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