Demanding Democracy: Speech at Stir to Action festival, 18 May 2023

Thank you to Jonny Gordon-Fairleigh for inviting me and to Cooperative and Community Finance for sponsoring this event.

We think we know what democracy means.  I used to think that.  I was once a servant of Britain’s so-called democracy, a diplomat who represented this country to the outside world.  I started as a British diplomat in 1989, the year that West triumphed over Communism.  According to Francis Fukuyama, this was the end of history, where the nation state had reached its ultimate iteration in market economics and representative democracy.  When it was the turn of my cohort of young diplomats to be posted abroad, the most popular postings were to the former communist bloc states of Eastern Europe, to educate those places in the ways of western democracy and economics.  Know how, it was called.

But I was to be confronted with democracy’s failure, in the most striking of manners.  In 2003, the UK, along with the US, invaded Iraq.  The war was based on a lie, it was illegal and the governments concerned ignored available alternatives to war.  I know this because I had worked on Iraq, for many years. 

Karl Popper proposed that an independent justice system, a free press and regular elections would keep governments honest, competent and accountable.  In the case of Iraq, all three of these pillars of the supposed ‘Open Society’ failed.  The press repeated and did not question the government’s lies, even though the government had brazenly changed its own story.  Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, was reelected after the invasion.  And to this day he, George Bush and the others most culpable of this war crime are walking free, untouched by the hand of the law.  Indeed, they are celebrated and offered a platform by the BBC and others.

I witnessed this and it led me to question the system that I had been representing.  I began a journey of enquiry that continues to this day.  What would a better democracy look like?

For a start, what should a democracy be for?  I’m not satisfied with the trite cliché that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried” apparently uttered by Winston Churchill.  Even if it were true, which it is not, it’s hardly an adequate answer to the question of how to govern ourselves, how to run our society in the challenging circumstance of today.

If we define the criteria by which we should measure the outcomes, we can begin to work out what might be better.  Equality, social cohesion, happiness, the state of the planet.  These are the sorts of things we need to assess.  And on these bases, what are the outcomes of the current system?  You hardly need me to tell you.  Inequality, rampant and worsening.  A society where nurses rummage in food banks and the sales of executive jets are rocketing.  Social cohesion.  A society where teenagers murder one another so often that it barely makes the news.  A society characterised by atomisation and ennui, and the decline of social institutions, polarised by social media.  The state of the planet.  Well, you don’t need me to go on. 

Democracy is in crisis.  Surveys and polls show a clear trend of growing disillusionment, of alienation from the system, of a population, particularly younger people, who have no faith that the system will deliver for them, or save the planet.  Meanwhile, autocracies like China or Russia argue that they have the better system, and many believe them.

So what is to be done?

I want to persuade you this evening of a broader notion of what democracy should mean, and should be.  That we cannot simply see at as voting and parliaments and politicians – ‘politics’.  That to build a successful democracy that works for us and the planet we need to think more broadly.  We need a system that allows us to be fully human, to express our beings at the most profound, that means we can flourish and live together in peace and fulfilment, safely within the planetary boundaries.

Any successful system needs several interconnecting or rather compounding elements that fit together to make a coherent and sustainable whole, a total concept if you like.  And binding this whole together is one overarching requirement – that of agency.  That we have control of the things that matter to us, that make our lives as rich and as flourishing as possible, both materially and psychically.  The agency that we all feel, today, that we sorely lack.  If we focus on agency as the goal, along with these other elements that we will come to, we begin to approach an answer.

The necessary elements can be listed: economic, political and environmental (and at a deeper level, psychological if not spiritual).  Without democracy in the workplace, we cannot enjoy true democracy or freedom. We all know what hierarchy and domination look like in the workplace: powerlessness, humiliation, frustration, experiences that are common for most.  God knows, I have experienced them too, and no doubt inflicted these experiences on others: domination diminishes and disfigures the boss as much as it does the bossed. To guarantee agency in the workplace, we need equality of power.  This isn’t granted by management philosophy, by team retreats and expressions of shared ‘ownership’ (always in quote marks).  It can only be granted by genuinely shared ownership.  Actual partnership in owning and running a venture.  This audience needs no lectures from me about the virtues of cooperative models, but I want to suggest that this model of the economy is a necessary component of true democracy.

Secondly, political.  From the day you are born, when your parents are legally obliged, on pain of punishment, to register your existence to the state, your freedom is taken away from you. The theory of democracy is that in return for losing our freedoms, we consent to the rules of the state.  But do you remember being asked for your consent?  Ever?  I never was.  My liberty was taken away without asking, as it is for all of us.  If the 5-yearly opportunity to vote for a the least worst political party represents that consent, let’s state plainly:  It doesn’t.  True representation does not mean a brief, rare opportunity to vote for a few to govern the many.  It means actually being part of decisions that affect us.  Nothing about us, without us.  This is direct democracy, participatory democracy, that we are literally in the room, with a voice, when decisions are taken.

Experience elsewhere shows this works.  In the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, there was a ten-year experiment in direct democracy, where tens of thousands took part in decisions about how to allocate the city’s budget.  When the experiment began, the poor  – one third of the city’s population – lived in slums around the periphery; the rich controlled the city’s government and budget.  A city characterised by inequality and gross disparity between conditions in the wealthy centre was transformed. 

According to a World Bank study, the participatory process fostered direct improvements in facilities in Porto Alegre.  For example, sewer and water connections increased from 75% of households to 98% .  The number of schools increased fourfold.   The city led the way in developing progressive recycling and renewable energy projects. 

The participatory process was overwhelmingly supported by the city’s population.  It also, reportedly, encouraged a change in the tenor of local politics, which became less partisan, and more consensual.  Everything became transparent, from decision-making to the awarding of contracts.   Political parties became less relevant, now that the spoils from running the city budget were removed.  Inhabitants of Porto Alegre have described this experience to me as ‘beautiful’, not a word we commonly associate with our version of democracy.

It’s easy to see why such processes deliver better outcomes for everyone.  It’s because everyone – at last – is involved.  Evidence from other participatory assemblies shows another important outcome.  When such assemblies are informed by experts, and there is a chance for genuine debate, participants demonstrate that they want more progressive policies to tackle the climate crisis.  Again, when properly informed, and given the opportunity for discussion – the necessary to and fro of democracy, as Isaiah Berlin identified – people choose what is best for them and for the planet that sustains them. 

The necessary provision of shared public goods,

welfare for all centred in the debate and the decisions,

transparency and democracy in decision-making,

a decline in the role of political parties, and in its place genuine inclusion, including of the most marginalised. 

These are the outcomes of genuinely participatory politics.  These are outcomes we can all sign up to.

And, to go further, I think this type of politics is essential if we are to save the planet, the environment.  Particularly in the global north, we need to consume fewer resources.  This is not relative resource use – the amount of metal or plastic or energy used per unit of production – but absolute resource use – less in total.  Studies show that this is the only way to keep the planet to the goals of the Paris Agreement, namely 1.5 to 2 degrees of warming.  As Jason Hickel and Kate Raworth have argued, the only way to achieve this is a new kind of economy, where growth is not centred as the over-riding goal as it is today, but where public welfare, wellbeing, human flourishing, drive the economy.  I would argue that this will only happen once these needs are revealed as the true preferences of the broader public.  This will only happen with a genuinely participatory form of politics, where these needs and wants are allowed, at last, to come to the surface.

So we begin to see how these elements fit together – the political, the economic, the environmental and come together under the rubric of agency, true agency.  That we require true agency in these different realms, above all in decision-making about our own affairs, if we are to resolve the profound challenges facing our societies today. 

Put into practice, these ideas will form a different kind of society.  Governed by the many, rather than the few.  Decisions made at the local level, above all, and implemented when necessary at the broader scale – the very opposite of today’s so-called representative democracy where a tiny few – sometimes one man alone! –  take all the decisions which are then implemented by everyone else at the local level.  A society where we deal with each other directly, about the things that matter to us.

Let’s take on some of the common dismissals of this kind of politics: “ it’s impossible, too difficult, it couldn’t work here”.

A frequent claim is that assemblies of this kind are incapable of taking the complex decisions necessary to govern a sophisticated modern society.  In France, they are using citizens’ assemblies to inform government policy.  This is not my ideal of democracy, because decisions are still taken by the centre, not the places where we live.  But these assemblies do demonstrate that bodies of quote unquote ordinary people can address complex and difficult issues. In a recent case, an assembly of some 184 randomly selected people spent many months considering questions around assisted suicide and euthanasia.  After considering testimony from patients, families, doctors, philosophers and other experts, the assembly came up with 67 recommendations for policy on this most difficult and tendentious of issues.  Who better than those most affected to decide.  The President has now said that these recommendations will form the basis for new national legislation.  Ireland has seen similar deliberative assemblies address other controversial issues, such as abortion, reaching recommendations that later became government policy.

Another claim is that such assemblies will degenerate into argument and division.  We are all too familiar with the kinds of debates that emerge when people are finally given a say, for instance at public meetings or radio call-in shows.  Often the most angry and most privileged voices get the first and loudest say.  Likewise on social media.  It’s a dispiriting spectacle.  But other research demonstrates that when people come together – notably in person, not online – people instead tend towards consensus.  They look at each other, at last, as human beings not political labels.  They see the mother with kids at the same school as your own, or families with relations in the same hospital.  They begin to see what unites us rather than divides us, and they begin to accept the need for us to agree a way forward, rather than dwell in our comfort zones of political rhetoric and resentment at other people.  Thus are the tattered threads of a broken society rewoven.

But, notably, this tendency to consensus also requires one condition – that there is something at stake.  When there is nothing at stake, except perhaps winning the rhetorical debate, division is more likely, as found by research by Cass Sunstein, and as we see on social media.  But when there is a decision to take that really matters – say over a local school or hospital – people tend to agree, because we all see our common interest.  And when democracy is a process, rather than a one-off occasion, people tend towards agreement, seeing that my concession to you today will be met by yours to me next week.  This is one reason, among many, why referendums are such a poor substitute for real, living, permanent democracy: all they amount to is a rarely-granted opportunity to blow off our anger, rather than continually genuinely take decisions for ourselves, accepting nuance, and compromise, as the mature and necessary components of collective decision-making.

Those who benefit from the current dispensation love to decry alternatives as unworkable and impractical.  Often they say such bottom-up systems will not work at scale.  To which my first response is why should they?  Do we need scale.  Since when do we actually need countries, rather than are bequeathed them by often bloody history.  Countries, states, are defined by violence, as Max Weber said, and are the only entity permitted to use it.  Why?

But my anarchist preferences aside, let’s examine this alleged concern.  There is a theoretical rebuttal to this criticism in the work of Murray Bookchin, the American thinker who posited democratic confederalism as the answer to the challenge of scale.  It’s like a sort of commune of communes – and he called himself a communalist – where decisions are made at the local level and aggregated together, when necessary, at greater scale, such as the city or region or, if really need be, at national level.  Representatives are appointed locally, they can only represent decisions made locally and, if they don’t, they can be immediately recalled.  This is very different from our ill-named representative democracy where we elect, infrequently, a tiny cohort of often self-interested politicians to take decisions for us.  In this confederalist system, argued Bookchin, decisions can be made for roads, hospitals, if necessary common defence, at the scale necessary.

So much for theory, these ideas are actually happening in practice in a little known corner of Syria that the Kurds call Rojava.  There Bookchin’s theories have been interpreted by the leader of the Kurdish liberation movement, the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, for the local circumstance.  Communes, often operating at the level of village or small town, take the decisions.  There are regional assemblies where local representatives discuss larger-scale policy.  This extraordinary new project came about in unusual circumstances, the collapse of the Assad regime in the 2012 uprising.  It also came about because Ocalan’s ideas had been spread by local political parties and cadres of the PKK, a precondition that also existed before the similar revolution in Republican Spain in 1937.  Education is vital.

I’ve visited this remarkable place.  I’ve seen how non-Kurdish minorities are given a preferential voice in the assemblies. I’ve heard for myself local people commend their democratic practice as an exemplar for the world. Rojava has shown that this kind of democracy works at scale. Rojava exists under great threat, from its hostile neighbours, from the Assad regime and above all from the constant aggression of Erdogan’s Turkey. It has waged a long war against ISIS. The region is defended by remarkable militias, composed of women’s units as well as men’s. And here is another notable feature of the autonomous self administration of Rojava. Women co-chair all the assemblies and administrative bodies. It is a feminist revolution, where the subordinate status of women, so common in the Middle East as elsewhere, is overturned. When those hitherto marginalised are put in charge, the result is better for everyone; equality, empowerment, social justice.  It is not a perfect project, no human endeavour can ever be, but Rojava shows that it can be done.  If it can be done there, it can be done here.  We can unravel the deeply entrenched and moribund systems in place today, and replace them.  Revolution through construction of new and better alternatives.

Why doesn’t this happen?  We all know the rich, who benefit most from the current system, will resist change.  But they are few, and we are many and, alone, they cannot prevail. Why aren’t these ideas more discussed, more attempted?  Those who control the discourse are clearly content enough with the status quo, after all it has put them in positions of privilege and power – why should they change it?  They sense that their power is at risk.  It’s no wonder that these ideas struggle for a hearing.  But the best form of influence is neither theory nor talk, it is practice.  We are most influenced not by what our peers and leaders say, but by what they do.

The answer is to get on with it.  Go to the places that most concern people – hospitals, schools, local communities.  Begin to listen, to meet, and establish legitimacy by including people.  Perhaps one route is to get elected as a councillor then turn decision-making and thus government itself over to the people, as they have done in Frome, Somerset or in Colombia.  Or start communal assemblies from scratch, as a group is trying to do in Hull.  These projects must, inevitably, start small.  Perhaps it will take an enlightened mayor, as it did in Porto Alegre.  But no national government or politician will initiate such a scheme, as turkeys won’t vote for Christmas.  It has to be started ourselves, in place by place, and slowly it may spread as moss spreads across a forest floor.  Something organic, like this, cannot be predicted. This must be a self-initiated project, built with many hands and designed by many minds.

And we must start to imagine, as Judith Butler put it,

“Sometimes you have to imagine in a radical way that makes you seem a little crazy, that puts you in an embarrassing light, in order to open up a possibility that others have already closed down with their knowing realism.”

Finally, we come to the spiritual dimension.  At heart, this is a politics of people, where people at last have control over the things that matter to them.  It is a politics where people themselves are at the centre.  And there is something beautiful about this, that transcends debates about the technical mechanics or model of democracy or the economy, and transactional design.  It is a politics where we negotiate our lives with each other, directly and on equal terms.  For me, this offers a deeper dimension of meaning, beyond agency alone (even though agency is essential for human fulfilment).  We are functions of one another.  We only truly exist in relationship to one another (this is why solitary confinement is the ultimate punishment, short of death itself).  This is a politics where that human-to-human relationship is at the heart, not consumption, not the emptiness of materialism or the vacuous satisfactions of careerism or social profile.  Here, in this kind of democracy, we can live fully as humans can, to flourish at last in a way that has only rarely been permitted.  This is a necessary aspiration, if we are to save the planet and salvage a decent society, but it is also a beautiful dream of us, the human, and what we can truly become.  For that possibility, we do not yet know.