Living democracy: not a blueprint, but a pathway

Reading Tim Hollo’s book, Living Democracy: An ecological manifesto for the end of the world as we know it, has boosted my feelings of hope for the future. Importantly, his analysis of the interplay between institutions, culture and nature is not presented as a blueprint. His emphasis on cultivating “trust and social cohesion while learning to live within natural limits” encapsulates what many of us see as the heart of our work for a fair and just society.

Tim’s optimistic but realistic outlook fits closely with my own beliefs. Respect for different pathways for progressive change is essential. That does not negate the need for debate and disagreements. That tension on how we build our message and our work is a critical part of the process. The collective mind is a key driver of successful collaboration. But we do need to avoid the antagonisms and unnecessary divisions that so often plague and therefore limit the progress of our movements.

Tim does not whitewash the enormity of the social, ecological and political crises facing the planet and our species. For decades we have been warned that catastrophes will occur and will inflict untold harm. One of those crises, growing global inequality, has been playing out dramatically on the streets of Paris as I have been considering what I could bring to this online forum on ecological and equality politics, and radical democracy. I am referring to what the media and conservative politicians call riots. Others refer to these events in France as protests and mass alienation. While police violence resulting in a death was the trigger, systemic discrimination along ethnic, racial and socio-economic lines have incensed and provoked minority communities across France. These events are highly relevant to this discussion about “living democracy”. 

Residents interviewed in the aftermath of the police murder of the 17-year old delivery driver, Nahel, spoke of their anger over this killing, ongoing police harassment, the lack of government investment in their communities, the deterioration in their living conditions and the perennial issue of lack of jobs. Some areas have 40 per cent unemployment. Those living in these enclaves of poverty, isolated in outer suburbs that ring many major European cities, are the natural allies of social movements committed to living democracy, which has at its heart equality and justice. I fear however that they are worlds apart. How we bridge this gulf is a critical question.

When marginalised people speak of their situation, they frequently refer to themselves as “second class citizens” and France’s “illegitimate children”. Inequality and discrimination are their daily reality. By contrast the influential urban rich in their gated communities have affluence and consume at levels many find obscene.

If you visit these areas in the early hours of the morning you will see residents, lucky enough to have a job, emerge from the vertical slums that serve as their homes. They queue up, waiting to be bussed to factories, the Paris CBD and its wealthy suburbs where their work creates profits for corporate owners and provides the services – cleaning, childcare, concierging – for elites, the professional classes and the rising middle classes. Living on the outskirts of Paris means the bus trip can take hours. Parents have little time with their children. Activities outside work are minimal. 

While there are some great workers’ rights campaigns that intersect with these armies of workers who keep our societies functioning, by far the majority of these marginalised people are exploited to such a degree that daily survival is their priority. The chance of “living democracy” firing them up would be rare because of the degree of alienation, racism and oppression they are forced to live with, and because they are time poor. 

Each year global inequality is increasing – the world is becoming more divided along class lines. Tim deals with class, describing the “unimaginable wealth transfer” from colonies to the world’s elites. He makes the insightful statement: “Capitalism and class, racism and environmental destruction co-evolved through dispossession, subjugation and slavery.” The killing of Nahel, which is directly linked to French colonial roots, is a further reminder that movement building needs to ensure our campaigns challenge the inequality and racism that are the root causes of so much of the alienation and anger Nahel’s community experience. 

How we make living democracy a real and meaningful system for all, and all our institutions in the public and private sectors, in our education establishments and all workplaces, is a huge challenge. To meet this challenge, how capitalism functions needs to be addressed. While capitalism is promoted by many as a system that fosters democracy and freedom, we need to consider who benefits from relationships that give priority to the private accumulation of wealth. I am not proposing that the state nationalises all private companies, but we do need to grapple with how we respond when our hopes and plans for living democracy are curtailed by corporate operations. Yes, some companies are bringing “sustainable practices” into their discourse and maybe even their operations, but most businesses prioritise profits and that means workers and the environment suffer.  

State enforced property rights ensure that a few benefit while the majority are excluded in this protected relationship. Capitalist economies are not self-regulating. Companies rely on governments and their agencies to enforce these property rights, contracts and workplace laws and regulations. This allows most workplaces to function as mini dictatorships and perpetuates and exacerbates a system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few. 

A key tactic in our quest to create and expand living democracy will be identifying allies and building broad based mass movements. Capitalism is a huge obstacle to this quest as the profit motive is at the heart of the destruction of the environment and the destitution of so many communities. Transitioning away from fossil fuels will be a top priority but to expect all activists to drop their campaigns and concentrate on the climate catastrophe is not the way to build the mass movement we need. People still need to fight racism and sexism, take strike action to clean up unsafe workplaces, protect their local environment and campaign for free public education and health services. Progressive campaigns are linked, and transformative change is the pathway to a future for all. 

Communities through transition

We are clearly living through a period of massive industry and workplace transition in response to the climate catastrophe. Some factories will transition from dirty to clean practices, but some business owners will decide to sell up knowing that their profit margins will drop and possibly disappear. This provides enormous opportunities for governments and hopefully business owners to facilitate worker and community control over decision making about the future of local workplaces.

Should old equipment be repurposed or sent to scrap; could factories earmarked for closure be maintained and run as a cooperative; or is retrofitting an option? Pathways that involve workers and communities having input on these issues will result in more positive, workable, successful solutions that potentially can deliver sustainable jobs and environmentally friendly outcomes. 

In many countries there are inspiring examples where workers have taken over the running of their workplaces. Today a stand out example is in Argentina where the ‘empresas recuperadas’ or worker-recovered enterprise movement campaigns for the right to run abandoned factories – there are no bosses, the returns and risks are shared and collective-decision making rules. Similar actions are occurring across South America. They demonstrate that labour can operate without capital. Tim details an inspiring Australian example of workers’ control. In the early 1970s builders labourers constructing Sydney’s Opera House took action when their bosses attempted to lock out union members. The workers, with the help of some crowbars, took over their worksite. They set up a flat democratic organising structure to complete the work that was completed to a high standard. 

This action was part of the Green Bans movement that made phenomenal gains through a combination of strike action and the unity of builders labourers, local residents and students. Protection of urban bushland, public housing and heritage was achieved. The commitment of the Builders Labourers Federation, the key union involved, to rank and file democracy that involved all members including migrant and women workers, at every stage of these struggles was the key to these wins.  

I have explored the injustices embodied in capitalism as they help explain the growing inequalities that plague the majority of countries. Another key obstacle for living democracy to contend with is racism. Racism has always been ugly. It is a killer. The rise of social media has provided racists with a tool for rapid dissemination of their hate filled rants. How ever racism manifests, we need to consider the cause of racism and who benefits. 

Today racial inequality can be fostered by government policies such as ethnic profiling, bail laws, welfare measures, policing and prison management. Governments approach to casteism, immigration and refugees can also exacerbate racism. The operations of some businesses can have racist outcomes through hiring policies and workplace conditions. Divide and rule tactics that utilise racism have been favoured by numerous leaders. These comments do not negate that many non-white minorities are oppressed by others because of their identities. 

Antiracist programs need to be part of our political engagement whether that be via demands to governments or by building social movement campaigns. In many Western countries, the US and Britain being two stand outs, divisions between black working class and white working-class communities has limited and sometimes destroyed unity and solidarity between groups that should be natural allies in all progressive campaigns, particularly in struggles for housing, fair rents, on the job conditions and cost of living issues. Ruling elites benefit from these divisions.

Winning white folk to support antiracism programs and the struggles of First Nations communities, people of colour and those fighting casteism needs to be a top priority for all progressive campaigns. We campaign because racism is deeply wrong. We also do it as these struggles are critical to building a fair and just society.

Opposing racism while developing living democracy are compatible. This work requires us to stand with First Nations on critical issues including deaths in custody, ongoing stolen generations, being killed simply for being black, Aboriginal children in juvenile detention, achieving treaties and so much more. Tim’s vision for living democracy clearly learns from and is embodied in First Nations land and fire management practices. 

The words “living democracy” are a constant reminder that to achieve this vision people need to be involved in ever expanding numbers. However, there are obstacles to winning the support of more people, many of whom are our natural allies. We need to address this dilemma. The tragic death of Nahel, shot dead by a Paris police officer, is a stark reminder that for so many life is a daily battle to survive and to endure racism.

This is the reality that campaigners and activists need to address when working to build social movements. To expand people’s horizons beyond basic survival people need material security. If one does not have the means to acquire adequate food and housing and the ability to pay essential bills they will struggle to manage any involvement outside trying to meet the basics of life.

Similarly, freedom of speech is also essential. If people are not free to speak up on any matter whether it is government policy, how to protect the local creek or collaborating on social change projects their ability to engage collectively is weakened. Winning these two rights – daily living security and freedom of speech – are critical steps on the pathway to people expanding their horizons to challenge destructive governments and to speak out for a new way.

I am 72 years old, so I have seen the highs and lows of many progressive mass movements. A question I am often asked is how did the huge movements that flourished in the later half of the last century – like campaigns to abolish apartheid in South Africa, to end the Vietnam War, to stop nuclear war, for women’s rights and many more – mobilise such huge crowds particularly as all those decades ago there were no emails, internet, or any online organising tools. This is a relevant question. However, there is no easy, direct answer. The best way I can respond is to say that we need to win more people to our cause. We achieve this by actively engaging them in our collective quest for a fair, just, peaceful society where the environment is protected, and democracy has meaning. Living democracy is not promoted as a blueprint, but it does provide the ideas and the hope to help build this movement. Thanks Tim.

Lee Rhiannon is deeply committed to achieving equality, justice and peace for all. She believes environmental protection needs to be part of this work. For over five decades Lee has assisted in campaigns to achieve these objectives. For 18 of these years Lee was a state and federal Greens MP. She currently volunteers with various communities in Western Sydney working on human rights and justice campaigns in their home country. 

Image credit. Feature image, Abstract by Marco Danieli (CC BY 2.0).