Democracy reloaded – radical reform of our broken governments

Bolivian students in one a Democracy in Practice project administer a lottery to select their student government representatives

Bolivian students in a Democracy in Practice project administer a lottery to select their student government representatives

I’ve spent enough time beefing about our failed government systems – now it’s time to go on the offensive with some positive proposals.

Below is my reworked list of the 10 things I’d do to fix our dysfunctional representative democracies.

So it’s not perfect? What’s yours then?

“10 Steps to heal our broken democracies”

1. Recognising the problem

Representative democracy is broken on its most basic measure – it fails to represent citizens’ wishes. We need radically better alternatives.

2. Setting the bar high

Democracy campaigners should champion the ideals embedded in the original Greek term demokratia. That means the power to govern lies with all citizens.

3. Talking about better democracy

We need media who are fiercely loyal to citizens’ interests and no one else’s. Journalists must understand the systemic failures underlying day-to-day political stories.

4. Democracy as a global issue

Real democracy cannot exist only at nation-state levels – issues like climate change and financial crises extend to the whole planet.

5. Democracy innovations

Even though the perfect democracy doesn’t yet exist and maybe never will we need multiple experiments to explore how best citizens can govern themselves.

6. Making democratic excellence everyday

Excellent governance involves learnable skills. We need an all-of-life learning programme, at home, in schools, in workplaces, in our communities and at all levels up to global.

7. Sharing best practices

We need journalism and social media to share stories about democracy experiments that work and how to do them elsewhere.

8. Taking a look at ourselves

Most people have entrenched ideas about democracy. We need to examine our own prejudices to see just how truly “democratic” we are so that we can all become better democrats.

9. Democracy as a universal right

Democracy champions should respect all people’s different religions, spiritual practices or ethical and moral codes. They should avoid dogmatism and help others renounce fanaticism.

10. Establishing democracy measures

Some representative democracies are better than others but none is good. We need measures to compare different versions so as to identify priority areas for reform.

@PatrickChalmers 23 September 2015                                                                          CC licence image

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Ten Steps to Improve Our Governance Systems

A Landsgemeinde (in 2009) of the Canton of Glarus, an example of direct democracy in Switzerland. CC BY-SA 3.0

A Landsgemeinde (in 2009) of the Canton of Glarus, an example of direct democracy in Switzerland. CC BY-SA 3.0

I was asked this week by Harald Schendera, an editor, web designer, and internet marketer, what were my 10 Steps to Improve Our Governance Systems. He put the question out of personal interest and also to help me clarify what I’m trying to do in re-designing my various web presences.

I was intrigued. No one had ever asked that before. So I decided to write up an answer.

A quick web search turned up this piece –  a very useful, if US-focused, list of 10 ways to democratize the economy by Gar Alperovitz and Keane Bhatt. I didn’t want to rip off their thought-provoking ideas, which include more use of participatory budgets, so I put it aside to draw up my own. The difference between the various search results I found and what I had in mind is that I’m trying to imagine a process that encompasses the local everywhere to the global, passing via nation statehood on the way.

The following is what I came up with. The order’s maybe a bit out of whack, but some of the essentials are there. Though the list will probably be a perpetual work in progress, it’s a start. What do you think?

1. To detail and make clear to as wide a possible public the problems of our current governance systems, prinicipally at nation-state level but also at higher and lower levels.

2. To promote a basic governance credo inspired by demokratia – from the original Greek notion of “demos” and “kratos” – the Greek words for “people” and “power” respectively.

“Democracy” would therefore mean something more like real power in the hands of a majority of the people living in any particular geographic area of government. “Representative democracy” – which drastically reduces the ambitions of Ancient Greece’s demokratia – has proved predictably liable to capture by narrow, self-interested parties.

3. To nurture, and join, independent media operations that understand the problems of our current governance systems and champion the cause of reform and root-and-branch innovation.

4. To encourage, and take part in, multiple experiments with governance mechanisms that go beyond representative democracy’s periodic elections, political parties and party candidates.

5. To document the experimentation processes, both for research purposes and to spread information about results, including the context of why they are happening, what they’re finding, how they might apply elsewhere.

6. To encourage people to learn about, engage with and become active in the scrutiny and holding to account of their local governance systems, the lowest level of government to which they are exposed.

7. To develop governance innovation toolkits, describing the range of possible governance innovations available and “how to” manuals of applying them locally, and making them free to use and share.

8. To encourage people to consider their own preconceived ideas about “democracy”, not just what it means and where it came from but also to consider just how “democratic” they are as individuals (a vote for me, but not my neighbour)

9. To encourage the use of, and to adopt oneself, inclusive language and thinking, the notion that any solution to the current problems in our governance systems must ultimately take a whole-planet approach. That approach would take into account not only every human on the planet, and future generations, but also all the animals, plants and the biosphere itself.

10. To be open to the respective religions, spiritual practices, or lack of the same, in all other people on the planet. At the same time, to be clear about the fundamental goals of mutual respect for, and non-violence towards, all other people. While violent self defence might be legitimate in certain circumstances, a well-functioning governance system would include mechanisms, and potentially societal penalties, to prevent its misuse.

CC licence image

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

What might Corbyn and his cohorts do on degrowth?

Jeremy Corbyn Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

Jeremy Corbyn Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty wrote an insightful piece about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership victory today, adding his usual depth to current events.

It prompted me to chip into the comments thread.

Great work – I invariably finish reading Aditya Chakrabortty’s pieces with a broader, deeper perspective than when I began – I’m grateful for that.

What interests me in addition to the above is the extent to which the debate about economic degrowth can get some much-needed traction.

It’s encouraging that Jeremy Corbyn has already included references to the terrible state of the global environment in his speeches, before and since winning the Labour leadership. His is also very good at joining the dots between issues that are usually treated in silos, bereft of any connection to their causes or consequences.

Will he and his entourage be open enough to make the link between our societies’ political obsession with economic growth and the state of our planet?

Degrowth has become a major preoccupation of mine, drawing together many different elements of our societal dysfunction. Part of my exploration has involved talking and exchanging emails with a social ecological economics professor – Professor Clive Spash – looking for a way to promote the issue of degrowth more effectlvely.

This is an area I intend to report more about, linking it together with Fraudcast News-style thoughts about retooling our failed democracies with the help of revitalised media.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Breathing for peace and reconciliation in Liberia

A mindfulness breathing technique born of Buddhism and the Vietnam war is helping peace and conflict resolution in Liberia. Harper Karmon, executive director of the Peace Hut Alliance for Conflict Transformation (PHACT), says the simple practice has greatly helped his organisation’s work with ex-combattants, including many child soldiers, and with war widows and children.

“This training has helped us to be very easy in working with people, helping them regaining their self esteem and reuniting families. Also, most especially, this training has also helped us in making great changes to our lives and our families,” he says.

Karmon was interviewed at Plum Village in southwest France, where he is taking part in the monastic centre’s month-long summer retreat.

Liberia’s civil war spanned two periods of fighting between 1989 and 2003. Almost 150,000 people died, mostly civilians, according to United Nations figures. Of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced, some 850,000 refugees ended up in neighbouring West African countries. PHACT’s work is intended to help heal the great suffering induced by war.

“We feel very strongly that this mindfulness training can make a great impact on the lives of the Liberian people,” Harper added.

PHACT uses a mindfulness training developed by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to help people live happily in the present moment, using their in and out breaths to sharpen their awareness. The idea is that by developing peace in themselves, people help build peace in the world. Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam in 1973, settling in France.

Contact: peacehutalliance [@] – removing the square brackets and spaces to form a complete email address.

Leave a comment

Filed under journalism, Mindfulness journalism, video activism

Talking about democracy – an interview from the frontline

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras - is democracy champion waving or drowning? Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras – is democracy champion waving or drowning? Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

It’s easy to rail about the failures of our governance systems – the unfairness of elections, the unaccountable behaviour of our governments or the grotesque abuse of democracy unfolding with Greece’s fiscal evisceration by fellow eurozone governments, the European Commission and the IMF.

These sorts of failures increasingly bumped up against my conventional understanding of politics when I worked as a salaried reporter up until 2005. To whom our governors are accountable was the question I found myself asking more and more – yet I struggled to find a satisfactory answer beyond the facile.

Fraudcast News was the fruit of my search for a response – writing the book allowed me to debunk my illusion that we live in anything approaching democracies as the term was originally defined – namely government by the people. I concluded the book with a pledge to explore alternatives to our many governance failures, using citizen journalism as a tool and tackling every level from local to global. That process has meant looking out for others who might be doing the same.

One such gem I discovered recently is Adam Cronkright, co-founder of the Bolivia-based Democracy In Practice.  He fell out of love with existing versions of democracy along a route that included Occupy Wall Street. His organisation majors on democratic innovation, experimentation and capacity-building at high-school scale in Cochabamba. I came across him earlier this year via the website Participedia, hooking up by email and then via internet voice calls to share frustrations about the state of democracy.

Adam and his colleagues are doing some great, real-world work in alternative government systems, which includes junking elections in favour of lottery systems to select student government bodies.

The following interview, which we recorded in early June 2015, gives a great flavour of what the work entails.

Feel free to respond in the comment thread or, if you’re involved with a similar project, get in touch for an interview of your own. There’s a big chance what you’re doing holds greater hope for decent, humane government than our current, mangled models.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Glints of light in our governance gloom

Attractive young Greek people used to make a politics article more enticing.  Photograph: Orhan Tsolak/Alamy

Attractive young Greek people used to make a politics article more enticing. Photograph: Orhan Tsolak/Alamy

Paul Mason is one of the few regular journalists I make a point of watching out for. He does a neat summary of the state of alternative politics in Greece and elsewhere in a comment piece featured in today’s Guardian edition.

It’s certainly worth a read, and a comment if you’re so inclined.

Good work, as always, from Paul Mason though he doesn’t take the question far enough in IMHO.The last paragraph is the important one:

“…we will know that a real new left has emerged when we begin to see its thinkers prioritise the redesign of institutions inherited from the 20th century, and the invention of new ones centred on the self, identity and structured to survive incessant change.”

I’m not that interested in terms such as “left” or “right”, they’re too exclusive for a planet of human beings.

I do totally agree that thinkers everywhere need to focus on radically redesigning institutions, not just those of the 20th century but all the way back to the 18th – when James Madison and friends emasculated notions of “democracy” to mean something very different from power in the hands of the people.

Funny that we should be coming full circle back to the Greeks, who invented the term and other governance variants such as oligarchy, aristocracy, monarchy and kleptocracy.

Their city states were undoubtedly bastions of the elite – women, the poor, the slaves and the foreign were not allowed any part in the governance system.

Nevertheless, those same elites had some cracking ideas about the dangers of elections – doomed to favour the rich, the beautiful and the most educated as opposed to the best governors or governance system – and some remedies in the form of lottery/sortition to choose political representatives at random from the eligible populous.

People are working on these ideas today – experimenting with governance systems that go way beyond elections. Syriza and friends are in the vanguard but they are not alone.

This is an all-too-rare place of hope

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, journalism

Communicating climate change – both tricky and urgent

Greenland river on ice, courtesy James Balog (

Greenland river on ice, courtesy James Balog (

I decided to jump into the comments stream on this Guardian-hosted event on the best ways to communicate climate solutions, as below. The format was somewhat of a shocker, requiring a read-through of multiple comments coming in at all angles, and yet produced various pointers to useful resources on the subject. It’s clear we are still stumbling along with global, real-time, communication events but that doesn’t mean they are worthless, quite the opposite.

So this was my contribution:

My experiences of communicating climate change – both as a journalist and as a university lecturer – is that it’s damn difficult. Just yesterday my students were saying – yeah, yeah, we know all that but what can we do?

I showed them the excellent TED talk by photographer James Balog – its time-lapse shots of melting glaciers are very arresting

I think it’s also important to bring things back to the personal, which in this case meant me, to help people map climate change onto their own lives. That is not for some personal glory trip but to try to make the abstract real.

So with me, I reported for Reuters at Kyoto in 1997, reported as an independent journalist on the personal experience of joining direct-action protests in Copenhagen in 2009 and wrote a book on the failures of journalism to tackle complex global issues such as climate change in Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies. The work represents a trajectory covering 30 years of thinking about climate change and how to tackle it. I also recently turned vegetarian, in part for the sorts of arguments presented in the documentary Cowspiracy. They loved that part, a classroom full of French 100% meat-eaters.

Some of them seemed to get it, many probably thought me plain barking mad, but what the hell, these things take time.

Other people’s responses, which include ridicule, disbelief and also aggressive counter argument and worse, are part of what we all have to deal with as communicators of climate change.

We must factor our capacities to deal with those reactions into our work.


Filed under democracy, journalism, video activism