LIKE so many others, I felt genuine despair several times in 2016 but here I am, en route to my January birthday, and snuffling the air for signs of hope.
I got a whiff from Brian Eno’s New Year message. He saw the particular nastiness of 2016 as a beginning, rather than an end: we’ve been in a long decline which began some 40 years earlier, what he calls a “slow process of de-civilisation” which grew out of an “ideology which sneered at social generosity and championed a sort of righteous selfishness. (Thatcher: ‘Poverty is a personality defect’. Ayn Rand: ‘Altruism is evil’).
"The emphasis on unrestrained individualism has had two effects: the creation of a huge amount of wealth, and the funnelling of it into fewer and fewer hands,” with, I hasten to add, no sign of the much-vaunted ‘trickle-down’ that was supposed to ‘lift all boats’.
Across the world many people, living in the type of democracy that’s become commonplace in the last half-century, feel abandoned and unrepresented by the political establishment – the results of that feeling can be seen in Britain and the USA, where people grabbed the weapon closest to hand (their vote) and used it to express their dissatisfaction, in ways which are already having some peculiar (and very unpeople-power) fallouts.
In South Africa, a similar anger resulted in a more traditional democratic outcome, as major metros were lost to the ruling party, but a strong feeling remains that it’s too long between elections and that the people’s voice is not being adequately heard.
For a decade and more, especially since the economic crisis began in 2007/8, you can see attempts to reinvent democracy and make it more people-orientated, underneath and alongside the headlines. There’s a sense that what we’ve got in most cases is not democracy, it’s the hollow shell that is created when you have one-person-one-vote, fuelled and skewed by big money and big interests.
There’s an urgent desire for change – and the watershed moment of 2016 seems, to many, to have cleared the way for quiet revolution, for a reinvention of the ways in which we govern ourselves which will see everyday people playing a meaningful role in creating policy, in oversight of those in power, in correction when things go wrong.
Professor John Keane uses the term ‘monitory democracy’ for many such new ideas around the world. He writes: “…the invention of scores of power-scrutinising mechanisms – human rights organisations, summits, forums, integrity commissions, participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies – whose combined effect has been gradually to alter the political geometry and everyday dynamics of democracy.
"[…] democracy is coming to mean much more than the periodic election of representatives to a parliament – though nothing less. In the new age […] elections still count, but parties and parliaments now have to compete with thousands of monitory organisations and networks that try to keep power on its toes.”
We’ve seen one such possibility here – in the way Thuli Madonsela tackled her role as public protector. (Civil society needs to ensure that the role continues to fulfil that purpose!)
Another example comes from Spain. People-powered activists have taken over the government of some of Spain’s biggest cities – Barcelona, for example, run by mayor Ada Colau of the ‘citizen platform’, Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common). Ahora Madrid is another example of a ‘citizen platform’, with Manuela Carmena as mayor.
Ahora Madrid has developed a software platform (free to other cities around the world) that enables Madrid’s citizens to make their voices heard directly by voting or making proposals. “…the new local parties in Spain are trying to transform government itself and political norms. Inspired by Occupy-style movements working from the bottom up, local municipal parties want to make all governance more transparent, horizontal, and accessible to newcomers. They want to make politics less closed and proprietary, and more of an enactment of open source principles,” writes David Bollier.
“The local urban parties won because they were open to everyone, driven by participatory decisionmaking, and animated by social justice as a core priority.”
Porto Alegre, Brazil, has successfully implemented participatory budgeting for a couple of decades now, where ideas for using the money come from citizens and are voted on by them, and new examples are popping up. Portugal recently announced that a slice of the national budget would be approached in this way.
Minister Graça Fonseca, the minister responsible, explained that “…you have a huge deficit of trust between people and the institutions of democracy. That’s the point we’re starting from and, if you look around, Portugal is not an exception in that among Western societies.
"We need to build that trust and, in my opinion, it’s urgent. If you don’t do anything, in ten, twenty years you’ll have serious problems.” Paris has adopted the idea – 2016 was its third year, in which the city devoted €100m to a participatory budget.
All of these ideas require active engagement by the people – from middle class professionals to the unemployed, from church groups to trade unions. As a friend says, “Each of us must purpose in them to be a partner for development, clean government and community upliftment. […] Become an activist in your area, church, company and ward. Insist on accountable, transparent and effective government.”
There are opportunities in the wasteland left by 2016. Grab the opportunity! This the year to Do rather than Complain.
* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.