Over the past decade, a significant layer of Left activists has embraced the concept of "radical democracy." Building on the foundations of earlier projects for participation and pluralism such as the SDS, the 1960s New Left and the new social movements of the 1970s, this layer has advocated participatory democracy and created a variety of novel organizational tools -- the affinity group, the spokescouncil, the break-out, the fishbowl and more -- to build unity within diversity. Many of these new activists have reacted against the tendency of earlier socialisms to be undemocratic. The essence of their critique seems to be that not only are capitalism and corporations -- but also state socialism, social democracy and (bureaucratic) trade unions -- undemocratic. The alternative to this status quo is radical democracy, everywhere.
There is some truth in this radical democratic position.
The glaring failure of state socialism in eastern Europe needs no rehearsal. But with its leader-based politics, its belief in technocrats and its paternalism towards constituents, social democracy, too, has historically shared with the parties of Stalin a lack of interest in developing democracy. Moreover, at the highest levels of decision-making, it is true that trade-union leaderships and federations have sometimes supported conservative and even imperialist politics, particularly in the U.S. and other G-8 countries.
Given these developments, the mass demonstrations in Seattle, Quebec City, Barcelona and Genoa have had a resounding impact on public consciousness. The new movement revived the challenge to free trade and globalization just as elected liberals, social democrats and even some trade unionists had made their peace with them. The concept of radical democracy did much to galvanize this opposition in the face of mainstream pressure to accept the "inevitability" of globalization.
That said, where this contemporary layer of activist theory and practice is weakest is in its sense of its own location in history. And, as it looks suspiciously over its collective shoulder, it seems increasingly characterized by not only what it advocates but also what it reacts against. For, despite the challenges and gains represented by this new wave of struggles, it appears that the Seattle moment is now passing.
Domestically demonstrations have been decreasing in size. Meanwhile, on the global level, between 50 and 100 new free-trade agreements have been signed in the space of about five years. China has entered the WTO, Russia is moving along this road faster than expected, and, to top things off, since September 11, 2001, the American empire has established a whole new set of bases of power around the globe. …