What does Egypt tell us about democracy?

All the media comments about the Egyptian army’s ‘coup’ take for granted that the model of ‘democracy’ in the West is obviously right and the best.  We assume that a party with a parliamentary majority, no matter how slim, and regardless of whether it reflects a majority of the voters, can impose it’s will on the country.  This approach is actually an elected dictatorship, that legitimises ignoring the will and desires of minorities.

As we explore new forms of social contract, with more autonomy towards communities, one dimension must also be a new approach to democracy, that is much more oriented to consensus, and to autonomy within connection at all levels.  So the new vision is one where all are respected and given as much control over their own lives as possible, not one where an elected group can run roughshod over the rest.




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Rob Hopkins at Downham Market

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I had a lovely afternoon when Rob Hopkins came to Downham Market for one of the ‘Transition Thursdays’. It was a delightful little event, with about 20 people, in the garden of John and Carol’s eco-house in Stoke Ferry. After the usual wonderful Transition shared lunch we talked about what it is about Transition that adds to the usual projects that people undertake.

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AJUDADA: Third day – Hands

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The theme for the third day was ‘hands’ and was dominated by doing practical work.  The Council gave us (free of course) a one year lease on an unused building that was a real mess. The building had formerly been used by a motorcycle dealer and had some very interesting interior spaces, a big mirror wall, what might have been a bar, a raised platform, and several tiled rooms that might have been workshops.  The floor was rough pieces of slate, which I felt would be very difficult for dancing.

One group spent the day at the building and cleaned and painted it, while others stayed in the park to make furnishings for it. By the end of the day, most of the exterior was painted, but I don’t think the interior had been started. The furnishings included tables and sofas made from wooden pallets and cork, a marvelous wall hanging, and some cushions and curtains made by a sewing group. Everything was made of reused, donated materials. A local sculptor spent most of the day making a wall plaque for us.

The atmosphere in the park was very relaxed.  Lots of people were busy making stuff for the building. We had a great picnic lunch, with all sorts of food that people had donated.  In the afternoon, to accompany the work, was a series of music and dance performances by local artists on the bandstand near where we were working.

My overall reactions to AJUDADA

I was totally blown away by the event, and still haven’t come down to Earth. Perhaps most powerful for me was the depth of connection I found with people, so many of whom I now think of as very good friends. And such interesting, intelligent and committed people they all are! And of course everyone came and contributed at their own expense, out of commitment to the idea of the event.

The largest proportion of the people who attended were from all over Portugal, more than from Portalegre, with a sprinkling from around Europe and a few further afield, but many of the volunteers doing the detailed work and making the food were from Portalegre.  There was a sense of like minded people from the whole country coming together, to help Portalegre and also to find out how they can work together afterwards.

And of course there were many inspiring and informative workshops and presentations, as well as lovely entertainment and lasting works of art (like a wall mural painted by school children). The programme was huge and wonderfully creative. The details, like the cork badges, and all the signs and posters, very artistic. It is hard to believe the group of organisers could manage so much in such a short time.

We don’t know what this will all lead to in the future, but we had a taste of a living gift economy, and the unpredictability of it is a large part of its charm.  The mood and openness of everyone was wonderful.  I am sure that it will have a wonderful effect on Portalegre, on Portugal and on all of us who were there.

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AJUDADA: Second day – heart

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I’m writing this report of the second day of AJUDADA on the morning of the third day, which promises to be great too, as we are turning a derelict building into a permanent home for AJUDADA. More on that tomorrow. … Continue reading

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AJUDADA: First day – head

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The first day of AJUDADA is now over, and I’m back at the home of Olga, who is putting up a lot of us, including Charles Eisenstein and a group from Tamera community.

All parts of the day were special.  Registration was in an old church, and people were given wonderful badges that were hand made from slices of cork, a Portuguese speciality, with cork oaks trees all over.

The opening introductions were out in the open, but only about 100 people were there. Many more arrived during the day, and nearly 700 are expected overall. There is a wide age range, including a group of children, with various activities arranged for them.  I think I am probably the oldest.  Most are Portuguese, but some were from the rest of Europe, and even some from Brazil, Columbia, New Zealand and the USA.

After the introductions, we went into the Cultural Centre for a series of ‘Flash’ or short presentations from people and groups with relevant projects, including bicycles in Portalegre, Portalegre in Transition, Bioenergy and of course, AJUDADA itself. All events had immediate translations into Portuguese or English, depending on the language of the presenter, which was quite a strange experience.  It highlighted the diversity among us, but did slow down everything.

We then walked across town to the public market, where I had worked yesterday on the exhibition, for lunch, which was a lovely salad, prepared for us by volunteers. But by the time we had eaten, and walked back, we were nearly an hour late starting the afternoon programme.  The first event was a round table discussion, between Charles Eisestein, Ana Margarida Esteves, Anselm Jappe and me. People seemed to like it, as it led to quite a few interesting conversations for me. After that, there was another series of Flash presentations.  My favourite was a short film made this morning by a group of small children, who were all there in the auditorium.  After the film each of the were asked to say what children could offer to AJUDADA more than adults!  Very sweet.

From there, we again walked across town, this time to the secondary school, where we had two ‘fish bowl’ discussions, one in English and one in Portuguese, the only events of the day without translation. For me, this was the highlight of the day.  For a fish bowl, there are five chairs in the middle of the room, which are for the people who want to speak.  Anyone in the room can choose to speak, but only 4 are filled at one time.  When someone fills the 5th, someone in one of the others must leave. So there is quite a rapid turnover of speakers, and all are equal.  People told there stories and others commented on them.  Much of the time was spent with one women who started by saving she was a farmer, but it turned out she was actually pioneering a bit of gift economy around her.

We finished the day with another meal, quite similar to lunch, with lots of interesting conversations.

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AJUDADA: final preparations

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I arrived in Portalegre yesterday evening and I’m very excited to be here.  Alvaro collected me and Juan del Rio, and drove us to an old church in Portalegre, where a large group of people were working hard at the remaining tasks before AJUDADA starts on Friday.

The three of us went out for dinner, and to get a flavour of Portalegre. It turns out that it was a special day, the feast day of San Antonio. It seemed like the whole town was in the streets, eating sardines and dancing to live music.  We joined in with that.

Then we went back to the church, where the meeting was continuing into the night. It was after midnight when we left and they were still going strong, but looking very tired.

Today, we reassembled, and they gave us a task. We went to the Public Market, where all the AJUDADA participants will be eating, to set up an exhibition of ‘letters to Portalegre’ which were little art objects from all over Europe.  We left space for the participants to add their own later in the week. The Market is a large and quite handsome public space that is hardly used these days, due to competition fron the supermarkets.  Of course, it would be ideal for use by a localised gift economy.  Perhaps that might be an eventual outcome of AJUDADA.

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Charter for a New Financial System?

I read a post from Positive Money, for whom I have a lot of respect, on a “Charter for a New Financial System” with mixed feelings.

It is a report on a conference called Transforming Finance, held in London just last week. The Charter they produced is supported by many far sighted people, concerned not just with finance, but with environmental and social change issues: The Finance Innovation Lab, New Economics Foundation, Share Action, Positive Money, Move Your Money, Friends of the Earth, Ecology Building Society, SPICE.

There is a lot that I like in this Charter. It says:

  • Since the crisis of 2008, the failure of our financial system to deliver benefits for society, the economy or the environment has been a perennial feature of mainstream political debate.
  • the conditions for transforming finance are now in place at European and national level, and that, with sufficient political will, 2013 could be the year where it starts to happen
  • a new wave of financial providers, be they ethical banks, new entrants, state sponsored entities, social finance or peer to peer platforms, is being proved in the marketplace

Their proposals are that the banking sector needs to be transformed in the following ways:

  • There should be no bank in the system which is too big to fail, so the taxpayer is not underwriting their costs with an implicit subsidy.
  • Retail and investment banking should be regarded as entirely different businesses and separated accordingly.
  • There should be increased competition and diversity within retail banking allowing for frequent new entrants, and exits, multiple ownership models including mutuals, credit unions, local banks and sector banks.
  • Banks should ensure they invest a far higher proportion of their balance sheets to the real (non-financial) economy and for productive uses. Policy should be actively used to reduce speculation and the creation of asset bubbles.
  • There should be a permanent and legitimate role for the state in banking, at a local or national level, either to reduce the cost of risk capital for socially desirable activities and innovation, or to influence the overall allocation of credit to the economy.

and especially:

  • investment institutions should understand and take into account the social, environmental and other systemic consequences of their investments; the legal framework must support and encourage this.

These are very significant changes to the financial system and I’m sure would reduce some of our current difficulties.

So then, what is it that I am unhappy about?  I suppose it is the sense (which is implicit in their vision) that the overall shape of the economy will be largely the same as it is now.  There will be companies and institutions competing in a market place, funded by banks and some new financial institutions, regulated by governments.

For me, the deepest problem now is that we have an ‘upside-down economy’ where the purpose (enshrined in law and their governing articles) of our major companies and other productive enterprises is to provide financial return to their shareholders. This is very different from a purpose which is to serve human and natural wellbeing in their area of operation, which comes out very much second best, if it is addressed at all.  I don’t see this charter as addressing that explicitly, although there are nods in that direction.  Without that deep change of purpose, I can’t see how there will be a change away from the increasing wealth inequality and environmental destruction that characterises our current economic system.

Moreover, if it is wellbeing and not financial return that is the driving force for productive enterprises, and if we are to optimise our economy for that, it will need to be largely co-operative, not competitive, and locally-based although regionally and globally co-ordinated.  I spell all this out extensively in my book, eGaia, Growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through communications. (Available to download on this website, and I’m currently working on an up to date second edition.)

None of this is addressed in this Charter, well-meaning as it is, and in its own terms, deep and radical. And so, this Charter will be seen as a radical document, attracting the enthusiasm and zeal of many people, who will campaign for it as though it really were the solution we need!

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