Politics and Community

Who will walk through the mirror door, will there be music or will there be war; will we be rich or will we be poor, who will walk through the mirror door.
—Pete Townsend (2006)

Equitable organisations to improve equity

How do we create more public clarity about the path to an equitable and sustainable future? Western activists responded to the global financial crisis with the Occupy movement, which made the young unemployed visible but didn’t offer solutions. Unstable nations are having an outbreak of regional councils who propose to replace established government and many of their institutions, but these popular initiatives regularly rise out of crises to establish only a new elite with similar vested interests—“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” (Pete Townsend again, 1971).

Just as hierarchies and their rewards create self-interest and instability in production, family and government, they also shape the responses of many current forms of community political organisation. The limitations of political activist groups often mirror those of mainstream parties—blinkered focus on part of the picture, patriarchal organisational and personal styles, pursuit of personal advancement, poor governance—advocacy groups and political movements can suffer from all the same problems we identify in society at large.

Support for a sustainable alternative future can also come from less hierarchical community forums which avoid recreating social inequities in their internal processes. One option which supported equity in places as diverse as ancient Athens, England’s Putney debates and the Swiss cantons is open community forums to promote and advance public discussion of new policy. The Alternate G20 movement is good example, providing a peoples’ summit to discuss alternative policies alongside a G20 which can only propose more stimulus and growth.

New forms of community governance also contribute to improved public debate, increasing the community’s capacity to influence national and international government. Today’s rich nations are increasingly partitioned; the super-rich live overseas in tax havens, the rich live in expensive enclaves and never enter poor neighbourhoods, the poor find it harder to escape them. More collaborative organisations would help by putting the disadvantaged back in public debate.

Truly strong community organisations also need deep links into national culture, a good example being the Catalan independence movement. Catalan flags fly everywhere and the Sagrada Familia cathedral lends dramatic support in imagery and words with “give us this day our daily bread” embossed on the main door in all the world’s languages. As one local said, “we aren’t Spanish, we just lost a war”.

“Class perspective”  Community capacity to increase equity requires organisational equity:

In 1981 a racially selected team from South Africa toured New Zealand. The anti-Apartheid movement was well established and planned a series of public protests. Some opponents wanted more than peaceful protest—glass was thrown on the pitch, helmets were worn to protests, aggressive self-defence became popular among my friends. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong at the time but knew there was way too much testosterone around; I skipped the excitement and helped out at the crèche for protestors’ children during the final test match.

This experience, the friendship of feminists during the 1980s, and a lifetime of reading about peace and development issues have highlighted how persistent cultures of male dominance hold back our pursuit of equity. Our political forms, from small activist groups up to national political parties and unions, continue to institutionalise the gendered hierarchies which undermine social equity. We need new forms of political activism which flatten and democratise institutional hierarchies.

Organising open public forums on parallel timeframes  to key meetings of national and global institutions is one effective response, challenging and rethinking mainstream conclusions while raising the quality and profile of alternative views. Neighbourhood groups can take informed debate into the community, thematic groups can bring different perspectives together, representative forums can summarise alternative perspectives for public distribution and discussion.

Can we develop new community responses which embrace a return to equity and gather enough support to achieve it? We are still in the up cycle of the greatest boom-and-bust since the 1930s so it’s too early to know yet. Social change in a crisis is always confusing and chaotic, but choosing to participate in those responses which both work for equitable solutions and work in equitable ways is the surest way to shape a better future.

Community: Future prospects

The problems we face today are far harder to solve than in the past. Knowledge of complexity requires more information sharing and collaboration. Is your community more connected, interactive, supportive than in your parents’ era? Does the business of government today look collaborative to you? The latest trend is for highly paid US consultancies to inform elites and dictators around the world on how to crunch data and better manipulate public opinion.

Can we develop new and effective community forums to match the growing power of transnationals? Hard times always generate new initiatives for social change but so far this century community responses in the west have been relatively muted. The ease of life in richer nations has not generated the determination which created widespread support for social reform in the 1950s and radical alternative movements in the 1970s. If the incredibly rapid rise of phone and tablet addiction continues, most people might instead be on a path to digital addiction and real life withdrawal.

No-one can predict how communities will react in the next crisis but given recent levels of long term unemployment, history suggests violence when people see no other alternative. We need to find new ways to improve the level of public participation in social debates, because nations which can create new social forums and better solutions for economic and social problems will also generate social stability, and stability is about to become a lot more important in our world.

Community: Priorities for equity

  • Building community movements to improve participation in national governance.
  • Democratising global governance institutions and creating new alternatives.

And the past it all becomes distorted
Like it was broke before you bought it
Remember, you’re the one who paid
Pulled the pin out of that hand grenade
—Darren Hanlon (2006)