By Michael Caplan
In the past few years, Norway and surrounding Scandinavian countries have proven to be a hotbed of activism inspired by the works of social ecology. Study groups, publishing projects, protests, conferences and seminars, anti-racist and ecological activism, and political organizational building are all common activities of the 4-year-old group Democratic Alternative (DA). Democratic Alternative, an emerging Scandinavian-wide organization committed to the political vision advanced by social ecology, represents an exciting attempt of a new association to put these ideals into practice. According to Democratic Alternative International Secretary Eirik Eglad, the organizations “has explicit aims to strengthen a principled and innovative international Left, and encourage the consolidation of a Communalist tendency.”
Ingrid Young, an Oslo-based member of Democratic Alternative, attended the Institute for Social Ecology’s Ecology and Community program the summer of 2000. She became interested in social ecology after starting high school, and soon joined the Norway-based Social Ecology Project. This now defunct group, superseded by Democratic Alternative, was devoted to the study of social ecology and community education. Ingrid came to the ISE to further her study of social ecology theory and practice. I had the opportunity to speak to Ingrid over email about her activities.
Harbinger: What sort of political activities have you been involved with prior to studying at the Institute for Social Ecology, and afterwards?
Ingrid Young: I was introduced to the ideas of social ecology when I started high school. Soon I became a member of what was called the Social Ecology Project. This little local group discussed and tried to spread the ideas of social ecology as developed by Murray Bookchin. As the project developed, we saw the need for a broader organization—one that could bring these ideas further and help us build a stronger social ecology movement. After some different attempts to found such an organization, we formed Democratic Alternative. In the last two years we have grown to be a Scandinavian-wide organization, and we have been met by a lot of interest from different people.
Since I left the Institute for Social Ecology, I’ve continued my work in Democratic Alternative. I have moved to the capital of Norway and have started to work with the local DA group there. We do not have that many members yet, but it’s a good group. Still, our activities mainly consist of trying to spread the ideas of social ecology and Communalism in every possible way. That means a lot of writing and also participating in different social forums where we can present our alternatives and ideas.
H: How did the Institute for Social Ecology and the ideas of social ecology impact you?
I: My involvement in Democratic Alternative is more or less the same both before and after my participation in the Institute for Social Ecology (ISE) Ecology and Community program. The ISE offered me the opportunity to spend a month discussing and reading politics full time. It was a great experience, not to be forced back to work or to school. The ISE was a free place to reflect on the ideas of social ecology without being interrupted. It was also nice to meet leftists from other groups, other than the Scandinavian ones I am familiar with, and to learn about their experiences and visions.
How have the ideas of social ecology influenced me? I guess that only a book can answer. I think for me personally, the ideas of social ecology have evolved my ability to see opportunities for the future. They have raised my consciousness from just protesting against what I find wrong, to actually being able to put forward an alternative and hope for a better future.
H: What type of activities has DA been involved in since its formation? What plans do you have for the future?
I: Democratic Alternative is, as you know, a fairly new organization. First and foremost we value the importance of spreading our ideas through study circles, meetings, writing and other educational work. Besides that, the different local DA groups work on different initiatives in their local communities. Largely, environmental and anti-racist work has been important areas of focus for our local groups. Lately, we have been involved with the association Globalization From Below that is connected to Peoples Global Action. We had representatives in Gothenburg helping to coordinate the protests during the European Union summit this June.
In the future… that’s a huge question. What I think is so good about Democratic Alternative as an organization is the potential we have to create and build counter-institutions where citizens can be in control. We want our different groups, in the long-term, to participate in municipal elections on radical programs containing both maximum and minimum demands. This is an important way to raise people’s consciousness about these ideas, and to make people see that direct democracy is possible.
As our membership grows, hopefully Democratic Alternative will develop to be a powerful force able to help create peoples’ assemblies that are meaningful and can be treated as a genuine alternative to representative democracy.
H: The politics of social ecology has been very challenging for the revolutionary left here in North America. What sort of response has DA received from the Scandinavian Left?
I: The Norwegian Left consists mostly of social democrats. There are still some hard line Marxists, but they are hardly visible in the political picture. DA is still a relatively marginalized organization due partly to our size and partly to our short existence. It is hard to get publicity in the national media. We do cooperate with the radical Left mainly on single cause issues. In these forums our ideas are accepted and discussed. The communists strangely enough have problems distinguishing Communalism from their own ideology. The small libertarian milieu recognizes that there are differences between anarchism and communalism, especially on the issue of voting on the municipal level. Sweden has stronger libertarian socialist traditions, especially anarcho-syndicalism. Here, there is a wider range of forums for discussing the ideas of Communalism and libertarian municipalism.
H: Given that the municipality is an integral locus of movement building for DA, are there any traditions of Norwegian radical municipalism that you are able to build upon?
I: Here in Norway, there is a tradition of neighborhood residents unions that might be a possible entry point for building a movement for direct democracy. They do community work and look after the interests of their particular neighborhoods. Membership is based on residence, and its borders are formed organically by tradition. This locus has the potential to host a popular assembly. As the residents have shared interests, it is realistic that the members might foster support for political activity.
The nascent, or retreated, democratic traditions which already exist in the municipality represent a possible way for us to spread our ideas and to try to create counter institutions. There are two remains of democratic tradition in Norway: residence unions and public meetings. A democratized municipality and a confederation of these form a counter institution that presents a dual power against the State. DA sees municipal elections as means to spread ideas of libertarian municipalism, and in the long run help to create popular assemblies with the power of genuine political decision-making over the municipality. The goal is an anti-capitalist, stateless world of confederated directly democratic municipalities. These issues are explored in Janet Bielh’s book Libertarian Municipalism, the Politics of Social Ecology, which I recommend as introductory reading.
The most important democratic tradition for our purpose are the forums where people gather to discuss in the municipality; this includes participating in municipal citizen-based organizations and peoples initiatives. Before a major decision is made there is an old tradition of arranging public meetings for the residents. These are sadly currently being reduced to informational meetings where bureaucrats and politicians lecture about a current project. DA sees that these forums have the potential to be radicalized and ultimately institutionalized. By peoples initiatives I mean popular citizen (neighborhood) mobilizations for single-cause issues, and not referendums. Using peoples initiatives, DA can connect particular minimum demands to a maximum demand program.
H: What sort of response has DA generated from the citizens of the different regions of Scandinavia that you are involved in?
I: It’s important to say that Democratic Alternative is an organization consisting of different local groups. The response varies from place to place. In Sweden we are growing rather rapidly. I think the radical scene in Scandinavia is ready for new ideas and we are able to offer these ideas. Also, in an era when we see an increasing interest in the anti-globalization movement, there is a need for ideas that represent an alternative, not just a method of protesting.
When we continue to increase both our activities and members, we will be able to take more effective action influencing the political agenda. I think this is just a question of time. Meanwhile we have to make people aware of the ideas we are working with and the organization. We need to make them see the potential for a better society, which is right in front of us for the grabbing.