Democracy for New Radicals

Saul Alinsky
Saul Alinsky. Image by Fresh Conservative via Flickr

I have been shamefully late in responding to three excellent posts by Tessy Britton, all on the theme of whether radicalism (as in Saul Alinsky‘s Rules for Radicals) is a positive or negative force in the age of communities, localism and collaboration. In the second post, Tessy also proposes some Rules for New Radicals.

In my defence, Tessy’s are thought-provoking ideas, and it has taken me a while to think over their relationship to local democracy. This post is my contribution to the conversation Tessy has started.

The point of departure for Tessy is a preference for creation and collaboration over conflict. She says:

[Anger] often proves to be a bit pointless, self-indulgent and destructive – and I have particularly low patience with ‘the permanently outraged’.  … These repeating and predictable negative human dynamics that glorify conflict simply don’t deliver. That is the primary reason I am so drawn to creative and collaborative approaches instead.  Projects that draw people together – whole communities at a time rather than pockets of confident and strident individuals – … offer the promise of being much more effective over time at giving us the types of communities and society that we would all prefer.

I know what she means. The long procession of protest movements and anti-campaigns can get pretty wearing, particularly when every one is expressed in the most apocalyptic terms. Where I live in Brighton, there was recently a campaign to stop a post office moving 300 metres up the road. Surely there are better things to protest about, you would think, but that’s irrelevant both to the small number of concerned/angry citizens who started the campaign, and the local councillors who eagerly jumped on the bandwagon.

The aim of protest is not to produce a balanced argument, or to set priorities in the round, with all the necessary trade-offs, it is to get one particular thing to happen – or, more usually in local politics, not to happen. Like Tessy, I’m not sure that takes us very far forward.

Can collaboration and participation take us further? I suspect that there will be many who think not. Their argument might be that prioritising collaboration over conflict is simply a plea for everyone to be nice, and that collaboration between the weak and the powerful benefits no-one but the powerful.

I think that’s a pessimistic view – like Tessy, I’m inclined to an optimistic view of people’s motives. One can’t ignore the dynamics of power, however, and I think the challenges I’d put to the collaboration-creation model are:

  1. How do you manage collaboration and creation in an environment where people have widely differing social and intellectual aptitude for it?
  2. How do you ensure that the influential and powerful come to the table honestly, when they can just walk away if the collaborative discussion doesn’t go in their direction?
  3. How do you ensure that the power elite of suits and PowerPoint doesn’t shift to a (similarly exclusive and possibly less accountable) collaboration elite of well-meaning creative types with MacBooks?

For me, a big part of the defence to Elite 2.0 has to be a new participative approach to democracy, enriching rather than replacing representative structures . In the spirit of Tessy’s twelve rules for new radicals, here are three (draft, incomplete) democracy rules for new radicals:

1: Conflict empowers small numbers with strong views; democracy must empower large numbers with mild views.

Every democratic exercise involves appealing to people with mild preferences, who aren’t going to stand on a platform, go round knocking on doors or talking to neighbours, but broadly support you and are prepared to express that support through voting. This is why parties don’t listen to their activists, and why it’s worrying when election turnouts are low (because those with the least representative views are the most motivated to vote).

Democratic participation at local level needs to be at a reasonable scale – not everyone contributing, which is an unrealistic goal, but something well beyond a tight in-group. The practical consequences of that are that choices need to be clear, information easy to access, and participation available to everyone (including the disabled, the shy and the busy).

As part of our planning, we’ve been talking about the logistics of launching local Demsoc groups, networks of people who are keen to promote better democratic discussion in their areas. One of our worries is a reverse of the Groucho Marx problem, that the people who are most involved in local politics are often the most likely to have strong personal opinions that might turn others off. It’s a problem that a lot of community-level participation has and will continue to have.

2. Democratic participation needs constant change in executive power, and stability in arbitration power

Tessy points to Hillary Clinton’s thesis on Alinsky, particularly the example of a community leader who had been in post for twenty-five years. Representing “community voice” is an extraordinary power to give to one person. It’s not surprising that the people who take on that role are reluctant to relinquish it, and that organisational survivalism puts garnering the next grant ahead of the achievement of the organisation’s goal (with representation a distant third).

Participative democracy and the mechanisms for it should avoid creating a new local quangocracy, or a static set of “recognised community voices”. That leads to stasis and cynicism. As far as numbers and enthusiasm allow, participants should organise their own participation, and regularly-changing office-holders or juries should set agendas and run operations.

At the same time, participation and collaboration needs predictable rules and a means of arbitration to ensure that disputed situations can be resolved. That is where stability comes in, through a set of principles and light-touch rules to ensure that people aren’t abusing the process or preventing others from participating.

3. Participation and creation can create a third realm between personal and state

Not everything needs democratic participation. When decisions are about public services or town planning, or taxation, those things are properly politics. When decisions are about which house to buy or how to raise your children, those things are properly personal (except at the extreme).

Community and participative action create a space between those state and private issues. Perhaps we should call it demotics rather than politics – the things of the people rather than the things of the state. Whether it’s community asset ownership or a local football club, the formal legal structures might not involve democratic control, but the impact of decisions on the community requires at least a democratic influence.

This is where collaborative and creative thinking can perhaps have the greatest effect. The CityCamps of recent months (Brighton’s included) are the sort of model I have in mind – they have created a space where community groups, politicians and problem solvers can come together and create quick collaborative projects. A democratic version of that shared space can give democratic legitimacy to the outcome of collaboration.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.