Partial transcript: Democracy and Liberty

Below is a selection of talks from the Democracy and Liberty session.

Neil Jameson: If you are in an institution or an association in London, join us!  We are a membership organisation, and if you are not in London, or don’t want to join us – that’s OK – give us some money! Organised people and organised money is what helps the world go around and it is what politics is. We citizens are not very good at organising. We are very good at angst and worrying about things, but often when we try to come together with a common plan, it is a little frustrating. But it is possible, so I suppose I bring a message of hope and evidence that people will organise if you work slowly and around their interests. These, of course, are not necessarily the issues that have brought us here today. One of the negative things about community organising I guess is that when you ask people on the streets what they are worried about, the answer tends not to be the threat to their liberties. It tends to be the dirty street, the street lights that don’t work. And that is where we start with community organising – where people are at. Then you can get more and more ambitious. 

In the last twenty years we have got more ambitious in organising and we are now fighting a whole series of campaigns which are built around our people’s interests. Our people are our members, and membership is important. We don’t pretend to solve all the problems or fight every campaign under the sun. In fact we try to be very discerning in the campaigns we fight: we only go for winnable campaigns. That may feel for many people who are here and like myself a liberal a funny thing to do, but we think people grow through winnable actions. They don’t grow by losing things. That’s a lesson the left hasn’t learnt well over the years. So, London Citizens is also very keen on democracy, at least the real interpretation of the Greek word democrazia which means people power. Our experience is that the least successful way of changing things is voting. Voting is alright: it has its place. But frankly if that’s all they offer us, what is the point? We think it is  very important to get involved on a daily basis and to try and shape the communities you are in which is why our community organising actually offers people a daily invitation for action – a daily invitation for meaning – a daily invitation for ‘voice’. All of that is possible if you organise in a sophisticated way. 

On April 9 last year, there was an assembly in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster – a hall with a great tradition of bringing people together. We organised two and a half thousand people into that hall that night. It took us six months of democratic activity starting with a listening exercise amongst our members: the question was, What do you want to say to the next mayor of London?  We organise what sociologists call, ‘anchor institutions’. If you want to organise London, look at where people gather. We go to places which people respect and also pay money to go to. That’s very important, and whether you like it or not today this means faith institutions, perhaps trades unions although they are not very strong these days, students unions if they want to be included, schools and community associations. We are now an alliance of these, and that alliance allows us to be powerful. 

Another mantra of community organising with which Barack Obama would concur is ‘Power before programme.’ It has taken me twenty years to understand that this is very important: if you haven’t got any power, why start the programme? Build power first. We have spent several years building this power base which is now a hundred and twenty institutions strong across London. This power base is the democratic machine which allows us by consent, by voting, to develop the campaigns. When there is an election coming along, we take that very seriously, because we know we can influence it. Not just by voting. But by gathering large numbers of people into a room with their own agenda, to put to the candidates, with the media there. We ask the politicians to respond to the people’s agenda. That’s what politics used to be. We have slipped back, and now think that it is all about the candidates coming with their agenda to get our vote. What London Citizens has managed to do now on a fairly consistent basis is to fill rooms. Whoever fills a room, wins the debate in many cases. It’s slightly dangerous, but that is our experience. Providing these people are organised together using democracy, and as long as the Muslims are there, the trade unionists are there, the Christians are there and the secular folk are there – that’s what people power is. 

The night in question started with a fantastic headline in The Independent for us, which said, ‘Amnesty Now!’ All four mayoral candidates agreed to support our campaign called, ‘Strangers into Citizens’ which would allow longterm irregular migrants an amnesty to stay there. Fantastic. Boris Johnson signed up. Ken Livingstone already supported our campaign. That issue of what to do about the longterm irregular migrants is one that we feel passionate about, because they are in our communities. We know them. They are our members and we fight for them, And it’s very important that the media covered this.  The other significant thing about that night was that the room was packed with ordinary folk from east London and south London and west London, and some from north London. And they all knew why they were there because they owned the agenda, an agenda that had put together very carefully over a long process of voting, negotiating and bartering over the issues to end up with five issues for the candidates to respond to, all of which were winnable. Some were ambitious, one or two really small. We had lots of young people there, who really enjoy this form of democracy, because they can get their hands on the process and they can see it happening. The panel was made up not of celebrities or media people, but ordinary people who are able to do this, who called forward the candidates and said to them, “  If elected, Ken Livingstone, will you do a,b,c,and d.” He has had the issues to look at beforehand. There are no surprises on the night, no unprepared questions from the floor, no eccentrics leaping up on their own hobby horse issue, because two and half thousand people have already agreed the agenda beforehand and all the questions and discussion have already happened elsewhere. 

Then we called for Boris Johnson and we said, “Mr.Johnson, if elected, will you set a living wage for London, will you pay the living wage for London, will you be the champion for the living wage, will you only put people into hotels that have the living wage? You have one minute to answer this, Mr.Johnson and you should primarily say, yes, no or maybe. And Mr.Johnson said , “yes’. In July, the Conservative mayor announced his new living wage for London, set at 7.45. You will have read about that. What is not normally told is the story of how that happened, and that’s the problem. People who interpret history all too often ignore us – the dockers, the workers, the fighters, the suffragettes, the women who made this happen – who throughout history eventually get to Westminster. So don’t put your faith in Westminster, Strasbourg or wherever – we have the power to make things happen. Is Boris Johnson only suing the hotels that pay a living wage? No, he’s not. That doesn’t mean to say that the whole process is flawed. We then just increase the pressure and step up the campaign outside his office to remind him of these promises. 

You may remember that we have the Olympics coming to London in 2012, which felt like a good idea at the time! It is interesting how these things go pear-shaped. As an organisation, London Citizens were well-organised in 2004 and ready for this opportunity. The IOC were sending people to check out whether London was enthusiastic. The Parisians were very keen, but Londoners were very cynical about the Olympics. So we worked out in our power analysis that the powers-that-be really needed East Londoners to do some flag-waving. The only thing we had in our power in East London was the ability to look negative. And we agreed to do this on certain conditions. We said, we won’t wave any flags unless we get living wage jobs on the Olympic site, a construction training academy immediately, money going into hospitals and the health service through Section 106 agreements. We managed to withhold our consent to the point of having big assemblies, lobbying Seb Coe and Ken Livingstone, until two weeks before the decision we had a letter signed saying that this would be the first ethical Olympics – living wage jobs and so forth, and that the land for housing that would be allocated after the Olympics would be for family housing for the five boroughs that were putting up with the building damage that was going on. That was signed, and we were in Trafalgar square when it was announced, much to our surprise that London had got the Olympics. With the help of our students we had been practising our congratulations in French and how to say how pleased we were for Paris: but we had won. We cheered more than anybody because we knew we had a deal. 

Has that deal been met? It has in most cases. The Olympic Delivery Authority deserve some applause instead of the constant rubbishing they seem to get. All the jobs there are paid a living wage and we monitor that. The construction training academy has opened. The section 106 agreement will go into schools. Will the housing be there? It’s looking very doubtful. There is a consultation process going on now where we are lobbying constantly for them to stick to the original promise. But the way the markets are going at the moment, it doesn’t look good. But that isn’t an argument against organising and we will just continue to organise. If you organise you can occupy, do petitions, lobby and fill rooms. This is a long way of saying – organise!

Ivo Mosely: Sortition had a much easier name for two thousand years up to 1800 – its name was democracy. The method of government that we adopted instead is called electoral representation. In the whole tradition leading up to 1800, electoral representation was regarded as an oligarchic or aristocratic or elitist form of government. Democracy was a participatory form of government. 

I want to ask the question: how have governments in the western world got away with calling themselves democracies for so long? If you feel our system isn’t very democratic you have two thousand years of tradition on your side. Before 1800, democracy meant that political assemblies and political officials were chosen by lot from among the citizens, much as juries are chosen today. And government in a democracy consisted of citizens taking up their every day lives for fixed periods in doing their duty, just like jury service, except they decided on law and policy too. The difference between democracy and electoral representation is significant. Electoral representation brings with it professional politicians and political parties whose interests and objectives are bound to be partial, favouring one interest or another. Democracy means that government is conducted directly by the people, presumably in their common interests.  

So how did it happen around 1800 that people began to think that electoral representation was a form of democracy? My story begins with the revolutionists who liberated the United States from British rule: Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson to name the most prominent. Having won the War of Independence, they designed a self-consciously elitist system of government that effectively entrusted power to themselves. Four of those five names became President and the fifth was killed in a duel. The Founding Fathers made no bones about it. They did not think ordinary people should be given power. In fact they were very rude about democracy, which like everyone else they understood to mean assemblies chosen by lot. Here are some sample sentences from their published writings: 

Madison wrote, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of  turbulence and contention an have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” 

John Adams wrote, “Democracy wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” 

Jefferson thought democracy was ‘impractical at any rate beyond the limits of a town.” 

Benjamin Franklin is credited, perhaps wrongly, though it is not out of character with the sentence, “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.” 

So the system that the Founding Fathers wanted and designed was republican. In Jefferson’s words, “Power will be entrusted to a natural aristocracy, the most talented and virtuous, replacing the old artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth.” 

What elections would give was the right to choose who those natural aristocrats should be. In Madison’s words, “Public opinion would be refined and enlarged by passing it through the medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” To the disappointment of many after the ratification of the US constitution, politics was dominated not so much by superior individuals as by strong political parties representing not the shared interests of citizens as powerful embodied interests. The fault lines were already apparent that would result in the civil war: one party representing the industrial north, and the other party the agricultural, slave-owning south.  

The significant crisis during which democracy changed from being a dirty word to a badge worn with pride came just after the 1800 presidential elections.  The electoral college was in deadlock over who would be the next president and rival state militias were converging on Washington to claim the presidency for their party. Jefferson, the republican candidate had the larger share of the popular vote, and his supporters claimed that the will of the people should prevail even though a lot of his votes were based on slaves who had no vote, but their masters voted for them. Jefferson became president and civil war was averted. Meanwhile, it had become apparent that there was a strong, potentially overwhelming demand among Americans for democracy. Not as a system as such. They were ignorant of the political system because only the educated elite knew the history of democracy. But they had a feeling that the people should be in charge of their own destiny. Jefferson referred to his victory as “ the revolution of 1800”. In his words, “ the nation had declared its will by dismissing functionaries of one principle and electing those of another.” The new democratic principle was recognised when Jefferson’s party changed its name to the Democratic Republican Party. In 1809 Elias Smith proclaimed, “My friends, let us never be ashamed of democracy!” 

So, the reinvention of electoral representation as a form of democracy took place not in theory but in the sphere of practical politics. Jacob Burckhardt put it best: “The experience of revolution was that public opinion forms and transforms the world. The traditional powers, too weak to prevent it, began making deals with individual currents in the stream of public opinion.” And that as Rudyard Kipling might say, was how democracy came to mean its opposite, as if by shaving a dog and feeding it oats you could believe it was a horse.  Now this new and powerful reality has never been justified in theory for one very good reason – it is impossible. To argue that rule by elected party officials was a form of democracy when there was perfectly good form of democracy and participation in hand was a non-starter. As the historian Bernard Manning writes, “ The best anyone has ever done is to summon up the old aristocratic theory of consent and maintained that by voting in elections once every few years, the people signify its consent to be so governed.” 

Well, true democracy of course needs no such theory. Citizens are rulers on one day and ruled over by their fellow citizens the next.  After all this, you may say history is irrelevant, and so what? Today when we say democracy we mean electoral representation! I think it is important to recognise that electoral representation is essentially undemocratic. First, it helps us understand the world we live in today. It explains how power becomes unaccountable. Suddenly we can understand why western governments are pursuing policies that could destroy the planet, unpopular wars, why governments give bankers free range to bankrupt their nation, why welfare is deflected away from the truly needy towards those who might vote, how things get transformed into the opposite of what they should be. But secondly it gives us hope for the future. Democracy is an untried adventure in the modern history of the west. How many British people know that democracy has worked in a variety of ways and at different levels often alongside electoral representation, as at different times in Athens, in Florence and in Venice. 

Government is imposed willy nilly on us and lives off us. It is inherently parasitical. However, by taking over responsibility for health, education welfare, business and a host of other functions that used to be a matter for society, government has now become something different and worse. It has invaded the organs of society, swelling them into huge state apparatuses in which it is harder and harder for professionals to carry out their duties. Guidelines, constant supervision, form-filling, quota and target-meeting and so on mean that administrators, consultants and state employees make good livings while people’s needs are not met.  Government has become a cancer. Democracy and freedom are candles in our darkness. If we recover their meanings we can begin to recover their practise. It is time to reintroduce some true democracy into our perilously top-heavy civilisation.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply