Defending and strengthening democracy: the social democratic commitment

Meeting of the Socialist International Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean, Kingston, Jamaica, 1-2 September 2000

Original: Spanish

The first condition for becoming a democracy is to be a state, which assumes beforehand the idea of self-determination at the international level. A society will never become democratic if it finds itself dominated and controlled from abroad, where the main decisions, linked to its own interest - including those relating to national and cultural identity - are ultimately taken.

The meaning of independence and sovereignty are not easily definable in the present situation. After the great undertaking of decolonisation, new forms of dependency, which seem to be creating a world organisation only carrying new and increasingly unbearable demands for the weakest members in the international system, are starting to be imposed. The well-known effects are: less political independence for the less powerful and an increasingly unfair economic order.

Thus, the inviolability of civil rights in the central countries’ domestic order is not always present at the international level in respect of people’s right to self-determination. The equality stance in the national message is not included in the foreign version of states’ equality and the consequent respect of their sovereignty.

The Socialist International Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean (SICLAC) wishes that the conviction encouraging the social democratic struggle does not become inactive at the borders of any country, so that everyone is committed to fight for universal justice, mainly now that the folly that tends to dominate the international scenario is crudely manifested in the world economic situation, a fact that accentuates the gap between an increasingly powerful centre and an increasingly powerless periphery.

But on the other hand, as there is no democracy without national independence, there is no actual independence while an effective state control over our countries’ domestic problems does not exist, a control that usually weakens and even disappears because of interests other than those of the majority. SICLAC was well aware that the so-called negative freedoms, those protecting the citizen against the state, were not enough. The trouble is that positive freedoms, which protect social rights, tend to disappear.

To those who insist on the concept of a civil society, we want to point out that neoconservatism is synonymous with a non-state, legally guaranteed to avoid state’s interference, though surely controlled by the economic power and, in the peripheral countries by traditional families. A control which "becomes naturalised" by enshrining a status of social inequalities. Neoconservatism wants the kind of freedom that will maintain the existing inequalities and - if social conditions and political action allow - will reinstate those inequalities removed by social reforms made over a century. There would be a forbidden, or exhausted, field for politics, which would not be able to exceed certain limits. To those who think politics is first and foremost deliberation, such an idea becomes absurd. An apolitical society would not be a distortion resulting from disorganised, apathetic, selfish, or merely negligent attitudes but a fight that is worthwhile, a conquest that is worth making.

This does not mean that the appearance of the most diverse intermediate organisations is not positive; they actually generate significant and varied forms of participation. Before them, the political parties should be cooperative rather than competitive, even though it must be understood that genuine national solutions are linked to multidisciplinary analyses, which sometimes demand consensus, even among these types of movements. Moreover, SICLAC confers a fundamental importance to the so-called third sector of the economy, which with the NGOs involve co-operatives, mutuals and those volunteers that cannot be substituted in the spread of solidarity as well as in the fight against unemployment.

For a majority of our peoples the situation has become nonviable and involves the working and the middle classes, while redistribution is getting worse and unemployment and the debt are increasing at an alarming pace.

Today SICLAC needs to enlarge the concept of citizenship by acknowledging the right to inclusion based on the idea of social insertion and integration. This means linking social rights with moral obligations, trying out new forms of labour supply; improving educational systems and professional training, as well as developing an intermediate space between paid job and social activity, to fight against exclusion, which eliminates self-esteem and makes participation impossible. This is how SICLAC will move away from populism, a serious distortion of democracy, a product of its flaws and limits, and a useful instrument to demagogically and deceitfully mobilise those deprived and disregarded sectors, which for freedom, means a step back.

SICLAC proclaims that the right to individual freedoms is a trap if it does not care about equality. Political equality means economic distribution and knowledge distribution. It is impossible to separate freedom from equality. The dogmatism of neoliberal theories claims that this is possible and maintains that both are contradictory and excluding. However, SICLAC does know - and it knows it because reality reminds the Committee of it -, that, under the constitution and with positive laws, to proclaim and ensure the civil and political freedom of citizens is not enough. SICLAC knows this acknowledgement can only be formal as the use that the marginalised and dispossessed can make of it is not the one a satisfied citizen can. It is true a good number of negative liberties are necessary to positively exercise freedom, just like protecting people from despotism and arbitrariness, but this guarantee is not enough. It is very difficult to enjoy freedom without education, health, jobs, without everything that makes a person a normal person.

An important ethical conclusion is derived from this: the opportunities of reaching such assets must be equally distributed among them, hence the democratic process acquires the extraordinary importance of becoming a requirement of distributive justice.

On the other hand, the participation it generates boosts processes that promote citizens’ virtues always considered essential to establish a good political system.

SICLAC points out the relation between freedom of expression and participation, as it is natural to make collective decisions in the framework of a full public debate and discussion, leading SICLAC to a broader concept of freedom of expression with two dimensions: a negative one and a positive one. According to the first one any action that damages it, such as censorship, closing down the media, persecuting journalists, or pressures of any kind, has to be forbidden. Its correlate is the obligation of informing in a true and objective way, without prejudicing the respect for freedom of opinion of the issuer. The second one needs a positive action of the state in order to obtain the best plurality possible with regard to information. The right to inform includes the right to research, receive and disseminate information and opinions through the wide media.

SICLAC agrees with those who maintain that monopolistic or oligopolistic communication is something typical of authoritarianism, while the multiple flow of information is an essential instrument of democracy, and that an adequate balance among the commercial, communal and governmental media, would satisfy the requirements of a freer and more rational discussion and would prevent that its omission strengthen the interests of anyone but the majority.

A sense of responsibility implies a will to participate, a movement intended to expand freedom, welfare and human relations. It cannot be imposed by factors outside the life of those participating, but it needs the encouragement and support of all public and private institutions.

It is a movement that changes in the collective mind and, consequently, in the institutions. These changes are directed at promoting the integration of citizens with each other, as well as to their integration with their representative organisations, and to the recovery of solidarity and a sense of national unity.

The concept of such shared democracy represents an extension and intensification of the modern concept of democracy, and it by no means sets itself against democracy. Any democracy is formal insofar as it has rules to contain, limit and organise a political activity as well as the running of the institutions of the state and society. And, by definition, democracy also implies the citizens’ participation in political decisions. Recall that in Athens anyone who did not actively participate in the concerns of the city was considered an idiot. Likewise, a people who cares for nothing, who does not know what it wants and who is not able to even wish for something, can quickly embrace any ideology. Social crisis lies in this potentiality.

SICLAC insists that democracy stand on two pillars: freedom and equality. It agrees with those who assert equality is based on mechanisms of distribution which would permanently reassign the primary assets and equal access to collective services: housing, education, health, etc.; it also agrees with those who affirm that even though justice has an absolute value, the content of social ethics, that is, the set of values which a certain society favours and which change according to circumstances, is established in the law which has to express them. And the fact that these values are represented in law supposes that democracy exists, and the law that it creates opens a reformist path towards democratic socialism, while building legality, which expresses the hopes of society and receives from it corresponding legitimacy.

SICLAC believes that, ultimately, social injustice and the necessary transformation of economic and social structures are due to a moral imbalance: selfishness, greed, a lack of love in man. Reform can only be made through education, and it will have to promote an austere morality, tolerance, intellectual honesty, sense of responsibility, dignity and fundamentally will have to understand the sacred value of the person. Democratic reorganisation needs the participation of all, from their work place and from their respective level of responsibility in order to find frameworks of common action in the distribution of resources as well as in generating them. Rules of coexistence, jointly accepted values and shared courses of action are the essence of this shaping stage in which we are living, with views to an open horizon already in sight but too far away.

The call to a convergence of political forces and to the concertation of social forces in the framework of a founding democratic pact of this new stage, is proof of the desire and expectations of our peoples at this historic moment. To face these challenges a new collective capacity of cooperation and participation is needed, willing to remove old defects, unfair structures and outdated behaviours. Fundamental changes are needed and SICLAC is ready to carry them out together with the people’s determination to make and consolidate them.

The representative system implies that no democracy exists without political parties or individuals. It has been said that agreements between different parties weaken each one’s most "non-negotiable" aspects, or take them to a centrist approach. Notwithstanding, SICLAC thinks that inter-party agreements are starting to become necessary in order to acquire the essential efficiency to defend the democratic components of institutionality, disregarded by the influence of the most important economic sectors and by the mass media at their service. Certainly, this refers to the commonly called "progressive" parties, undoubtedly an ambiguous word, but expressing more than enough what SICLAC intends to say, since those rightwing parties easily adapt to the new situation, while others adopt hybrid concepts of populism.

SICLAC reaffirms that its idea of a fair society as an alternative to crisis means a social pact articulated through two principles: freedom and equality. In this sense, one should bear in mind that value of freedom depends on its distribution and the value of equality depends on what is distributed in an egalitarian form. On the one hand, everyone has the same right to enjoy freedom effectively; on the other hand, an egalitarian distribution must include all those resources needed to fully exercise freedom. Thus, the apparent tension between freedom and equality is overcome by an egalitarian distribution of freedom.

This is the essence of an ethics of solidarity. Equally distributed freedom implies bettering the situation of those less favoured individuals. Moreover, it means a broad approach to human rights. They are infringed not only by direct aggression but also by not providing resources for an honourable and autonomous life. SICLAC agrees with those who point out the impossibility of making equality compatible with an economic concept, which is increasingly creating greater inequalities.

In many aspects, any society has been and, up to a certain point, still is a society strongly influenced by the selfishness of its leading classes; and there is a certain individualistic thought that still believes social harmony is possible by encouraging selfishness. Social solidarity has been weakened by such selfishness, creating situations of helplessness and fear, which have made people specially permeable to those false Messianic solutions - populist and otherwise - where the isolated individual tries to fit into and get protected. Selfishness has promoted both pseudoliberal authoritarianism and populist Messianism. The ethics of solidarity are imposed against these blind alleys by emphasising an innovative harmony so many times, undermined by selfishness.

For SICLAC the ethics of solidarity means observing society from the point of view of those in a disadvantageous position as regards the distribution of abilities and wealth. Within an increasingly complex society, where multiple interests clash and corporate mechanisms of social relationships are worn out, it is essential to think up and construct a system of social equality in the democratic organisation of society and equality, in the search for self-fulfilment.

At this point SICLAC thinks of a democratic pact; an agreement that protects individuals' independence while defining a shared framework to address and solve disputes, and where differences may be mutually tolerated. Consequently, to present a valid version of the democratic pact reconcilable with an ethics of solidarity, it is necessary to enrich, and therefore, redefine the traditional notion of citizen - or citizenship -, recognising that it includes, beyond formal juridical-political equality, many other aspects related to the essence and material possessions of human beings, that is, to the natural distribution of abilities and the social distribution of resources. Certainly, natural distribution is unbalanced. Likewise, there is an unequal social and historical distribution of wealth, status and profits. The consequences of the said imbalances are inconsistent or contradictory with the fact of recognising each citizen as a member having the same dignity within social cooperation.

Accordingly, this recognition widens the meaning of human rights, which are not only violated by active interference against life, freedom and personal property, but also by omitting to offer the opportunities and resources needed to lead a decent life. A democratic pact based on these ethics of solidarity means it is clearly supported by conditions ensuring the best possible social justice and, therefore, recognising the need to assist the most disadvantaged.

SICLAC advocates an essential modernisation compatible with the premises and conditions of the plan of society it is proposing. A process of modernisation progressively increasing general welfare, for the benefit of society as a whole.

A modernisation purely and exclusively thought out and practised to reduce costs, preserve competitiveness and increase profits is a modernisation with a narrow outlook and socially unfair, since it puts to one side the consequences of the changes introduced for the welfare of workers and of society as a whole.

As against a modernisation based on strengthening private powers and another based on strengthening state powers, the modernisation of democracy and solidarity means the strengthening of the independently constituted powers of society.

Likewise, decentralising the state’s administration is to open it to forms of participation where the greater the decentralisation, the better the participation. Decentralisation is not only a centrifugal movement but also a cascading one, making the state administration go down to such a level that intermediate social organisations may have an unthinkable role in a highly concentrated system.

This allows citizens to take part in decisions that affect them in institutions near their area of activity. Insofar as these institutions have a real power, such participation will not just be a mere civic exercise, it will significantly affect individuals’ lives, making them take their role more seriously and, hence, become the guardians of the democratic system.

All in all, democracy is a permanent struggle to extend and strengthen human rights, and in this particular moment in history, when a new phase in organising collective work is starting, marked by the incorporation of those technologies that completely modify the methods and structures existing in previous centuries, democracy should also be the rule of coexistence for the different peoples and regions in the world.

There will be no solid or lasting democracy for each society if the same principles and values do not govern the international political and economic organisation. The coexistence of rich and poor peoples, free and authoritarian peoples, is inconsistent with an international peaceful and harmonic society; a society that has already been turned into an indisputable reality by economic interrelation mechanisms and by modern communications systems. That international society, which for the first time in history includes the whole of humanity, interacting and interdependent in such a global and irreversible way, should also be a society of solidarity.

If the protection of human rights entails not only the opposition to the active interference in the life, freedom and integrity of the individual but also the availing of means and opportunities so that they can develop their abilities to the maximum, the relationships among the peoples cannot and should not be based on an uneven distribution of resources and opportunities. The existing international economic order, insofar as it limits the growth of so many peoples of the world, is an order that hardly accords with human rights and with the ideals of the great democratic revolution in which SICLAC has become enlisted.

We reaffirm SICLAC's utopia: it desires a democracy where every individual has the essential political means to act on a tolerable level of equality, guaranteeing certain rights, opportunities and necessary obligations to all.

The one SICLAC wants to build and protect is defined as a sovereign state, a state of law, which respects the division of powers, protects men and women who live in it, guarantees the possibility of alternation, takes into account diversity and plurality typical of a modern society, recognises and works on these conditions that create inequalities and exclusions. Be aware that by denying diversity it perverts democracy, and by meanly speculating with the existence of inequalities, exclusions and injustices what will be left is only a democratic shell of institutions.

Conceived in this way, society is the foundation on which freedom, equality and economic reforms must be built and strengthened. A society is a community made up of men and women who are respected and who respect one another, who are citizens because they can express their will and join forces for the same purpose. Citizenship is not a passive condition but an opportunity, a possibility of an active life, full of participation and responsibility in the political process, in the labour market and in society. Men and women of our region, who work, live, suffer and dream have, as citizens, a fundamental role to accomplish in the consolidation of our incipient democracy, but they need to feel such democracy in their every day experiences, in the material and spiritual quality of their lives, in their face to face relations, and in their jobs and in their spare time, in the public square, in the streets of their neighbourhood they walk along every day, in the daily and sometimes forgotten experience of what is familiar. Therefore, SICLAC would like a broad and deep democracy of participation, a democracy to be lived and daily exercised by everybody.

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