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Wanted: Real Utopias and real democracy

“Democracy has recently become extremely important and the key issue in politics.” You can count the political figures who say and mean that on the fingers of one hand. But that was the uncompromising message delivered by John McDonnell to Occupy London activists.

McDonnell is a rare breed in the shape of a Labour MP with principles and perspective. He had been invited to kick off a debate on democracy as part of the New Putney Debates, developing themes from the original debates in 1647 during the English Revolution.

This particular event, organised by the Real Democracy working group, had McDonnell pouring scorn on those who have claimed that the slow evolution of liberal democracy and its economic counterpart – capitalism – had culminated in the “end of history”, with the present system deemed the optimal form of the political voice of society. His alternative view is worth reflecting on:

But then along came the economic crisis of capitalism. People woke up realising that they have no control over their lives and that governments cannot control the economic system and cannot supply the basic necessities of life. Unemployment and insecurity is on a scale not seen for a long time. My constituency office is now organising food packages for local people.

We are at quite a crucial moment in our history. The idea of a system which is perfecting itself has failed. The debate now becomes fundamentally relevant to people as it did in the English civil war. People realised they had an opportunity to question and re-shape everything. Virtually every element of the establishment is now seen as exposed and corrupt. People are searching for alternatives and answers.

It is a time to start envisaging real utopias, based on democracy.  We need to address the state and the economy and the links between the two. People have lost confidence in the state system we have and the politicians within it. Representative democracy is not the last word.

A leading supporter of Occupy London responded that the last 30 years had led to a “society without power”. There was something fundamentally wrong and the problem was to animate people to do something about it.

Another raised the issue of globalisation and how it dominated economics and politics: can institutions such as the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and the United Nations democratised or do alternative international institutions need to be created?

The irreconcilable conflict that led to the original Putney Debates was powerfully brought to life in a performance at St Mary’s church, Putney on the exact day and venue that they took place 365 years ago.

Actors Damian LeBas as Leveller and senior military figure Thomas Rainborough, Michael Edwards as Henry Ireton (Cromwell’s son-in-law)  and Dominic Golding as John Wildman (civilian and probably the author of the Agreement of the People) were outstanding in an 11-strong cast, directed by Natasha Langridge in a rehearsed reading of Caryl Churchill’s play, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.

Earlier, speakers had brought out the inspirational significance of the English revolution, which, said one person, “everything in our political culture today tells us – ignore it, forget about it, it never really happened, and if it did it was only a minor insignificant event”.

Leveller demands in the Agreement of the People, seen as the basis for a new constitution, were far beyond their time and were rejected by the army grandees. But the fundamental thrust of their arguments about suffrage and natural rights were to re-emerge in centuries to come.

A contribution from A World to Win proposed a contemporary form of the Agreement to open up “a new page in democracy that would have to go hand and hand with a social revolution in terms of ownership and control of land, the economy and finance.”

The New Putney Debates have opened the doors for a wide discussion on different approaches: “make and mend”, regulation within the existing institutions or a revolutionary change. The Revolution Will be Networked assembly on November 17 will take up this challenge.

Corinna Lotz
29 October 2012

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