A British Experiment in Direct Democracy

Grasp the Nettle
Dean Puckett 2013

Film Review

As the 2008 downturn and subsequent austerity cuts push more and more families into unrelenting misery, there is growing sentiment that capitalism and our current political system (which is best described as corporatism or fascism*) cannot be reformed and need to be dismantled.

If capitalism is dismantled and/or collapses, it will need to be replaced. This is a major stumbling block for many activists. There seems to be wide general support for a system in which people govern themselves through direct democracy. However most of us feel a little vague as to how the mechanics will operate. How do you ensure everyone has an equal voice while simultaneously meeting their needs for food, shelter and protection from arbitrary violence?

The 2011 Occupy movement is the best known experiment in direct democracy, though some Occupy encampments were more “democratic” than others. People in several cities complained about hierarchical decision-making that excluded women and activists with less formal education.

Grasp the Nettle documents two similar occupations that predated Occupy London by a year. Both were started by antiwar activists. One, situated in a vacant lot, was designated an Ecovillage and focused on food production. The other, located in Parliament Square, was called Democracy Camp and focused on pressuring government to recall British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like the Occupy movement, both attracted a substantial number of people who had lost their jobs due to austerity cuts. Unlike Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Square, which made the decision to exclude homeless people from meals and decision making, Ecovillage and Democracy Camp embraced the homeless people who joined them as full members.

Grasp the Nettle is an important sociological study of direct democracy in action. Owing to deepening austerity cuts, the industrial world has created a permanent unemployed underclass that comprises 20-30 percent of the population. With the growing exclusion of young people and the disadvantaged from the formal economy, similar experiments with direct democracy are occurring throughout the developed and developing world.

*Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” Benito Mussolini

12 thoughts on “A British Experiment in Direct Democracy

  1. At least Mussolini got this one right. Western governments are all working in unison with the corporate world, in fact they govern for them.

    The ant-war movement is right in regard to wars initiated by the combined forces of governments and corporations. But as we can see right now in Iraq, there is another dark force that has to be resisted at all costs. People are getting slaughtered by them. It is no use blaming our governments now, that they have been helping bringing them about. The monsters are there now. This is what happens when governments, their secrete services and the weapon industry work together. They creating a storm that can destroy us all.

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    • You have a good point, Gerard. There has also been really heavy saturation of all the English speaking countries with pro-capitalist and pro-consumerist dogma and messaging. Right wing American think tanks have invested big time in spreading the message in Britain, Canada and Australia that only the market (i.e.) business can solve life’s problem. I get the sense they have left New Zealand alone because it’s too small and isolated to bother with.

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      • I am not sure about other English speaking countries but in Australia war remembrances feature very often. It seems the population can’t ever get enough and on TV the brave soldier’s bugle is blown at least once a week or even more. I understand that soldiers mustn’t be forgotten but ‘not forgetting’ isn’t it more a personal experience than an entire population’s job?
        Perhaps a lingering doubt of so many souls lost and a nagging question; what for?; is compensated for by the call of this persistent bugle?

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        • Here in New Zealand, there’s an enormous emphasis on remembrance once a year around Anzac Day. Fortunately NZ chose not to participate in the NATO occupation of Iraq (not legally at least – it later turned out the prime minister sent special forces without being authorized by Parliament). Also our official exposure in Afghanistan was pretty limited – we had more people sign up to be security contractors for $600 a day than official members of the NZ armed forces.

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  2. This is interesting, Stuart, that security contractors did sign up for $600 a day. Sounds like big business. As far as remembrance is concerned, I am all for it, not to glorify war, but to honour the people who gave their lives. And to remind people that it is best if wars can be avoided so that people do not need to be sacrificed. If enemies can become friends after a war, why can they not become friends without going into war?
    I think the question is, how to prevent mass recruiting by fundamentalist groups.

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    • In New Zealand there are strong views about this. Many feel Kiwis were essentially tricked into enlisting to fight Britain’s war both in 1914 and 1939. New Zealand lost a substantial proportion of their male population in both wars – more than any other allied nation. There was also a lot of ill feeling against the British due to the perception that Kiwis (and to some extent Aussies) were being used as canon fodder. There were numerous instances in which the Brits would evacuate their own troops and leave the Kiwis on the field of battle to be slaughtered.

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  3. I look forward to watching this film, Stuart. I have been pondering how to create a cooperative alternative at a local level in partnership with like-minded friends, a modest lived example of sharing, sovereignty, and inclusiveness. At the moment, it’s just a very amorphous idea, but it seems there is a need to explore alternatives based on principles of shared responsibility, full participation, mutual understanding, and inclusive solutions to challenges. (The principles come from Kaner, 2007, Facilitator’s Guide to participatory decision-making.)

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    • I think we will just have to experiment – to try the model, identify the flaws and self-correct as we go along. For the last 12 years, I’ve been a member of the New Zealand Green Party, which is now up to 5,000 members. It operates by consensus decision making – at both the local level and in the national leadership. I’m totally sold on the model based on my experience.

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