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Movement of the Day: The Micro-Democracy Movement

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
4th March 2014


Excerpted from Pat Conaty:

Pat Conaty

“There is an interesting movement that gets little press but it pops up from time to time. It is called micro-democracy and it argues that the lowest tier of government and governance should activate and renew democracy from the base. This is relevant to CLTs because they were first conceptualised legally by Thomas Spence in the 1770s as Parish Land Trusts. Parish being the neighbourhood area surrounding a local church in a small town or a small urban quarter.

Spence argued for human rights linked and joined at the hip to land reform and made the case that land enclosures should be resisted by local people defending land from enclosure by bringing it into common ownership at each parish level. He saw this resistance happen in his home city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to protect the city moorland as commons land from enclosure. The local people of his city fought off the enclosure by popular democratic resistance and this inspired the articulation of his practical theory.

Unfortunately Thomas Paine did not make the arguments the same way and so the civil rights agenda of the Right of Man were not as Spence wanted, connected to property rights as a foundation for real robust democracy. The economic democracy argument of Spence was lost, but in other ways revived the co-operative sector as it emerged and trade unions but not so consciously as Spence saw things. The co-operative commonwealth thinkers or many of them understood this however.

180 years later the Gandhians in the 1950s led by Vinobha Bhave and JP Narayan revived these ideas as Gramdan or Village Land Gift movement. Tolstoy becomes the source here but with links back to Henry George, Mill who inspired George, then Owen (who did not acknowledge Spence) and earlier Spence. You could trace it back further to the Diggers who did not have a clear legal model in the way Spence conceptualised this. Modern CLTs spring from these two sources and others in between like the Owenites and the Chartist Land Company and Ruskin’s Guild of St. George.

Here in the UK occasionally you get action for empowering these parish areas or community areas of cities and indeed here in Wales and in Scotland we have Community Councils and in England these are called Parish councils in rural areas and sometimes neighbourhood councils in cities. They can and do in rural areas raise a small tax for their area via the city or local council district. These movements though are not connected to land reform and this is a real problem if we want to advance the Commons movement on sound foundations.

However and always overlooked, Ebenezer Howard built Letchworth Garden City from 1903 with co-operative activists and social investment from Quakers and other social investors by buying some 5600 acres of rural land and using the local Parish Council at rural Letchworth, the village name, to co-develop a city for 33,000 people stage by stage over 50 years. Howard’s work spread to Belgium and influenced the garden city work around Brussels from the 1920s. Rather incongruous until you recall that all land was nationalised in Russia, even Stalingrad’s rebuilding was influenced by the garden city ideas as Lenin had been influenced by Letchworth when he visited and stayed there for a short time in its early building period before 1910.” (email, February 2014)

Pat continues:

“You can see the connectivity of all these political and social economy parts here. A commons movement linked to co-operative economic democracy and sympathetic local politicians could do the same again. Indeed we must pursue this and in my view it would work. The Gandhian Gramdan movement has struggled over the years because of difficulties in solving the co-operative capital question, but we are getting closer to solving this problem now. Ralph Borsodi worked with JP Narayan to tackle this issue but in the end solved it in the USA in an early way, when he and Bob Swann set up the ICE Community Loan Fund in the 1970s just before Borsodi died. This I believe was the first community development loan fund that was mutually owned in the world. Today these funds are ubiquitous in the USA and we have 65 of them in the UK.

In recent years I have referred to this sleeping micro-democracy giant and activist co-ops that empower their members and cultivate the spirit of a new demos as Daily Democracy like the making of daily bread. Though few people do either these days but with widening land and co-operative capital access, local food growing would expand, local self-build housing and lots of what Schumacher called Good work would be unleashed and explode into vibrant life everywhere. Daily bread making would take off also, but without cultivating the daily democracy culture, we cannot these pawns forward and convert them into bigger chess pieces.

I am hopeful though. Social co-operatives springing up and spreading in Europe now and from Quebec to parts of the USA could be a social and ecological economic vanguard for this Daily democracy movement. So and yes, latent surely, but this could change if together we could articulate these DNA elements sharply and compellingly to help bring together and unite the Blessed unrest of commoners doing wonderful commons building things.

Social-public partnerships would involve micro-democracy change agents linked up especially with currently disempowered local government to co-develop decentralising change and in doing so renewing and rebuilding democracy locality by locality. This really is Guild socialism revived or what John Stuart Mill saw in his fragmentary writings on socialism as micro-democracy in action leading to workplace and civic institution democracy.

The so-called House of Commons (representing taxpayers from communes) grew out of commoners taking action via the Levellers and the Diggers. They wanted yearly Parliaments and much more and of course the ending of the House of Lords that disappeared during the brief commonwealth under Cromwell. In the 1820 after trade unions were at last legalised, working people had no votes (except in their unions and early co-ops) so they set up their own local parliaments. The city of Birmingham municipal system was driven by a powerful base of unified grassroots action finding common cause with local businesses. . Interestingly construction and bullding trade unions were at the forefront of this direct action in Birmingham. The first meetings in the 1820s were called the Builders Parliament.”

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