- A New Era of Democratic History

Picture from assembly of Occupy London

The People’s Assembly Network is a group advocating direct and participatory democracy in the UK. New Compass e-mailed with Mark Barrett, one of the activists of the network, about the role of assemblies in the anti-austerity, student and Occupy movement in England, and his vision of an assembly alternative for a new social Europe.

Can you tell us about your background, and why you got involved with direct and participatory democracy?

I initially trained as a lawyer, and enjoyed constitutional law. In the late 90s I got involved in the anti-globalisation protests in Vancouver against APEC and the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments). There I got inspired by the Zapatistan anti-neoliberal cause and its emphasis on 'good government, from below'. in 2005 in the UK I got engaged in the struggle to protect civil liberties against the Blair government's attacks, and found myself,with like-minded others considering the need for a democratic constitution ( where minority rights are protected). Our collective work then produced a 2006 statement on the British Constitution where People's Assemblies were identified as the route to a (written constitution-protected) participatory democracy.

What is a people’s assembly? Are there any examples of people’s assemblies in the world today?

A people's assembly is an open, inclusive public meeting where everyone's voice is equally important in both setting the agenda and making decisions. Horizontal (i.e. non hierarchical) discussion and full consensus are the norm. A wider definition is given in a declaration at the people’s assembly webpage but the practice is richer than this indicates - everywhere in the world it is evolving as the movement grows.

There are many examples of people's assemblies taking place around the world. The most notable recent example is the Occupy/15M movement but Assemblies have been the preferred form of decision making for grassroots groups for many years. For example, as documented by New Compass and also in Mexico, libertarian student and anarchist groups, Climate Camp and other progressive movements worldwide.

There are other names given to the form; Popular Assemblies, General Assemblies, Public Assemblies even Governing Assemblies, but it's the form (not the name) which is more important.

Why do you advocate people’s assemblies?

The multiple crises we face indicate the need for a new paradigm, and that needs new organisational forms as the old ones are relatively defunct. The forms we need today must facilitate equality, inclusion, self-education and a democratic voice for all as these are increasingly society's mainstream values. Also they must be utilisable locally, all over the world to reflect the fact of globalisation. The old forms do not do this, only horizontal assemblies can do it (and indeed more, depending on where participants want to take them).

We see that anti-austerity and Occupy movements around the world are using open assemblies as an organising tool? Are people’s assemblies primarily a way to organise protests?

Assemblies are a means, inspiration for and end of democratic transformation. They are an organisational strategy (means) and also an inspiring vision of how the world can be re-configured upon quite different lines. For example on the future of work.

As well as organising protests, assemblies can be an effective reformist voice or they may actually seize power. If the movement choses to take power (and not just reform) then we will be entering a new era of democratic history, equivalent in constitutional magnitude to the end of the monarch's divine right to rule.
I have written a short piece on the future of governance under Assemblies.

You are involved with the people’s assembly network in the UK. Can you tell us why this network was formed, who it consists of, what your objectives are, of and what kind of work you do?

The network was formed after a public meeting convened at the end of 2010 by people involved in the 2006 constitution statement, with other individuals from grassroots campaigns and other leftist groups. We were broadly united by the idea that the best way to fight the economic crisis was through the building of people's assemblies. One organisation that helped a lot with this was A World to Win but there were also a number of others who helped.

The network has evolved into a resource platform set up to support the ongoing democracy protests and open, democratic assemblies in the UK, Europe and throughout the world. We are currently looking for a web-design/tech team to develop the site further. Anyone interested - do get in touch.

How do the people’s assemblies network relate to other movements in the UK at the moment?

We are waiting to see how civil society in the UK responds to the call for real democracy now! in the UK, and the movement of assemblies it has spawned. There is now the chance of a 'great society' movement in which the various other movements and actors to share resources in support of the movement for real democracy, and the setting up of more widespread and permanent assembly structures across the country. This is essential if we are to engage the 99% in a proper conversation and build ourselves into a genuinely transformative movement.

What do people in the student movement, anti-austerity/anti-cuts movement and the movement behind the December general strike, think about people’s assemblies? Are they taking up ideas of direct democracy and assemblies?

There were a lot of examples of student movement use of assemblies in 2010-11 and there is a definite interest in the form within the anti-cuts movement. There are however no reports, yet, of assemblies breaking out in traditional union organisations. That said, there is definite interest in exploring common ground together and conversations about how best to work together are underway in preparation for the next season of protests.

At New Compass we have earlier written about London Citizens, who are organising assemblies in local communities in London. Is this movement in any way involved in the current anti-austerity protests, and do you have any contact with them regarding the spread of people’s assemblies?

The Church here in England is a particularly interesting case-in-point, because of the crisis the Occupy London Stock Exchange caused by setting up camp outside of St Paul's Cathedral, in the heart of the City of London. The camp and church's response to it set off a chain of resignations and showed a great deal of support from within the church to the movement.

It is an interesting idea for Occupy to link up with London Citizens. The only problem (and this goes for any and all possible link ups) is the possibility or tendency of partner groups to think they are running the show. This concern goes for any big organisations, whether party, union, NGO, religious or effective campaigning organisation, with its own long term culture or way of doing things, like LCs. Here is one idea of how to take forward the Church / Occupy link in the UK.

Clearly there is a lot of room to develop working relationships with other civil society organisations, but the terms of engagement need to be worked out carefully.

The people’s assemblies network have repeatedly called for the establishment of more assemblies in communities around UK. Are people responding to this call?

The Occupy movement in the UK has responded admirably! As can be seen in Norwich or London.

Assemblies have been popping up in Britain wherever there is a 15M or Occupy camp (since October) and prior to that in other contexts on an ad hoc basis such as the student movement and the anarcho-libertarian strands of the anti-austerity movement.

Since May 15M camps appeared on a small scale in about 10 cities in the UK with the rise of the Spanish movement, and at its height the London camps saw 1000+ at its assemblies. These camps were predominantly Spanish based but not completely and they mostly dismantled shortly afterwards although regular public meetings and modest assemblies continued.

There is an ebb and flow with the movement as it moves forward, and in October after Occupy Wall St had been going for a month and with the spark of the Oct 15th 15M call out assembly based camps in the UK re-appeared, only this time much larger and with a far more multicultural make-up. At the moment we are a natural hiatus as the movement takes stock and prepares for the warmer months, but can confidently expected to go further and deeper in the Spring as the latest calls are heeded - although the UK government is now, in part due to Occupy but also as the culmination of over a 10 year battle for control of Parliament Square in Westminster, legislating to ban political camping. See info at Repeal Socpa, Meltdown UK and London Indymedia. This will of course only make us more determined! There is also talk within Occupy UK of joining forces with other civil society institutions (for example unions, churches and other religious and community based institutions) although there are important questions about terms of engagement ( to avoid co-option and so forth)  that the assemblies are being requested to grapple with first.

What are the difficulties in organising assemblies in the UK today? What kind of forces are working against it, and what kind of forces are working for it?

Occupy's media profile and the urgency of the economic and wider social crises are helping enormously. As is our utilisation of the new social media. As is the failure of the traditional left to respond adequately to the crises.

The main forces against us at the moment is the established culture of doing things non-democratically (whether in workplace, place of education, neighbourhood or wherever) and people's lack of faith in an alternative to party politics (although their faith in party politics is pretty much at an all time low). Likewise, people's belief that there is no alternative to the modern state-capitalist mode of organising social affairs. Also the capitalist issues of general busyness, time poverty and hypermobility of modern people's lives. Increasingly however, to re-coin Margaret Thatcher's phrase my hope is that the people of the UK and elsewhere will realise  there is no alternative, that all roads lead to the rediscovery of a liberating politics at the human, person to person level. One key issue is for people to see that greater economic justice, fairness and equality is most likely to be attained by focusing on attaining new political rights. This was the case in the time of the English, American and French revolutions and there is no reason to suppose today will be any different, albeit in a more radical, democratic frame.

Many people claim that it is extremely naïve to think that a complex society such as ours can be run by people’s assemblies? What do you think about this claim?

Patronising, elitist nonsense coming from some quarters, but understandable too, given the ingrained habits of modern decision-making. These habits are directly descended from earlier paternal, imperial models of governance and a deference to authority which in turn are supported by ideals of divine right and an unhealthy respect for the glories of ancient empires. Any arguments against based on the need for productive efficiency in the modern industrialised era and clear communication lines when governments are responsible for such large geographical territories are now far less persuasive with the innovation of web, open source and peer-to-peer  networks. The web makes the argument that small community self-governance can only work in historical eras without vast administrative units (i.e. before the rise of large empires and the modern nation state) is now completely open to question. For most of human history people made decisions in assembly like processes to some degree or other, with the habits of today being a relative historic blip. However, ultimately claims of naivity can only be refuted through the development and incremental improvement of people’s assembly practices and in the on-going utilisation  of the common global communication technologies.

One comrade at Occupy London puts it thus "the capacity of infant & junior children to participate in 'circle time' convinces me that a thoroughgoing system of assemblies is possible". For me it is just a question of a collective dedication towards proper organisation and the development of political, economic and spiritual literacy among ourselves and the wider 99%. And to have faith in the value of the assembly model, in the voice and new sovereignty it can create, and in the existence of a shared vision.

Do most people really have the time, knowledge or interest in participating in people’s assemblies? Isn’t it more effective to choose politicians to govern on our behalf?

If we organise society differently, people will have time and, with the incentive of real power (and the end of the mere simulacrum of democracy under present voting systems) they will also be interested. The assembly process itself is educational. Of course there are valid concerns here, but the main point is surely that we must learn through practice, that what makes us different from one another is what is most interesting and potentially liberating and to just get on with it. As the crises worsen, and as we rise up in profile people will become more interested.

Politicians may sometimes be effective, but for who and for what and how much does that narrative and the present model end up disempowering ordinary people from political involvement? I do personally think there is room for election in a good society (alongside sovereign assemblies) and possibly also for a mix of representative and delegates ( responsible to the assemblies of the world) but these are just my personal views. I may well be wrong and anyway, it is up to the Assemblies themselves to decide!

Finally, what do you think have to happen in order to make a direct and participatory democracy to actually come true?

Along with the focus on the dictatorship of global capital on the one hand, the Occupy movement in the UK and Europe needs in my opinion to be more focused on the other: on the ideal of real, participatory democracy and the challenge of the present state. For me, Europe is a key battleground, and to take this forward we need to use the European political and economic crises to put forward our own, independent vision for its re-founding. What's needed is a new, Social Europe on decentralised direct democratic lines, with People's Assemblies as sovereign.

I believe this vision would also need to include as a starting point liberating, progressive and populist position on debt, sovereignty, the future of work-life and productivity, ideally common welfare ( i.e. democratically-run ) public services, or what some are calling common-fare. One useful manifesto was produced in Spain last September.

If a mass European and world movement can be built on these or similar lines then everything will change.