Across the world our streets are alive with colourfully dressed citizens refusing to accept the status quo. This activity goes beyond traditional protest – aiming to influence elected representatives – and has moved into the arena of outright rebellion, in the case of Extinction Rebellion explicitly so. As that group’s founding declaration states:
‘When government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection, as well as security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of its citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future. It becomes not only our right, it becomes our sacred duty to rebel.’
The yellow vests in France feel more aimless and have no clear focus, and over the weekend split between far right and far left gilets jaunes battling each other on the streets of Paris. However, their popularity rests on the reality that the social contract has broken and that a rapidly growing number of people no longer feel bound to be dutiful to a democracy that they no longer find truly democratic.
In my view the social contract was actually broken a long time ago – when politicians, especially of the traditional left, decided that their job was to mediate between the power of corporations and the desires of those they should really have been representing. With Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK, they made deals on our behalf – that we should be docile and underpaid workers in humiliating jobs but allowed to buy cheap plastic stuff in abundance.
These deals respected neither our human dignity nor the planetary limits, and since the financial crisis and recession that began in 2007, the settlement that the corporations are prepared to pay to pacify the global working classes has shrunk. So the contract is broken – the signs have been clear for a while, with rapidly falling votes for social democratic parties across the world. But it has now burst onto the streets. I don’t need to tell you that inviting the awesome 16-year-old Greta Thunberg to warn the Davos elite that ‘our house is on fire’ is not going to cut it this time.
All great advances in democracy began in ferment and unrest
So what do we need to do? I think we need to refresh our democracy and involve citizens more directly in the decisions that affect their lives. People are considerably better educated and have more leisure time than when our existing political systems were established. Think of all that expertise and negotiating ability that is available to transform the way our democracy works and improve our lives. But this needs to be an honest process of ‘deliberative democracy’, where political decisions are genuinely the product of fair and reasonable discussion and debate among citizens. If it is used simply as a trick to defuse a short-term crisis the long-term consequences will be dire.
I see this running alongside a representative democracy, of which I am still a strong supporter. Being a politician is not easy and we need people with the skills and experience to do it well. And to ensure we have just such people representing us we need to change the way we choose them: a fair voting system, accessible systems for recall, banning the revolving door between elected office and the corporate boardroom, and much stronger controls on political funding and lobbying so we can be sure they are working for us and not for themselves.
These can feel like unsettling and uncertain times. But all great advances in democracy began in ferment and unrest. Our job is to ensure that this current crisis becomes the bedrock on which we build a flourishing democracy – one that respects planetary limits and serves all the citizens who share that planet.