The aim of this chapter is not in the first place to test or illustrate theories, analytical frameworks or programmes. It is to share a several year old experience of a citizen's movement against the electoral break-through of the extreme right in Belgium (1). Nothwithstanding the participation of leading intellectuals and experienced political cadres, the movement has followed a pragmatic road reacting to policies, public opinion and the extreme right's moves. Notwithstanding an important moral authority, it has only marginally weighed upon the orientation of belgian politics. The balance sheet rises central questions for any citizen's movement or radical democratic projects.
Charta 91 has its origin in the electoral results of November 24th, 1991. Forecasted by former results and opinion polls, the extreme right party 'Vlaams Blok' tripples its electorate from 3.4 to 10.8%. Its wins 12 seats in the Chamber of Representatives (the House of Commons), 6 in the Senate and 36 in the provinces. In Antwerp it scores 25.5%.
The party was the result of a fusion in 1978 of the Flemish Peoples Party (a split of the democratic Flemish Nationalist Party, the Volksunie) and the Flemish National Party (a fascist groupuscule, led by the later leader of the Vlaams Blok, Karel Dillen). It then obtains 76,000 votes and one seat in parliament for the party leader. In 1981 the Vlaams Blok obtains 66,424 votes, and in local elections one year later 28,322 votes in 23 municipalities. In Antwerp the score is then 5.2%. In 1985 an 1987 the party only progresses slightly.
The first break-through appears in the local elections of 1988, years after the neoliberal turn in Belgian politics. The extreme right obtains 23 seats, of which 10 (!) in Antwerp. That is the forerunner of the so-called "Black Sunday" in november 1991. The core of the campaign is racist and xenophobic against the immigrant population. From that break-through, electoral successes are not stopped. In the local elections of October 9th, 1994 the Vlaams Blok becomes the first party in Antwerp: from the 16.528 votes in 1982, to the 54.163 votes in 1988, it now has 76.877 votes in 1994. From 5% over 17% to 28% of the electorate! From 2 over 10 to 18 seats in the council. A coalition between all (!) other parties is necessary to keep the Vlaams Blok out of local government. In other cities too, the extreme right progresses significantly. The party gets 187 seats in several municipalities.
That level is maintained (even with a gain of 1.2%) in the national elections of 1995. The party now has nearly 200 local councilers, 15 members of the Flemish parliament, 11 members of the federal Parliament, 3 members of the (reduced) Senate en 2 members of the Brussels parliament. It has a big enough size to participate in different commissons and councils and it gets millions of public money . It seems to have established itself as a stable political force, with some popular support and ready for participation in power. It is now aiming at a breakthrough in Brussels and at obtaining political collaboration with the right wings of the liberal and christian-democratic parties.
The elections of november 1991 show a shift of one third of the electorate, a real earth quake for the three traditional parties ( Christian Democracy, Social Democracy and Liberal). In a first reaction the leading politicians show panic, taking seriously the agenda of the extreme right, using a populist style to please the popular electorate, but fundamentally maintaining the deflationist monetarist policies of the European Communities. A democratic deficit becomes known as the "gap between citizen and politics", as the demise of the welfare state, and populist and market-politics exclude the intermediate layers and civil society from influencing the institutions. In the first six months after the elections, during the formation of the new government, large consultations with numerous associations have been organised, to search for new links with social intermediaries, but without any success.
The crisis of traditional politics and the shift to the right has not shown renewed support for alternatives left of the center. The extreme left is electorally inexistent, the Green party cannot stabilise nor its electorate nor its political project, a part of "leftist" protest votes has been captured by an anarchist stock exchange speculator -Jean Pierre Van Rossem - now already disappeared from the political scene (and in prison for fraud).
A deep crisis of political representation shows profoundly shaken traditional political parties, an existing popular extreme rightist conservatism and a shattered, inconsistent and not thrustworthy spectrum at the left of the center. Can resistance to the danger of the extreme right offer a platform for social and political reconstruction of an alternative?
Charta 91 is the product of a spontaneous reaction and not of a well thought project. In a contribution in a news paper we analyse the 'signal' from the elections as a symptom of the deeper social transformations of the eighties and argue for a change of politics against the 'pensée unique' of neoliberal recepies. Marks of sympathy with that approach lead to a first informal meeting of 120 people in december 1991 and the launch of the citizens-network Charta 91 the 8th of February 1992 in front of more than 1000 audience.
The manifesto opts for a reaction at a general level as it sees the success of the extreme right as ' a symptom of underlying processes that will no doubt result in social disruption'. Charta opts for a broad political approach, alongside - and not in place of - the antiracist or antifascist movements. It argues for a re-politisation of the public (The return of the political) and defends new forms of democratic institutions.
The social crisis is diagnosed at three levels: the political, the socio-economical and the cultural level. At the political level the criticism aims at the growing independence and lack of transparancy of the political ( and juridical) state apparatusses. It pleads for new organs and institutions to make immediate participation and control by citizens possible.
At the socio-economical level the demise of the welfare state and the increase in social inequality, is seen as the main source of anxiety and insecurity. That anxiety is not confronted by changing the objective circumstances, but by developing an authoritarian security discourse. The cultural crisis is located in the commodification of culture. In short these criticisms oppose neoliberal politics of the eighties.
The charter asks for (a) a renewed political debate on (b) long term sustainable politics (c) in new circumstances outside the established frameworks
The network started off with rather extended support, attracting in the first place militancy from independent people and people from the new social movements. Some leading academics and open minded politicians were active. Charta 91 was structured in regional groups and thematic groups (culture, Europe, labour, media and communication, education, justice, migrants,etc.). A monthly open steering group debates general orientation of the initiatives. A weekly secretariat forms the executive group. Everything was done on a voluntary ( no full time staff) and a pragmatic (no rules) basis. The overal organisational philosophy implied also that all meetings were open to all interested participants and that there was ' no difference between the inside and the outside'. Initiatives of different kind were taken:
5. Sociologically Charta 91 can be caracterised as a reaction of a critical layer of intellectuals-in Gramcian sense (teachers, academics, artists and other social intermediaries...)- that are treathened both by the project of the extreme right and by the growing authoritarian aspects of neoliberal politics. They are embodied by the social democratic party, mainly the Flemish Socialist Party, combining its role in the management of the capitalist state with an attempt to win back their electorate from the Vlaams Blok.It is that layer of 'intellectuals' that is (threatened to be) marginalised in a further shift from traditional mediation structures to more populist and mass-media oriented politics.
The appeal of Charta can be explained by the fact that it offered a platform for enhanced political and social involvement of these 'intermediaries'. It maybe also explains the orientation of the initiatives towards political society to develop pressures towards dialogue and a new political culture introducing social thems in the debate and involving 'non-professional politicians. A broadening of the political democracy as leverage for a reorientation of socio-economic and cultural policies.
The (implicit and explicit) strategic options at the start of Charta 91 can be summarized as follows:
Thus, in resistance to the extreme right threat, a political alternative to monetarist politics of the so-called 'centre' had to be developed. The formula of an open network of individual citizens was meant to offer a platform in that sense. It had to develop the moral authority of critizising the government for the sake of reversing the extreme right successes. Charta 91 attempted to organize polital mediation in different and non traditional ways.
The start of the network was a big success. Two questions arose in an early stage: the relationship with the media and the participation of politicians.
A part of the initial 'membership', following professional 'communication managers', wanted to develop Charta 91 into a carrier for mass-campaigns. They proposed to use existing goodwill in the mass media for an ongoing campaign to 'win back' the Vlaams Blok electorate. Plans in that direction showed that a complete submisson to the rules of the publicity-makers was needed. The network would become a Greenpeace-like organisation, oriented and structured alongside the mass communication market. That option has been rejected as being incompatible with the search of new forms of political practices.
Another early question was the collaboration of politicians, both elected members of the institutions and activists of small political parties. There has been an initial interest and moral support, but only a very few of them have been ready to really participate in the network. At a very early stage the party leaderships, but also the more open fractions in parties - 'traditional ' ones and 'new' ones alike - have not choosen to risk collaboration within an open structure. Party agendas have continuously dominated and overruled the network activities. Charta 91 was carried only by 'independents'...
The massive hearing, one year after the elections, was a turning point. It was a high-day of open political debate between 'citizens' and 'people in power', but it did not sufficiently indicate openings for a change. In the conclusion of that day the big gap between an interested part af civil society and institutionalised politics was clear. From that day onwards Charta 91 has been discursively marginalised by parties and the media.
For a short period the activities could force their way in in institutional agendas and the public opinion, through a good use of the sympathy of "known people" to enter the mass media. But soon it became more and more difficult to be heard and as the connections with people in power became more and more diffcult, the energy for non professional political activity faded away.
After two years an existencial crisis arose and was discussed in september 1993. A quote of Bourdieu was used in the discussion: " Nothing is in more absolute terms demanded by the political game than this fudamental agreement with the game itself, illusio, involvement, commitment: the commitment to the game that is itself the product of and the conditon for the game (...) That solidarity of all the initiated, bound by the same consent with the game and its stake, by the same respect for the game and its unwritten rules, by the same fundamental commitment to their monopolistic position, becomes all the more clear when the game itself is threatened. It is wel known how chocked politicians and political journalists, they themselves very fond of cynical rumours and anecdotes, react to those troubleshooters that raise the problem of the a-political attitude of people and petit bourgeoisie, at he same time product and condition of their monopoly."
A motion to stop the network was marginally overruled. A moral commitment to continue at least until the next elections convinced a majority. Charta 91 went on with initiatives to mobilise sectors of civil society and to try to build 'dikes' in institutions threatened to be influenced by the extreme right.
The orientation to intervention in the upcoming election campaigns ( june 1994: European elections; october 94: local elections; 1995: national elections) made of the network a more clearly anti-neo-liberal front. An orientation in favour of new politics was backed with minimal platforms. After the local elections the specific activities in Antwerp confirmed that line. And finally the new public discussion about the necessity of the 'Cordon Sanitaire" put Charta 91 in a clear left-right controversy.
Those in power reacted with much less concern to the electoral successes of the extreme right in these elections. On the contrary, they were assured of a period of at least four years without any election. Governments were sealed within legislation periods ( no government can be put in a minority without an alternative government majority ). The federal government ruled with special powers. The Maastricht norms seemed to be the only concern...
In the mean time the style of government and the changes in the function of the state were directed towards a more authoritarian rule, thus taking over elements of a rigthist discourse. Traditional politics are the main source of discontent within the population. The only credible popular alternative seems to be....the Vlaams Blok. As intelligent opportunists their leaders function in the institutions and the media. Behind the scene some conservative fractions within Christian democracy ( and the liberal party) are preparing an "Italian scenario" breaking the Cordon sanitaire for a rigthist front. Charta 91 is now a small network of dissidents, concentrated in maintaining another discourse and collaborating in some campaigns.
The main points of the analysis have been validated. The battleground for the fight with the extreme right is the struggle against the legitimation of social and cultural exclusion, the struggle thus against main stream politics. In that struggle the institutions, professional politics and the mass media are part of the problem. That is all the more so that the extreme right operates in such a way as to be accepted as a part of that system.
It is thus necessary to build independent movements operating within civil society. Designing an alternative 'programme' is not the most difficult part. More difficult is it to mobilise support for, be it elementary , a political platform that is more than added 'single issues'. Building a new political identity, alternative to neo-liberalism, is all the more difficult, as the 'left' is confronted with a multitude of competing and sectarian 'identities'.
The open network form is better than an organisation or a 'united front' or a 'coalition' to unite energies in such a context. The condition is a willingness to unite on an individal basis and to avoid making the control of the network subject of political confrontation. To maintain the dynamics of such an organisational form - where the organisaton is always a means and never an end in itself - the 'illusion' of power is vital. Therefore the openings and the relationship with institutionalised power and with mass media are central.
To maintain the necessary independence, a citizens network has to position itself at te edge of representative democracy, critisizing both the authoritarian tendencies in the state and the insufficiencies in 'participative posibilities'. Movements for radical democracy have to develop ideas about the open ended links between civil society and the state, as the traditional parties tend to become more and more exclusivey oriented towards state power and as the mediation with the rank and file is more and more dominated by technology, commercial techniques and populism. Non-mediated places for public debate are not in the first place 'referenda' (individual electral procedures) but 'hearings'. They should become oblidged forms of government(2). The individual client-centered services of the politician and the mediacentered politial discourse are cenral elements of the de-politisation. Re-politisation of the public demand for other political practices. They are not totally utopian, as the crisis of representative democracy is deep.
One could summarize the controversy in following terms: representative democracy is evolving towards substitutive democracy (Strong State) as it should develop into participative democracy(3)
Since august 1996 Belgium is shattered by the effects of the Dutroux case. A case of child abuse and murder, has opposed the parents of the missing children to the web of competing and malfunctioning state institutions, co-responsible for the death of (at least) four girls. The dismission of judge Connerotte from the investigation of te case, led to a spontaneous upsurge with strikes and demonstrations in factories and schools and with a "White March" of 300.000 participants. This is not the place for an analysis of that movement and is effects on the state.
Two remarks, related with the problems discussed above. The emotion and reaction of the population shows how deep the crisis of distrust in the institutions is. The mobilisation came mainly from "ordinary people" normally not used to social action, outside the big social organisations. The emotional concern was so great that organisational mediation was hardly necessary to mobilise. Moreover the mass media have carried the emotion to the success of the White March. To maintain the pressure it is now necessary to deepen the democratic nature of the movement by organising grass roots committees. These again do not see a massive help from more experienced activists, of which a big part has difficulties relating the emotional and personal feelings with structural proposals.
As important as the mobilisation, is the hesitation in parts of civil society to fully support the movement. The fear of sentimentalism and populism and of extreme right recuperation witheld part of the activists to participate. The Charta 91 network has not been totally involved in the movement, but it has been a platform for discussion. The fear for populist recuperation is not unreal, but it has not happened due to an extraordinary attitude of the parents ( They have nothing to loose but their chains to death and thus become fearlessly independant), the solidarity with the involved family Ben Aissa and a democratic majority in the movement actively opposing the presence of the Vlaams Blok.
Surveys show a massive retreat of confidence to the traditional parties ( 60% of the Walloon population would vote for a "White party"). There is no political alternative for the moment. And that might be the main reason for yet another progression of the extreme right in the elections of 1999. That might also be the moment for their participation in coalitions.
The shocking results of the November 1991 elections demand an urgent reaction, also by those who are not actively involved in politics.
The success of right-wing extremists, particularly threatening since it is a European phenomenon, must be understood as being a symptom of underlying processes that will no doubt result in social disruption.
Western democracies allow citizens considerably less influence on society than they claim to. The political system functions too much in isolation and is unable to answer the questions concerning the relations between individuals and their social environment. This rightly causes annoyance, confusioin and a paralysing feeling of impotence.
The social crisis is felt at the political, the socio-economical and the cultural level.
Politics appear to be a spectacle unworthy of belief in which interests are served and rules are applied that leave the majority of the population out in the cold. This frustrated majority is allowed to look on the political deterioration, which is characterised by lack of transparancy, inefficiency and a shameless overlapping of interests. To counter this, a new, trustworthy culture of politcs has to be installed, based on transparancy of management, a better administration of justice and venerable political activities. New organs and new institutions are needed to make immediate participation and control by citizens possible.
During the last 15 years, the socio-economic conditions of our society have changed considerably. The wealth of our country has been redistributed at the expense of those in need, and the welfare state has been replaced by a new class-society. Small wonder that, in some neighbourhoods of our cities, unemployment, poor housing and social exclusion cause intolerance and xenophobia. Discontent grows, even in so called upper class neighbourhoods, because of decreasing professional perspectives and lack of recognition. Education, public health, socio-cultural activities and scientific research suffer from cost cutting.
The cultural climate grows continually poorer, thus causing an ideological shift to the right. The common denominator of mass culture suppresses innovation and choice. Growing illiteracy, failure in school, premature exhaustion of the educational system and media game culture cause great damage to the spiritual fabric of society.
A reversal of this political, social and cultural climate is needed. The situation will not change by itself. Which priority is to be chosen? A European economic and monetary unification that is imposed undemocratically or a gratification of the social and cultural needs of the population? If shock therapies are necessary , let them hit those who can take them.
Charta91 intends to contribute to this newcourse. Charta 91 is neither the embryo of a political party, nor the substitute for feelings of indignation that are expressed in manifestations and petitions. It tries to be complementary to them.
We are proposing action on three levels.
Firstly: a serious debate in clear political terms. Local, national and international structures are becoming less democratic in design and practice. This tide can not be turned by quick, superficial countetr-moves nor by ready-made ideology, but only by exhaustive political analysis.
Secondly: this new political awareness demands a strategic and continued effort. The nature of the problems deteremined the frequency of reactions. All this presupposes a long range and in-depth action.
Thirdly: we strive to be an independant movement of individual citizens. The fact that these individuals are members of different organisations and movements, must not keep them from working independently on a basis of common agreement concerning the causes of stacial stagnancy.
The situation is far too serious to be left at the mercy of the structures of power that have caused the decay in the first place. Responsible citizens are able to counter the social deteriorationb that causes intolerance, xenophobia, social exclusion, anxiety and insecurity.
Charta 91 gathers people from different social, professional and cultural backgrounds, citizens with their different dreams and expectations, who want to act together in plurality for freedom, equality and solidarity.
Until the unholy tide has been turned....
(1)In a further stage this balance sheet will be confronted with recent literature on the question of 'radical democracy'. See: Archibugi, D & D. Held, (1995): Cosmopolitan Demcracy, Polity Press, Cambridge; Barry Clarke P. (1994): Citizenship, Pluto Press, London; Giddens, A. (1994): Beyond Left and right. The future of radical politics, Polity Press, Cambridge; Held, D. (ed) (1993): Prospects for democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge; Held D. (1995): Democracy an the Global Order, Polity Press, Cambridge; Laclau, E. (ed) (1994): The making of political identities, Verso, London; Lefort, C. (1986): The political forms of Modern Society, Polity Press, Cambridge; Mouffe C. (ed) (1992): Dimensions of Radical Democracy, Verso, London; Philips, A. (1993): Democracy an difference, Polity Press, Cambridge; Seligman A.B.(1992): The idea of civil society, Princeton University Press, Princeton; Trend, D (ed) (1996): Radical democracy. Identity, citizenship and the state, Routledge, New york; Van Steenbergen, B. (1994) The condition of Citizenship, Sage, London; Zolo, D (1992): Democracy and complexity, Polity Press, Cambridge back
(2)The struggle for so-called 'economic democracy' has not given birth to collective property of the means of production, but it has generated structures of negociation and conflict besides the - unsustainable - mass movement ('Conseils d'Entreprises, etc). Political representative democracy seems to be a much more closed system. Forms of 'direct democracy' or better 'places of negociation between civil society and the state', can be derived from the lessons of union's history. back
(3)One of the important questions in that regard is the level, the unit for suc developments. In relation to the European unification process as part and reaction to globalisation and the localisation processes related to it, we have argued in favour of cities as nodes for social and political reconstruction. See Corijn, E. & H. Mommaas (1995), Urban Cultural Policy Developments in Europe, a background report for the Council of Europe contribution to the World Commission on Culture and Development, KUB Tilburg back