I have decided to start blogging in order to try to bring together and connect the dots between my various research interests. I am hoping that as I write, some of these will come together to form either a coherent body of writing or identifiable strands that I can develop further in my research.
For this post, I want to focus on a particular gap or interface in our political culture. This seems especially important in the aftermath of the 2019 UK election and the continued rise of various kinds of contemporary fascisms. Writing as I am now in early January 2020, one of the things I want to do is to reflect on what kinds of theory and practice might be needed in order to counter these, to develop grassroots capacity, solidarity and counter-power.
Living as I do in a housing co-op, I am interested in alternative and ‘autonomous’ forms of organisation and practices of grassroots democracy. By autonomous, I mean non-hierarchical, de-centralised organisational structures and counter-institutions on the edges of mainstream culture and political economy. There have been several waves of these kinds of organisations. The housing co-operative I live in comes out of a wave during the 1970s. There was a previous wave during the 1930s, and a more recent one around 2011 with the square and Occupy movements. These kinds of alternative organisations have coincided with experiments in different modes of democracy. One question I could ask is what the relationship of these micro-democratic practices have to democracy as a whole. Is it a mistake to link the two?
Increasing democracy in the widest possible sense seems to be vital in order to respond to the current erosion of democratic culture. However, it can come with its own challenges because the areas of life that become contestable increase. Mark E. Warren writes that an increase in democratic decision making can put a strain on the social fabric in ways that we are not used to.
Most social interactions we can take for granted – not because they do not involve risks, but rather because the risks are contained; they are governed by a myriad of intricate forms of shared social knowledge, such as the rules governing reciprocity when one gives and receives gifts. Politics emerges when these forms of shared knowledgeability fray and become contestable so that the risks of social interactions are no longer predictable.[i]
Earlier in December, I was involved in a project with the School for Civic Action, an experiment in alternative urban pedagogy run by Public Works, a critical design practice.[ii] At one event in Blackfriars on community charters, there was an interesting discussion about the gap or disconnect between local councils and communities. I use the word communities advisedly here, as it has to be acknowledged that community is a catch-all phrase which belies complex realities. There are many different types of community-based in a geographical area or around particular interests. Also at the event was a worker from a managing agent for housing cooperatives. She talked about a similar disconnect between the organisation and the co-ops that they help to manage. In both cases, there seems to be the tension or clash between very different cultures, and particularly cultures with different ideas of structure and democracy. I’ve also come across similar tensions between activist groups and local government. This is perhaps not so surprising, as activist groups very often make a point of organising non-hierarchically and are set up in order to lobby organisations such as councils. While the machinery of local government is often, as cyberneticist Stafford Beer described it, a machine of inertia.[iii] Local councillors seem beleaguered and fearful. They seem to be continually in fear of being attacked. If councillors were open to admitting that the machinery they are a part of is in large part, a machinery of inertia, perhaps they could invite and accept activists’ role in lobbying them, in order to give them more momentum to change things or to apply pressure that they couldn’t otherwise.
I am also currently involved in the editorial team of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest (JOAAP). For the next issue, issue 11, JOAAP has invited groups to produce newsletters to circulate within their particular communities.[iv] These will then be collected together to produce the issue. The initial invitation asks how autonomous critical, creative and activist practices might create a commons while retaining their specific conditions/situations. In particular, those that are situated outside of cultural and political institutions. It suggests that ‘the gap between the radical imaginary built on actual social capacity, and formal politics’ might be reclaimed. This is another way of talking about the gap I already identified. Might there be something productive in thinking about or even dwelling in it?
[i] Mark E. Warren, What should we expect from more democracy? : Radically Democratic Responses to Politics, Political Theory , Vol. 24, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 241-270
[iii] Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: technology and politics in Allende’s Chile, (2011) MIT