It’s good entertainment, but that’s all it is. Seeing Boris Johnson ritually dismembered in parliament might make us feel better, but nothing changes. He still has an 80-seat majority, though less than 30% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives. We are reduced, for five long years, to spectators.
Our system allows the victorious government a mandate to do what it likes between elections, without further reference to the people. As we have seen, this can include breaking international law, suspending parliament, curtailing the judiciary, politicising the civil service, attacking the Electoral Commission and invoking royal prerogative powers to make policy without anyone’s consent. This is not democracy, but a parody of democracy.
By contrast to our five-yearly vote, capital can respond to government policy every second, withdrawing its consent with catastrophic consequences if it doesn’t like its drift. There’s a massive imbalance of power here. The voting power of capital, with modern trading technologies, has advanced by leaps and bounds. Electoral power is trapped in the age of the quill pen.
The problem, in other words, is not just Johnson. The problem is the UK’s political system, which presents an open invitation for autocratic behaviour. In the past, people warned that a ruthless operator could make hay with this system. Well, that moment has come.
Labour has long been part of the problem, refusing to contemplate even a change to our preposterous first-past-the-post elections, let alone any wider surrender of power. And it is tragic to watch it now, still playing by the old rules. These state that a party should not show its hand until a few months before the election. That’s four years away, and the power grab is happening now. We urgently need a stirring alternative vision, a call to democratic arms. Instead, we get forensic dissections of particular government policies: admirably done, but unmatched to the moment.
At moments like this, old parties flounder. New ideas arise outside the system, and effective opposition takes place on the street. Of course, this is difficult now, as there are good public health reasons not to gather in large numbers, and we can expect the government to exploit them. But civil disobedience is ever-inventive, constantly developing new tactics in response to attempts to shut it down.
We saw some of these in Extinction Rebellion’s latest week of protests, and we saw something else too: its emergence as a broad oppositional movement, taking on the billionaire press, the lobbyists, the banks and other bastions of power, that are not usually associated with the extinction and climate crises, but are fundamental to them. From the beginning, XR has been both an environmental movement and a democracy movement: participatory politics, in the form of citizens’ assemblies, has been one of its key demands.
Like the suffragettes and the civil rights movement, it was excoriated for threatening “our way of life”. Almost all democratic advances, everywhere, have been secured by people who were branded “anarchists” and “criminals”.
The democratic and environmental crises have the same roots: our exclusion, for several years at a time, from meaningful politics. In some places, particularly Ireland, Iceland, France, Taiwan, British Columbia, Ontario and several Spanish and Brazilian cities, a host of fascinating experiments with new democratic forms has been taking place: constitutional conventions, citizens’ assemblies, community development, digital deliberation and participatory budgeting. They are designed to give people a voice between elections, tempering representative democracy, allowing them to refine their choices.
The UK pays lip service to these innovations. Last week the citizens’ assembly on climate, convened by parliament, published its findings, which included suggestions such as taxing frequent fliers, getting rid of SUVs and eating less red meat. But there are no obvious means by which they can be adopted by the government. In Scotland, all local authorities allow residents to set part of their budgets, though so far, it’s very small: just 1% of the money allocated by central government.
Unless the results of participatory democracy can be translated into policy, and unless it operates at a meaningful scale, it generates cynicism and disillusion. But as the processes in Ireland, Madrid and in some Brazilian cities have shown, when people are allowed to make big and frequent decisions, the results can be transformative. Alienated, polarised populations come together to identify and solve their common problems. Democracy becomes a lived reality.
Nowhere has participatory politics yet been allowed to fulfil its promise. There is no principled or technical reason why the majority of a municipal or national budget should not be set through public deliberation, following techniques pioneered in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. There is no principled or technical reason why the monthly voting process for improving life in Reykjavik could not be applied at the national level, everywhere. The call for full-scale participatory democracy is as revolutionary as the call for the universal franchise was in the 19th century. What is needed is a vehicle similar in scale to the Chartist and suffragette movements.
There are precedents for environmental protests mutating into democratic revolutions: this is what helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our climate and extinction crises expose the failures of all quasi-democratic systems, and the blatant capture of ours by the power of money turns the UK into a global crucible.
In XR’s outrageous, reviled protests we see the beginnings of what could become a 21st-century democratic revolution. Through his incompetence, callousness and greed for power, Johnson has done us two favours: exposing the shallowness of our theatrical democracy, and creating a potential coalition ranging from hospital porters to supreme court judges. Now we must decide how to mobilise it.
o George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist