Meeting One: ‘What would a real democracy be like?’
On Wednesday, May 6th, I ran a public event at the West Oxford Community Centre called ‘What would a real democracy be like? And how can we start to build it?’ In stark contrast to the monologues of the party candidates at my local election hustings event, the ‘real democracy’ event was all about dialogue – getting everyone talking and listening. Over 40 people from a wide range of social backgrounds turned up and participated. In the first session, after a good warm-up, we got into sub-groups of five or six to discuss the statements: ‘When I hear the word ‘politics’ I think/feel’ and ‘When I hear the word ‘democracy’ I think/feel’.
When all the sub-groups fed back to the one larger group, an interesting binary between participants’ feelings about ‘really existing’ politics and democracy and their beliefs about and hopes for politics and democracy materialised. The frustration, alienation, and cynicism that characterised many participants’ thoughts and feelings about contemporary politics and democracy contrasted with their beliefs that politics should be about positive change and that democracy should be about power for us the people.
In the second session, we split into four sub-groups focused on discussing specific issue, namely: (1) Housing and homelessness; (2) Poverty and low wages; (3) Health; and (4) Education. Each group briefly discussed what they thought the main problems in this area were; the root causes of these problems; and what could/should be done about them. The sub-groups then fed back to the whole group. Here, I was struck by the level of agreement I heard concerning what participants saw as the root causes of their problems. They spoke of privatisation, public spending cuts (austerity), concentrated ownership, debt-fuelled money creation, free market ideology, the demand for constant growth, and excessive corporate power? I recognise here the identifying of many of the central elements of the system of global ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism and its corresponding ideology. With regard to what could/should be done, I was really heartened to hear several groups emphasise the crucial role that critical education (i.e. not just learning, but thinking!) had to play in informing our actions. Besides this, there were many excellent proposals for concrete action.
At the end of the meeting, there was sufficient appetite for a second meeting and so I arranged a second meeting held last night, Monday 22nd June…
Meeting Two: ‘Building our democracy’
Around fifteen people participated in our second meeting. Many more sent their apologies, unable to make it.
After a warm-up and a recap from the last meeting, we did an activity on the subject of…stupidity! I asked everyone to get in a circle and to go round saying their name and saying they were very stupid, or words to that effect. We then got into small groups of three and wrote down a list of the stupidest questions we could think of on the topic of politics and economics. There were some absolutely brilliant questions!
Sorry about them being crumpled and torn! I had to contend with some spilt milk in my bag on the way home!
The point of the exercise was, of course, to help us fully recognise that there are no stupid questions! Indeed, usually the question that starts with ‘I know this is a stupid question but…’ generally turns out to be the most insightful and profoundly important one. I suggested that it was also a helpful exercise because we live under the dictatorship of the expert. We’re all going round thinking the Emperor has no clothes, but all the self-declared experts in the media are telling us he’s beautifully dressed and that we couldn’t possibly understand the political or economic system we’re living in. So, to create a space to allow for ‘stupidity’ or what is really the liberated persistent curiosity of the child is probably a necessary prerequisite to creating the conditions for critical collective learning we need to help us understand and address the problems we face.
In the second session, I presented a proposal for action. I proposed that we use the summer for planning, recruitment, and training ahead of a full launch in the Autumn. I proposed that we try to form sub-groups of around 10 or so people to go off for three months to research a specific issue and to report back to the whole group before Christmas with an analysis of the problem and its root causes and a recommended plan of action. In the Summer, I and others could run a training weekend to help group participants become effective facilitators of their research sub-groups. We could also use our contacts to invite experts on these issues to input their knowledge into the research processes.
What followed after I made this proposal was unexpected to me, but, in hindsight, should not have been. Though the proposal was generally well received and was subsequently deliberated, many participants expressed a desire to build bonds of mutual trust and fellowship prior to launching any action. I hadn’t expected this because I had not placed sufficient faith in participants to want to commit to this process enough to recognise that effective, sustainable, democratic group work takes time and patience. I had unfairly expected that I had just a limited window of opportunity to ‘sell’ this to those coming to the meeting and that they would not want to come again if they couldn’t see that things were actually going to be done rather than just talked about. It took the greater wisdom of the group participants to emphasise the fact that building the relationship side of the group dynamic is just as important as setting and achieving its tasks.
The second meeting concluded with an agreement to meet again in three weeks’ time in order to work on building trust and fellowship within the group and to plan ahead for the Autumn.
If you’re interested in joining or contributing to the process then please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also message me on Facebook (Joel Lazarus) or join our ‘Oxford Democracy-builders’ group.
We’ll continue to update you.
Thanks for reading