Dilemmas of Democracy

Last week I was at an seminar called “Mobilizing Democracy to Tackle Climate Change.” It was, as all these things are, a curate’s egg.

One of the best bits was the introductory talk (and well-handled Q and A) by Ian Christie. I’d not heard of John Keane’s “monitory democracy“, for example.

He has sent me an essay he wrote back in July 2007. A version of it is on the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development‘s website.

Here’s some of the bits I thought were interesting, with links coming from me.

Democracy poses huge problems for sustainable development. In the advanced liberal capitalist states, democracy is tightly coupled to the promise of economic growth, ever-rising consumption and individual freedom. Democracy in such states now entrenches the interests of the affluent majority and well-funded lobbies in the political system, as analysed by among others JK Galbraith and Mancur Olson….

So, sclerosis ensues and therefore

The worse the performance of democracies in dealing with the ‘hard politics of the environment’ (Tom Burke) the greater the temptation to see authoritarian command economies as the key to pushing societies on to sustainable development paths.

Me, I’m not a big fan of NGOs. I will grudgingly admit they have Done Some Good, but oh my do they mostly live in the smugosphere, and oh my oh my do aren’t they doing a lousy job of facilitating a mass movement around climate change. Christie is more nuanced but also agrees…

SD-NGOs have achieved limited gains in specific areas of policy but have failed to mobilize and energise citizens on a large enough scale to put real pressure on politicians and businesses in the West and beyond. Moreover, they lack clear answers to challenges to their own legitimacy and accountability, and have sometimes spoken as though they were representative voices of ‘civil society’, while in fact constituting a small and highly unrepresentative section of it in many countries.

And when there was all that New Green Deal guff (summer 2008, as I recall), I thought to myself “Hang on, you can’t use Keynesianism as a way of getting to a steady state economy, can you?” (PS
Good letter in Monday’s FT about mis-using Keynes)

Are there parallels with the two other huge challenges of survival faced by the liberal-capitalist democracies, namely the Depression and the Cold War? In both cases there are similarities to the climate challenge: for example, the need for radical innovation in policy, providing new incentives for cooperation, confidence-building and enterprise, in institutions and in technology. But the differences are more significant…. Second, neither demanded a radical rethinking of economic growth and industrial development, rather an acceleration of both via new means.

And as Isabel Hilton pointed out at said seminar, authoritarian regimes have politics…

Authoritarian states are bad at environmental policy, tend to be indifferent at best to the condition of the poor and to social and ecological justice, and are bad at international collaboration. So progress in ecologically sustainable development is closely related to the quality of democracy and open politics around the world. Sustainable development will not be accelerated by benign dictatorships, assuming such things could even emerge in a world facing ecocide and associated political and economic upheaval.

Frankly, we hope for a saviour- whether it’s a technofix, a bearded sky god, a dictator to whose leg we can cling… Not terribly bright, and we regress in a crisis…

So far, SD movements have not been able to achieve the mobilisation needed. Live Earth was impressive as a spectacle, no doubt, but it lacked the popular mobilisation and pressure that accompanied Live Aid and the Make Poverty History initiative. Moreover, the celebrities involved were massively compromised by their energy-intensive lifestyles and extremely recent and shallow conversion to the climate cause.

Aaaargh. Mobilising and movement-building are not the same thing. In fact, the way those clowns at Climate Camp, Campaign against Climate Change and Stop Climate Chaos have all gone about organising their various tedious jollies, their efforts have made movement building harder rather than easier. And each of them is now in the toilet (in the case of SCC, officially dead. The others are undead).

There’s more; he’s worth a look. Personally, I feel we’ve missed the chance to avert climate catastrophes, and the most we can hope for is build-up resilience so that when the shit does hit the fan, we have mechanisms and structures and experience and ‘social capital’ (trust, solidarity etc) enough not to die without dignity.

But a) that doesn’t fit neatly on a banner and b) hardly inspires. “Join us in a probably futile effort to build a slightly-less Mad Max future than you’d otherwise have.”

Hmmm….

Further reading – On the Beach, by Nevil Shute.

About dwighttowers

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4 Responses to Dilemmas of Democracy

  1. Sir Fred says:

    another stimulating post Dwight – gloomy as ever. Good to steer people to On The Beach, but the parallels dont quite carry. The fate of the last humans there was time defined in a matter of months and so their graceful decline was not spolit by lack of resources and the ensuing disintegration to a Max Max zone. Love the slogan – can see that on a banner hung over the next Manchester gathering!

    Further reading – Contingency Plan by Steve Walters. A double play, the latter of which explores the limits of government and resilience. Some cracking lines – needs to get on TV.

    • dwighttowers says:

      Thanks for the heads up on Contingency Plan, I shall go look-see… You’re right re: On the Beach. Those blighters had it easy. Nuclear War is a much easier thing to deal with. They got to go out with more or less of a bang (remember the Grand Prix they organise?). We will go out with a whimper that is drowned out by homicidal bitchin’ that takes place in every kitchen, deciding who will serve and who will (be) eat(en).

  2. Pingback: Unrevolutionary notes 2: Plus ca la meme chose… «

  3. Bert Garcia says:

    another stimulating post Dwight – gloomy as ever. Good to steer people to On The Beach, but the parallels dont quite carry. The fate of the last humans there was time defined in a matter of months and so their graceful decline was not spolit by lack of resources and the ensuing disintegration to a Max Max zone. Love the slogan – can see that on a banner hung over the next Manchester gathering!
    +1

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