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Sunny Hundal is openDemocracy’s social media editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Everybody on the ground wants peace

"Everybody on the ground wants peace"

Mairead Maguire is currently travelling on board the MV Rachel Corrie delivering aid to Gaza. Read the Nobel Women's initiative call for the safe passage of MV Rachel Corrie.

Power and the many

An OurKingdom conversation. This is Part 2 of Rosemary's response in our 'Which Plurality?' debate [History: Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler > Jeremy Gilbert > first part of this reply > this post > Jeremy Gilbert]

Unselfish Individualism

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler > Jeremy Gilbert > this post > second part of this reply > Jeremy Gilbert]

Plurality and democracy – a response to Jeremy Gilbert

An OurKingdom conversation. This is Jeremy Gilbert's response to Rosemary Bechler in OK's debate on liberalism and democracy [History: Jeremy Gilbert > this post Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler (part 1; part 2) > Jeremy Gilbert]

I want to pick up a strand of thinking in Jeremy Gilbert’s stimulating and useful tour de horizon of the left landscape as a potential driver for democratic change. If developed, I believe it leads us to another major source of transformation overlooked in his otherwise comprehensive survey. The strand I’m talking about is plurality – individualisation, diversification, fragmentation – and its relationship not only to deliberative democracy, but to the reinvigoration and rescue of democracy in the modern nation-state as such.

Before picking up on Jeremy’s commanding call for ‘a new kind of deliberative democratic institution… a social forum for us all … vital to the fostering of the kind of democratic climate within which … reforms could take root, flower and grow’ – I want to return to the more uncertain role accorded ‘plurality’ in his previous openDemocracy contribution,‘Postmodernity and the crisis of democracy.’ Here it is regarded with a residual leftwing ambivalence. The ‘full pluralism and complexity’ of our world is laid at the feet of ‘wild, unregulated capitalism’ or ‘globalisation’, as if these were little more than a conspiracy to unpick the organisational capacity of the labour movement. Alternatively, plurality is a siren voice created by postmodern cybernetic capitalism and only narrowly averted in the 1980s, when Baudrillard and Co tempted us to deliver ourselves to ‘the nihilistic thrill of a world without shared values and meanings’. But this is to treat plurality or diversity as the rootless relativism it is reduced to being in a culture like ours.

However, plurality in its higher form - as negotiation with the other, the encounter with difference and differences that is the source of self-awareness and adult intelligence is a very different story. There is an enormous and unstoppable democratic potential inherent in the process of individualisation that has accompanied capitalism throughout its history and this process continues with the boost it has received not only from post-war consumer culture and ‘consumer choice’, but also from the communication channels opened up across the silos of national organisation by war, tourism, the internet and globalisation. This is the energy and intelligence for a new political culture, in which people negotiate how they wish to live side by side in one polity, and win some, lose some, learn how to compromise. This much deeper form of democracy is waiting impatiently in the wings (although I note in a thoughtful if sometimes jaded interview that Tony Wright thinks ordinary people, as opposed to MP’s, incapable of it. He says: ”politics is complicated, it’s difficult, it’s frustrating, it requires compromise and often politicians are choosing the least-worst options and so it’s guaranteed to disappoint vast numbers of people all the time… there’s something about politics that’s a challenge in a consumerist culture, which likes instant gratification through shopping and celebrity and all that.”)

Hustings, broadcasters and the future of democracy

Jon Lawrence's book, Electing Our Masters: the Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair, was published this March by OUP. Now he has turned his attention to the next election and the urgent need for real-life political interaction. In this paper on ‘The hustings, broadcasters and the future of democracy' in the History & Policy series, he calls on broadcasters to reinvent the old, irreverent spirit of the hustings to ‘deliver both dramatic television and serious democratic politics.' We have a long and valuable tradition of politicians submitting themselves to rigorous interrogation by the general public - one that he has chronicled in detail -  but only broadcasters can now ensure that that tradition survives and flourishes in the twenty-first century.

The problem as he sees it remains residual paternalism and ‘that fear of abandoning professional control'. And the brief recent history that he gives contains few encouraging signs of a major step forward - broadcasters seem only slightly less cautious than their political masters. But Lawrence is clear,  ‘Further expansion of 'vox pop' coverage will not do. Political interaction must lie at the heart of a healthy democracy, and broadcasting is uniquely placed to help facilitate that interaction between public and politicians.'  He is also calling for new ‘public rituals ‘ that bring politicians and public together: ‘Candidates could be selected at open public 'primaries', official nomination hustings could be held in every constituency, and broadcasters could be encouraged to hold Question Time-style encounters across the country during an election, using new technologies to throw them open to the Facebook generation.'

Lawrence lays considerable emphasis on ritual, drama and the ‘theatre and entertainment that must be at the heart' of politics if it is to connect, but this does not dilute his ambition for such encounters between the public and their politicians. His aim is the kind of interaction that ‘allows ordinary voters a chance, not just to have their say, but actually to hold their political masters to account.'

The people formerly known as the audience

David Sifry described social networking and other new forms of communication in an emergent world of public opinion as a "conversation among the people formerly known as the audience". The phrase sprang to my mind when the Today programme wrestled with explaining to itself and its audience what is inspiring about Abbas Kiarostami's latest film, ‘Shirin', recently showcased in the Edinburgh festival. Is it subversive? What are its politics? What is the people's hunger and spirit behind the insurgency? Is it on our side? The problem is that the film consists of 90 minutes of close-ups of more than 100 women, including a headscarved Juliette Binoche, as they watch a film based on a 12th-century poem by Nezami Ganjavi about a love triangle involving an Armenian princess and a Persian prince. 

"Light from a screen flickers on the women's faces; their expressions alone create the drama."  I learn more when I repair to Maya Jaggi's interview with Kiarostami in the Guardian, although I have to flap away an intrusive advertisement that informs me ‘Your opinion matters' and invites me to complete a short survey before I can proceed. Eventually, it appears that the maestro has been willing to give us a couple of clues. He has gone so far as to say that the "beauty of art lies in the reaction it causes", and that "a work of art doesn't exist outside the perception of the audience".

The fact is that this is yet another of those moments when one has to say: "They just don't get it do they?" This interesting rhetorical question has peppered political commentary in the last few weeks, most recently when the limousines drew up outside Mansion House. In politics it always carries the danger of complacency, since the people who point the finger are invariably the ‘brother' that had the ‘mote' in his eye last time around. This week one feels even more nervous using it because the onion has begun to unpeel with a vengeance as foolishly self-serving expenses claims settle around the ankles of those other ‘civil servants', BBC top management, with all around in the media ducking for cover.

The priveleged ones

It’s Time to Return to the Hotel Brochure

Day Three. One of the plenary speakers, I can’t remember who it was, told the delegates, ‘We are the privileged ones’. People nodded and you could see that this struck a chord. I have been wondering exactly what it meant. The most obvious reading belongs to the same family as the jesting remark made by Jane Austen’s Elizabeth when she suggests that she fell in love with Darcy when she first saw his lavish ancestral home, Pemberley.

We are the ones

All events of this kind have their own shape and dynamics. If Day One was an eager and passionate Tatiana’s letter, not to Onegin, but to an already cynical yet surely reclaimable democracy – we seem to have collectively matured overnight. There are three major themes to this great day’s proceedings: lessons from some extraordinary women who have run for and held political office, strategic thinking from women reporting unforgettably from the front line of war-torn societies, and the sliding into place of the last gargantuan building block for our overhaul of democracy – the battle for women’s human rights.

Yes we can

STEPS is a women’s organization founded in 1991 and registered under the Tamil Nadu Societies Act 1975, based in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, to work on the empowerment of all poor women, and particularly Muslim women in the region. It aims to bring about a change in the dominant perception – including among Muslim women themselves – about the rights of women in Islam. It believes that interpretation of the Qu’ran through a patriarchal lens resulted in discrimination against the women of the community and forced them to lead subjugated lives in a way that is not sanctioned in Islam.

The utopias that motivate us

Thomas Rainsborough was the highest ranking supporter of the Levellers in the New Model Army when he spoke in the Putney Debates in July 1647, and uttered the immortal words for British parliamentary democracy:

"For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under."

A new type of gender action watch

The first day of deliberations was Women’s Day in Guatemala, and participants at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference had awoken to the sound of firecrackers in Antigua celebrating the role of mothers and the sight of a local volcano erupting ash, apparently an every day occurrence. Naomi Tutu as the first moderator deftly appropriated the motherhood theme, which she said needed renovating, to give an undertaking on behalf of participants: we were going to be gestating a new definition of democracy capable of celebrating women’s achievements over recent months and years. Many of these definitions were offered during the next eight hours of discussion, though none perhaps so pithy as Mairead Maguire’s emphasis on ‘empowering people where they live – giving them dignity and hope’.

Journeying to Guatemala

First impressions

In 1998, nearly a decade after his influential post-Cold War piece, 'The End of History?', Francis Fukuyama addressed himself to the question of Women and the Evolution of World Politics in the influential journal, Foreign Affairs. Commenting on what was then an emerging gender gap in support for (US) national defence spending, he announced that it was quite evident that women were more peaceful than men. Women, he argued, are different.

Russell Brand & JR: an iconic moment

Russell Brand: Hello Andrew Sachs, this is Russell Brand. I am a great appreciator of your work over the decades. You are meant to be on my show now mate … I am here with Jonathan Ross. I could still do the interview to your answerphone.

Russell Brand: Hello Andrew Sachs, this is Russell Brand. I am a great appreciator of your work over the decades. You are meant to be on my show now mate … I am here with Jonathan Ross. I could still do the interview to your answerphone.

Scared or just pusillanimous? Labour, the Liberal Democrats and 42 days

 Rosemary Bechler (London, openDemocracy): responds to Anthony Barnett's coverage of the campaign against 42 days:

Thanks for the cogent reading of this important moment in the decline of the Westminster hall of mirrors. Doesn’t one need to include in a third episode in this drama? – the refusal of the two main political parties challenged in this bye-election to participate in debating the issues. For all the commenting and blogging, as in the case of the Iraq war and an ever-lengthening list of crucial decisions for the UK, we still have not been told why 42 days is deemed to be necessary to our national interest. All the talk simply obscures this ominous silence.

Open to the future

Thank you - all the MigrantVoice authors and bloggers for writing at short notice with passion and point. In a week we have moved beyond the shy introductions stage to 'pleased to meet you' and opened up a conversation on some of the big issues which has provided much food for thought. This excellent introduction will remain open not only for newcomers to browse, but for comment and addition.

Innocent victims

Sonja Linden started out writing 'verbatim plays' and I like many others can testify to the 'palpable effect' these first hand accounts of detention and forced removal have had on her audiences. The Darfuris or Rwandans whose words and experiences she drew on thank her, however, in particular, for making their characters feisty and rounded - not just victims, however innocent. It's a moving account.

Building bridges

On one of the many earlier occasions when desperately provoked people broke out of Campsfield or some other detention centre, the message to the British people was not to approach them on any account because... the implication was.... or was it? ... let's say the suggestion ... that they were violent criminals of an indeterminate but horrendous kind.

No-one would expect a coffee-table book tete-a-tete. But 'Arresting Aram' and some of the other comments made this week about the 'surprising' pleasure and interest some of us have had in meeting the people involved - confirm my earlier suspicion that a much more 'dangerous' outcome, for the authorities at least, and for the militarisation of immigration and asylum which is under way, might be the formation of the kind of bridges that Jenny talks about in her last post: the bridge between the people behind bars and the people who don't know how innocent most of them are.

Under our care

Another reason why many of us look away is simply because the scale of what we are up against is so huge and so daunting. At the opposite end of the problem from the individual moral dilemmas with which we are increasingly familiar - there are the coordinated actions of countries, at the UN or the EU.

Take the news from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees this week. Here are some of the headlines from UNHCR's Global Trends report:

Who cares for whom?

Who cares for whom in this world? - is the question that Zrinka asks in today's article, 'Insult and injury' - to which Jenny replies, "For the people locked up in Campsfield (for what?) - not enough people." This is a very uncomfortable exchange for those of us in the middle ground or the silent majority. In her piece later this week Sonja Linden mentions some caring professionals that have inspired a character in her play, Crocodile Seeking Refuge, who ruin some aspects of their lives when they "step over the professional line in their dedication to their [asylum seeking] clients." But in the course of her work with the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, Zrinka's encounter is with another type of professional, as she puts it:

Confidence, charisma... and diversity

One of the contributors to the MigrantVoice roundtable last week asked where were the writers and commentators who could make an impact on this debate on sanctuary or refuge - "There is no-one to speak with confidence and charisma on immigration and asylum issues. Very, very rarely does it happen." 

Today's MigrantVoice authors - Philippe Legrain and Irshad Manji - might well qualify. I was particularly struck by Philippe's question: "Since governments conspire to deny people the right to cross borders freely, is pretending to be a refugee really so terrible?" and by Irshad's thought that perhaps the Statue of Liberty should be sent back to France.