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Puerta del Sol square in Madrid after the 15 October demonstration by the May 15 movement. Photo: Rafael Tovar (CC2.0)

Adventures in democracy


‘The square mile’s perfect for rough sleepers ‘cause it’s dead at night… until three thousand people turn up on your doorstep with tents and bongos.’ Danny was a rough sleeper who had been living on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, next to the London Stock Exchange, for seven years before Occupy London came along and set up their ‘tent city’ in October 2011. In ‘Protest Song’, a play written by Tim Price based on interviews with Danny (not his real name) a defining aspect of the movement emerges through his account of what happened over the four months of the occupation.

At first, Danny didn’t want to have anything to do with the politics of the camp but threw himself into helping run the camp’s kitchen. He was amazed that people would look him in the eye, take seriously whatever he had to say and were happy to make physical contact with him. After years of experiencing the invisibility of being on the streets, Danny was a respected and much loved member of Occupy London and his views were held to be just as valuable as everyone else’s. He realized eventually that unquestioning acceptance and inclusivity were the politics of the camp and he was sold on it. This was visceral politics, not left or right, not something you needed a degree to understand or be a certain kind of person to ‘fit in’; the drive of the camp was based on what it felt like to be a human being in a world being shaped to serve the one per cent at the cost of everyone else. The change this had on Danny ran deep: ‘I used to think I’m just an alki but I’m loads of things… I’m a dad. I’m a metal presser. A man. A fucking full-back. A divorcee. A rough-sleeper. A chef. A ninety-nine per center.’ He describes the broad spectrum of people who took part, ‘I’d go in the tea tent and I’d sit with a paranoid schizophrenic, a banker, a runaway, a professor and a tranny and we’d all have something in common. Getting fucked by the one per cent. I wouldn’t have done that before Occupy. But now the picture was bigger. I was finally in it. Connected, affecting others.’

This new sense of belonging and agency, particularly for the most marginalized, came from bringing together people who had mostly never engaged in any form of activism before, not exclusively those from the organized left or highly educated people or the established activist world. People from all walks of life were drawn to the very basic message of taking on a broken system and nobody was excluded.

This defining aspect was not just the preserve of the Occupy movement but was a collective shift experienced across the world in 2011 in what writer Paolo Gerbaudo calls ‘the movement of the squares’, in his seminal book The Mask and the Flag. The movement took in the various occupations through the Arab Revolt including the huge occupations in Tunis that led to the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the occupations of Cairo’s Tahrir Square that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, as well as the occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens, the Occupy movement that had over 1000 camps globally at its height and the Indignados and 15M movements that filled the squares of Spain, all with similar grievances being articulated and addressed through participatory democracy and occupations of public spaces.

‘The protest wave of 2011… managed to fire up a powerful sense of possibility for radical political change as no other movement in decades had done,’ writes Gerbaudo. The occupation of the squares ‘were not just a destituent moment announcing the illegitimacy of the neoliberal regime, but also a constituent moment, a sort of civic ritual and collective oath taken by indignant citizens to revive the age old democratic project.’

The emerging ‘real democracy’ movement was fervent about being neither left nor right, seeing all existing political parties as part of the system that had failed the 99 per cent so dramatically. The UK spokesperson for Syriza, Dr Marina Prentoulis, described at a New Internationalist event in 2015 how the grassroots collectives who were meeting in Syntagma Square to protest extreme austerity and who later became Syriza, were originally dismissed by the existing left as ‘naïve’ and ‘didn’t understand capitalism’. Their movement developed in spite of the established left instead of along with it.

The 15M movement in Spain which grew out of the indignados, had a critical battle in its earliest days from which it derived its’ name. The occupiers of the squares called for a mass day of action on the 15th of May, the same day as a national call for trade unions to march. The battle on social media was between the two hashtags of #15M, representing the occupiers and #M15, representing the unions who were keen to establish themselves as the leaders of the burgeoning anti-austerity indignados movement. Dramatically, the occupiers won as their hashtag gradually became far more popular than the unions’. A few days before, a deal was made that the unions could join the occupiers after their marches only if they put their banners aside and came as individuals to the revolutionary squares. In a similar way, it became a common saying in the Occupy movement to ‘leave your banners at home’. This was not to deny the multiple political views and ideologies that people coming possessed but to favor none over any other. The assemblies became noticeable for the fact that left ‘leaders’ and popular media commentators or academics frittered away, seeing that they were not going to be given any more ‘special’ platform than a grandmother from Hull or a 20 year old working in a fast food outlet to supplement their tuition fees.

‘Now everyone can say, “We have the right to say that we are tired of things and want change”’

A member of 15M recalls her first assembly: ‘People there wanted to raise their voices and state their opinions and there was a moderator, people were taking notes. It was being done in an orderly way to ensure everyone could speak… Now everyone can say, “We have the right to say that we are tired of things and want change.” We know now that we have the strength that comes from being many people, and not just left-wing.’

The battle of the hashtags that led to #15M becoming an established name for the Spanish movement indicates one of the other key aspects of the movement of the squares, which is the importance of digital engagement. Not only was organizing on social media important but from then on, groups began to develop ways of decision making using digital technologies, new tools for digital democracy.

A tiny festival in the UK that same year offered up another valuable perspective, from speakers who had experienced the collapse of a country and were keen to share their lessons. Smari McCarthy and Eleanor Saitta were both on a panel at the influential Dark Mountain festival in August 2011. Saitta was speaking as a member of a group of digital freedom hackers who were offering clandestine internet access outside of state control to pro democracy activists fighting the oppressive Asad regime in Syria. McCarthy had been part of the WikiLeaks project and part of the financial crisis protests in Iceland. Their thoughts provided important signposts for how new developing movements could steer clear of certain mistakes on the path to new democracies and systemic change within a country.

Saitta warned us that in terms of identity and diversity, it’s important to ‘push ourselves to create more structural balance, it doesn’t matter what the organizational cost is, diversity in opinion will pay you back in the long run socially… if we don’t fix this problem to start with we are simply going to replicate existing power structures.’ And McCarthy recounted the now famous project by which the world’s first crowd sourced constitution was written in 2010 in Iceland. ‘The discussion was “what do we want to do with our society?” Everything has collapsed, what do we do next? And it turned out that people did not disagree all that much. People actually agreed on the really important stuff.’ Years later, Birgitta Jonsdottir, who had also worked with WikiLeaks and gone on to co-found the Icelandic Pirate Party with McCarthy in the wake of the Icelandic revolution, told me that ‘The peoples’ constitution really was a beautiful thing. It was the first time in history where a people had enshrined in their constitution the word sustainability, showing that ordinary people really cared for future generations and for the future of the species, unlike the rapacious governments they usually were under.’

McCarthy’s advice about how to build a new politics and new democracies not only related the importance of comprehensive inclusivity through digital and participatory democracy but he added a telling piece of advice which foretold what may be considered the second phase of the movement of the squares: ‘What you need to do very early on, is make sure there is a transition of authority over infrastructure… If you don’t have that transition of authority over infrastructure then the alternative is to replace the existing infrastructure with something else, if you do neither of these, then your revolution will fail. That’s the big thing that we learned in Iceland.’

Emerging roughly from 2014, the current global municipalist movement is considered by many to be an extension of 2011’s movement of the squares. As Gerbaudo states ‘Instead of pitting society against the state, and pursuing a “counter-power” against official power, the movement of the squares tried to build an “under-power”, a power from below, which starting from the squares could progressively reclaim all levels of society, including state institutions.’

In 2017 two seminal international gatherings took place for this movement in Spain; around 700 mayors, civic leaders and democracy activists from nearly 200 cities across the world met in Barcelona at the Fearless Cities summit and later in the year, hundreds of people experimenting with new forms of real democracy and digital democracies, attended the Democratic Cities summit in Madrid. In both events, people were sharing innovations and strategies for taking on the stranglehold of neoliberal economics and inequality, addressing the threat of climate change, the plight of refugees and presenting solutions to finding effective ways of achieving authentic participatory democracies.

These municipalist platforms take the form of grassroots groups, creating and running campaigns that result in their candidates becoming the mayors of cities and towns. This has been achieved in cities and towns globally, from Jackson, Mississippi to Valparaíso in Chile and from to Naples, Italy to the host of the Fearless Cities event, Ada Colau, a much respected indignados and housing rights activist, famously becoming the first female and working class mayor of Barcelona. Three out of the five most populated cities in Spain have mayors from this movement and there are more than 100 such municipalist platforms globally to date.

In a similar way, some groups who emerged from the 2011 movements have formed their own political parties to challenge the state head on, instead of from a point of ‘under power’. These parties include the Pirate Party in Iceland, The Danish Alternativet and Podemos in Spain. Whether a municipalist platform or an experimental ‘new politics’ party, these emerging adventures in democracy are all experimental and all have their flaws and contradictions but as this internationalist movement grows, a cross pollination of what works is willingly being shared.

There is an awareness that it is by developing ways for people to listen to each other, away from the anathema of adversarial politics and entrenched ideologies, in an atmosphere that celebrates our similarities over our differences, that completely new approaches to politics emerge. As Saitta indicated, the quality and efficacy of a movement can be determined by the ability of the proponents to continually be open to listening to all views and marginalizing none. All the individuals from these new movements who I have interviewed are trying to break through the traditional and entrenched ways that have been developed of ‘doing’ politics and all of them are coming up against significant obstacles but they are quickly sharing lessons learned and have the humility not only to admit their mistakes but to see them as valuable tools for improvement. A most salient aspect of the municipalist movement in Spain is what is called the ‘feminization of politics’. This comes from the fact that a great majority of their mayors and civic leaders are women and instead of seeing their role as surviving in the system, they see it as changing the way the system works by undoing the patriarchal ‘default settings’ that have been in place since the systems were originally created.

With the rise of populist leaders such as Trump, Erdogan and Duterte, a great urgency has emerged to ‘avert the trend towards populist demagogues all over the world, channeling popular rage and fear away from the real causes of discontent and down the usual rift valleys of division, anti-immigrant sentiment, and ethnic and religious prejudice towards triumphalist nativism and nationalism.’ In a sense, the early clarion calls from the movement of the squares were stolen and manipulated by leaders like Trump, promising to speak for the 99 per cent and stand up to the elite 1 per cent where of course, this was never the intention and certainly has not been the outcome.

‘Occupy screwed my life up because Occupy gave me hope’

Smari McCarthy went on to found the Icelandic Pirate Party with Birgitta Jonsdottir, which won 10 seats in 2016. He has also continued working on several digital democracy models. In 2017 I spoke with him about the developments in the world since 2011 and the significance of Trump winning the 2016 US presidential election and he was unexpectedly buoyant ‘the speed at which all of this is happening is leading people to question their political assumptions, I know some people who have been apolitical all their life who are now having some pretty deep thoughts about where we are going and why it is a bad place to go…if we can harness that energy, there are some really great things that can happen.’

McCarthy and Jonsdottir are two key characters in this global movement to develop new and effective ways of citizen engagement through radical democracy tools. The key is around developing real agency for all. McCarthy gave me a valuable critique of the current political activist models ‘some people just don’t have the agency to react in a reasonable way, so the need is partially to try and help those people to get that agency… I am just worried that a lot of people who are in the activist world are very good at being activists at each other and not being very good at being activists towards the people who really need it.’

Not connecting with those outside their own circles has been one of the greatest faults of progressive political movements and now that new ways are being developed, digitally and interpersonally, that have listening to all equally at their core, perhaps these divisions can be overcome. It takes humility, patience and radical openness. The same ingredients that allowed Danny to go from being ‘just’ a rough sleeper to being an active member of the 99 per cent, imbued with agency, self-pride and hope. The last line in ‘Protest Song’ spoken by Danny is: ‘Occupy screwed my life up because Occupy gave me hope.’ This is how transformative these new movements can be, at a personal and ultimately at an internationalist level.

The following series of ‘Adventures in democracy’ interviews look at a few of the experiments that have been happening globally, from the Arab Revolt, to freshly hatched new political parties and the current municipalism movement. All of these vanguard developments are internationalist at their heart.

Birgitta Jonsdottir

Jonsdottir was the producer of the Collateral Murder film released by WikiLeaks, was a key figure in Iceland’s ‘pots and pans’ revolution, co-founded the Pirate Party in Iceland (nearly becoming prime minister) and yet, left party politics last year, in order to pursue the emerging experiments in new forms of democracy. Here she discusses why traditional politics is not the answer to global crises, what choices should be most important for young people seeking change, the importance of UK punk band Crass, the ‘infectious virus spreading’ of city based new democracy experiments and creating an international database for best practice fundamental laws.

Lilia Weslaty

Weslaty is a Tunisian journalist, democracy activist and human rights advocate. Speaking with her in Madrid after her presentation at the Democratic Cities conference, she discusses the struggle behind establishing an authentic people-led constitution in the wake of the Arab Revolt and the ‘birth of democracy’ in Tunisia.

Danish Alternativet Party

Uffe Elbaek and Rasmus Nordqvist, two founder members of the Danish Alternativet party, discuss the importance of participatory democracy and ‘political laboratories’ as a key to developing a political party, how the heart of their party is a body of values as opposed to a set ideology and how these inform their novel approaches to parliamentary politics. The interview was held the day after the launch of a sister UK political platform, the UK Alternative.

Shu Yang Lin

Shu Yang Lin is a designer and creative technologist who went into government to co-found the PDIS system that rethinks the interaction between government and civil society. She discusses the way that new interactions like vTaiwan and PDIS can address global crises like climate change and also relates the benefits of bringing other expertise such as design and even anthropology into the process of government.

Jamie Kelsey-Fry is contributing editor at New Internationalist.


Header Photo: Puerta del Sol square in Madrid after the 15 October demonstration by the May 15 movement. Photo: Rafael Tovar (CC2.0)


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