One evening in León, the main square was taken over by large crowds of chanting young people, waving banners and brandishing megaphones. What was going on? I made some enquiries, and discovered it was a Real Democracy NOW protest. People were taking to the streets to protest against austerity measures, and to demand a meaningful dialogue about the alternatives.
Up until now I’ve been sceptical about these protests in Britain. The economy is in a mess. The banks are on the edge and the government is broke. There is going to be some pain. And we all have to bite the bullet.
But I have started to be won round. The thing is, it’s not just our economic system that is in a mess – it’s our political system too. Very few people feel genuinely represented by the politicians of any main party. Corruption in politics appears to be endemic, with the expenses scandal, illicit Ministerial advisers, and royal involvement in the development of legislation, all attracting headlines. And while we are merrily cutting spending on health, education, and services for the vulnerable, there are a number of obvious targets that are escaping remarkably unscathed – large scale corporate tax evasion, for example.
It turns out I’m not the only one to think so. Leaders from the Methodist, Baptist, Quakers and United Reformed Churches have joined together to write an open letter to the Chancellor in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph urging him to take stronger action, condemning such tax avoidance as “morally unacceptable”. You can join the Church Action on Poverty campaign to address tax avoidance by signing the letter to the Chancellor here.
But as soon as I start to make semi-positive noises in support of the protesters, I get roundly lambasted for harbouring “socialist sympathies”.
Let’s get this cleared up once and for all. I am not a communist. I am not a socialist. I love capitalism. I love my freedoms, my rights, my high street fashion stores and my uber-chic caffé macchiato served from a dozen competing coffee houses within a square mile of my front door.
So do most of the protesters. The facile bevvy of newspaper articles mocking protesters for criticising capitalism while surfing the net on their brand new latest model iphones and clutching their Starbucks coffee cups are missing the point.
Most of the protesters do not want to abolish capitalism. They are not the misguided and uneducated hippy drop-outs that you think. They want to see a real debate on the issues. The Spanish Real Democracy NOW movement started from a campaign to replace representative democracy with grassroots participatory democracy: a system where everyone gets a say and a stake in how things are run. This is the basis of the protests across the globe. This is the ideal of open and transparent people’s assemblies and large scale consensus decision making. Difficult to scale up and implement in practice, for sure. But a much more faithful vision of democracy than the failed reality of pontificating politicians that we jeer at on TV.
And the ideas coming out of these hotbeds of reinvigorated democracy? Well, they are as diverse as the protesters themselves. Some are sensible, some are unworkable. I would invite you to read this article proposing ten ideas for change, including a universal citizen’s inheritance at 18, a national investment bank, a government programme of domestic housing insulation, community ownership of local public assets, a crack-down on large scale corporate tax evasion (it’s a theme). I don’t agree with all of them, but that’s ok. The point is that we should be having a debate. We are facing extraordinary times. Unprecedented problems require unprecedented solutions. There is a genuine opportunity here for a real rethink of how we go about things. Slashing budgets for existing policies and continuing with business as usual might be one option, but it’s by no means the only one worth looking at.