Does anyone else get the impression that current top-down and bottom-up political processes tend to achieve the reverse of what is intended? I was thinking about the consultation processes for the ward I’m registered in in Leeds, and the big society consultations advocated by David Cameron. Having participated in the consultation on the West Leeds Gateway Area Action Plan, I don’t get the impression it served any purpose other than legitimising the policy decisions already taken at top-level. Opinions were duly gathered and archived, but apparently had no impact on proceedings beyond that. Do most consultations end up like this? Not only is it a betrayal of the very intention of more direct democracy, but it actually also reinforces power at the top, defends principles of representative democracy despite all indications of failure in that area (election turnouts for example), and dilutes efforts to modernise politics.
At the other end of the scale, I would venture with regret that the nature of civil society organisations, which rarely coordinate, co-operate, or communicate shared goals, principles, or values, creates a very damaging dispersal of social power and energy. The age-old cliché of ‘stronger together’ is in fact borne out in the relative weakness of civil society faced with the power cravings of the ruling groups. It is too easy to dismiss as illegitimate, single-cause or interest groups because they are unrepresentative of the general population. This is particularly the case in France, where “community” is a word with negative connotations and evokes sects and cults. Places with more open social conflict such as Northern Ireland, Turkey, or the Basque Country, can very quickly interpret such group ethos/activity as terrorism, in spite of the comparatively similar characteristics of the ruling groups to those of the “terrorist” organisations. The potential tyranny of the majority is reinforced by the disparate groupings of civil society, demoting the bottom to an under-society.
I’d be very curious to know of any more successful sustained civil society co-operation. It seems to me that the “Stop the War” campaign and the recent “Indignados” and “Occupy” movements have achieved shared responsibility for common goals across multiple social groups. Aren’t they just momentary, single cause movements though? The development of civil society is very much on the agenda for development action and democratisation programmes, as demonstrated by the amount of EU funding in accession countries targeting it. In the UK, however, there appears to be a lot of rhetoric about enhancing civil society – Cameron’s Big Society – and yet very little concrete action. Indeed, Duncan Smith’s Centre of Social Justice promotes top-level reinforcement by consulting local authorities, NGOs, government agencies etc. without seeming to comprehend big society perhaps needs to include citizens too.
I think it’s all about instilling a sense of and desire for common shared responsibility across the general population. This calls for new approaches that incorporate greater dialogue and communication within communities, better understanding of shared goals and objectives, and, finally, legitimisation by top-level political representatives. The major challenge is to listen to each other, think collectively and work together – none of which, unfortunately, seem to be skills that are particularly nurtured in our cut-throat world.