In May we held the inaugural STIR magazine lecture, the first in our annual lecture series. The lecture was held at Stretford Public Hall in Greater Manchester on the evening before our fifth annual Playground for the New Economy Festival.
Our speaker was leading democratic theorist and activist Carne Ross - you can read and listen here to his lecture, 'Demanding Democracy: Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century'.
Thanks again to our lecture sponsor, Co-op & Community Finance, who are celebrated their 50th anniversary of lending to Co-ops and Community Business this year, and who joined us on the evening.
Below is the transcript of the lecture introduction given by our editor, Jonny Gordon-Farleigh.
As founding editor of STIR magazine, it’s my privilege to be here at the 10th anniversary lecture this evening. Thank you to everyone for joining us - whether you’re a member of our publishing team, a contributor, reader, or its the first time you’d heard of our publication. Before introducing Carne Ross – our inaugural lecturer – I'm just going to briefly take a moment to look back at the last decade in print and then forwards to anticipate some of the challenges we face as a movement.
So looking back, while there have been innumerable political and economic failures since the 2008 financial crisis, it's possibly still the most significant moment that underlines both the lack of confidence in our current economic model and the inspiration for what we broadly describe as new economic alternatives.
This magazine started in the shadow of that crisis with a general sense that after decades of despondency – that there had been a “total exhaustion of viable alternatives” – we were starting to unmask the political nature of the economy and were now able to explore the possibilities of imagining - and implementing - a coherent alternative to it.
The short-lived triumphalism of the so-called ‘end of history’ – that the market could provide the answer to economic and social needs – now suddenly became untenable, and those promoting a different kind of economy were no longer treated as so politically naive.
In the immediacy of the 2008 crisis, there were impassioned calls from civil society for governmental reforms to our financial system – from limits on bonuses to fair tax policies – that all were part of demands for higher levels of corporate accountability. There was also a new era of ethical certification, with voluntary business schemes mostly a response to the lack of government action to introduce any meaningful legislation to prevent the causes of a future crisis.
Another reaction to the financial crisis were efforts to ‘unleash the innovative capacities of local economies’. This was mainly through the promotion of small-scale initiatives and campaigns for community power, such as the Transition Town movement. Either in an uneasy relationship or in direct conflict with the coalition government’s Big Society, approaches like these were often characterised by anti-corporate attitudes, a distrust of institutional bureaucracies, and a strong belief in the capacity of civic entrepreneurialism to reverse national trends in the economy.
This civic revival, in turn, inspired a post-crisis wave of institutional reform. Local government and city-regions – from Preston to Islington – started to focus on how their institutional powers could be used to transform local economies. Many of these institutional strategies – such as Community Wealth Building – focused on non-extractive economic development, as the devolution of social welfare functions without funding from national government forced local administrations to look for new efficiencies.
In the second half of the decade, and despite serious reservations about our electoral system, there was a surge in mobilisation for political parties. There was also significant progress in influencing changes in policy platforms, especially in relation to ‘democratic public ownership’ and ‘worker ownership’ under Corbyn and McDonnell’s leadership of the UK Labour party. Despite such electoral optimism, voters were still being treated as consumers of policy preferences, which was reflected in the ‘retail’ nature of party manifestos. It was perceived by some as a decade lost to austerity, and by others as a generational opportunity to capture control of our economic and political systems in a rare moment of weakness.
Now, of course, the majority of us are suffering through another period of instability and economic pressure, with intensification of extreme wealth inequalities, rocketing prices, an endless housing crisis, and failure on climate commitments. So where does this leave us in the post-pandemic era?
To read back through a decade of the magazine is to remind ourselves of both the promise of new economic alternatives and also to not shy away from the scale of the challenges. Despite the disturbing pace of economic and political change, we need to commit to understanding what’s worked, what’s failed, and what we can learn for the future. If the 2010s were a decade of relentless experimentation, this decade really needs to focus on reinforcing current advances and continuing to present a challenge to a fading neoliberalism.
So what’s our challenge?
- Can we be more than crisis managers of the current economic and political system?
- Can we experiment with more forms of democracy that work at all scales, from the local to the regional to national
- And can we be a genuinely popular movement that also takes place beyond the current constitution of political activists and NGOs?
In terms of the magazine, over decade we commit to..
- Creating a space for a broad movement to self-appraise its strengths and weaknesses, find alignment, but also discuss important disagreements
- Provide a more historical basis for current movements and ideas in a period of rapid sense-making
- Support the process of systematising new economic ideas into a more coherent alternative
- Encourage more connections between movement and institution building
- And make democracy a more intuitive value in social and economic change
To the lecture. I couldn’t be more excited than to introduce Carne Ross to deliver our inaugural lecture this evening at Stretford Public Hall.
I first met Carne in the offices of Independent Diplomat in New York in 2016. After resigning as a British diplomat over the Iraq War, in 2004 Carne 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.
I had recently read his book – The Leaderless Revolution – and was fascinated by this former establishment figure who was now describing himself as an anarchist.
A few years later he also produced the documentary film – The Accidental Anarchist – which charts Carne’s journey from a civil servant in the Foreign Office and the United Nations to exploring anarchism as an alternative solution to current forms of democracy.
Carne’s work is such a generous and rigorous contribution to adapting democratic models for a different economy and society.
I’ll leave it there, so we can hear Carne’s proposals for a radical way forward. Thank you Carne. ∞
Read and listen here to Carne's lecture: 'Demanding Democracy: Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century'.