Big democracy revisited

While writing The Beauty of Big Democracy for this month’s issue of New Internationalist I found myself wondering why it was that grassroots democracy and social movements seem to be so much more dynamic in places like Bolivia, Peru, Brazil or Venezuela than in Europe or North America or Australia.

People in Latin America seem to be so much more ready to organize at a neighbourhood level and be very clear and forthright in their demands for justice, for services, for equality.

Then I went to a meeting in Oxford – not an obvious hive of radicalism – called by SOS or Save Our Services. I had not heard of them before. They are very new, a motley gathering of people from various groups, organizations, workplaces and neighbourhoods, concerned about the cuts in public services the new UK Con-Lib coalition government is about to inflict upon us.

In a filled meeting hall, we heard from users of mental health services, talking the threatened voluntary services that make a real difference to their lives. We heard from the father of severely disabled son, who talked movingly about what the cuts would mean to him. We heard of the savage scale of cuts being proposed in the local County Council – 40 per cent, in some areas, way beyond arch public-service slasher Margaret Thatcher’s wildest dreams. 

There was plenty of political fire aimed at the cosseted financial elites that have brought about the global economic crisis – and the way in which they are still getting away with scant regulation and fat remuneration. Instead of robbing ordinary people of their public services, we should be taxing the rich, tackling tax evasion, and closing tax havens.

There was anger at Oxfordshire County Council’s recent phony public consultation that took as starting point that ‘fact’ the cuts had to happen and around 1,000 jobs would be lost. And there was a determination to beat the authority’s apparent strategy of creating a psychology of fear and competition between different sectors facing cuts. The important thing was to unite against the cuts. To say ‘no’ – with one voice – to all the cuts, the SOS meeting concluded.

Save Our Services, with its diversity, its flat structure and its creative way of operating, reflects a kind of politics that seems different from the tired, old, top-down approach still favoured by most political parties and trade unions.

Perhaps the threatened cuts will have the effect of kick-starting a more active participation, a kind of neighbourhood democracy that is more usual in Latin American towns, cities and villages, than in British ones.

These are turbulent times – times of great possibility as well as threat.

But it will require some fiesty action and a good deal of popular participation to combat the corrosive effects of fear and acceptance of authority.

Can we do it? Can we be a bit more like Latin Americans? Can we kick ass? If so, now's the time!

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