Imagine a Democracy

Modern democracies must tap into the power of citizenship to tackle our severe environment and social problems.

Author: Simon Duffy

This talk (or rather a more relaxed version of it in the form of a chat) was given at the Ludlow Green Festival in 2021. Special thanks to Kim Holroyd for the invitation to speak.

Hello my name is Simon Duffy, I’m President of Citizen Network, a global cooperative dedicated to creating a world where everyone matters. I also run Citizen Network Research (previously called the Centre for Welfare Reform) which is based in Sheffield. I am going to be specifically talking about a network we started last year called the Neighbourhood Democracy Movement for, as you will see, I believe that its time for us to become more ambitious about both these two ideas:

And the name of my talk is Imagine a democracy.

I start this talk rather nervously. Firstly because I’m here as a visitor, staying with my Mum, and I want to do her proud. Second, because from my many trips to Ludlow I know that there’s a strong chance that amidst the audience will be some expert who will be able to see the weaknesses in my argument or my evidence.

However this fear reflects the central idea of my talk - for I think our cities, towns and neighbourhoods are packed with talent - and everyone has their own unique talents - but as a society we are utterly failing to use our collective capacity.

We operate with our hands tied behind our backs. Anyway, I will take my courage in my hands and begin.

When I talk about democracy I often tend to start by talking about ancient Athens, and this time will be no exception. But I must provide some excuse, because its quite natural for people to think:

Well for all their sins - I still think we have an awful lots to learn from Athens and I can’t see any better model for beginning to think about what a real democracy looks like.

Athenian democracy began in about 594 BC and lasted until 322 BC - although there were some breaks - that is almost 300 years of real democratic life - far more than England has ever managed in all its longish history.

We also have quite a lot of information, from Aristotle and others, about how Athenian democracy worked - and when we examine the sophisticated nature of a real democracy, like the Athenian system, then we can begin to understand what is missing from our own system.

Although women and slaves were excluded from the democratic life of Athens, adult male citizens amounted to somewhere between 60,000 to 30,000 out of a total population that probably reached a maximum of 250,000 - so about a quarter to a sixth. Everyone one of them could sit on the Pnyx - the hill facing the Acropolis - to make the ultimate decisions about the life of the city.

This is what people mean by participative democracy - everyone gets a say and a vote on key decisions - of course a referendum is as close as we get to that today. But for Athenians all key decisions were decided democratically; in the UK we use referendums when the political process has become too stuck and we, the people, are thrown the bone of deciding what the politicians can’t decide on our behalf.

Every citizen could also be a juror or could be called up to act as part of the executive Governing Council of the City - the Boule.

This is what people mean by deliberative democracy - some people come together to discuss and think about controversial matters, often developing a proposal that can later decided on by the citizens on the Pnyx. Citizen assemblies are a modern form of this kind of democratic function.

Also everyone citizen might also be asked to take on - usually just for one year - the administrative or civil servant roles that the City needed - and they’d each be subject to intense scrutiny at the end of their year to check there had been no corruption:

Imagine if we could punish our political class for their obvious graft, corruption and dim-witted decision-making. It would be exhausting, but rewarding.

Also - Athens was broken up into 139 demes - so as well as being involved in the democratic life of the whole city- each deme was democratically controlled by the citizens of the deme - so about 400 people. Demes had significant responsibilities including the responsibility to ensure that all children were properly educated so that they could fulfil their role as citizens.

A tribal system was also created - a bit like a house system - so different kinds of demes were forced to mix and learn about each other’s perspectives.

But what has any of this got to do with Ludlow?

And what does any of this got to do with our desperate need to stop the ongoing, man-made environmental and climate catastrophe?

Well I believe the failure of democracy is at the root of our current - global crisis, because when you don’t live in a democracy you’ve put yourselves in the hands of some kind of elite. Typically you live at the mercy of those with those most money and control over the media that shapes public opinion and political decision-making.

But what about elections? We’ve got elections haven’t we? We can kick the buggers out?

We put a great deal of emphasis on elections - and electoral systems - as the key to democratic government. But Aristotle would be astonished by this - for the Greeks ‘elections’ - which means selecting some people to rule over you - is the system used by oligarchies.

The term oligarchy was not some vague term of abuse - it was specific form of government - found in many major Greek cities, like Thebes - where the people could choose, in an election, which elite group would rule over them. Sound familiar?

Elections were undemocratic because they implied some people were better than others - democracies believe we are all equal - and they organise around that fact. Elections were used in extreme circumstances - for example to elect Generals for wars - but most of the practical business of Athenian democracy - at multiple levels - was managed using sortition - chance - by lot - a system we currently use only for Jury Service.

Imagine if you created your own kind of Ludlow sortition process. If you asked people to take on roles - not too onerous - not for too long - but you just created a system where you could say: “It’s your turn now”

Perhaps people would refuse to take part. But I wonder - if you developed the system democratically - whether you might find that people recognised its value and most people would be willing to take up the challenge and play their part.

In parallel to this issue is the problem of Party Politics.

In researching some of the very interesting democratic reforms being carried out in Barnsley, I discovered a common theme when talking to volunteers and community activist - the thing that puts people off getting involved the most - is the fear that it will involve party politics.

Again, while we think that Party Politics defines politics the Greeks thought of parties as the enemy of politics. In fact it’s interesting to think about the word politics - which basically just means - the business of the polis - and the best translation of polis - would be people or community.

So whereas politics should mean something like - community life - we’ve turned it into the Westminster Village - the world outside and often hostile to our community life.

In fact one of my philosophical heroines Simone Weil said this:

“Nearly everywhere - often even when dealing with purely technical problems - instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking. This leprosy is killing us; it is doubtful that it can be cured without first starting with the abolition of all political parties.”

I must say I have great sympathy with this. I think this reflects the kind of strategy developed by FlatPack Democracy where people elect ‘Independents’ to take over civic structures. We’ve seen it in Frome; I hope we’ll see more of it in coming months and years.

If a team of people come together to develop a new system for Ludlow they could work together to transform how current civic structures - like Ludlow town council - were used. Even when the formal system is constrained by specific rules and systems there’s nothing to stop us creating more imaginative and positive systems outside the formal system.

But where does this leave us? Is democracy really relevant to our current crisis?

I think the answer to this question depends on the answer you would give to the following question:

Are the interests of the planet, of Nature and our own long-term interest in survival best protected by Oligarchy (where we follow a small, wealthy and powerful elite) or in a Democracy (where we decide what to do together, and act on it)?

Now I don’t want to pretend that we don’t need global governance, and some forms of representation and decision-making - but we have a system that starts off oligarchic and just gets worse and worse. Democracy, genuine democracy, doesn’t get a look in, at any level.

And if you say democracy doesn’t work in practice I’d ask whether we have ever tried to make it work in practice.

In the UK we certainly have not. Once, after hundreds of years of battle, ordinary people achieved universal suffrage - the right of every adult to vote for an elite to rule over them. Then we seemed to stop trying to improve democracy. It’s as if, out of exhaustion, we declared success by setting the bar for democracy about as low as it could go.

Today many focus on the campaign for Proportionate Representation - certainly not an unworthy goal - but this is merely a different system by which to choose the elite who will rule over us. Aristotle would simply not accept that the UK was qualified to describe itself as a democracy.

And don’t we tell ourselves we’ve much more advanced than the ancient Greeks. Today we have knowledge, education, technology, labour saving devices, digital communications, infrastructure, welfare systems, and economies far in advance of those of the ancient world. Should we not be able to achieve something better than Athens, rather than settling for something worse than Thebes?

So let us imagine that we lived in a democracy and explore what that might mean for life in Ludlow, particularly for Ludlow’s chance to respond to the environmental challenges we face.

Perhaps the number one priority is to end our reliance on fossil fuels. What could Ludlow do about that? Well I am sure there are experts in the audience on the details, but let us suppose that this meant primarily investing in wind, water and solar energy. Could not the people of Ludlow agree to do this?

In fact could they not pool their resources - not just money - but roof spaces, suitable land, sources of water power, sources of geothermal energy which could all be used for the common good. In fact could Ludlow not, by working together, free itself from reliance on fossil fuels?

Would it not help if you had the power to pool the necessary technical skills. Instead of people randomly, and at a relatively high cost, figure out how to put a solar panel on a garage roof? The whole town could have a strategy for maximising solar energy - pooling the costs and sharing out the benefits to everyone.

Recently I met the architects of the Passivhaus council houses in Norwich that radically reduce the need for externally supplied energy. Why is this not now a national standard? What stops the people of Ludlow creating the means to maximise the field efficiency of all current homes and insisting on Passivhaus standards for all new homes.

Again, many of these things, that may appear to have apparent upfront costs will all reap economic rewards - not just in savings - but in creating skilled craftspeople with the necessary skills to do work that will be a growing priority everywhere.

This could also be a practical way to reduce economic inequality in the town.

Traffic is another issue. What stops a street declaring itself a pedestrianised or semi-pedestrianised Low Traffic Neighbourhood. Whose street it?

In Sheffield we recently had a major public outcry and the destruction of healthy street trees. In the end a resolution was found - after much unnecessary destruction. But the question that this raised for me was whose trees are our trees. When does a tree become the property of the council?

Of course you may argue that cutting down the trees was a democratic decision - although in fact it was the result of actions determined by a private road contractor - Amey - who have a confidential long-term contract to take care of Sheffield’s roads. Privatisation and centralisation conspired to evade the wishes of the people of Sheffield - particularly in the areas where the trees were (the growing strength of the Green Party in those same neighbourhoods reflects this).

My colleague Gavin Barker has also argued convincingly that Nature itself has its rights - and these should be built into a democratic constitution.

This is also one of the reason that many of us in Sheffield are not talking about creating a new constitution for the City.

Could you not create a Democratic Constitution for Ludlow? What stops us from designing a system from the bottom up - that’s how democracies are born.

Take inspiration from the people of The Republic of Užupis who created their own constitution and independent republic (I’ve added their wonderful constitution as an appendix).

Of course some people are inconvenienced by blocked roads, planters in parking spaces, large trees or other local initiatives to push out traffic and bring in the natural world. This is going to be a source of conflict and its important to have debate and discussion in meetings and other structured processes, like citizen assemblies.

But currently everything is upside down - neighbours and citizens must assume they have no authority to change anything - and then must go begging to the mysterious powers above to make the change.

That’s not a democracy. In a democracy people would come together at the lowest possible level to make decisions for the common good. There would be constitutional arrangements to ensure coordination between local groups and where necessary genuinely democratic decisions at higher levels to settle disputes or create wider regional or national systems.

We talk about devolution - and then don’t do it - but really it is not about devolving power. Power is ours - it is created - as the philosopher Hannah Arendt said - when people come together to debate, decide and act together.

The principle of subsidiarity is not that power be devolved - it is that power should exist for citizens and communities as a matter of everyday life. Issues should only be transferred to regional, national or international bodies when this is the only way of making a competent decision. To do otherwise - as the Catholic Church puts it - is to steal people’s decisions from them.

A genuine democracy works for the common good and is very concerned to protect and develop common resources, common land and spaces for the benefit of everyone. Out of desperation councils are selling off public land and calling it investment - but selling off public land to private investors is the opposite of investment. A neighbourhood democracy should start with a desire to give people a real sense of ownership, responsibility and enjoyment of our share common spaces.

Guerrilla gardening, wild verges, re-wilding, eliminating harmful pesticides should all become easier. Rules and constraints should be agreed at the lowest possible level.

Again, this is not a fantasy. The Republic of Iceland has a population of 300,000 divided across 78 municipalities - average 3,500 - ie. one third the size of Ludow. Each of these municipalities is democratic and its powers are protected by Iceland’s constitution - such municipalities run:

Meanwhile in the UK - the most centralised welfare state in the world - almost all these services are managed or tightly regulated by Whitehall. Colonialism didn’t end after World War II, it just came home. We are now all subjects of a colonial system run from Whitehall.

Another important and connected issue is basic income. Citizen Network Research is a co-founder of the UBI Lab Network, which promotes the idea of basic income, with over 40 labs created worldwide. Basic income means giving every person an income that is enough to live on with dignity and support for basic income is growing rapidly.

In fact, again ancient Athens was there before us, the reformer Ephialtes introduced payments for attendance at the assembly to ensure that the poor were represented as well as the rich. If today we could commit to basic income then this would have a range of benefits:

Currently too many people will echo this sentiment:

“I can’t pay my bills. The penguins can wait.”

Of course there are clearly many uncertainties.

We’ve recently created the Neighbourhood Democracy Movement precisely to help us navigate these uncertainties. To find practical models of good practice that can be applied or adopted today.

In addition we want to recruit neighbourhoods (and by our reckoning Ludlow would certainly qualify as one, if a large one) so that we can start to organise. By my rough and ready estimation there are at least 100,000 neighbourhoods in the UK today. Imagine if neighbourhoods who desired to be democratic hubs for their communities could become visible to each other and to the world.

The power of this movement could be incredible.

It could help us turn the dream of democracy into something real.

I urge you to think not only of how Ludlow could become a real democracy, but also how it could connect up with all the other places in the UK and the world that thirst for a better world.

Appendix - The Užupis Constitution

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Imagine a Democracy © Simon Duffy 2021.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 08.11.21

Basic Income, Constitutional Reform, local government, nature & economics, Neighbourhood Democracy, England, Article

Simon Duffy


President of Citizen Network

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