Demanding Democracy

Summer 2023 #42
written by
Carne Ross
illustration by

To celebrate a decade as a quarterly print magazine, we invited Carne Ross, a writer and thinker on new forms of economy and democracy to meet the demands of the twenty-first century, to deliver the inaugural STIR lecture, in Manchester in May 2023.

Democracy is in crisis, threatened from without by dictators and totalitarians, and from within by political disillusionment, the decline of collective institutions, and the far right. Never has trust in public institutions been lower. But from both government and opposition, no effective solutions are being offered – neither ‘levelling up’ or partial devolution promise to fix the current malaise. Yet as we face mounting inequality and the demands of the climate crisis for rapid transition and managing worsening climate impacts, never more have we needed a serviceable, legitimate democracy. Only truly participatory democracy, which involves those affected, and where citizens themselves make the decisions, offers a plausible solution. But how could this work? Where has it worked and what can we learn? Carne Ross will examine these questions and propose a radical way forward.

We think we know what democracy means. 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 the 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 economic know-how.

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 been the UK’s Iraq expert at the UN Security Council from 1998 to 2002. 

The Austrian-British philosopher 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 even re-elected after the invasion. And to this day, he, US president 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 circumstances 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? Inequality, rampant and worsening. A society where nurses rummage in food banks and the sales of executive jets are rocketing. 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.

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 put forward a broader notion of what democracy should mean, and should be; to argue that we cannot simply see it as voting and parliaments and politicians; that to build a successful democracy that works for us and the planet we need to think more broadly. We need a system 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. Binding this whole together is one overarching requirement – that of agency, of having control of the things that matter to us, that make our lives as rich and as flourishing as possible. If we focus on agency as the goal, along with 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). To begin with the economic, 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. To guarantee agency in the workplace, we need equality of power. This isn’t granted by management philosophy, by team retreats, and expressions of ‘ownership’. It can only be granted by genuinely shared ownership, with actual partnership in owning and running a venture. This model of the economy is a necessary component of true democracy.

Secondly, the 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? If the five-yearly opportunity to vote for 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. 

Experience elsewhere shows that this participatory model of democracy does work. 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, one third of the city’s population lived in slums around the periphery while 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 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.

To come to the third element – the environmental – I think this type of politics is essential if we are to save the planet. 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 overriding goal as it is today, but where public welfare, wellbeing, and 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, 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 – the political, the economic, the environmental – come together under the rubric of agency. 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 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.

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, but these assemblies do demonstrate that bodies of ‘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. 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. But 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 begin to see what unites us rather than divides us, and they begin to accept the need for us to agree on 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 Cass R. Sunstein’s behavioural research, and as we often see for ourselves on social media. But when there is a decision 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 taking decisions for ourselves, accepting nuance, and compromise, as the mature and necessary components of collective decision making.

Those who benefit from the current system 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? 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 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 the 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 at the scale necessary.

These ideas are 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 Öcalan, for the local circumstance. Communes, often operating at the level of a 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 Öcalan’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.

We can unravel the deeply entrenched and moribund systems in place today, and replace them: revolution through construction of new and better alternatives.

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 that local people commend their democratic practice as an example for the world. Rojava has shown that this kind of democracy works at scale. But it 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 ever can be, but Rojava shows that it can be done. 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 that 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? 

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 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; it has to be started by ourselves, place by place, and then slowly it may spread as moss spreads across a forest floor. Something organic, like this, cannot be predicted. It must be a self-initiated project, built with many hands and designed by many minds. And we must start to imagine, as Judith Butler puts it, “in a radical way that makes you seem a little crazy [...] in order to open up a possibility that others have already closed down with their knowing realism." 

It has to be started by ourselves, place by place, and slowly it may spread as moss spreads across a forest floor.

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 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 as 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.

A former British diplomat who resigned over the Iraq War, Carne Ross founded and led Independent Diplomat, the world’s first ever non-profit diplomatic advisory group, working with democracy groups and liberation movements from Kosovo to the Western Sahara and Syria. Carne has contributed to many major publications and broadcast outlets, and is the author of two books, most recently The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century.

Summer 2023 #42

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