John Rogers: Do we still need to learn about democracy?

Former teacher and Common Weal Local activist in Glasgow John Rogers realised that there were few spaces to explore the foundations of democracy - so he decided to set one up

DO we really need to discuss democracy in this day and age? Is it working for us, or does it render us powerless? Once politicians get voted in, do they continue to value our opinions and listen to our concerns? The fear is that the answer is "no". 

Given that neoliberalism is such a dire threat to democracy, and that poverty has grown worse while the very rich get richer, there is a clear need to look closely at what is happening and what people might be able to do about it. 

I think it is important to start again and look closely at what democracy really is. One way to do this is a course where structured discussion can be encouraged.

I think it is important to start again and look closely at what democracy really is. One way to do this is a course where structured discussion can be encouraged.

Having started to join some activist groups, this article describes my wee journey into looking at democracy and how it works, and how it could work. It has not been easy and I have found the range of issues and perspectives to be considered a bit overwhelming. 

There is the history, from ancient Greece; the numerous attempts by ‘the people’ to try an alleviate injustice and have an influence on events, from the Levellers; Chartists; the General Strike; and many other protests. There's also the efforts of individuals such as Mary Barbour, and the more recent effort to turn the tenements in Duke Street into a co-operative rather than allow them to be knocked down, thus preserving the community. 

How democracy works at a local and national level here in the UK needs to be explored, and whether there are alternatives that could make our democracy more real. And then there are the threats to democracy, not least those from neoliberalism. So my journey has involved a lot of research and discussions with fellow activists, and I still feel I have only scratched the surface.

In February 2017 I attended a congress called Neoliberalism vs Democracy in Glasgow. While having vaguely entertained leftwing perspectives, I'd never really been an activist. Why? Partly because I was not sure which activist groups existed, and partly because of a lack of confidence and knowledge. What could ‘little me’ do against powerful authority? Meanwhile, I had never heard of neoliberalism, and thought democracy was a good thing and not much else.

I had never had an opportunity to discuss any of this with like-minded people, and the opportunities still remain limited now that I am involved in some activist groups because there is so much more immediate business to discuss. For activists already involved in their campaigns, all this is taken for granted, so there is little space to discuss this there either.

I began to think that we needed some sort of forum where democracy could be explored as an idea and as a way of conducting life. This would give people lacking in confidence, like me, to explore what democracy means in terms of having a say and influence on matters.

Meanwhile there are loads of exciting ideas being put into practice, such as Peter Macfadyan and his book, Flatpack Democracy, where he shows how ordinary people could take power in a small town (Frome, in Somerset), and the ideas around municipality, where people are taking over services previously privatised all over the world. Then there are ideas around citizens' assemblies (something Common Weal has advocated for some time), where ordinary people get to deliberate on policy matters.

I recently ran a seminar on elites for a history club. The members of this group present as educated (as well as retired, like me). The seminar involved discussions about the value of elites and
leaders in history. It concluded that leaders were a good thing provided they were nice, and this applied to elites as well.

We have enough books to toil through, what we need is to actually talk to other people, preferably in a way that can be structured, while respecting individuality.

This is a very congenial group I have been a part of, but I felt a wee bit of despair at how complacent we could be and how unaware we can be about threats to our democracy. Do we really need autocratic leaders who want to rule by decree, rather than through parliament in this day and age? Do we really need economics that promote growth in a finite world as though growth was an inevitable good?

Having been much encouraged by the congress, some of us continued to meet and discuss things. We called ourselves ‘Unchained Democracy’. At one of these meetings I suggested we consider offering a course on democracy, the aim being to educate though learning together, and encouraging each other so that people could be empowered. 

A set of trigger questions is a style of teaching I am familiar with, and the course covers democracy as we feel it is for us today; democracy then and now, local and national democracy, voting systems, the threat of neoliberalism, what we hope real democracy could look like, and examples of how it is working here and around the world.

We have also developed a course on what neoliberalism is, again something that really needs to be discussed by sharing knowledge and experience. These are the sorts of questions I think need discussing about democracy, but I am sure others would find other - and better - ideas. The point is that we need a forum where we can start to discuss these issues, and learn from each other. A course is one way of doing this, as could be seminars and pamphlets. 

We have enough books to toil through, what we need is to actually talk to other people, preferably in a way that can be structured, while respecting individuality, as can be generated through the discipline of a course.

We are ‘us’, and we survive through our interdependence. Let’s stick up for us - all of us.

Writing the course has been a real journey for me, although I now realise I am just at the departure lounge. I am especially interested in recent research into our brains where it has been established that we are social beings, with an inbuilt capacity for empathy for the other person, and how easily this can be altered by advertising through synthetic personalisation, and generating a sense of ‘them’.

We don’t need that. We are ‘us’, and we survive through our interdependence. Let’s stick up for us - all of us, and let’s not have ‘them’ around. But to do this we need some education and a forum for deliberation about the great issues that confront us today. 

Courses can be one way of starting all this, be they on democracy or neoliberalism. They are there, in the shadows, and need to be put in the light.

Courses are taking place at The Space in Glasgow for a limited period. For further information contact johnrogers680@gmail.com

Picture courtesy of John Rogers

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