Governance and culture

In transitioning to a resilient society there is both a need and a genuine opportunity to improve democratic decision making in Birmingham. Relatively new concepts like subsidiarity offer hope for a more empowering local politics, while worker co-operatives could extend this democratic power into the workplace. There is also an opportunity to develop education so that it helps us to: understand our cultural heritage; reconnect us with ancestral knowledge; and to nurture critical thinking, knowledge of natural systems, empathy, and creativity – essential cognitive skills to build a better world for ourselves and those generations to follow.

The problem

There is a deep inertia within British politics, which ultimately leaves a minority of elected officials to manage political and social affairs. Often this results in decisions being made in favour of big business, with money being the prime consideration. In Birmingham, for example, this has resulted in the sale of a number of public assets - many of which were actually profitable - to the detriment of local communities.

Nationally, we have a ruling Government that won just 24% of the UK electorate’s vote in the 2015 elections. 76% of the electorate did not vote for the Government. This calls for a change in the system to proportional representation, which would have ensured a wider variety of political representation in Parliament. But it also calls for more people to enter the realm of politics and for political activity to entail more than just voting.

Birmingham has a rich cultural heritage dating back many hundreds, if not thousands, of years; but we largely seem to identify the region with the industrial revolution, which started only a few hundred years ago. This process, considered an expression of what the political historian Karl Polanyi termed “The Great Transformation”, was actually a sorry period in the region’s history. It pulled people away from their land, forcing them into waged labour and polluted urban environments, while, ultimately, alienating them from their cultural and ancestral heritage.

Today Birmingham has a strong culture comprising music, dance, art, film, comedy, spoken word poetry and much more. It rightly celebrates its heritage and those of the various ethnic communities that make Birmingham such a richly diverse city. However, more could be done to unlock our ancestral past pre-industrial revolution.

In addition, we should consider the impact of art and culture on our ability to fashion a transition society. The relentless dose of apocalyptic visions coupled with the normalisation of violence we see in many Hollywood films may increase people’s feelings of helplessness. However, the rise of ecologically conscious and independent film, along with the local rise in environmental education centres, offers us a viable cultural alternative which could help to bring citizens into the political realm.

The solution

The New Economics Foundation argues for an expanded concept of “subsidiarity” to increase citizens’ democratic power. Subsidiarity is the idea that decisions are best taken at as local a scale as possible. It basically means moving real power away from the centre to devolved democratic bodies and giving local people a real say in how this power is exercised.

We are a long way from being able to implement a subsidiarity model formally in Birmingham. However, in the short term there is an opportunity to make local voices count by increasing citizen participation at neighbourhood and ward forums, and in increasing activism. This can take the form of petitions and protests, but more usefully might entail an increase in community based projects to reclaim the commons. For instance, in community gardens, art installations, local musical events, and farmers markets. Galvanising communities while reconnecting people with their land can only strengthen social cohesion, ultimately empowering citizens.

Democracy should not exist in isolation from the workplace either. According to Co-operatives UK people have a sense of powerlessness about the economy, with 58% of British people saying big businesses are out of control, and 57% saying individuals have no influence over the economy.

Co-operatives offer people the chance to make decisions in the workplace and to benefit from their labour rather than shareholders. Co-operatives give people a stake, creating greater engagement, interest and concern for the long term interests of the business. Sharing ownership boosts productivity by making employees and suppliers more likely to work hard to support the business. It harnesses innovation by giving those who understand the business best a reason to contribute to its development. Co-ops also set an example to wider society by discouraging hierarchy and promoting more equal pay.

Education is paramount to developing future generations’ environmental knowledge and their ability to adapt to a world without fossil fuels. Some great things are already happening in Birmingham with education centres such as Winson Green’s Centre of the Earth and Northfield’s Ecocentre specialising in teaching and learning about wildlife, the environment and sustainable development. But much more is needed.

Running separately from the National Curriculum are more developmental approaches to education; for example the Waldorf Education programme developed by Rudolf Steiner. Such an approach is based on an understanding of human development that addresses the needs of the growing child while seeking to establish enthusiasm for learning and work, a healthy self-awareness, interest and concern for fellow human beings, and a respect for the world. It also tries to help the children find meaning in their lives.

This method of education appears to eliminate the need for competitive testing, academic placement, and behavioristic rewards to motivate learning. Perhaps it is time we looked at our existing education system to see how we might develop well rounded human beings instead of simply preparing our children for the 9-5 rat race.

Narratives can help us to broaden our understanding and explore imagined futures, encouraging us to think about the kind of world we want to live in and inspiring us to gain the tools to achieve it. To quote the Guardian’s Rodge Glass: “This can often seem difficult in our 24‑hour news-on-loop society where the consequences of climate change may appear to be everywhere, but intelligent discussion of it often seems to be nowhere.” Online resources such as Films for Action offer largely free access to a plethora of eye-opening films and articles, which can both help us to understand our plight and provide solutions. Wider circulation of these resources via social media, community film events and alternative media – Our Birmingham for example – can help us to stoke citizens into action. So can expressing these imagined futures, whilst remembering Birmingham before the Great Transformation, in our art.

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