Let citizens decide!
I glued myself to the street to get that slogan across. It’s the third demand of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and it’s about deliberative democracy. I’ve been a big fan of the concept ever since I read David van Reybrouck’s Tegen Verkiezingen. In the pamflet, he summarizes how giving political decision power to randomly assembled groups of citizens might resolve a lot of the issues that our current political system is facing. The idea is that deliberation is better than representation because a citizens assembly wouldn’t have to worry about being re-elected and would be better at finding democratic solutions to complex problems, because it is citizens making the decisions, instead of citizens being asked for their reduced opinion (choosing a party) once every few years. XR demands that the government sets up a citizens assembly that decides about the climate and ecological crises.
I am a staunch supporter of the idea, but have always had some doubt whether it is really going to be the Holy Grail of climate action. Didn’t we all receive the furious flyers in our mailbox, protesting the handful of windmills that the municipality wants to build? And didn’t farmers cause ten times as much disruption than XR ever has, after they had to diminish their livestock to protect our nature from asphyxiation? Yes, in a citizens assembly, people’s interests are more directly represented and people will also feel more represented, but will that create the support base for the radical change we need?
I found an argument to substantiate my concerns in an interview with Derk Loorbach, professor of socio-economic transitions at Erasmus University. He sees citizens assemblies as a “very necessary, but by definition also limited solution, because you continue to operate within the idea of a rational decision and policy-making model: you consult in a limited circle about a complex social issue and then come up with solutions that […] have to be implemented by someone else.” According to Loorbach, we should also look for democracy in the work that people do for the public good: “Work for initiatives like public gardens, energy cooperatives and car sharing initiatives”.
The interview made me think of my uncle Paul, who is working on collective plans in his neighbourhood to switch from natural gas to renewable heating. For this blog, I travelled to Arnhem, in the east of the country, to talk to him about his experiences. What I learned: we need more than just a citizens assembly, we need direct democracy on all levels of society.
Paul Vlaar used to be a community worker. His job was formed in the post-war era, when the government wanted to renew the cities by demolishing and changing old neighbourhoods. Soon, it turned out that this invoked a lot of opposition from the people living in the designated areas, making the plans unachievable. As a response, the job of community worker was created. Paul and his colleagues were tasked to go into problematic neighbourhoods and mobilize and organize the inhabitants, so that they could negotiate their own plans with the government and the housing companies.
Paul describes his old job as ‘voice giving’: “People, especially in low income and low education areas, have the idea that their input doesn’t matter. That the government decides everything and that they have nothing to say. It paralyzes them and makes them dig in their heels: When the government wants to renovate housing, they’ll refuse to get out.” Community workers would go into these neighbourhoods, get to know the inhabitants and help them with organising themselves. In Paul’s experience, this helped resolve the impasses: “As soon as there is the possibility of a conversation between the parties, the relationships change and more becomes possible.”
After his retirement, Paul used his experience to join a group of people from his area, which was developing plans to create a local, sustainable heat network. The group was inspired by Denmark, where a substantial amount of the electricity supply comes from local cooperatives. In such a cooperative, civilians collectively own their local energy production and the profits of the initial investments go back to the community. Paul and his group were some of the first ones in The Netherlands planning on setting a similar cooperative for heat.
They made extensive plans, organized well-visited meet-ups and even found a landowner who was willing to rent them land for solar heat panels. But when the costs turned out to be higher than expected, the municipality one-sidedly pulled out the plug of the project: “First, they had been presenting our work as their merit, but when things got a bit more tough, they were too scared of political consequences to even discuss solutions with us.”
The group is now working on a hopeful alternative to the initial plan, but Paul has also started working on a parallel project. He realized that in less prosperous neighbourhoods than his, initiatives like theirs might not naturally start. He saw the national government making plans for the energy transition, but knew from experience that such top-down plans won’t be successful if the people involved aren’t included in the decision making from the start. That is why he has started to lobby to revive his old profession, in the context of the energy transition.
He told me that when you read the government evaluation of the gas free neighbourhood programme, you notice they struggle to reach civilians and that they try to fix that by hiring a communications agency. Paul knows this won’t work: “The problem is that you need mutual trust, and it takes a few years to get that. When I visit government officials, I tell them: “You think that you want the best for a neighbourhood, but those local residents don’t see you as an ally, they see you as an opponent.”’ It’s not a message which they like to hear.
To get things done, Paul told me, the government needs to establish real relationships with civilians and include them in the decision making from an early stage. To make the transition from gas attractive for everyone, we should combine it with renovation of social housing. And all that time, national politics should keep its back straight: “When policy is constantly drifting,I notice much more resistance on the street.”
On the train back from Arnhem, I concluded that local democracy is the key to a smooth transition to renewable energy. We need to extend the idea of deliberative democracy to all scales of society, with a focus on the local. The government should be a facilitating one to its civilians, not a ruling one. “Top-down and bottom-up have to meet somewhere in the middle”, Paul told me.
But our problems, of course, don’t end when our houses no longer run on gas. We need to stop overconsumption, pollution, deforestation, growing inequality, and, while we’re at it, perhaps also the century long exploitation of the Global South. I believe that local, deliberative democracy is an essential first step to solve those problems. Whereas politicians are stuck in a field of forces which doesn’t allow them to take the necessary action, informed civilians would not be restricted to come to the right conclusions. (And here’s a crazy idea: maybe we could resolve the problem of companies being a slave to the market and their shareholders, by seizing the means of production and making companies democratic cooperatives.)
The idea of ‘a participation society’ has been talked about before in Dutch politics, but it should not be a hoax for a neoliberal agenda. We need to create a culture where government officials trust it’s civilians and vice versa. Where residents are locally engaged and where neighbourhoods have self-determination. This doesn’t mean that we should all be in hundreds of local committees. As a community worker, Paul used to work with a dozen residents consistently, but they would talk to the rest of the community to hear about their wishes and concerns. A culture of local direct democracy is about feeling represented and empowered, about all people being taken seriously.
I think that the ruling class, which prides itself on being democratic, actually has a fear of the opinions of the lower classes. The fight to change this might be the most important struggle of the 21st century. And the nice thing is that it doesn’t have to start with revolution. We are being educated to be a part of this ruling class, and we can start changing this culture in our institutions. We can make our schools, companies and clubs more democratic. This change in culture is the necessary first step towards the climate justice which we so desperately need.