Leaderless Revolution

Representative democracy is failing.  Capitalism is suffering a crisis of legitimacy.  The 99% will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.  It is time for new politics and a new politics is emerging.

Carne Ross, who I introduced you to in the last post, has named it as a Leaderless Revolution of participatory democracy and his analysis proposes 9 principles that would not only bring this change about, but would also ensure that it works.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, he summarises these principles as follows:

  1. Excavate your convictions: Know what it is that you care about as this will give you the momentum to undertake the long journey needed in order to address it.
  2. Who has the money and who’s got the gun?  This principle is an analytic one.  Who has the power over the issue that concerns you?
  3. Act as if the means are the end:  The ends do not justify the means.  The ends decide the means.  Violence to create a political end only promotes violence for the future.  The goal you want should be reflected in your political process.  If you want an inclusive society, then you need to have inclusive democratic processes.
  4. Refer to the cosmopolitan criteria:  In any political movement, it should never be assumed that you know what others want.  They need to be asked.  They will tell you.
  5. Address those suffering the most:  No-one can know what makes people happy, but suffering is much more measurable.  Addressing suffering is easier than trying to make people happier and actually takes very little.
  6. Consult and negotiate: If you exclude people from the table with a vested interest in the interest, the resulting agreements won’t work.  I remember how Northern Ireland talks failed until Sinn Fein was invited to the table.
  7. Big picture, little deeds: We face overwhelming problems and have overwhelming goals for change, but if you do one small thing everyday and every one does that, change will happen.
  8. Use non-violence:  This isn’t pacificism, nor is about doing nothing.  There are very powerful non-violent means for changing society.  History provides many examples.
  9. Kill the king: It is hard to change things and it takes more than signing an online petition.  Instead, he uses the analogy of chess.  To win the game, you need to keep your focus on taking the opponent’s king.  The focus on the goal is vital for success.

“Now is the time to move from words and protest to action to actually build new systems that embody these values. That is the most powerful form of political change.” (Carne Ross)

Several years ago, I lived on a rather notorious social housing estate, with high rates of unemployment, crime and drug and alcohol abuse.  As part of the European funding to regenerate poorer regions in the UK, the estate received a sum of money to revive it.  There was some consultation about how the money would be spent.

The residents received modernised homes.  They were given a restricted choice of decor as a form of compensation for the stress of  still occupying the building site that your home became.  The estate was divided into four parts and each given an name.  The areas were delineated by the colours of the fences that bordered everyone’s home.  This would provide the residents with a sense of identity.  Some of the green space was dedicated to an ecological education centre.  It was built on top of an old mine and soon had to be closed due to toxic gases in the building.   Artists worked with local school children to create murals so that they’d be disincentivised from defacing buildings with graffiti later in their lives.

However, during consultation, the residents asked for one thing, something that would change the quality of their children’s lives: a public swimming pool.

Unsurprisingly, the project did little to address the issues experienced by the residents.  New jobs created were occupied by the educated middle class from outside the city.  It only served to increase disaffection.  Imagine if they’d been given the chance to engage in some participatory budgeting, how different a world they might occupy now?

Porto Alegre, Brazil, has a population of 1.5 million.  In 1989, the newly elected Workers’ party changed the way that the city would be governed.  They shifted power from politicians to citizens, giving them control over the allocation of the city’s budget.  The impact has been immense.  The citizens operated from the basis of the fifth of the principles and address the concerns of those who were most suffering.  Access to sewers doubled from 46 – 95%.  Tax evasion fells, as people witnessed how their money was being spent (Guardian, 2012).

The system, Orçamento Participativo (OP) has three hierarchical elements.

  1. Regional and thematic assemblies, known as rodadas take place in each of the 16 regions of the city.  Prior to the rodada, preparatory meetings are organised by the community.  These and the rodadas are open to any citizen.  The purpose of a rodada is to define the region’s priorities and demands, the election of delegates and councillors and the public scrutiny of municipal government.  Discussions at the rodadas focus on setting a consensual rank of priorities for each region and a hierarchical list of demands.
  2. Fora of Delegates.  Made up of approximately 1000 delegates from 16 regions, these act as intermediaries between the Council and citizens.
  3. Council of the OP  is responsible for the design and submission to the city government a detailed proposal based on the priorities determined at the regional assemblies and monitors the implementation of the plan.

Aragonès & Sánchez-Pagés, in their study of the initiative, suggested that there are three key benefits of the system.  Firstly, Porto Alegre is an example of improved behaviour of elected representatives.  Politicians face a far more informed electorate, a rise in grass-roots activity and experience a greater accountability.  This has reduced corruption and patronage in the city.  Secondly, citizens are highly engaged.  Participation is high and increasing, even among the city’s poor and less educated.  Thirdly, there is a high level of income redistribution.  Similar benefits have been reported elsewhere.

Of course, participatory democracy isn’t without its problems.  Wood and Murray (2007) reported that resistance in the form of hostile media and from the economic elite plagued both the participatory budgeting of Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte.  The cities also occupy the broader political context of Brazil, and municipal authorities are prohibited from developing land that is occupied illegally.  Land tenure is important for success in the process.  This means that the very poorest sector of the city is neglected.  The bureaucracy of implementation has also meant that building projects are often very slow.  Finally, not everyone participates.  Middle class and the lowest socio-economic areas are underrepresented in the process.

The system is most successful where there has been a local history of grass-roots activism.  The existing civic culture is one of many variables identified that affects the success of participatory budgeting.    System change requires narratives, or a mythos that is very different to that which is ingrained within us.   But we have the capacity to do so.  How far we have come since the British media were reporting on the brainless beauties making their way from the swimming pool to the voting booth shortly after women’s emancipation was achieved!   How long will it be before our narratives shift from party politics to participatory politics?

This post is a response to the challenge presented in Love Under Will.  Feel free to join in!

*The featured image represents Thomas D. Seeley’s thesis that bee colonies are democratic organisations, the queen being little more than an egg laying machine.


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