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Lessons for Radicalizing Democracy

How the emancipatory project of popular sovereignty can invigorate the Left

The left is in crisis. It has not figured out how to reorganize as an institutional and political project that captures imaginations and votes, despite a surge in social mobilization and the growing currency of leftist ideas. Gianpaolo Baiocchi explores this paradox in his book We, The Sovereign (Polity Press 2018) through the lens of popular sovereignty, a political doctrine that insists on people as an egalitarian collective and on people’s rule to effect social transformation.

Popular sovereignty is an emancipatory project to link the democratizing impulses of social movements to institutional politics. Drawing on examples from Latin America, the book provides a set of coordinates for activists to navigate the complications of engaging with formal institutions and political parties. It ultimately seeks to democratize leftist thinking. Read Chapter 2, “We, the Sovereign,” below. Read an interview with the author here.

Popular sovereignty, in broad terms, refers to the people’s rule, this only a more pointed version of democracy itself. Democracy is, as political theorists have long argued, fundamentally ambiguous on at least two principal questions: Who is entitled to govern? Who are the people on behalf of whom governing decisions should be made? Liberal approaches do not help us very much. Democracy, as usually discussed in liberal terms, is hard to define, and is usually defined against what it is not. Democracy is the rule of the demos, is usually the fastest answer one might arrive at. If pushed, the answer will continue: the demos is the political community; democracy is opposed to theocracy, the rule of religious leaders, or technocracy, the rule of experts, and so on.

No one quite knows where the demos should end, and what rule by the demos should actually and specifically entail. To define these terms more specifically would get us into precisely the kind of terrain that liberal theory tries to avoid. To answer them in satisfactory ways invariably gets you into questions of inequality, egalitarianism, distribution, and power, which seem political, and it is important that liberal democracy maintain its pretense that it is neutral towards politics.

Popular sovereignty in a radically democratic vein, on the other hand, is more specific. This political theory means radicalizing answers to two questions: Who makes up the We? And how do We rule? The most radical answer to these questions implies a demos that is open, inclusive, egalitarian, and self-referential, while exerting sovereignty that is absolute over all relevant decisions that affect the conditions of life of the demos itself. And these two must always work together: the We placing a check on Sovereignty, while Sovereignty gives the We more meaning.

In other words, an emphasis on either the side of the We or of the Sovereign is incomplete. A project for popular sovereignty must always incorporate both concerns and place them in productive tension. As attractive as turning our back on existing

institutions can seem at times (to focus on the We), this can be both dangerous and irresponsible, as it implies abandoning crucial issues on one hand but also leaving the most vulnerable among us behind, those who cannot be fugitives, who are trapped by institutions. The theory also implies, though, that an exclusive focus on rule (on being Sovereign) can turn movements into enforcers of bureaucratic agendas and amplifiers of oppressive common sense, or worse, justifiers of unjustifiable actions in the name of the left.

It is against this vanishing point where the two vectors meet that we assess our political projects, our movements, and our institutions. It is, more than anything, a set of coordinates that has helped activists navigate complicated terrains that accompany engaging with formal institutions, with political parties, and with coalitions. It is not meant to be a substitute for hard-nosed political economic analysis, nor is it a ready-to-use set of strategies or blueprints. That is, it is not synonymous with assemblies, democratic federations, or participatory councils. Those are among the many institutional forms it can take. And most important, popular sovereignty is also inherently tension-filled and contradictory. It needs to be thought of as a process more than an end state. Not only can sovereignty and democracy come into conflict, the whole project of popular sovereignty implies transforming institutions designed for other purposes and deeply structured by existing inequalities.

Liberal democracy, the dominant political framework of democracy today, one promoted by international agencies and powerful countries alike, emerged with capitalism and is its political mirror. It is a political version of free market economic equality, rights, and freedom of individuals before a minimal state that serves those individuals. It is a theory without concern for equality (beyond formal, individual political equalities) because to talk of egalitarianism imperils individual rights to property; it is a theory without concern for collective identities and the way they might exert power on the state (again, as this threatens individual property rights); and it is a theory that pretends it is politically neutral, even though it is only compatible with a free market. Liberal democracy is a theory that, in fact, is compatible with a vast range of inequalities and relies on the sanctity of individual rights to justify vast injustices in the name of free institutions and individuals. And it has precious little to say about the power of the people to rule over the conditions of their own lives.

Popular sovereignty pushes the other way. It radicalizes the meaning of democracy, insisting on the idea of the people as an egalitarian collective and the people’s rule as a broad mandate to bring about social transformation. It politicizes the very issues that liberal democracy wishes to ignore.

The We

The first element to be addressed is about the makeup of the “We.” In general terms, the makeup of “the people” is a political project. Politicians, nationalist leaders, social movements, constitutions, religious leaders all speak of “the people” and propose different projects for who properly belongs to “the people,” who is at the center, and what the qualities and attributes of “the people” are. Right-wing populist leaders speak of “the people” in racist and xenophobic ways, drawing sharp boundaries on who properly belongs in the nation and declaring war on outsiders within.

But “the people” can be invoked in expansive ways as well: the anti-imperialist slogan “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (“The people united shall never be defeated!” — originally a campaign slogan for Salvador Allende’s 1970 campaign) has travelled the world from protest to protest because it invites us to think of a people that is expansive, that is egalitarian, that grows as it unites, and that is able to defeat powerful elites.

In the context of Latin America, the “We” of radically democratic projects was understood as a “historical bloc of the oppressed,” made up of workers, the urban poor, peasant farmers, the landless, indigenous people, Afro-descendants; it is a people that comes into being through historical struggle for their lives, livelihood, rights, and recognition. Because Latin America did not fit European patterns of development, the thinking went, revolutionary movements might have more eclectic combinations than that of only an organized, industrial proletariat at its center, as more traditional Marxist theory would have had it So different categories of actors, in the context of specific struggles, joined this bloc, as might allies, like intellectuals, university students, and urban professionals.

But the thinking went beyond that, as more struggles became visible: feminist movements, gay and lesbian movements, trans movements, movements of the differently abled. Each kind of movement or claim that makes itself visible has the possibility of interrupting the common sense about exactly who “the people” are, and this is an important source of renewal. In contrast to the endless debates about “identity politics vs. socialism” that preoccupied North American and European thinkers in the 1990s and 2000s, this tended to be much less fraught in Latin America (though, of course not without friction or resistance on the part of leadership as particular claims were made). Even if the leadership of the left on the continent did not manage, as a whole, to shed a white, male, and university-educated bias, it can be safely said that it is almost impossible to find, among leftist Latin American intellectuals of the era, screeds against black liberation or indigenous liberation, or feminism. And the sneer with which “identity politics” is sometimes said on the left in the United States, for example, would have been impossible to find.

The radical democratic position is nonetheless clear: the “We” that lines up to represent the people as a bloc against oppression and for emancipation is always somewhat partial; it has the oppressed at its center, and new movements and claims rooted in concrete struggles are an important part of its constant renewal. In Latin America, this bloc was broadly oriented by class, even if not strictly rooted in the industrial proletariat. The poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, and the excluded move from the edges of society to its center to be the agents of its transformation. Popular capacity and agency are absolutely central to this account.

A second important element is that it is among social movements and in struggles for social justice that new imaginations about the world we want can and do appear. Not only might groups prefigure new social relationships, they might glimpse, in their cooperation and in their struggle, alternative futures. Various groups’ capacity to imagine new worlds can transcend existing patterns of thought and behavior in any one group, even if in the social world we otherwise live in, we are severely limited in our ability to think beyond it. Everything, from the language we use to unspoken norms, is deeply conditioned by the inequalities of our social world; so is our imagination. Bringing very different people together as co-equals in struggle shakes up those possibilities.

We live in capitalist societies deeply structured by racial and gender inequalities. Much of Latin America is best described as an apartheid society, extremely violent and sexist, dependent on the subjugation of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples alongside primitive forms of accumulation and resource extraction. Social movements do not so much provide an “outside” to that world as spaces to struggle against it, and there, in practice, to act “as if” it were egalitarian. Political projects involve both imagining new worlds and bringing them to life. Again, the radical democratic position is that autonomous social movements — or spaces free from the fetters of bureaucratic mandates that work to actively name and bracket the hierarchies we inherit — provide ideas, imagination, and creativity necessary for emancipatory political projects.

A third element of this position is that the “We” is both egalitarian and subject to a democratic referent: an imaginary and counterfactual standard of what a “true” democracy is, against which we can check ourselves. In Latin America, participants in these movements were always asking themselves if participation within this bloc was truly egalitarian: that is, whether people were equally valued and whether different voices and kinds of knowledge were valued. Remember that this was a bloc of the oppressed intent on social transformation, and inspired by popular education and liberation theology. The democratic referent was not some liberal notion of political equality of individuals, but rather closer to something that today we might call intersectional. Elite knowledge and voices did not have to be valued. The concern was rather with issues such as whether women spoke or had leadership positions; if indigenous knowledge was valued; if discussions were framed in popular language instead of elite, academic framings; or why the leadership of leftist movements or parties so often wound up being white men.

Even if movements start as leaderless, many times leaders emerged anyway, which is why procedures were put in place to hold them in check. Egalitarian does not mean structureless, and many realized in practice what movements around the world often come to: that structurelessness in fact tends to reproduce the privilege of some, but in insidious and unspoken ways. This was especially true as movements and coalitions scaled up and became more complex. So with them grew committees, representatives, delegates, these and other structures, with often very complex procedures for accountability and rotation. For some political formations within the left in Latin America in the 1990s, this democraticness was in fact what ultimately made them different from the region’s populist movements of old.

So, what does it mean for the people to operate democratically? Some theorists have — mostly not successfully, in my view — attempted to then define what counts as democratic procedure by limiting it to a set of universal procedures, such as deliberation, a set of institutions like assemblies, or listing qualities (arguments based on reason, representation of particular groups). But just thinking of Latin America alone, what might be a democratic procedure for a union hall in the south of Brazil would be very different than for a village council in Zapatista territory. The self-questioning democratic referent simply varies from place to place and from time to time and evolves with the political project of emancipation.

There are, of course, several questions that can be asked about the structure of the movement and its decision-making. Who actually participates? Are there features of these participatory spaces that prevent them from being open to all? Are there systematic biases about who speaks, and who decides? Is the technical language made accessible to all? But the bigger question is whether power rests with some or with all in the historic bloc. Movements that speak in the name of the people but that have entrenched leadership, hierarchical structures that prevent innovation or rotation, or that operate in a top-down manner do not meet the radical democratic standard of a “We.”

Excerpted with permission from Polity Press. We, The Sovereign is available for purchase on the publisher’s website, here.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi is a New York City-based scholar and activist. He directs the Urban Democracy Lab at NYU.

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