Rethinking Europe

When Loya Jirga Meets Extinction Rebellion

To save our democracies from rising levels of frustration, we need more citizen councils.

Takeaways


  • Deliberative democracy is a means to reach consensus on issues of national importance.
  • The core idea of deliberative democracy is to restore the cooperation and community cohesion that has been lost through increased urbanization.
  • To save our democracies from rising levels of frustration, we need more citizen councils.
  • By involving a diverse array of citizens in the process of decision-making, the odds are rising to arrive at policy that represents the public’s best interests.
  • Our professionalized form of democracy in the UK has not performed well in recent years. That has created an opening for Extinction Rebellion.
  • The vision for citizen assemblies is more aligned with the concept of a Loya Jirga -- a gathering of different ethnic, religious and tribal communities in Afghanistan.

As countries around the world begin to realign their economies around the presence of coronavirus, the mood in the United Kingdom is particularly somber.

Even as shops and restaurants are opening, public opinion is split between those who support the government’s measures to reinvigorate the economy and those who believe them ill-prepared and negligent.

More civil than our American cousins

In that regard, Britons act as true cousins of the Americans, where the public debate is similarly divisive.

Compared to the gun-toting, absolute helter-skelter style of debate that prevails in the United States, the public debate in the UK is still quite civil.

At the same time, a high level of domestic friction has prevailed in the UK ever since the onset of the 2016 Brexit referendum. It has polarized the UK politically, leaving deep scars.

The importance of facilitated public dialogue

If the time that has passed since then has made anything clear, it is this: Our country badly needs transparent, inclusive and informed public debates about the parameters of major policy changes — such as exiting the EU.

In that regard, the present tensions surrounding the UK’s COVID 19 policy as well as the Black Lives Matter protests only reinforce the need for a much broader acceptance of facilitated public dialogue.

The future of our democracy and the integrity of our country may depend on it.

Citizen engagement is not just a phrase

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, The Royal Society of Arts (RSA), a London-based think tank, received funding to trial a “Citizens’ Economic Council.”

Its purpose was twofold: First, to support a group of randomly selected citizens to better understand economics and economic policy-making. And second, to enable the researchers accompanying the project to interpret the actual barriers to engagement.

Unfortunately, despite gaining support from the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, the Council was not developed beyond its initial scope.

Deliberative democracy, i.e., the processes required to heighten democratic participation beyond just the ranks of professional politicians, is a means to reach consensus on issues of national importance.

While this deliberative process is widely favored by the left, it is often dismissed by the right, presumably due to cost implications and the sheer messiness of implementation.

We are at a tipping point

Yet, in the UK at least, things may have reached a tipping point. Our professionalized form of democracy really has not performed well in recent years.

That has created an opening which was seized by Extinction Rebellion, the climate movement that has achieved astonishing levels of public awareness.

Extinction Rebellion and the Macron-inspired French precedent

The movement’s third demand is for a Citizens’ Assembly (or assemblies), on climate and ecological justice. But this is no longer just “leftie” or radical stuff. In fact, in neighboring France, Emmanuel Macron committed to such an approach during his presidential campaign.

Not only that. After a year-long consultative and deliberative process, France’s Climate Council citizen assembly just published its consensus-based list of policy priorities.

Should fear or innovation rule?

This French precedent should allow other audiences to look at the concept of Extinction Rebellion with a more open mind.

Yes, there have been some street protests that have alarmed the general citizenry, from London and Washington D.C. to Berlin.

Ideas for transforming democracy

But we are much better served to look at the conceptual dimension. Extinction Rebellion advocates for a wider remit of system change.

However, its Future Democracy hub offers a range of ideas for transforming democracy, including Flatpackery — the process of taking over an ineffective local authority.

If we are being honest, our current democratic processes and systems deliver quite suboptimal results.

Just complaining about incompetent mayors, ministers or local council members is not an avenue that offers much hope for progress and constructive solutions.

Given that, we should be more open to new avenues that may enhance our democracies.

From rethinking to regeneration

Underpinning Extinction Rebellion’s deliberative democracy agenda is the notion of creating a regenerative culture.

The core idea of deliberative democracy is to restore the cooperation and community cohesion that has been lost through increased urbanization.

Doing it like the Afghan villagers?

The vision for Citizen Assemblies is more aligned with the concept of a Loya Jirga (grand council in Pashto).

On various levels of governance, from the local and regional to the national level, this describes a gathering of different ethnic, religious and tribal communities within Afghanistan, in order to make important decisions.

How a Loya Jirga functions

A Loya Jirga would typically include elected representatives while “a certain number of seats are reserved for women, refugees, nomads and members of civil society.”

By involving a diverse array of citizens in the process of decision-making, the odds are rising to arrive at policy that represents the public’s best interests.

However, reaching consensus is only one side of the coin. The other, less lauded side of deliberative democracy is the long-term impact on the individuals involved.

Downsizing the “experts”

The findings from the RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council in the UK, demonstrated that many participants’ perceptions were fundamentally changed by their involvement in the Council process.

Their belief that economics lay strictly within the realm of “experts” altered as they were able to appreciate the degree to which personal values and judgements play a role. As a result, they reported feeling more confident engaging in public debate.

Crucially, the experience of working in groups to devise economic policy increased empathy with politicians and the compromises they must make.

Hands-on democracy

But more importantly, the Council facilitated an environment where individuals from different backgrounds could engage in respectful dialogue about difficult and controversial issues.

This alone has the capacity to strengthen democracy, heal social divisions and increase political engagement.

However, Extinction Rebellion’s demand for Citizen’s Assemblies will not achieve this. The Assemblies involve too few citizens to be transformative.

Trust the people, stupid!

An alternative project that has emerged out of Extinction Rebellion (though it has shed the branding and is collaborating with organizations and movements beyond XR), and could fill the gap, is a grassroots initiative called “Trust the People.”

Following in the footsteps of the neighborhood mutual aid groups that surfaced in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trust the People aims to take deliberative democracy to the streets by giving communities the resources and training to run neighborhood assemblies.

The goal isn’t necessarily consensus, it’s inclusivity, a stronger embrace of democracy and the reclamation of citizenship.

Don’t forget education

Although it is assumed to be for general public consumption, the current discourse around deliberative democracy is confusing and underdeveloped.

And, the conversation is largely owned and led by think tanks. Until the processes themselves are owned by citizens and communities, they will not reach their full potential.

Without proper investment in this area, the risk is that important debates about the future of the UK will continue, but in unfacilitated spaces online.

The net effect of this negligent approach is that it systematically increases misunderstandings and hostility, while the goal should be to reduce them. As a result, identity politics reigns supreme. But that is not how conflicts are constructively resolved in a democracy.

Where is BoJo?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he wants to use coronavirus as an opportunity to “fix” long unresolved challenges and that “we have a mission to unite and level up.”

That is all well. But I wonder: Without meaningful forums that really do unite and level the playing field in our country, will anything be any different?

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About Alex Barker

Alex Barker is an independent writer, speaker and facilitator.

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