and in America is the political mobilization of the working classes.  There was a time, certainly in this country, when the Italian Communist Party mobilized on a large scale.  Now that’s no longer the case and the left has gone backwards.

DF: In the case of Brazil, obviously the emergence of a participatory budget was nurtured by the simultaneous emergence of the Workers Party as a mass force in Brazilian politics based on trade unionists and radical elements in the Catholic Church.  Do you think that type of political organization is essential if something like the participatory budget is going to work in European countries?

PG: I think there is no question that we need in all European countries a democratic left which puts at the top of its agenda the idea of a renewal of democracy.  I think we definitely need organization but we haven’t found the form of it, because the Leninist party, I think rightly, is in disrepute and democratic centralism is the last thing you want if you really want to build democracy from the base.  The problem is what form would a modern organization take that doesn’t wind up producing the forms that traditional parties embody, namely, a kind of cartel accessing and managing the resources of the state, which they then distribute, both to the populace and clients, of course, but also to themselves.  There is a great need for fresh thinking in the organization of a left alternative along more democratic, more controllable, more transparent lines, and I’m afraid there are very few examples of that indeed.

DF: You speak in the book about the need for economic democracy as an essential component of the expansion of democracy in society.  What do you mean by that?

PG: Well I think what I mean is people working at a workplace having a clear say about the conditions in which they work, about the overall strategy of the firm or corporation which they belong to and where they have time to meet, debate and decide with their own representatives during working hours.  The model I have in mind are the workers’ councils, in Italy in the 1970s, where the workers’ delegates intervened at every level in the factories, on a whole series of issues, like health and safety, like the question of the mensa, that is, the canteen, like having assemblies within work time and so on and so forth.  Not only assemblies but also the right to go and improve their education.  It was called the 150 hours education scheme, where workers had the right to 150 hours of education in work time during the course of a year, so that they could slowly work to a degree or higher qualification in the sort of work they were doing within the factory.

This period was from about 1971 to 1976, the highest moment of economic democracy, not just in Italy, I think, but in Europe, where you had the real feeling in a city like Turin, 50 years, 60 years after Gramsci, that there was an alternative political culture and alternative political leadership on a mass level coming up.  Unfortunately, it came to a halt by the end of the 1970s, as did the whole movement of 1968.

DF: During that period of the 1970s — and you’ve written about this in your earlier book A History of Contemporary Italy — the Italian employers may have had to put up with the workers’ councils because they effectively had no choice, but they certainly didn’t welcome the existence of the factory councils, which they saw as a very unwelcome interruption of normal business affairs.  Do you think in the long run that a model similar to the one that existed in the 1970s could co-exist with a predominantly capitalist economy or does it imply the need for an alternative economic system?

PG: Well I think it certainly implies going beyond the present forms of capitalism.  I’ve no doubt about that at all.  The economic crisis of the past few months has been also a major event in calling into question how capitalism is organized or disorganised.  A difficulty — at least my difficulty — with this is the question of how you go beyond and transform the present economic system in a peaceful manner.

The Left in Italy, after the assassination of Aldo Moro and the terrorist violence of the 1970s, has by and large turned its back on violent means.  Is it possible to build an alternative movement that is based on the culture of peace that nonetheless has the power to build a majority in a democratic fashion that would then be able to go beyond present day capitalism by the force of persuasion and mass presence?  No one has ever done it.  There was the idea of the Meidner scheme in the mid-’70s in Sweden where gradually the workers would have more and more shares in the factory until eventually the overall ownership of the factory no longer belonged to proprietors or to the workers themselves but to regional boards who had members from the trade unions, etc., on them.  That was a very extraordinary scheme, but it never got anywhere.

I think for anything to get anywhere there has to be a huge traumatic moment of mass rejection of the economic system as we know it, and of course, as you know better than I do, it’s quite unlikely that mass unemployment leads to that mass rejection.  The movement of 1968-69 came on the crest of very low levels of unemployment and Nazism came on the crest of very high levels of unemployment so we can’t just automatically say that the great global crisis of 2008 and 2009 is a wonderful chance.  It may turn into something like a nightmare.

DF: The program of reform you are calling for would certainly require a revival of the left in Europe.  How do you explain the present weakness of the European left?  I know that’s a very broad question but could identify two or three of the main elements?

PG: I think there is no doubt that the central question which I pose in my book is one element of rebuilding.  It’s not enough by itself.  You can’t base a whole movement on the renewal of democracy, but I think we are all very aware now, that there is a need for a renewal of economic thinking and economic democracy, for asking what would an alternative economic system look like, what are the power of pension funds, what are the power of cooperatives?

There is a crying need for more debate and for propositions and for those propositions to take an organized form.  When the Italian Communist Party was very strong in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, even the single militant, who on Sunday morning would go out to sell the newspaper L’Unità, had an idea that his microcosm of action was linked to a larger program by which socialism would eventually be introduced into Italy.  Ultimately it was based on a chimera.  It wasn’t true.  What was happening in all those years was that the Communist Party was gradually getting more and more moderate.  But I think the key is to be able to communicate a program of action that appears realistic with goals that are realistic and favour self-organization and participatory democracy, that gives people the idea that there is an alternative.

At the moment we have what is left of a communist tradition, what is left of a social democratic tradition, and we don’t have that new thinking, or a new synthesis or indeed a new analysis of capitalism at the beginning of the 21st century.  It’s terribly important that those debates rage now as vigorously as they can.

DF: One question that is very topical in Ireland at the moment is the question of the European Union and how the European Union can be democratised, if indeed it can.  Do you have any ideas in that area?

PG: Well, I think that the European Union is a very important institution, with regard to world politics.  The fact that these countries have been able to get together and overcome what were historic divisions and terrible wars is for me a very remarkable thing.  It does seem to me to be a tremendous step forward.  Then there are all the criticisms by the likes of Perry Anderson, and I share very many of them indeed.  We have this great trading area but we don’t have any democracy.  And it’s obvious that the European parliament needs to have much more power, but there also needs to be a rethinking of what participatory democracy could look like, because the whole idea that ‘subsidiarity’ is in some way a democratic answer to that problem is just ridiculous.

Subsidiarity has taken us nowhere in nearly 30 years of practice (it’s funny you should ask me that as I’ve just been asked to speak at a great big conference on participatory democracy in the European Union, so I shall go with all guns blazing).  They’ve gone backwards on that.  But the European Union still offers possibilities and hope, and explorations.  So, let’s take on board the most radical of the criticisms, but also try to think of new things that again the individual interested person could be mobilized on.

DF: There seems to be a strong contrast between the process of constitutional reform in Europe and Latin America at the moment.  The EU constitution, which became in turn the Lisbon Treaty, was drafted by political and administrative elites and then presented to the people, or in many cases not presented to the people but sent to parliament . . . whereas in Latin America in a number of countries constitutional assemblies have been elected to go through a process of debate, with delegates presenting ideas for reform and the final document then being presented to the people — do you think there is a case for a constituent assembly for Europe or is the whole European polity too wide, too fragmented or too diverse to repeat that experience?

PG: I think that there ought to be a constituent assembly and that it ought to be based on the democratic process.  Perhaps there has to be a mixture between the constituent assembly and local initiatives but unless you start thinking of alternative methods you never get anywhere on these things, and so I would be very much in favour of some process of democratisation both at the highest level and at the more modest levels — regional, municipal, etc. — and you would have to get together and see what came out of the brainstorming on those issues.

I don’t think it is necessarily too large an entity.  I mean, the United States of America is a large country and they manage, although there are many things about American democracy that we don’t want to copy in any way at all.  I do think there is the demand for that, for a fresh start.  We should try to pursue ideas more vigorously than we have up to now.  I certainly think rejection of the European Union as such is very negative and very, very unhelpful, I don’t support the idea that we just have to start again.  I think we have to be insistent, but at the same time very patient.

DF: Italy at present seems to condense many of the negative trends that you identify about Western democracy.  What do you think explains the success and endurance of Berlusconi and his coalition, and why has the Italian left been so weak in opposing him?

PG: Well the Italian left is post-Communist, and one of the worst things about the post-Communists is that they are always trying to establish their credentials, and this has made them very, very weak.  So that’s one thing.

The other thing is that Berlusconi in many ways interprets very, very well the deepest animal spirits of this country.  Italy has a very high level of self-employed people and small entrepreneurs, family firms, particularly in the North of the country, in Lombardy and Venetia, where he’s strongest, together with the Northern League.  And these small entrepreneurs basing their work on not having to pay too many taxes, and the State turning a blind eye to their tax levels, not being interfered with by the state, not being asked to make contributions to collective welfare, this is all very strong in Italian society, in the most advanced areas of the country.  Berlusconi represents those mentalities very well indeed.

It’s going to be very tough to break out from that.  He now wants to become President of the Republic and I think that it’s going to be very difficult to stop him.  That’s the highest position in the state and although it has no great powers, it comes with strong opportunities to set the political and cultural agendas for the nation.  The idea of Berlusconi as President of the Republic is really horrifying, but the left seems quite content to come to some sort of compromise, to say “let’s forget who Berlusconi is.”  That’s the moderate left, [Walter] Veltroni and the Democratic Party.

This is absolutely fatal.  Fatal also to the ethics of the country.  But here in Italy as in so many other parts of Europe the left is so fragmented, especially the radical left, that it’s extremely frustrating trying to make any progress.  Three times in the last seven years I’ve been involved in the processes to unite the radical left and make of them one single organisation and every single time they break away into their ex-communist or still communist bits.

There’s one other thing that may be of interest to you: the German translation of my book was taken up by one of the federal government organizations, the Centre for Democratic Formation, and they published 5,000 copies of their own and distributed them free in government offices.

DF: In Berlin?

PG: Yes. I was very, very pleased about that because my book doesn’t pull its punches.  It’s a radical book, and the German publisher Wagenbach was delighted that the Centre for Democratic Formation had taken it, made their own edition, 5,000 copies, and put it in government offices.  That gave me some hope as well as a lot of satisfaction.

DF: That’s good news. I think we’d be waiting a while before the same thing happened in Dublin, it would probably be considered subversive for a TD to be seen reading a book at all.

PG: Or Gordon Brown.  I can’t see him taking to it either.

This interview was first published by Irish Left Review under a Creative Commons license.