People's Assemblies to People's Power
Saturday 22 October 2011
A gifted group of performers joined forces with campaigners to reflect on how people’s assemblies could take up the challenge of finding ways to go beyond the current unsustainable system.
Poets the Bros Grim and Rena Dipti Annobil of Caste Away Arts, and singer-songwriter David Goo provided deep-reaching food for thought as they opened up People’s Assemblies to People’s Power event at the Passing Clouds music collective in Dalston.
They were joined by “mountain poet” and translator Stephen Watts and distinguished Iraqi exile Adnan al-Sayegh, whose words in Arabic seamlessly crossed the language barrier. Songs by the multi-talented writer Cornelius searched out the child in everyone, while Giuseppe Nieddu mesmerised on the didgeridoo.
The Oct 15 day of global action saw a synergy between the Real Democracy Now (DRY) movement, the Wall Street occupation and the Arab awakening which were inspiring people around the world, said Mark Barrett of People's Assemblies Network. People’s assemblies, he said, were “not a union, or a pressure group” but a form of horizontal democracy and an organisational strategy for our time. At the same time they could fall prey to the “tyranny of structurelessness”. There could also be a danger of assemblies being co-opted by people who were too close to the media and who spoke for others.
Britain had witnessed a corporate coup d’etat after the last election when the coalition was formed, Paul Brandon, national secretary of the Right to Work organisation, told the meeting. This unelected government was making workers pay for a crisis they had not caused. Assemblies needed to link up with workers in order to gain political momentum in the run up to the 30 November public sector strikes for pension rights. “People do not feel represented and they like the idea of coming together to channel opposition to the status quo and thrust it forward. This may lead to an eventual confrontation with the state. Assemblies could pitch themselves against the present ownership of capital, the means of production and land and address the distribution of wealth”, Brandon said.
A World to Win communication editor, Paul Feldman, emphasised the conflict between the democratic “shell” of politics in Britain – the legacy of centuries of struggle for rights – and the content which was the rule of a “corporate minority through political proxies”. This historic contradiction was at a breaking point.
“People’s assemblies could become the midwives of a new political democracy which would reflect all sections of society in the firing line as
permanent standing bodies that could become an alternative to failed political structures and create a new constitution.” The word from its Greek origins meant people power “Let’s make it so,” Feldman said.
Sirio Canós Donnay, from the Spanish democracy campaign in London, said the role of assemblies should be to reclaim politics and de-alienate people. “The current system is rotten to the core. Assemblies could come up with amazing ideas due to the collective power of thought which is both humbling and empowering,” she said. “We should not focus only on the Stock Exchange but take assemblies into communities, both global and local.”
People’s assembly campaigner Andy Paice said he had come to the idea of assemblies through his interest in psychology and the notion that there is a subperson within ourselves. It was crucial not just to protest but to try to create something different as an alternative. “Sitting down with a huge number of people and sharing ideas and opinions openly in a friendly way is so simple, but also so massively revolutionary and an amazingly powerful thing. It’s what our atomised society needs right now.”
“Millions of people involved in community work are being squeezed. We are trying to show people in our constituency that what they do is more political than ever before and to rediscover the power of collective action and assemblies,” said Andy Benson of the National Coalition for Independent Action. He stressed the role of an “ungoverned space” where people could do what they want. “A lot of people know that we are in a crisis and they appreciate leadership against the catastrophe being visited upon us.”
Singer-writer Cornelius noted that assemblies could combat the fear-based psychology instilled in young people. Community campaigner Selma Piro, who chaired the discussion, concluded that long-term actions combined with a sense of urgency were vital. Brandon said that linking up the notion of people coming together in an assembly with millions of workers in key sections involved in strikes and other actions was a potential way of leaping forward.