Krisis: a manifesto for the future

(A shorter version of the following statement was published in The Observer on 24/5/2020:

We, the undersigned, believe, firstly, that the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of building a united, caring and resilient society, and secondly, that we must use the recovery to invest in preventing what could be an even greater disaster for humanity – a full-blown climate and ecological crisis – while there is still time. “Crisis” comes from the Greek krisis (κρίσις) which originally meant the turning point in an illness, the moment when things could go either way for the patient. Human civilization is at a similar turning point. It’s time for bold, concerted action to ensure that this “patient” follows the path to full recovery and enduring resilience, rather than going the way of painful decline and death.

We therefore advocate the following principles for a post-pandemic United Kingdom, with suggestions for their implementation, and a radical piece of democratic reform to ensure that “politics as usual” does not continue to impede their realization. Although some of the measures described below can only be introduced by Government, the realization of these principles must be a collective effort, with business, charities and all of us playing an active role.

1.Recognize the value of care.

Those who have risked their lives to keep us safe deserve more than just a round of applause. Dedicated nurses and other – disproportionately female – lower-paid carers deserve a review of their pay and working conditions. We should reconsider the internal organization of healthcare provision: the competitive market model is good at providing many things, from washing machines to mobile phones, but poor at providing the kind of high quality public goods and services that should be available to all as a right, like healthcare or education. Physical, mental and social care should be better integrated at all levels. A shift towards prevention rather than cure in all these areas would reduce pressure on the system, and make us more resilient, both individually and collectively.

2.Accept that we really are all in this together.

The UK remains one of the most unequal developed countries, with BAME communities particularly disadvantaged. We all suffer from inequality in the long run, as precious human potential is left undeveloped, and lost forever not only to those concerned, but also to society and to the economy. Renewing the austerity policies of recent years would increase inequality and be in no-one’s long-term interest. We should consider introducing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) during the recovery period, building genuinely affordable homes, and rapidly housing all of the UK’s homeless. All should have access to sport and culture – so essential for physical and mental health – and as active participants, not just passive spectators*. Whilst innovation and effort should be rewarded, current levels of inequality are unacceptable in 21st century Britain. Inequality causes social division, warps democracy through the influence of big money on politics, and places a massive burden on care systems, reducing our capacity to cope with crises like Covid-19. This essential interdependence applies globally too, and we must not neglect international solidarity as countries face even greater challenges than ourselves in the weeks and months ahead.

3. Tackle the climate and ecological emergency.

One day in the not-so-distant future, climate scientists will stop saying “this is our last chance” and start saying “we had our last chance.” Accelerating species loss could be equally calamitous for humankind, potentially leading to the collapse of the ecosystems on which global food production depends. The solutions are well-known – only the political will to act is lacking. We need to “bake-in” positive changes forced on us by the pandemic, such as the reduction in flying, the increase in videoconferencing, and home-working. Bailing out high-carbon industries like oil companies and airlines with public money makes little sense in this context. We should consider stricter, year-by-year carbon budgets in line with the 1.5 degree target set under the UN framework. Farming should be helped to adopt the principles of agroecology, with food production localised where possible, making us less prone to global food shortages. Industry should embrace the principles of a circular economy. Large-scale projects such as Heathrow’s third runway should be scrapped. Urban and rural green spaces must be protected and extended, making our countryside richer in animal and plant life, and our cities healthier and safer.

4. Learn from the past.

We support calls for a full independent public inquiry on the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, with the power to make binding recommendations for the future.

5. Prepare for the future.

We believe that our present political institutions are ill-suited to meeting the challenges of the 21st century and realizing the principles outlined above. If they do not reform themselves, and quickly, then we risk a slide towards authoritarian populism, with all its dangers, as citizens become increasingly sceptical that mainstream political parties will defend their interests and help improve their lives.

We therefore propose a moderate, yet significant reform: the establishment, within six months, of a permanent UK Citizens’ Assembly for the Future (UKCAF), selected at random periodically from the adult population, given access to the best expertise, and granted ample time to deliberate. This body would focus on longer-term issues, like disaster planning, institutional reform and a just low carbon transition. No reform is a panacea on its own, but a Citizens’ Assembly would help counter the short-termism, unrepresentativity, and bias towards the interests of party funders which blight present arrangements.

The UK Citizens’ Assembly for the Future could be set up and overseen by an independent commission, appointed by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the House of Commons*. A purely advisory body would be ignored by Government whenever its recommendations were deemed “inconvenient”. We therefore propose that the UKCAF be empowered to present up to three new bills during each parliamentary session (via parliamentary “sponsors”), which would then be subjected to a free vote. In this way, Parliament’s accountability would be preserved, whilst helping build cross-party consensus for long-term action in the public interest. It would fabricate the necessary political will to act where previously there was none.

The pandemic has demonstrated how quickly society as a whole can act to transform itself. We must now act with an equal sense of urgency to heal the divisions in our society, make our country better able to face the challenges ahead, and demonstrate to the world that catastrophe can be avoided. There is no doubt that we are at a turning point in history – which path we take now is up to us.

By Peter Coville – Twitter @petercoville – full list of signatories below.

This blog is currently unfunded. Any donations – however small – will help me keep building and sharing this vision for the future.

Indra Adnan, Co-Initiator,The Alternative UK; Graham Allen, Convener, Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy;Anthony Barnett, Co-founder, OpenDemocracy; Pete “the Temp” Bearder, Spoken Word Artist; Richard Bellamy, Professor of Politics, UCL & EUI Florence; Will Black, writer, former clinician; Bev Clack, Professor of Philosophy, Oxford Brookes University; Peter Coville, activist, and blogger at; Nicola Cutcher, documentary film maker; Michael Edwards, Editor, OpenDemocracy Transformation; Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History, University of Nottingham; Roger Hallam, Co-founder, Extinction Rebellion; Rob Harrison, Co-editor, Ethical Consumer Magazine; Jason Hickel, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, Goldsmiths’ College;Lucy Jones, author and journalist;Pat Kane, musician, writer, activist, consultant; Jamie Kelsey-Fry, Contributing Editor, New Internationalist;Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC, Barrister; Jeremy Leggett, Writer, and Founder, Solar Century; Baroness Ruth Lister, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Loughborough; Corinna Lotz, Co-organiser, Real Democracy Movement; Michael Mansfield QC,Barrister; James Meadway, Economist; Robin McAlpine, Director of Common Weal;George Monbiot, activist and writer; Anthea Norman-Taylor, music publisher; Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology, University of York; Rupert Read, Reader in Philosophy, UEA and spokesperson, Extinction Rebellion; Martin Rowson, Cartoonist, Chair of the British Cartoonists’ Association; John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace UK; Tom Shakespeare, Professor of Disability Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Graham Smith, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster; Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation; Imogen Tyler, Professor of Sociology, Lancaster University. Nigel Warburton, freelance philosopher and writer; Richard Wilkinson, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology, University of Nottingham; Baron (Rowan) Williams of Oystermouth, Principal of Magdalen College, Cambridge, former Archbishop of Canterbury; Jonathan Wolff, Professor of Values and Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.

Added after letter to The Observer:

Ollie Bream McIntosh, Founder and Director, FuPro, University of Nottingham; Eric Gordy, Professor of Political and Cultural Sociology, University College London; Brett Hennig, Co-founder and Co-director, The Sortition Foundation; James Mayhew, author and illustrator; Doug Parr, Chief Scientist, Greenpeace UK; David Seedhouse, Professor of Deliberative Practice, Aston University; Professor Graham Turner, Edinburgh.

*Sentence added after signature by the above signatories.

The Case for Radical Democracy

Two great threats loom over our societies, one depressingly familiar, the other entirely unprecedented. Firstly, only seventy years after the Holocaust in Europe, extreme right-wing politics is once again becoming a major force here and elsewhere, as the cracks in liberal democracy widen. Secondly, alarmed scientists are warning us of the possibility of climatic and ecological breakdown, perhaps only a few short decades away. The very conditions of civilised human life on Earth are under threat. Rising to these challenges is the historical responsibility of our generation. We need to change direction, and fast. The key question is: in which direction should we move? I believe that the answer , in a word, is: in the direction of radical democracy, of putting power fully and squarely in the hands of the people. Let me try to explain.

The inability of politics to address the major challenges of our times are not simply the result of the wrong politicians or the wrong policies, but the inevitable product of our current ways of thinking and institutions. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that the very political-economic system that is driving desperate citizens into the arms of populists and failing to protect us from climate breakdown can be fixed by minor changes like PR or party funding reform. It’s too late for that kind of tinkering. In many places majorities are already getting behind one or other variety of “anti-establishment” party, led by a charismatic m/billionnaire who promises to “stand up for the little man”. History tells us where this all leads, and with ecological catastrophe added into the mix, it is not a bright future.

In this context many are starting to talk about “system change”. There is nothing unrealistic or dreamy about thinking this way: systemic change has occurred throughout history (think of the shift from feudalism to capitalism, or aristocratic rule to liberal democracy). Systemic change has never been more necessary than now, which does not mean it is inevitable: it will not happen without the concerted practical and intellectual efforts of millions. Progressives must use the present crisis as an opportunity to rethink our values, collectively produce a vision of the society we want, translate this into concrete institutions and policies, build a majority behind this vision, and head off the threat of authoritarianism.

But what does system change mean, and how can we help bring it about? There are plenty of brilliant critiques of globalised capitalism, and concrete proposals from universal basic income to a circular economy abound. What is harder to come by is some kind of overarching political philosophy, redefining our core values and providing a broad vision that progressives can unite behind. In these pages I want to explore one such possible vision: that of radical democracy. Strategically, it is far easier to unite people around a process – who could reasonably object to a major improvement of our democratic processes? – than a specific programme or detailed set of policies. And yet, I believe that the policy implications of a radicalisation of democratic processes would likely be profound. Of course, we should expect dogged resistance from those who benefit from the status quo, but radical democracy is an idea that comes with the power of legitimacy, and “we are many and they are few“.

This blog will draw on the ideas of radical democratic thinkers past and present. It aims to explore, in a brief and accessible way, the outline of a political philosophy of radical democracy for our times. Many ordinary citizens are understandably impatient of talk – especially politicians’ talk – and say that more action is what we need. They should remember that the right ideas at the right moment can change the world. Consider the impact (for good or ill) on real people’s lives of the ideas of Marx and Lenin, or those of Friedrich Hayek, the great inspiration of Margaret Thatcher and neoliberalism. I believe that the ideas of radical democracy have similar power to change the world.

So what does “radical democracy” mean exactly? The core premises (or “narrative”, if you prefer) of radical democracy are, firstly that our current, liberal democracy has brought us many good things, such as universal suffrage and regular elections, but secondly that such institutions only ever gave us limited democracy. Power has remained in the hands of a minority which has, if anything, only tightened its grip over both information and key institutions in recent decades. Democracy therefore remains an unfinished project. We need to “finish the democratic revolution”! Only by finally sharing power equally will something approximating the common good be achieved, and social and ecological disaster be averted. Despite a common perception that a more radical kind of democracy is not workable in large societies, concrete proposals for turning this vision into reality are not lacking. One of the most promising is sortition – the random selection of political representatives from the public. We will return to this and other proposals, but we need to do more than simply produce a set of institutional proposals: we need to elaborate a philosophy that underpins and justifies it.

Finally: it is vital, in reflecting on this vision, to remember that we are part of a global system of power. Our “developed” countries grew rich on slavery and cheap raw materials from the Global South. Our cheap supermarket jeans, electronic gadgets and much of our food continue to be produced by people in conditions of exploitation or even slavery. I say this not to blame those of us who can barely afford these “cheap” goods in the “rich” Global North, but as a reminder that our political and economic system is part of a wider system whose injustices must also be addressed.

I think it will be useful to have a framework to organise our ideas. When the French Revolutionaries went about abolishing aristocratic privileges after 1789 their motto was “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. I think that this motto, with its terms suitably radicalised, and with “Ecology” added – is a handy framework for thinking about what radical democracy could mean. Let’s start with liberty.>>>go to Liberty (1) Liberty for the many, not for the few.

Peter Coville

(Illustration: La Liberte guidant le peuple, E.Delacroix (1830), Musee du Louvre.)