By Daniel Mackintosh, August 2020 (with particular thanks to Tom Chigbo for his wise comments)
170 years ago, people like me were not allowed to become British Members of Parliament, nor vote in British elections. Why? Because I am Jewish. That sounds strange today because we have witnessed a significant expansion in who can vote over the last 200 years. Although democracy comes from the ancient Greek idea that ‘the people’ (the demos) should rule/hold power (kratos), for the vast majority of the past 2500 years, it meant that a small group of wealthy men made the rules for the rest of us – women, minorities, non-citizens, slaves, children – who lived amongst them.
There are at least two tensions built into democratic life. First, democracy was originally meant to be rule by the people, but exactly who counted as ‘the people’, were very small percentage of the humans who lived in democratic Athens. However, I support one of its most inclusive interpretations, that all people should be able to shape the rules that govern them, regardless of race, age, gender, sexuality or nationality. Second, what was the depth of ‘the people’s’ participation? Unequal access to ‘public participation time’ affects who gets to join in and risks a shallow/hollowed out form of participation that finds expression in voting and outbursts of public protest. But deep, local democracy, cultivated by our institutions supporting their members to practise “democratic culture” could shift power to neighbourhoods.
The practice of Athenian Citizenship
In Astra Taylor’s recent book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, she outlines the need to reclaim citizenship as a practice, not a status. If we allow democracy to be limited to voting once every few years, it ignores the potential democratisation of the institutions in which most of us participate regularly – workplaces, unions, faith organisations, schools etc.
2500 years ago, the Athenians sought to slightly widen the definition of ‘the people’ from the rule of kings and aimed to enable a deeper form of participation. While the Athenians restricted the practice of democracy to citizens (only men, and at later times, only men born to an Athenian mother and father), radically, they believed all citizens should have the experience of ruling and being ruled, regardless of birth, wealth or educational attainment. Therefore, all (male) citizens had a chance to participate in the Athenian Assembly. Democracy did not require ‘some rare personality trait or expertise. It was a practice that everyone had to learn by doing.’ Taylor points out how Athenians paid poorer people so they could join the Assembly, even if they missed a day’s work – similar to jury service today. This formal “public participation time” was not just a chance to twiddle thumbs, but a vital pre-requisite to democratic self-rule.
Structured, democratic participation is a root of long-term, local organising to build the power needed to hold the state and market to account.
A warning: democratic outbursts are not enough
Taylor shares a story that demonstrates the risk of relying on outbursts of democratic energy, to the detriment of long-term power-building.
In 1964, the ‘Berkeley Free Speech’ (BFS) movement erupted when (mainly white) students who had been involved in civil rights movement, returned to their campuses and were told that they could no longer pamphlet for political causes on university property. The spirit of these protests was captured by Mario Savio, who gave the famous speech that included these powerful lines (check out the 1:47 video clip):
““There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
The students created a huge amount of noise and won back the right to pamphlet. But their image of protest has influenced the world ever since – that of 1960s idealistic young people as agents of change – instead of labour and civil rights organising, which had dominated 1930s and 1940s America. These youngsters engaged in moments of spontaneous rebellion (which advertisers loved to sell as an image to rebellious teenagers!) were seen to be much more appealing than the long-term building of power.
The BFS Movement inspired Ronald Reagan, then a candidate for governor of California, to create a backlash against the communist, ‘sexually deviant’ students, strengthening his political hand and helping to ensure he was elected as Governor of California in 1967.
Then, in 1974, Reagan successfully mobilised Californians around their frustration at paying too much property tax on their homes, called the ‘Californian tax revolt’. Into this anger stepped Howard Jarvis, a property developer, who was angry about paying tax at all. Jarvis got enough state-wide signatures to create Proposition 13, ‘The People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation’, which passed in a landslide. The initiative, which is still in place, froze property value assessments (and therefore taxes) at 1975 levels, and allowed them to increase at a maximum of 2% a year, only reassessed at the point of sale. It applied to home residences (which change hands regularly) and corporate properties (which do not sell as often) and leads to such anomalies that Disney Land is still paying property tax at 1978 levels! To change the law, two thirds of the governing body needs to agree – a super-majority – which is incredibly hard to overturn state-wide.
While the BFSers embedded the ideal of democratic participation as a spontaneous, youthful act to grind the machine to a halt, the ‘Prop 13ers’ found the levers and gears of the machine and remade it to suit them. The result of Prop 13 on Californian state funding was devastating: local government shrank by billions of dollars; thousands of staff were fired; services were cut to poor areas; 2 dozen schools closed; bus programs stopped and state universities began to charge tuition. Companies, on the other hand, pocketed millions in saved property taxes. And Reagan, who was massively supportive of Prop 13, began encouraging ordinary Americans to follow the lead of Californian home-owners and see ‘big government’ as the enemy, ultimately propelling him into office as President of the USA in 1981.
Even the BFSers’ may have had a narrow understanding of ‘democracy’ and ‘the people’. They presumed that other people own and always control the machine, rather than having the imagination that they could organise, own and rebuild the machine to benefit them.
Two ideas to deepen local democracy in Broad-Based Organising (BBOs)
Taylor shares a number of ideas, but below are the two most helpful for broad-based organising.
First, build pride and organise deeply at the local level – it is a potent source of power. BBOs build from rooted, local institutions that are primarily loyal to place (e.g. parish, neighbourhood, school catchment area). They gather together this power (organised people and money) at the city scale and clearly identify local decision makers who are targeted and productive relationships are sought to hold them accountable for their response to agreements made with the BBO. BBOs then use this structure to focus campaigns on clearly defined tangible local issue or services.
Often, we do not know who ultimately exerts power over our area, which can lead us to apathy, anger and powerlessness, as we feel controlled by forces that don’t feel accountable to us. This sense of powerlessness was one reason why 52% of Britons voted to ‘Take Back Control’ in the 2016 Brexit Referendum. If, as Taylor suggests, ‘democracy begins where you live,’ then pushing back against powerlessness begins from below. She says that ‘there is no way to effectively challenge placeless power without powerful places.’ The thicker the relationships between neighbourhood organisations, the stronger the capacity of residents to push back collectively against the decisions shaping our lives, such as those governing local internet, electricity or water services.
Second, we could turn our institutions into democratic training grounds. They could practise democracy and we could feel it working for us. This would raise expectations that it should work similarly in our area too. As Antione de Saint-Exupery, the author of ‘The Little Prince’ said: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” We could agitate and support leaders to democratise their institutions, developing their people to participate and take deeper responsibility for the mission and running of the organisation. However, this can only happen when we root the ideas of democracy in the faith and values already present within the institution, rather than bringing democracy as an outside force and seeking to force its way in. For instance, what could it mean to support Catholics to seek the ‘full, conscious and active’ participation of all people in the liturgy (and therefore life) of the church.
This will also mean supporting people from poorer backgrounds to have the time to participate in institutional democratic life – perhaps by fundraising for childcare? Democratically trained institutional leaders will become increasingly hungry to make change in local public life.
Starting where we are …
While I am grateful that I am no longer excluded from British democracy for being Jewish, and I have the undeserved luck of enough disposable income to have the time to participate in public life, if the enormous expansion in democratic participation since the early 1800s only meaningfully includes middle-class like me, then the project of deep democracy is only half-finished.
If Britain genuinely reflected the interests, concerns and struggles of all the people who lived here, we would live in a more equal and kinder society. While a total revamp of our national democratic life is a tall order, we all have a role to play and can start where we live. We could build or strengthen a local Tenants and Residents Association to improve the local area (for instance by starting a local green energy co-operative), join a School Governing Board to embed organising/leadership development into a local primary school or build participation in decision-making at work.
As the late, great civil rights leader, John Lewis, wrote in a letter to be published on the day of his funeral:
“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
 The Jews Relief Act, 1858, allowed Jews to become MPs and the Reform Act 1867, allowed all men to vote.
 Astra Taylor, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, pp 84.
 Ibid, pp 203.
 This is a quotation from the 2nd Vatican (thank you to Tom Chigbo): “The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Peter 2:9; see 2: 4-5) is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.