Saturday, December 06, 2008

Norberto Bobbio

I missed Alan (not the minister) Johnson's obituary for the great Norberto Bobbio at the time, but I've just seen it and it's worth a read. Bobbio represented quite the most important strand of 20th century socialism, both in terms of influence, and in being proven to be right by the current of events.

He once asked "what does [Marxism] have to say [about] the permanent debate on the relationship between parliamentary committees and parliament; between parliament and executive power; between the head of state and his or her powers; between the administrative state, including the State Council, and the State Audit Court; between local power and central authority, between electoral systems and democratic power and so on ad infinitum and ad nauseam?" Marx's brief comments on the Paris Commune, he said "for the last century have been repeatedly squeezed dry to extract some vital juice".

"....the various centres of real power of a modern state, such as big business, or the most significant instruments of real power, such as the army and bureaucracy, are not subject to any democratic control". And "as for the right of dissent, this can only operate within a highly circumscribed sphere".

"....Bobbio advised socialists to turn to the liberal tradition and adopt it wholesale; democracy was the only possible framework for the transition to socialism. And liberal democracy was the only kind of democracy there was. Talk of "direct democracy" as an alternative (rather then supplement) to representative democracy was utopian for large complex societies. Democracy is a set of rules and procedures.

Perry Anderson notes that there are four "rules of the game" for Bobbio: equal and universal adult suffrage, civic rights which assure the free expression of opinions and the free organisation of currents of opinion, decisions taken by a numerical majority, and guarantees of the rights of minorities against any abuse on the part of majorities.

Democracy is this set of procedures. It establishes who is authorised to make collective decisions and through which procedures. Questions of participation, rotation, accountability, and of the extension of democratisation to ever-new areas of social life (for which he passionately argued) should only be posed within this procedural framework."

Do read the whole thing though. Alan (ntm) asks: "How should we democratic socialists respond to Bobbio's challenge?"

If you're a regular here, you will know that one of the answers that he offers should get brushed aside as a bit of an irrelevant parlour game. Which one do you think I mean?

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