Full-scale participatory democracy would change everything. It has the same revolutionary potential as the universal franchise and women’s suffrage.
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th September 2020
entertainment, but that’s all it is. Seeing Boris Johnson ritually dismembered in Parliament might
make us feel better, but nothing changes. He still has an 80-seat majority, though only 29% of the electorate voted for
the Conservatives. We are reduced, for five long years, to spectators.
allows the victorious government a mandate to do what it likes between
elections, without further reference to the people. As we have seen, this can
include breaking international law, suspending Parliament,
curtailing the judiciary, politicising the civil service, attacking the Electoral Commission, and invoking royal prerogative powers to make
policy without anyone’s consent. This is not democracy, but a parody of
contrast to our five-yearly vote, capital can respond to government policy
every second, withdrawing its consent with catastrophic consequences if it
doesn’t like its drift. There’s a massive imbalance of power here. The voting
power of capital, with modern trading technologies, has advanced by leaps and
bounds. Electoral power is trapped in the age of the quill pen.
problem, in other words, is not just Boris Johnson. The problem is the UK’s
political system, which presents an open invitation for autocratic behaviour.
In the past, people warned that a ruthless operator could make hay with this
system. Well, that moment has come.
long been part of the problem, refusing to contemplate even a change to our
preposterous first-past-the-post elections, let alone any wider surrender of
power. And it is tragic to watch it now, still playing by the old rules. These
state that a party should not show its hand until a few months before the
election. Well, that’s four years away, and the power grab is happening now. We
urgently need a stirring alternative vision, a call to democratic arms.
Instead, we get forensic dissections of particular government policies:
admirably done, but unmatched to the moment.
like this, old parties flounder. New ideas arise outside the system, and
effective opposition takes place on the street. Of course, this is difficult
now, as there are good public health reasons not to gather in large numbers,
and we can expect the government to exploit them. But civil disobedience is
ever-inventive, constantly developing new tactics in response to attempts to
shut it down.
some of these in Extinction Rebellion’s latest week of protests, and we
saw something else too: its emergence as a broad oppositional movement, taking on the billionaire press, the lobbyists, the
banks and other bastions of power, that are not usually associated with the
extinction and climate crises, but are fundamental to them. From the beginning,
XR has been both an environmental movement and a democracy movement:
participatory politics, in the form of citizens’ assemblies, has been one of
its key demands.
Like the suffragettes and the civil rights movement, it was excoriated for threatening “our way of life”. Almost all democratic
advances, everywhere, have been secured by people who were branded “anarchists”
The democratic and environmental crises have the same roots:
our exclusion, for several years at a time, from meaningful politics. In some
Ireland, Iceland, France, Taiwan, British Columbia, Ontario and several Spanish
and Brazilian cities, a host of fascinating experiments with new democratic
forms has been taking place: constitutional conventions, citizens’ assemblies, community development, digital deliberation, participatory budgeting. They are designed to give people a voice between elections,
tempering representative democracy, allowing them to refine their choices.
The UK pays lip service to these innovations. Last week the
citizens’ assembly on climate, convened by parliament, published its findings. But there are no obvious means by which they can be adopted
by the government. In Scotland, all local authorities allow local people to set
part of their budgets, though so far it’s very
small: just 1% of the money allocated by central government.
Unless the results of participatory democracy can be
translated into policy, and unless it operates at a meaningful scale, it generates cynicism and disillusion. But as the processes in Ireland, Madrid and some Brazilian
cities have shown, when people are allowed to make big and frequent decisions,
the results can be transformative. Alienated, polarised populations come
together to identify and solve their common problems. Democracy becomes a lived
Nowhere has participatory politics yet been allowed to fulfil
its promise. There is no principled or technical reason why the majority of a
municipal or national budget should not be set through public deliberation,
following the techniques pioneered in the Brazilian city of Porto
Alegre. There is no
principled or technical reason why the monthly voting process for improving life in Reykjavík could not be applied at the national level, everywhere. The
call for full-scale participatory democracy is as revolutionary as the call for
the universal franchise was in the 19th Century. What is needed is a
vehicle similar in scale to the Chartist and suffragette movements.
precedents for environmental protests mutating into democratic revolutions:
this is what helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our climate
and extinction crises expose the failures of all quasi-democratic systems, and
the blatant capture of ours by the power of money turns the UK into a global
outrageous, reviled protests we see the beginnings of what could become a 21st
Century democratic revolution. Through his incompetence, callousness and
greed for power, Boris Johnson has done us two favours: exposing the
shallowness of our theatrical democracy, and creating a potential coalition
ranging from hospital porters to Supreme Court judges. Now we must decide how to mobilise it.