Welcome to Starting Monday - my musing over the last week of busyness, and what leads it gives me for the next seven.
This was mostly a week of meeting people about democratic innovation, in my role as co-initiator of The Alternative UK, in places like London and Devon.
The London I’m seeing at the moment feels a bit like those scenes in the recent Raoul Peck movie about The Young Marx. The scene is of dimly-lit meeting rooms (and sometimes media-making spaces), provided cheap or free by organisations who aren’t entirely focussed on the bottom line, filled with freelancers who bring their commercial expertise to bear on how to revive activism and democracy.
(There are even a very few Engels’ types around, spending their excess - or more often, granting use of their spaces - to support whatever this radicalism might be).
These are the exemplars of what Paul Mason calls the “educated, networked individuals” who are the new shapers of history - quite different from the working classes of the 19th and 20th century, that the left still imagines is the driving force of change. As Paul says in this recent essay,
the proletariat has been replaced as the historical subject by a more diffuse, behaviourally-identified layer of people. [They are] not defined by their role in production but also by consumption, culture, attitude and ideas…We can’t hope to describe them adequately in a framework based purely on people’s relationship to work.
Which explains the freelancers in these rooms. They have already decentered their tasks and skills from the standard organisation. And they have wriggled out enough flexibility in their schedules to attend meetings about “citizens’ assemblies” and the like.
That was my first stop this week - at Newspeak House (run by Edward Saperia), to hear the ex-Reuters journalist Patrick Chalmers present his first in a series of films (see below) about experiments in democracy. The event kicked off with an account of how Ireland has used “citizens assemblies” to help inform politicians about thorny issues like abortion reform.
What are they? CA's are a combination of the “sortition” method used in jury service - where people are randomly chosen from a population - and a very well facilitated discussion-and-decision process, taking place on selected weekends over months.
The point of a CA is that, by combining these elements, a deliberation can be had which isn't dominated by the usual “political” or “party-political” classes. Chalmers’ video shows very well how recognisably ordinary the participants are, and also how resonantly fluent they are about their topic.
Minds are sometimes changed (among the video's interviewees, quite a few shift from anti- to pro-reform). But in any case understanding is evidently deepened. The Irish CA submitted their report to their parliament (recommending unrestricted access to abortion) and it has been regarded as highly influential in the debate. (The referendum is on 25th May.)
It was an inspiring night. I left asking myself, why don’t we build this into political systems as they already exist, as a way to improve their currently tarnished reputation? (The Scottish think-tank I am a board member on, Common Weal, has already made a suggestion for a second Chamber of the Scottish Parliament based on Citizens’ Assembly principles).
But in this particular moment - where our trust in any of the systems that surround us is melting down, and cynicism and scepticism about public powers reign - I had some questions. They were about the kind of cultural-and-values consensus that could underpin their legitimacy.
Jury service, for example, is something people mostly struggle mightily to get out of - and is often the grimmest of experiences, in baffling circumstances. How could CAs seem a bit like extra holidays, or being snowed in? That is, could it be presented as cost-free, non-work time, where you allow a different part of you to flourish?
The joy of these meetings about a new politics and democracy (for me) isn’t that you copiously take notes and work out the optimum policy. It’s that you encounter ideas embodied in someone’s enthusiasm. That experience of another, passionately intense human seeps into the way you frame the world. It improves your feelings (your “sensibility”) for what’s important.
Our Alternative UK trip to South Devon this week - we are starting one of our “political laboratory processes” there in mid-June - was a very bodily and sociable experience. Indeed, it proved to me that “deep hanging-out” (as one of our pals quipped the other day) is the wisest way to even begin to understand what you might be trying to achieve with a project.
What are we trying to do there? The truth is: the answer is emerging. Certainly what we’re interested in is what we have called “superpowered localism”. This is a form of community strengthening which presumes that top-down forces (ie, political parties asking you to wait for the next electoral cycle) aren’t coming to save you.
It’s also based in the fact that about 20-30 years of social enterprise has built up a “civil society” that can actually turn to itself and say, “we know how to do stuff, don’t we?” And it also looks to future trends - like AI and automation, energy systems, even human enhancement - and asks, “why can’t communities be active and creative, rather than passive and enduring, in the face of these implacable forces”?
That’s our interest. But what is fascinating is the way that any locality or area “contains multitudes”, as the poet Walt Whitman put it. And that will complexify and edit any of the ambitious templates you bring from the outside.
Just take two of the localities that we hope our laboratory - an experimental, sociable space that gives people license to identify their powers and articulate their common visions - will bring into a shared space.
Plymouth was described to us as “navy town”, and has been for hundreds of years. Its shipyard workforce can handle luxury yachts as well as Trident nuclear submarines. The 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower is on 16th September 2020 - the moment when American modernity begins. The next big city to the West, we were proudly told, is New York. How could such an implicitly capable and global place be damned as “provincial”?
The other area we're talking to spreads out from Totnes, a small town that is the originating point for the Transition Towns movement. Totnes is not like Plymouth - it’s a small, perfectly-formed rural market town, self-consciously “alternative” in its values and everyday feel.
But Transition has been an extraordinary success - spreading its model about a sustainability-oriented local empowerment right across the world (see Liege in Belgium as an powerful example).
It hardly lacks for “assembling citizens”. In addition to Transition Towns, it has regular events like Devon Convergence, and historic institutions of green-oriented behaviour like the Schumacher College in nearby Dartington.
So, world-historical naval engineering sits at one ends of a 20 minute train journey, and biosphere-literate practice and thinking at the other. One could stand back a little from this - but in fact, in many places - and declare: What a set of traditions, capacities and skills to take on the world, or at least treat strongly with its forces!
Yet what’s the context in which these localities could become superpowered together? How do they begin to think that way? It feels worth trying to facilitate and emerge that.
So, the questions to myself for the next seven days is: How might localities look to each other, and recognise the assets and powers they already have? What is the story or manifesto that could focus that intent? And, as the futile, dispiriting pantomime of top-down politics continues, what does anyone have to lose?
What’s your answers to these? Let me know directly, or use "Comments" below.