deliberative democracy
Illustration by Sam Chivers

Disconnection and atomisation is at the heart of the crisis of democracy sweeping through the Western world. What we need is a shift to ecological ecology, which is about participatory, deliberative democratic paths, embedded in nature and where “everything is connected”, argues Tim Hollo, executive director of think tank the Green Institute, and former political adviser to former Greens Leader Christine Milne. Here is what he told a Politics in the Pub crowd last Thursday night.

Thanks very much for having me.

I start by acknowledging that we are meeting here on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and future, and extend that respect to Indigenous people across this land; people who never ceded their sovereignty over this land where they had built, over tens of thousands of years, a sophisticated, complex, agricultural and trading society; people who have been the subject of the most successful genocide in recorded history, because not only did the invaders massacre and poison them, burn their crops, destroy their houses, knock down their fish traps and tear down their kangaroo nets, but they deliberately and incredibly effectively wiped out the cultural memory of the existence of those things, told them, and us, that they were savages, hunter gatherers, with no society worthy of the name. Terra nullius. And when they come to us, with a spirit of generosity and cooperation that, in this context, is hard to fathom, asking for a voice in our democracy, our governments respond: “yeah, nah.”

I open with that extended acknowledgement not only because it’s right and needs to be said, but because I am here this evening to talk about the crisis in our democracy, and how we can build an ecological democracy for the common good.

This is a gaping, festering wound at the heart of our democracy, and we will never succeed in building a democracy for the common good until we heal it. What’s more, the more we learn about Aboriginal society, about their relationships with the land and with each other, their commons-based society, the more we find it has hugely important lessons for us today.

Today, democracy is in crisis.

In Australia and around the world, our system has been skewed so badly that it is often difficult to describe what we have now as truly democratic.

Naomi Klein, Christine Milne, even AC Grayling and other centrists, describe our present reality as a plutocracy, or even a kleptocracy. Corporations (and the super rich) buy access and decisions, pervert the political debate, enclose public space for their private profit, and freely pollute.

Meanwhile, people are told we are consumers rather than citizens, our relationship with government has become that of client and service provider at best, and our influence over decisions which shape our lives and the future of the planet is constrained more and more. If the role of citizens is constrained, there is no role for nature at all.

What are the major political responses arising as the neoliberal consensus collapses? Primarily, we see: a turn to the extreme right, a reinvigoration of social democracy, and a clinging to liberalism. In my opinion, the first of those is utterly unacceptable, the second is insufficient, and the third naïve.

While the Greens have done well in a few places, it cannot be said that “green politics” is seen broadly as even in the picture as a response to the democratic crisis. How can it be, when the concept of a “green politics” is poorly understood, even by many in the party, when the internal fight seems to be between those who see it as a form of socialism and those who see it as a form of liberalism?

We need to get past the “watermelons versus neoliberals-on-bikes” caricature of political debate, and build a shared and well understood conceptualisation of “ecological democracy” as something distinct – a radical political vision of deep interconnection and interdependence; rejecting capitalism’s hyper-individualism, growth fetish, and celebration of greed; beyond socialism while unashamedly of the left; intrinsically intersectional; embedded in nature.

I want to set out tonight an articulation of ecological democracy that draws on Gramsci, Bookchin, Gibson-Graham, as well as contemporary psychological and sociological research from Common Cause and others, and, very deeply, the ancient wisdom being recently rearticulated in the politics of the Commons.

Before we prescribe a solution, however, it’s important to diagnose where we are and how we got here.

We are at the end point of a millennia-long process of alienation and disconnection, and of homogenisation. Since we first built cities and started leaving the land, we have been disconnecting from nature; losing sight of it, quite literally; losing our vocabulary of it, to the extent that blackberry is no longer a fruit to be plucked and eaten but a device to tie us to our labour when we’re on the toilet.

We are alienated from each other, in our metal and concrete boxes; from our labour, as David Graeber discusses in his theory of “bullshit jobs”.

We are alienated by a system which proclaims that “yes, we are all individuals”; which declares we have great choice while turning everything into the same grey goo/Disneyworld/supermarket aisle full of different but identical toothpastes; which insists that we have great freedoms while systematically removing more and more of our capacity to influence the direction of our society.

While a slow severing has been going on for thousands of years, it’s the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism, which performed the amputation.

Where previous (of course, deeply problematic) systems still included some form of internal balance, often a religious imperative to share, or a feudal system of devolved mutual responsibility, capitalism for the first time threw that out.

As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, while all previous social organising principles saw markets, land and money “embedded” within social relationships, capitalism “disembedded” them, removing any social, religious or moral constraints from the operation of the market. Capitalism became the first social organising principle based on selfishness, the first system to make greed, competition, non-cooperation its credo.

It’s no coincidence that this era of disconnection is the era which has seen the progressive and systematic enclosure and destruction of the commons; a destruction so complete that most of us no longer understand what the commons is.

We think of it, in our disconnected way, as a stand-alone thing – a field, or the atmosphere; some mystifying form of property, which belongs to everyone and to no-one.

But the commons is much more than that. An ancient concept, imbued with deep understandings of connection, to each other and to the natural world we are part of, the commons is better understood as a system than a form of property. It is a system by which a community agrees to manage resources, equitably and sustainably. As commons theorist David Bollier describes it in Think Like a Commoner, it is “a resource + a community + a set of social protocols”.

The commons isn’t the field where the people graze their cattle. It is the field, and the people, and the way in which the people agree to share the field, keep it healthy, prevent free-loaders, share the benefits.

It’s telling that Garrett Harding’s complete mischaracterisation in The Tragedy of the Commons sets out how individuals who, for some reason, can’t or won’t talk to each other, can’t or won’t cooperate with each other, will fail to manage commonly held resources. Well, that’s no surprise. But it’s not a description of a commons – it’s a description of capitalism and the disconnection and alienation at its core.

This disconnection is at the core of our democratic crisis. How can we have an effective democracy when our socio-political culture tells us to think only of our own self-interest and that’s what everyone else is doing?

Common Cause’s fascinating Perception Matters research quantifies this, showing that, while 75 per cent of people feel personally guided by altruistic values such as care, protecting and feeling part of nature, universalism and self-direction, a similar proportion feel that other people around them are driven by selfish values of wealth and power. This breeds lack of trust, disengagement and disenfranchisement.

How much worse does it become when governments are deliberately constraining our role as citizens, criminalising and delegitimising protest and advocacy by citizens while welcoming the participation of corporations? It sends a clear message: “democracy is not for you”.

We know who has responded most effectively to this so far, with slogans like “Make America Great Again”, “Take Back Control”, “Reclaim Australia”.

The extreme right demagogues correctly diagnose the disenfranchisement. But then they perform the classic fascist bait and switch. They grab the disconnection and bring people together, not in order to cooperate to build better futures, but rather as the mob.

They rile people up about unfairness and inequality and lack of control, and then misdirect it, away from the real causes of corporate capitalism and towards some scary other, like Jews, Muslims, blacks, immigrants, gays, greenies, the unemployed. Meanwhile, as Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, they use the cover to complete the corporate take-over of the state.

What of the other primary responses to the collapse of the liberal democratic consensus: the reinvigoration of social democracy, and the clinging to liberalism?

The latter, epitomised by AC Grayling in Democracy in Crisis, insists that we must rescue liberal representative democracy through improving civics education, supporting public interest media, and similar necessary – but far from sufficient – steps.

It believes that the system that got us into this mess can, with a few tweaks, get us out of it. Naïve. If the crisis we face is one of disconnection, we will not solve it with responses which still casts the citizen in a bit part, rather than as the protagonist.

The former, led by Corbyn and Sanders “for the many, not the few”, is insufficient. The problem is that socialism, like capitalism to which it is a response, is a political tool for managing the economy – the production and consumption and exchange of goods and services – and both frame society within that rubric.

Neither has the capacity to deal with the disconnection that is at the heart of the many crises we currently face. Both drive homogenisation, steamrolling local cultures, failing to appreciate the strength that comes from interconnected diversity – the secret recipe of ecology. While socialism is part of the answer, it’s not the full answer. There’s more.

We do not face a choice between the invisible hand of the market and the dead hand of centralised control. We do not face a choice between privatisation and public ownership. This is not a binary.

Ecological democracy presents another model that is about participatory, deliberative democratic paths, embedded in nature, based on the principle of subsidiarity, or putting control into the most local hands possible, and limiting the opportunities for domination and free-riding.

Viewed another way: under capitalism, nothing is connected, everything is atomised, all is abstraction. Under socialism, people are connected, but often excluding the natural world, and not always sufficiently democratic and participatory, due to its systemic tendency towards centralisation. Under ecological democracy, everything is connected.

Conceptualise it a third way: for the right, government should get out of the way of business but maintain social order. It’s a rhetoric of freedom with an increasingly obvious undercurrent of hard control.

For the old left, government knows best. It’s a rhetoric of democracy with an undercurrent of paternalism increasingly apparent, for example, in race and gender relations amongst Bernie Bros.

Neither of them gives people back control over their own destiny. Neither of them can deal with the disconnection and disenfranchisement which are at the heart of the crises we face.

For ecological democracy, government’s role is to enable people and communities to find their own way, within the context of equity and sustainability, and within clear, democratically developed, limits to prevent abuse.

This is, of course, a left politics. It implies strong regulation of corporations and markets, because they are based currently on rewarding free-riding which damages people and the planet. It implies high taxes on the rich and substantial redistribution of wealth because they are the basis of cooperation and trust. It implies true equity; deep, systemic equity.

If that’s the conceptualisation of ecological democracy, what might it mean in practice?

Essentially, the task is to connect people again. To re-enfranchise ourselves. That has to be done from the grassroots up, but it can be supported institutionally, rather than undermined. And it can be done through prefigurative politics – showing what it can be, and building around that.

In order to make the community, the commons, the focal point of government, we need to build participatory democratic processes and institutions at every level. There are some examples of this already being undertaken.

The Citizens’ Jury model empowers a selection of citizens to make recommendations to government about major issues from nuclear waste to regulation of cycling, for example, in South Australia. The secret to their success is government’s commitment to respecting the outcome.

The diametric opposite was Malcolm Turnbull’s equal marriage postal poll, disingenuously proposed, with a clear desire to disenfranchise younger people, and an open contempt for the result in advance. What was remarkable – and what saved the idea, was that citizens seized it with both hands, enrolling to vote, and then voting in huge numbers, making it politically impossible for MPs to ignore.

Deeper participatory processes include proactive local planning, participatory budgeting, institutionalised citizens’ assemblies and more.

It’s also vital to broaden our conception of the bounds of the political. Many practices of commoning which are growing rapidly around the world – citizen-run spaces from community gardens to sharing groups, repair cafes to local barter economies – are fundamentally democratic practices. Similarly, the growth of cooperatives is about citizens grabbing back some level of democratic control.

Governments can and should support these modes of participation. We can give institutional support to sharing and repairing, for example, from underwriting public liability insurance to giving tax breaks to repair, as the Swedish Greens recently implemented.

We can regulate to encourage and support the development of community- and worker-owned cooperatives, from childcare to fruit packing, from food, health and housing coops all the way through to large scale energy cooperatives.

Taking coops into the political sphere, I’m inspired by the recently elected government of Barcelona. In the wake of the GFC, with Spain in dire straits and government (and EU institutions) driving austerity, a tremendous coop-based people’s movement arose across the country; the Indignados, the movement of the squares, food sharing coops, childcare, healthcare, housing coops, squatters groups and more.

In Barcelona, they powerfully organised into a political movement called Barcelona en Comu – Barcelona in Common. I was lucky enough to travel to Barcelona last year and met with some of the people involved, hearing about the direct line between building those coops, organising them together in grassroots ways, with both practical projects and theoretical thinking, leading to the creation of a political project which won minority government last year.

Now, of course, they are struggling with how to create institutional change, particularly with national and global powers arraigned against them. But they have successfully taken back control of water supply, legitimated squats, are working to make energy a public right rather than a commodity, and much more.

I also travelled to London and met with the people behind the Participatory City project there. They are working with local government to provide institutional support to communities to develop their own projects, from cooking coops to knitting groups, from pop up shops to creative cafes, partly because of what each project brings, but largely because of the overarching benefits across the community.

They have already found that these projects reduce a vast range of social ills from homelessness to drug addiction to family violence. They see it as a different mode of politics: not public, not private, not paternalistic, but participatory.

Very briefly, I want to raise three points that I see as powerful strategic interventions.

Firstly, there’s one of my personal passions – reclaiming public space from advertising. This is one of the starkest examples of governments handing over commons to private interests to profit from, and we can and must reclaim it, as cities such as Sao Paolo and Grenoble have done.

Secondly, there is the question of rebalancing rights between corporations, people and nature. A central insight of “ecological democracy” is that there is no viable politics of the left that does not place protection of nature at its heart.

If you understand that humanity is part of nature, you cannot work to improve humanity’s lot without cherishing and protecting nature. Equally, there is no viable green politics, which does not challenge the cultural and legal primacy of the profit motive. These are fundamentally intertwined.

An important point of intervention, then, is to rebalance our politics, which has skewed drastically to put corporations at the centre, outweighing the rights of people, delegitimising civil society, and ignoring nature altogether.

As well as fighting for human and civil rights, we need to remove the massive power of corporations, take away their legal personhood unless they behave more fully as humans rather than as purely profit-driven psychopaths, and, at the same time, grant legal rights to nature. Why should BHP Billiton be a legal person but the Great Barrier Reef should not?

And finally, there’s a Universal Basic Income. Just like we agree that nobody should do without health care, and nobody should go without at least a basic education, nobody should be left in poverty.

But, deeper than that, UBI is an inherently democratising project, reconceiving the relationship between the citizen and the state. It recognises that there is a multitude of different ways people participate and contribute, not just through paid labour; it rebalances power between employers and employees, gives people the basic resources they need to take the steps they might want to take in life.

It is an enabling policy for the great majority, while, through the implied and necessary tax increases on the rich, limiting and devaluing free-loading and greed.

The history of this country since 1788 is a history of enclosure of the commons. And it is a history that has led us, alongside the rest of the world, into crisis – ecological crisis, social crisis, democratic crisis. Only a commons-based, participatory, ecological democracy can pull us out of the double helix spiral towards fascism and ecological collapse.

We must get out there and use every tool at our disposal, to build an ecological democracy for the common good.

Tim Hollo is executive director of the Green Institute.

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