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Wherever people meet

"Are people right to trust themselves and others to build a better and more equal society? I came to the Forum to see how." Report-back from the World Forum for Democracy 2017.

Boiling Point: an important conversation. All rights reserved.openDemocracy is a media partner of the World Forum for Democracy 2017: the subject this year is 'populism'. In the run-up to that event in early November, we asked what kind of media and politics we need "to re-connect to citizens, make informed choices and function optimally in 21st century democracy." Rosemary Bechler, one of three rapporteurs summing up the debate in the event's closing session, focused on citizen involvement and participatory democracy.

Listening to Richard Wike’s illuminating contribution to the Forum’s first session – ‘Time for Facts’ – talking about the deep frustration of increasing numbers of people in a pessimistic Europe and US with representative democracy, at one point he said: “They feel like the well-connected and wealthy have benefited, and they have been left out.” Of course the Pew Research Centre researches how people view democracy and this is a research fact. It is not the researcher’s job to comment on this. But I wanted to shout out, “Yes, they do feel like this, and the already wealthy have benefited, and they have been left out!” They are quite right.

Tempting as it might be for someone who works in the media in Brexit Britain to look to fact-checking as a much-needed new business model, the challenge for the media and for all of us goes much deeper. As the Observer columnist, Suzanne Moore said recently of the UK, “ There is no will of the people, just different people who refuse to acknowledge each other’s reality.” But the problem here is not post-truth, fake news, or the dissemination of political falsehoods. Rather it is a growing and unacceptable inequality which together we have to be able to do something about.

How do we begin to empower the people in my country or yours who want to ‘take back control’, in such a way that they don’t need a strong leader, let alone the military, to do it for them? How can we give them and their children a confident future in the highly diverse, pluralist, multi-layered societies in which we live? British media at least has long relished the myriad ways in which, day in day out, it can expose how untrustworthy we all are to our ever-fevered and prurient gaze. So it is to say the least a challenge to contemplate turning this around 360 degrees, to persuade people that they are right to trust themselves and others to build a better and more equal society for all. I came to the Forum to see how it could help in this.

An early concept note for this year’s gathering posed the bold question, “Do we need then or can we do without élites altogether?” In this spirit of intrepid enquiry, my first mention must go to Etienne Chouard whose answer to this question is a passionate, “Yes we can!” His initiative, Plan C, aims to show that ordinary citizens can perfectly well redesign their constitutions through a constituent assembly drawn by lot, or sortition, and that this would constitute a tremendous advance – on the very good grounds that it is not for those who are powerful to write the rules for power.

Here indeed is the ‘taking back control’ that I am looking for, and my particular gratitude to him is that, like all the best Forum initiatives, this one goes hand in hand with a positive reappraisal of the power and capacity of the people on their own behalves. As Mr.Chouard said to us: “ People being capable and legitimate is the whole point of constituent assemblies. You write the constitution: write new articles, correct old ones, several times a day if possible. It is a form of political hygiene. It transforms you from a child voter into an autonomous adult citizen. This transformation can occur very quickly!” Well, quick transformation is clearly what we need.

On this theme, I’m sorry not to have had an opportunity to talk to those who opted into the Forum’s own Participants’ Assembly yesterday, which between the hours of 2.30 and 6pm offered us the chance to directly experience deliberative democracy by debating and voting for a key recommendation. And what better choice of subject than the role of citizens’ bodies in our democracies: how far should their power extend, how should they be elected? Intensive deliberation arose around five proposals designed by a panel of experts who laid out the pros and cons. There was a particular concern with the question of how the citizens’ body might fit into existing institutions, and the expert team went away and drafted 3 proposals taking all the feedback into account, with the result that all three passed but the highest majority of votes went to the proposal that such an assembly should play a role in proposing legislation in Parliament.

As I say, I do hope we hear from those who participated, whether they felt empowered by this process. For it is a central contention by those who advocate for such bodies as citizens’ juries that people leap at the chance to participate, that ‘ordinary people’ – not that there is any such thing – have an acute sense of the enormity of a political question and the need for compromise. That, in short, we are starved and our political systems are starved of true ‘democratic deliberation’. Do they agree?

The relationship between sortition and representation is another interface – like that between vertical and horizontal decision-making, that I feel is destined to preoccupy us for many years. So it is very interesting to have the latest from the Citizens Assembly of Ireland which, in its first iteration I understand consisted of 66 randomly selected citizens chosen to be broadly representative of society according to the Census, plus 40 politicians, who were actually persuaded in the course of the deliberations to change their minds. After that minor miracle, Sharon Finegan was able to update us on how, this time around, with 99 citizens, though without the politicians  – they managed to do more to hold a decent debate on abortion in Ireland than anyone would have thought possible.

I suspect that this issue of how citizens’ bodies fit alongside existing institutions will be greatly influenced by how open those institutions are to citizen initiatives. So my next congratulations go to Vouliwatch for their 4 members of staff and 3 interns, who are somehow succeeding in getting citizens’ voices raised in Greece’s Parliament. The parties are not at all open to the people’s voice. Yet Vouliwatch manages to combine parliamentary monitoring with data analysis and visualisation and civic engagement and interaction. Greek citizens are helped to question MPs on their party policies, their finances, send them policy recommendations and exact a response. They have worked for transparency in the TTIP negotiations and are spreading their wings to Cyprus, Macedonia and into public schools in Greece.

I don’t want my newly empowered citizens to be too horrid to political parties. So, let us also mention the Net Party in Argentina – but truly a party with a difference. The Net Party was founded 4 years ago but without an agenda – with the sole aim of setting out to represent citizens. They insisted on noticing when initially their support was largely confined to middle class males, and since then they have evolved online software (Democracy OS) to broaden their online participation. Their elected deputies vote according to the decisions taken by the online participants – so here again, people challenge each others’ minds, come to joint decisions and mutual understanding. It is a mutual learning process, and like Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, deliberation is the cornerstone.

I should stress that all these experiments using random selection, whether they ultimately replace or complement representative bodies, are designed over a period of time to pass sovereignty over to the citizens.  

The last challenge I want to mention is the one outlined by the intrepid Anna Krasteva in Giorgos Kolliarakis’ round table ‘From Fake to Fact’. Every February in Sofia, she told us, crowds of young people gather with flares and theatre, to commemorate their fascist hero. She and her allies – academics, activists and artists – have formed a coalition and set themselves the task of  creating an alternative vision to this ‘populist imaginary’ – the heroised bodies of young men ( mainly) as the self-appointed soldier-guardians of the nation. But how can they create an alternative vision of meaningful citizenship, one that is as enthralling a bodily experience for young people?

For this we surely have to turn to the arts. There is something of the physical embodiment of our counter-values capturing our imaginaries, in the Agora for 21st century Democracy which over some hours, tried to picture what kind of space a truly participatory, decision-making democracy would make its own (with the help of two urban architects). Again, we found ourselves asking the question, “Should this be an entirely new customized space, or build on existing spaces and practises?”

But truly to tap into the populist imaginaries of our time and make them anew, we have to turn to the two Artivist initiatives. Stephen Duncombe’s ‘school for creative activism’ keeps on the move to new locations, where it hopes to master the popular culture in his 4-day training programmes for 20 activists: soap operas in Turkey; comic books in the Balkans; statues in Macedonia. On the fourth day, having acquired a sufficient local vocabulary, they must design and implement their own intervention. (I’m sure they could help out in Sofia!)

Finally, a salute to Boiling Point – a film and a campaign. Elina Hirvonen’s team of artivists have used local knowledge, thorough research and some good ideas to carefully surround the True Finns with constructive dialogue that might have a chance to move us away from enemy images. They have reached into private homes and public spaces with 800 screenings in Finland and 20 other countries, ‘to be watched together wherever people meet’ – another courageous, imaginative and far-reaching effort to empower ‘we the people’ and help us to overcome our divides.


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