Liam Taylor’s speech on radical democracy from last week’s Compass Annual Conference.
I must admit that I feel like something of an anomaly at this conference. Before coming here today I looked on the Compass website at the impressive list of speakers that are here: people from think tanks, from policy institutes, from NGOs, journalists, elected politicians. In other words, people who might be considered ‘experts’, people who do politics for their day job.
And I want to begin by immediately renouncing any claims to such expertise on my part. I probably know less about some of these issues than anybody else in this room. I don’t spend my days reading policy papers for a living; instead, I spend my days teaching secondary schoolchildren in east London. But I think the fact that I am here, and that my presence here feels slightly anomalous, tells us something interesting about politics, and in particular the way that our politics has become increasingly professionalized. That, I think, is a problem – and it goes to the heart of our thinking about radical democracy in this discussion here today.
Climate Camp, I want to suggest, is the antithesis of professionalized politics. We are not an NGO, with a full-time staff; we are not a political party, with appointed leaders. We are a group of ordinary people, from all walks of life, who have come together because of our shared concern about climate change, and our desire to do something about it. Each year, we set up a week-long camp next to one of the root causes of climate change, from power stations to airports, culminating in some form of direct action. In the past we’ve camped outside Drax coal-fired power station; outside Heathrow airport; and, last year, outside the coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent. Most recently, on 1 April, thousands of people converged on Bishospgate in the City of London for a day-long camp outside the European Climate Exchange, the world’s largest carbon trading centre. It’s not just about protest: it’s about building our little vision of the future, in the here and now, a vision which we develop through workshops and education, through sustainable living, and through the day-to-day practices of direct democracy.
I think it’s very interesting to be in this discussion today because democracy goes to the core of what we are and what we do. We are a completely non-hierarchical movement. All our decisions are made through a process of consensus decision-making, so that our actions are founded on the principles of genuine agreement rather than simple majority vote. This process can at times be frustrating, it can at times be laborious; but it has real value because it invests people with a sense of ownership over any decision that is taken. It also means that the process is incredibly open to newcomers; so that, once you’ve overcome the initial hurdle of working out what’s going on, you are then able to participate on the same level as somebody who’s been in Climate Camp for years. So myself, for example, I’ve only been involved in Climate Camp for the last six months: yet in that time I’ve found myself helping to develop the key messages that we want to get across in the media ahead of this summer’s camp; operating the lights at the Amnesty International lecture theatre; making toilets to be used at the G20 protests; and speaking at events like this one today.
That is a very brief introduction to Climate Camp and what we do. Now, I was asked before this discussion to reflect on any lessons that Climate Camp democracy might offer for other areas of life, including the formal structures of the state. Big question, and in the remaining time I’m not sure I’m going to be able to provide an answer.
But what I will say is that I think it’s interesting the way the question has been phrased, particularly the bit about the ‘formal structures of the state’. Because I think there is a tendency in all these discussions to focus on only one dimension of democracy: that is, the relationship between the individual citizen and the state. When the political elite talks about democracy, it is usually talking about elections. Voting is important, I don’t deny that, but that discussion only captures one aspect of democracy. By concentrating your attention solely on the state you risk losing sight of what democracy really means.
Like I said before, I’m a teacher. And I find that the basic idea of democracy – that people should have a say in decisions which affect them – is intelligible even to twelve year-olds. That sense of democracy as being about making your own choices, directing your own destiny, is something that you feel intuitively: it hits you in the gut before you understand it in the brain. And whenever I hear people talking about proportional representation and additional member voting systems and elected second chambers and all those other things, I tend to ask one simple question: ‘would any of this stuff make people feel like they have more control over their lives?’. I’m not sure that it would.
So I think we should worry less about the intricacies of voting systems and more about creating meaningful democratic experiences. And if you’re trying to find those experiences in the formal institutions of state, I’m afraid you’re looking in the wrong place. The word ‘democracy’ does not refer to a set of institutions; it refers to a process, a movement. Every day – in our jobs, in our homes, in our communities – we travel through uneven landscapes of power. For me, democracy exists at those seminal moments when landscapes of power are in some way transformed by the collective action of ordinary people. That happens within Climate Camp. I’ve felt it happen, too, in other places, such as assemblies I’ve attended organized by London Citizens. I recognize the same feeling in this description by Bolivian activist Oscar Olivera, describing the transformative experience of the struggle against water privatization in Cochabamba:
‘The apprenticeship we have gone through shows us that it is possible to construct a country in which we can make the decisions, in which our opinions count. This would be a country in which we had our own voice, where we controlled our right to speak. It would, at last, be a country in which we were actors, not spectators’.
To conclude: let’s see democracy as journey, not destination; let’s stop worrying about where we end up, and start thinking about where we begin. I think that at Climate Camp we have a very strong sense that the project of revivifying democracy does not begin with a constitutional convention; it does not begin with electoral reform; it does not begin with citizen’s juries, or people’s peers, or independent MPs, or any of the other ideas you get coming out of the political and media elite. It begins with ordinary people, like you and me, taking action on something we believe in, and transforming society by first transforming ourselves. Because democracy is not something which is given, it is not something which is created from above – it is something which is won.
Liam Taylor is part of London’s Camp for Climate Action.
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