Gaia’s Hand

My father has recently told me of the time he was put on a train in London, with his name attached to a cord about his neck, to go to the unknown home of complete strangers in the country.  It was both a terrifying separation and an exciting adventure.  Concerned for the physical safety of children with the threat of bombing attacks during WW11 this was a common experience.

It wasn’t until after the war that children’s welfare came to mean more than protection from bombs, physical safety and nutrition.  Commissioned by the government, John Bowlby conducted research into the psychological effects of maternal deprivation – absence of the mother.  He concluded that long term separation is associated with ‘affectionless psychopathy’ who’d be incapable of meaningful relationships in the future.   Thankfully, my father’s time away from home was kept short.

Bowlby’s work was a great political victory, it paved the way for mothers’ return back into the home.  After their awakening, it was socially dangerous to have them continue to think their place was in society as equally intelligent and physically capable people.  It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Rudolf Schaffer concluded that children did indeed require “mothering”, but it didn’t necessarily have to be the mother or only one person doing it.

Whatever the politics of the books, this new branch of developmental psychology paved the way for a concern with not just the physical welfare of children, but also their emotional.  Parents were blamed for all manner of adult problems.  Obsessive compulsive behaviour was due to harsh potty training.  Anger at the symbolic loss of a parent, let alone the actual loss, was key to clinical depression.  Parental double binds and contradictory messages are sure to have you hearing voices that aren’t there.

My kids must be mother resistant, I can see they are well-adjusted adults.   Although I have no illusions.  I’m sure they share with their nearest and dearest how much I fucked them up.

This concern with emotional development and psychological well-being has given rise to a veritable empire of self-help, life-guru and psychotherapy industries.  And we love it.  We climb up to discover the clutter in our psychic attics, dare to dive into the darkest depths of our psychic cellars and then unblock our chakras, zen our lives, start the day with mantras of positivity, learn it’s alright to feel angry, let it out while finding our voices in a primal scream and go do some shopping therapy to make ourselves feel better – because we DESERVE it.

No we don’t!

In the grand scheme of the vast universe, we’re tiny little creatures with a relatively short life span and the world would be a great deal better off without us.   If we wake up and look around us our world is seriously sick and we are both its cause and its side effect.

We have managed to create a social system that keeps us entirely enslaved to seats in a classroom receiving a one-sided story of how the world was, is and should be.  We’re told we’ve got to get a good job, defer our childhood need for instant gratification for some golden reward in the future: a mortgage, bills, and debt, while the system bleeds as much labour from us as it can.   Stress is the biggest killer of our age, yet we worry about the terrorists, our neighbours, our weight, our appearance, not making the grade, what our colleagues are saying about us because we sure as hell are gossiping about them, cancer, dementia……

And that’s ok, there’s a wealth of products to consume to help us to alleviate all those worries and there’s always a self-help book, psychotherapist or guru to help us deconstruct ourselves and put us back together again.  But why? To continue being happy slaves?  It’s little wonder we need this plethora of healing aids to cure of us.

I’m about to willingly embark on a bout of auto-therapy and engage in a journey of self-discovery and healing and somewhere inside me thinks you’d love to hear about it too.  And I’ll be reading about your personal journeys too.

But what if we change the script?

Our current script has ‘me’ taking centre stage.  But what if the star of the show is ‘we’?  I don’t mean a collection of many individuals, but that the ‘we’ is more than the sum of the individuals it comprises and more important than any ‘me’.

Psychology has itself shifted toward this new gestalt.  The International Congress of Psychology was held in South Africa in 2012.  Papers that presented included titles such as:

  • Mobilising compassionate critical citizenship and psychologies in the service of humanity
  • Psychology: Addressing society’s needs
  • Global developments in the science and practice of peace psychology
  • Psychology in context: A critical approach to social and cultural background of psychological knowledge
  • Community psychology: Theories, methods, communities and ideas

Community psychology by Montero Maritza of Venezuela? I like the sound of that.  What if we changed our journey of discovery from ‘all about Eve’ (the ‘me’) to ‘all about Gaia’ (the personification of interconnectedness).

For the next reflective challenge that I undertake (it starts September 20th, so some of you know the challenge I’m referring to), I am going to attempt to write with her hand.   As I have no idea what I’ve let myself in for, it’s going to be interesting finding a new voice to do it in.


This morning I read and was exposed to several ideas that are RESPONSIBLE for the above post!  Many thanks to the following:

Calen for providing the challenges (my individual psychology rant aside, I do know how valuable it is to engage in self-analysis and embark on a journey of self-discovery. It can be readily seen in the insights that people have in their responses).  Which brings me to:

Spiritual Dragonfly (who has most definitely grown and developed in response to Calen’s challenges)

Raili (who presented a challenge to look beyond ourselves to our friendships)

Pachamama Alliance (for their game changing course – section on stories).

Featured Image: Okan Çalışkan (





Towns in Transition

Let’s assume, despite those who would still argue otherwise, that climate change is real and people did and do have a part to play in it.

Let’s also assume, despite those who would still argue otherwise, that peak oil is real and we can’t keep using fossil fuels.  (Video below best viewed from 1:45.)

Here’s a worrying fact:

According to wikipedia, in 2013, world production of maize was 1, 016 million tones, rice, 745 million tones and wheat 713 million tons and increasing.  Given industrialised agriculture is not kind to soils, that means an awful lot of fertiliser.

And guess what? Industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on oil.  Wheat alone is grown on more than 218 million hectares of land.  Then there’s the oil used in food processing, packaging and transportation.  That’s a lot of oil. And I’ve probably only scratched the surface.

Peak oil threatens food security and according to researchers Henk-Jan Brinkman and Cullen S. Hendix, food insecurity is a threat and multiplier for violent conflict.

I’m not painting a very pretty picture.

But that doesn’t mean that we should bury our head in the sand.  The problem isn’t going to go away and political strategy has failed to address the issue.

So why wait?

The Transition Town Movement began in the once little known town of Totnes, Devon in the sunnier part of England.  It is a “dynamic, community-led and run charity that exists to strengthen the local economy, reduce the cost of living and build resilience for a future with less cheap energy and a changing climate”.   It now operates in more more than 850 towns across the globe.  In Totnes, 500 homes have reduced carbon emissions and water used, saving on average about £750 a year per household.  Lewes in Sussex has it own community-owned solar power station.  The more infamous area of Brixton in London has raised sufficient funds for its own.  These towns also adopt their own currencies to encourage local buying and support for local businesses.  They are creating local jobs, avoiding long commutes to the country’s financial centre.  They work on inner transition too, helping deal with stress and health.

And politicians are taking note – Rob Hopkin’s book “Transition Handbook” ranked 5 in MPs summer reading.  Yet, the movement has created more significant change in a short space of time than our government or the European parliament will before their 2020 targets, even though they’ve read the book.

At the moment I’m looking for a place to rent temporarily in Spain for the winter.  In Galicia there’s a very cheap rental, with some land included, which you can develop if you wish.  It’s a stone cottage, and its interior is beautifully crafted in wood, including a bedroom made to look like the cabin of an old wooden ship.  It’s beautifully set in an agricultural and forest landscape.  Not far from a small town, it isn’t isolate and there is a convenient bus service to the nearest city.  I emailed the owner in my best Spanish and received a reply.

The home is obviously loved.  The owner simply wants someone to live in it and look after it, because,  for work, he is divided between Madrid and Malaga, distances of 500 and 1000 km respectively.  His experience tells of a sad story in Galicia, where whole village are for sale, as the younger generation have had to move to the cities for work and the buildings are exposed to the elements and beginning to crumble.  Communities, their histories and their culture are dying.  Galicia isn’t alone.  The story is widely and globally told.

The Transition Town Movement offers hope to those that still survive.  Perhaps local people will be able to remain in the homes they own, the homes they love and benefit from an income they do not have to travel for?

And if you don’t have a home – make use of what there is:







Love Under Will: An Anarchist’s Heart

  • Which country’s people are the most charitable in terms of donating money?
  • Which country’s people are the most charitable in terms of giving their time to help others?
  • Which country’s government donates the most to international aid?
  • Which country’s government donates the largest proportion of its budget to international aid?

One particular Guardian article by Aditya Chakraborrty has been running around in my mind since I read it earlier in the week.  Whilst I have previously deplored our new Prime Minister’s (Theresa May) Cabinet choices,  this article drew attention to one I’d overlooked.  Priti Patel is the International Development Secretary.  For those unfamiliar with British politics, she is known for her strident right-wing views and more importantly in this context, was highly critical of one of David Cameron’s most proud achievements: 70p in every £100 of taxpayers’ money is aid that is given to poorer countries.

We need to be careful about readily applauding apparent charitable aid from a country’s government.  Much international development aid goes to what are known as Bric countries, a term that was coined by an economist with Goldman Sachs.  It is an acronym that represents the economically developing countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China.  Anyone who has visited any of these countries will be able to account for the extent of poverty within them.  However, the money is not always used to support health, sanitary, education and emergency relief projects as the tax payer might expect, but more to support the economic growth of the country.  It could be argued that a trickle down effect occurs, whereby the economic growth of the country enables it to develop its own systems that address poverty.  But as recent history tells us, economic growth only creates an elite group of incredibly rich people whose power undermines democratic processes.   Poverty can be readily witnessed in the UK, indeed a recent visit to a former home provided testament to that.  Aid can also be argued to create dependency rather than confronting the issues that caused it.  However, that suggests we need to consider the direction of the flow of aid and its use, rather than argue that it should be arrested.

The UK’s 0.7% of aid is being used for emergency relief for Syrians, funds education projects and healthcare for mothers and children where it is most needed.  It would be a travesty if Patel were to consider undermining this political achievement.

How did you do with the questions?

According the CAF World Giving Index (2015), some of the world’s most generous countries are some of the most deprived.  Myanmar ranked the most charitable.  Sri Lanka ranks second in giving up time to help others.  The US ranked first place for donating money in 2014, but this was only 0.19% of its national income.  In 2015, it now ranks second place.  The United Arab Emirates was the most generous as a percentage of its national income.  Out of the G-20 countries, only 5 feature in the top 20 most generous.

The Social Nature of Humans

If we put the inequitable distribution aside, the figures show that there is a great deal of human will to help others in a variety of forms.  Underlying the survey is the sense that human nature isn’t as negative as many philosophers in the past have argued.

There are two stories from events yesterday that illustrate this.  In Italy, there has been an earthquake with a resultant death toll of nearly 250 and rising.  One of the features of the coverage is the extent of help in uncovering trapped victims and the joy that is exhibited when someone is alive.  This isn’t necessarily from the family and neighbours, but from complete strangers.  In England, bystanders pulled victims of a rip tide from the water.  Unfortunately, they were unable to help them.

Yesterday evening, my partner told me about a chapter in the book he is reading – an adventure biker’s autobiography, where after a very serious accident, complete strangers faced a potentially dangerous situation and also gave up all their water to help see him to a hospital.  The accident happened in the Sahara.  Another stranger provided him with accommodation to recuperate from his injuries.  Another charged $70 dollars for a $500 repair to his bike.

You’ll probably be able to give many instances of your own and if we compiled them for an alien species to witness, their view of human nature might be more positive than the one we seem to hold of ourselves.  The one where we believe are an aggressive, competitive, greedy and selfish species that needs controlling and policing to be kept in order.

How did this come to be?

It could be argued that it originated with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).  Hobbes asserted that if we lived in a state of nature, i.e. without government, we would live in a state of war.   Government is necessary to constrain human nature to secure peace which is more important than liberty.   A succinct audio summary is provided below:

A History of Political Thought: Thomas Hobbes

Similarly, John Locke (1632-1704) argued that humans have three essential rights – life, liberty and property.  To protect these, we’ll happily enter into a social contract with the government to ensure our rights are protected, as human nature is essentially selfish.  This contract means that we are duty bound to the government that secures these.

A History of Political Thought: John Locke

Further fuel was added to this pessimistic view of human nature by Charles Darwin (1859).  He proposed:

“….the most potent force in the evolution of the animal world and of human societies is the struggle for existence within the species which procures the survival of the fittest and thus ensures the progress of the race.”  Darwin cited in Riggenback (2011).  Emphasis my own.

The culmination of this thinking has deprived us of the right to live in a state of nature.  However, if you change your view of human nature, is government needed?

The anarchist thinker, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), (strangely missing from the BBC’s History of Political Thought and the UK’s Government and Politics curriculum) indeed challenged these assumptions.

Commencing his career as a geographer and zoologist, he claimed, although he looked for it, no evidence existed for animals struggling against each other within the same species.   In fact, his findings suggested the opposite, evolutionary success is facilitated by mutual aid and mutual support.  Likewise humans.

Humans are essentially social creatures.  There is a large body of evidence in the field of psychology which shows that newborn infants demonstrate an attentional preference for human and human-like faces over other stimuli (at least under controlled laboratory conditions).  There is also evidence of early mimicry of human facial expressions.  This suggests a predisposition to sociality.  This predisposition (if valid) would indicate that sociality is an important evolutionary trait that ensures human survival.

“No man is an island.”

If we could argue that humans in a state of nature are social, supportive and willing to provide mutual aid rather than steal from, fight and kill each other, then it is possible to propose that people don’t need to be protected from each other, they can live in complete freedom – without the constraints of government.

Developing Kropotkin’s ideas, the American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin (1921- 2006) compared the evolution of societies to evolution in nature.  Nature thrives best when not controlled, not interfered with and is left to evolve without constraint.  Allan Savoury’s work (I’ve mentioned him before) has illustrated how allowing free grazing of animals  has better helped the regeneration of the African plains than the culling of grazing animals.  Bookchin believed this was also true for humans.  Left alone, without the constraints of government they would flourish and progress.

“The ecologist, insofar as he is more than a technician, tends to reject the notion of “power over nature.” He speaks, instead, of “steering” his way through an ecological situation, of managing rather than recreating an ecosystem. The anarchist, in turn, speaks in terms of social spontaneity, of releasing the potentialities of people. Both, in their own way, regard authority as inhibitory, as a weight limiting the creative potential of a natural and social situation. Their object is not to rule a domain, but to release it.” Bookchin cited in Riggenbach (2011).

I recently watched a documentary based on an experimental community for the period of a year.  Their intent merely to live more simply.

Whilst I didn’t find the documentary as satisfying as I hoped (I may provide a review later), I was struck with how the participants often reflected on the creativity they needed to solve both the physical and social problems they encountered.  And they were not born into a community with an a-priori set of operational values and norms.  Conflict resolution is what they strived for, not further antagonism.  In an off-grid state, they worked hard to help, provide mutual aid and mutual support.

“If you want to help, no one will stop you.”  Barbara Branden, cited in Riggenbach (2011)

But don’t you get the feeling that we’re constrained from giving meaningful help when governed?


Thank you for reading my rant and continued exploration of a political theory for the future.



Aditya Chakrabortty (2016)

The Statistics Portal (accessed 25-08-2016)

CAF World Giving Index (accessed 25-08-2016)

Anna Isaac (2015)

Naomi Larsson (2015)

Frank, M.C., Vul. E. & Johnson, S.P. (2010)

Jeff Riggenbach (2011)

Our political future?

A little bit of serendipity today sent me to my spam folder and I discovered a detailed response to Love Under Will: Explorations in Participation.

Mark Rodgers has suggested a more participatory system of government for Ireland.  And summarised his position as follows:

“I hear your frustration with the current system so I show below my thoughts on a new form of democracy. I’d welcome your thoughts!

The Future
We are now moving into an era when technology can transform the way people are governed and can offer an avenue for the government of the day to connect directly with the people they govern. It will bring true democracy down to the roots of democracy, the ordinary person. Everyone has a voice and a vote.

Dispense with full time politicians and parliaments except for those who make up the Government of the day. They will act as a caretaker government who will facilitate the creation of the new system.

Introduce a Peoples Assembly that is a forum for the debate of policies before we, the people vote. Those attending will be people with interest in the policies being voted on that week. The assembly is televised and streamed live on the internet. Anyone can attend with a weeks notice. The Assembly can move around the country. I envisage that it will be a continuously changing population that will attend as the topics being voted on will vary wildly week from week.

Place policy decision making in the direct hands of the people who will vote via unique electronic voting cards (similar to bank cards) once a week on matters of policy only. People may vote online, by phone or via email/ post. For better or worse the people will decide if they wish to allow, for example, abortion, property tax without regard to ability to pay, water taxes, stay in the EU, cancelling public service giant pensions etc.

Policy details are worked out by the Civil Servants who meet with interested parties to thrash the finer details.

The Government will be a suite of ministers appointed annually by the people to carry out the policies passed in the People Assembly. It is largely a position of honour and ministers will be modestly remunerated for that year and will return to being ordinary citizens at the end of their term of office. These minister’s employers will have undertaken to keep their jobs open for them to return to at the end of their year in office.
Your thoughts?”

As my ‘thoughts’ were somewhat lengthy, I decided to write a post instead by way of responding.

Hi Mark,

Sorry that I didn’t reply earlier to your request.  Your comment went to my spam folder, and it only by chance that I found it.  It is a detailed response and therefore, highly deserving of reply.

As you’ll see in the follow up post, I am a fan of participatory democracy and have begun the process of presenting a case.  I acknowledge the use of technology to facilitate the process of more direct democracy.  The success of the internet in engaging individuals in political issues is witnessed in the success of Avaaz campaigns and other NGO activity.

However, I do have some concerns about this as the only forum for a new system.  As Carne Ross proposed, signing a petition isn’t going to bring about real change.  Research into attitude and behaviour change has shown that just because you believe water to be a valuable resource, and you sign a petition for better water management, doesn’t mean that you’ll stop washing your car/windows/driveway with high pressure cleaners nor start using your grey water to sprinkle the lawn.  I would have a preference for face to face assemblies on a three tiered basis:

  1. Local Assemblies on local issues with local money.  Participatory budgeting initiatives have shown that engagement can be high, and that in seeing your neighbour is worse off than you, more equitable solutions are created.  The community benefits as a whole rather than the 1% served at the moment by the current system.  Also, face to face discussion becomes practical rather than a rhetorical game.  It is more efficient.  The Transition Town movement is also evidence of the success of local democracy.
  2. Regional assemblies with delegates from each local area.  Delegates, not representatives – there is a difference.  Priorities for the region can then be established.  Delegates report back at local assemblies.
  3. National assemblies with delegates from each region.  National priorities can then be established.

Each tier would have its own ‘Caretakers’, elected by the people – I liked the term you used here.  Those who are responsible for implementation.  You suggested annual elections, but I think this may be too often.  The implementation of priority projects would be subject to feasibility studies, tenders, contracts, and the actual building work.  This is likely to take longer than a year, and a caretaker might unfairly be unelected as the project was completed within the year the electorate have given.  A take over administration would also suffer through being unfamiliar with the demands of the projects that require completion.  I’d suggest a three year cycle.  However, I do agree there would be increased accountability.

Another reason why I have a preference for face to face meetings is that the issues are more pertinent and directly experienced by those who attend.  This could be termed as a form of NIMBYism (not in my backyard), but Nimby campaigners often turn from a local issue to having a lifelong commitment to the issue on a more global scale.  E.g. I’m not having a fracking station in my back yard – learn more about energy issues – and no – there are much better solutions than fracking for the entire world – not in anyone’s back yard.  Additionally, political scientists have commented on the phenomenon of ‘voter fatigue’.  There are so many issues and so many votes, that we either disengage, or vote without taking ownership of that vote.  Lack of ownership was evident in the Brexit saga, when those who voted to exit said they didn’t really mean it afterwards.  In local forums, the need to take ownership for decision-making would be more important as you can witness its effects directly. It’s hard to complain about parking outside your house when your neighbour has no sewage facilities.

Finally, there is nothing more empowering than being able to put up your hand at a meeting, air your concern and be listened to.  Witness the support you and/or others have, then be able to take a stand and make that vote.  To me, that is truly participatory democracy.

In response to my own response, I do have an issue with political boundaries.  In a state of nature, land belongs to everyone.  I’ve yet to reconcile this into a political method.  I think a theory for the future needs to address land tenure.  I would love to see a stateless society, which is incompatible with a three tiered suggestion I have proposed above.  It may develop as we explore this further.  A second thorny issue that needs to addressed, but is avoided in discussion is that of population control.  It is unsustainable and nature has been trying her best to cull us.  I don’t mean a return of the eugenics movement, but it DOES need to be addressed.  I have been playing around with one or two ideas that I will return to – but am interested in your thoughts too.  I believe it is important that we have these conversations.

I’d like to thank Mark for jumping in.  It’s certainly helped to make my rusty cogs whirr more freely.

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.

Love Under Will: Explorations in Participation

Michael Moore once stated that “democracy isn’t a spectator sport, it’s a participatory event.  If we don’t participate in it, then it ceases to be a democracy.”

“Democracy isn’t a spectator sport, it’s a participatory event.  If we don’t participate in it, then it ceases to be a democracy.” ( M.  Moore)

In many western democracies, the citizenship is estranged from the oligarchy that purports to represent it.  Occasionally, the people are offered the opportunity to participate in a major decision, a recent example being the Brexit referendum in the UK.  But about 30% of those eligible to vote didn’t, and of the 52% that did vote for exit, many changed their minds afterwards.  It could also be argued that since the current government intend to honour the decision, despite many questions over the legality of the referendum,  a (small) tyrannical majority has just undermined the needs of the country, including those of its neighbours.

A similar example was the UK’s referendum to change its voting system from ‘first past the post’ to a more pluralist system.  The outcome was no change, but after the results of the next general election where the flaws of the first past the post system became evident, those who had opted for the long established system changed their minds.

“There are times when the majority opinion turns out to not be just.” (J.S. Mill)

What is required for a fully participatory democracy is a fully informed citizenship.  The rare referenda we are offered however, have become a stage for a clash of personalities and rhetoric, leaving the public to place their cross on the basis of emotion rather than reason, an insidious manipulation.

However, liberal philosophers have argued that participatory democracy is an educative process and one that leads to human and social development.  If there is no arena for debate, then how can the truth of a particular position be questioned and shown to be a falsehood?  Democracy helps truth to emerge.  John Dewey argued that participatory democracy offers the best culture for expressing one’s own talents and life purpose and therefore enables individual growth and realisation.

“Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  (J.S. Mill)

Participatory democracy is a process of collective decision making.   Citizens decide on policy and politicians are responsible for policy implementation. Politicians are highly accountable.   Discretionary actions are severely constrained and their performance is judged by comparing citizens’ proposals with the policies actually implemented.   Ability to affect outcomes is positively correlated with a citizen’s extent of participation.  Modern democracies are fundamentally based on relations of rule, whereas participatory systems are based on relations of equality (Arendt).  Hannah Arendt advocates citizenship councils to replace representative party systems.

To make my own case for a more radical democracy, I will present a few case studies of local participatory democracy, commencing with the well-documented participatory budgeting initiative of Porto Alegre, Brazil.  Here’s a snippet to wet your appetite for the next post:


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