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Home arrow Political science arrow Evaluating Democratic Innovations: Curing the Democratic Malaise?
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Communication practices in selected progressive movements

As indicated above, progressive movements tend to embrace the concept of democracy, and especially a participatory democracy, at both the level of political regimes and their own ranks. They vary in their emphasis of this ambition as well as how it is specified and actually put into practice. Considering only the internal side of movements, my emphasis is not on the structure of the hardware, e.g. the form of networks and organizations and the distribution of resources. Instead, I focus on their software, especially their ways of communicating in face-to-face settings when controversies arise. Even when upholding democratic, participatory and egalitarian values in principle, it remains an open empirical question to what extent and in what historical and situational contexts deliberative practices can take place. After all, social movements, and probably all (public) interest groups with a voluntary membership, tend to be torn between two demands that often are in conflict with each other. At a more general level, this has been described as a zero-sum game between democracy and efficacy (Dahl 1994).11 At the level of interest groups, it has been interpreted as a conflict between the logics of membership and the logics of influence (Schmitter and Streeck 1981). On the one hand, social movement organizers, especially because they have almost no material incentives to offer, seek to be highly responsive to the beliefs and wishes of their adherents in order to sustain the latter’s motivation. This would lead the organizers to maximize democratic participation even when this implies timeconsuming and cumbersome procedures. On the other hand, social movement organizers aim to act strategically, effectively and quickly, especially when they are under pressure from outside. This drives them towards decision making in small circles or the establishment of strong leaders. Beyond this fundamental conflict, even progressive movements, or rather strands within them, differ in their conceptions of democratic practices. Some accept informal or formal leadership, the election of delegates and the majority rule. Others strictly adhere to the principle of equality and consensus. Still others take a more pragmatic stance in trying to avoid a decision by majority vote but not excluding it under all circumstances. In the following, I will illustrate, mainly referring to the German context with which I am most familiar, how different kinds or generations of progressive movements deal with internal controversies.

a The practices of the labour movement are extremely difficult to overview for various reasons: the movement has undergone significant changes in time, differs from region to region, and is composed of quite diverse ideological strands that range from loose anarchist circles to centralized communist organizations. In the main, there has not been much emphasis on truly internal democracy throughout the 20th century in the core capitalist countries of central and northern Europe. To be sure, formal procedures such as a system of delegates and majority votes were in place in socialist or Social Democratic parties, trade unions and ideologically akin organizational bodies. Yet the overall approach was one of top down. Quite often, the existing leadership preselected candidates for office, channelled discussions and resolutions in the direction they deemed to be appropriate, and tried to avoid what they perceived to be longish and fruitless debates. Discipline was meant to guarantee organizational unity and strength. Although harsh political conflict was relatively rare within the mainstream, it engaged in bitter struggles with rival tendencies on the political left, whether non-dogmatic Marxist, orthodox Stalinist, Leninist, syndicalist or anarchist. The idea of deliberation, however worded, certainly did not figure as prominent in the socialist and Social Democratic mainstream. If at all, deliberation was a matter for small circles of left intellectuals but not for the rank and file.

b The New Left of the 1960s, including the student movement in the second half of this decade, deliberately distanced itself from the Old Left’s emphasis on discipline, unity and formal leadership (Breines 1982). Debates and discussions were seen as constitutive elements of raising political awareness, identifying the right course and choosing the appropriate strategies. At least in Germany, it became a common habit to discuss something until it was resolved (ausdiskutieren). This could involve discussing the same issue for sessions lasting many hours (sometimes until early morning) and occasionally over a series of gatherings (Verheyen 2010). There was also a strong emphasis on collecting information, as epitomized by the teach-in that presumably would lead to the right conclusions. In addition, there was an emphasis on reading and correctly interpreting the left classics, especially Karl Marx. This, in turn, was a matter of long meetings that tended to be dominated by those who combined theoretical knowledge with rhetorical skills. At a first glance, this might appear as a widespread practice of deliberation. At a closer look, however, the space for deliberation, as defined above, was limited for two main reasons. First, besides its reflective and partly deliberative traits, especially the student movement of the second half of the 1960s included an anti-authoritarian strand that was oriented towards spontaneous and provocative action, including the expression of emotions, irony and fun, as exemplified in the strategy of the Spassguerilla (fun guerrilla). Second, the idea of equality that is so central to the concept of deliberation was violated in various respects, for example by accepting movement leaders (partly as a product of prominence in mass media) and marginalizing female activists who, as a consequence, began to establish their own groups and networks. Not accidentally, these feminist groups put much weight on non-hierarchical forms of interaction.

c One remarkable outgrowth of the student movements were the so-called K-Gruppen (K-groups, with K as the acronym for kommunistisch = communist). These groups were relatively small but ideologically highly loaded. Though they embraced the general idea of communism, they engaged in bitter rivalry over the one and only politically correct line - a struggle that made them appear as political sects, each considering itself as the true avant-garde of a forthcoming proletarian revolution (Koenen 2001). As a rule, these groups were marked by strong but mostly informal hierarchy. Debates, to the extent that they occurred at all, were led and controlled by the leaders. In public appearances, for example in large gatherings of the student body, the leaders engaged in long authoritative speeches resembling a teacher in front of pupils. When leaders of different K-groups happened to be in the same gathering, there was a tendency to grab and never give back the microphone so that rival opinions were silenced. Not surprisingly, such situations could end in a wrestling match in front of an audience of competing tribes.

d A quite different outgrowth of the New Left and the student movement are the so-called new social movements (NSMs). These are anchored in the well-educated middle classes, especially those in the human service sector. They cover a broad spectrum of issues such as peace and disarmament, human, civic and social rights, environmental protection, urban planning, and Third World development. Like the student movement, the NSMs share an emphasis on participatory democracy and scepticism about hierarchical organization. Yet they refrain from the revolutionary zeal of the student movement that implied an idealization of liberation movements in Third World countries and the marginalized groups in core capitalist countries. Even more so, they distanced themselves from the sectarianism of the K-Gruppen and their repressive patterns of internal communication. Instead, the NSMs promoted a strategy that one might call ‘radical reformism’. This allowed them to engage, mainly via alternative or green parties, in the electoral arena and, after a few years, even to cooperate with state administrations, especially at the local level. Unlike parts of the student movement and most clearly the K-Gruppen, the NSMs have a more pragmatic and pluralistic ideological stance. This is reflected in their emphasis on egalitarian, internal communication, best exemplified in the consciousness-raising groups of radical feminists and many other groups adhering to the idea of a grass roots democracy (Epstein 1991). These groups fully embraced the principle of consensus, whereas others, notably those with larger and more formal organizations, did not shy away from delegation and majority voting. As a whole, however, the trend towards informality and authenticity prevailed. This movement probably peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a so-called ‘second culture’ or ‘alternative culture’ flourished (Reichardt and Siegfried 2010), triggering fears that major parts of the younger generation would drift away from bourgeois values such as discipline and the ethics of achievement.

The egalitarian communication practices of the NSMs also left their mark in various waves of student protests after the late 1980s. When observing the patterns of interaction in large and self-organized assemblies of the student body, one is struck by their forms of communication that, in several respects, are exactly the opposite of those of the K-Gruppen: speech acts rarely last longer than two or three minutes; there is careful attention to the inclusion of female speakers and avoiding gendered (male) language; the audience uses gestures to signal consent or dissent; leaders are suspiciously absent, though it is clear that some individuals, mainly based on their investment in time and experience, are more influential than others.

Unfortunately, apart from occasional observations and scattered accounts of activists, we have very little information on the internal structures and communication patterns of the movements mentioned thus far. There exist, however, systematic data for the communication practices of the most recent wave of progressive movements: the Global Justice Movements. This allows us to go into more detail about them, though direct comparison with earlier movements is not possible because we lack corresponding data.

 
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