How to analyze non-state-centered world politics and the possibility of democratizing global futures? I consider the role of representational politics to be one of the most neglected areas in these debates.
Representation is a concept that carries a particularly heavy baggage of state territoriality that complicates its use in non-state, transnational and global contexts. When someone brings up the importance of representation as an issue that social movements should not evade, it is typically perceived as an attempt to emphasize the importance of connecting the strategies of the movements more closely with the state. This exclusive association between the state and representation, that Silke Trommer and I have called their “umbilical cord”, needs to be cut.
Even if states are important sites of representation, we should not let state-centric imaginaries prevent us from dealing with the difficult political questions of representation also in non-state contexts. Evading the questions of power that the procedures of making particular actors, regions or sectors somehow “present” in decision-making has been all too common among both the non-state actors themselves and their researchers. In my current research on the World Social Forum I attempt to show how this evasion can leave unaccountable power relations with too many places to hide.
Democratic representation, as we know it, is clearly in a crisis. Many activists have rightly come to the conclusion that the existing representative channels through which democracy is supposed to function, such as parliaments of territorial states, are not effective in ensuring democratic control of the key decision-making sites of the capitalist world. This disillusionment has often led to a wholesale rejection of representation as a democratic principle. As ideals of participatory democracy rule the hearts and minds of activists, few bother to reflect on the hopelessly old-fashioned matters of representation.
Participation is indeed the most fundamental aspect of democracy. My understanding of democracy is based on the possibility of the people to participate as equals in the decisions about the basic conditions of their lives. This participation can have many forms. It could be pleasant to live in a social system in which we could always gather together and deliberate face to face. In transnational and global contexts, this is mostly impossible. If we want to avoid the concentration of power in the hands of those who are able to be truly present, we need some procedures to involve others. These procedures will always be somewhat imperfect, as they attempt to provide some kind of presence for the needs, interests or wills of those who are absent.
There are countless debates that have been waged over this question in classical and modern political theory. Most of the theorizing has posed the questions under state-centric assumptions. A key aim of my forthcoming book on the World Social Forum (to be published by Routledge) is to participate in the process of occupying representation as a relevant concern for theoretical and political analysis of transnational non-state-centric contexts.
We need to reflect critically on the tendency to create artificial dichotomies between representation and participation as necessarily conflicting ways to organize democratic decision-making. A binary opposition between (good) participatory democracy and (bad) representative democracy can be problematic in many contexts. It often leaves relations of power with too many places to hide. While the dichotomy can seem more justified in small-scale situations in which the relevant actors have better possibilities to participate directly in decision-making, in explicitly global contexts such as the World Social Forum it becomes more clearly unsustainable. The baby of representation as a meaningful democratic principle should not be thrown out with the bathwater of really-existing channels of representation.
** Edit (June 2017): For anyone willing to read more on representation in social movements, my coauthored article in Globalizations, with Silke Trommer, is now open access. You should be able to download it for free here.
Also, since writing the above post I published an article in Capital & Class with the title “Occupy Representation and Democratise Prefiguration: Speaking for Others in Global Justice Movements”. You can see the abstract and possibly download it here. If not, try my academia.edu site.
I wrote these lines in the hope of getting critical feedback for my project on representational politics that now focuses on finishing a book about the World Social Forum. So feel free to comment as harshly as you want, here or through my e-mail email@example.com. I will be grateful for suggestions on new texts and perspectives.
Professor of World Politics, University of Helsinki