Alternative Editorial: Are Global Eyes Wide Open?

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By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator of The Alternative UK

Most people know global think tank Chatham House for its famous ‘Rules’ – stipulating that nothing that’s said within its portals can be repeated outside. In ordinary meetings up and down the country, people murmur “Chatham House Rules” and instantly the space is made secure.

But as is often the case with practices passed between institutions, some of the intention behind those rules is easily lost. As Director, Dr Robin Niblett said at the opening of this year’s annual London conference, because of the popular understanding of their “Rules”, many people think of Chatham House as a closed culture. Whereas the real purpose of their Rules is to give participants the confidence that they can speak openly and honestly, without the dangers of being misquoted.

This is an exciting prospect, when so many of the participants at their conferences are national and global leaders. Expositors of the Chinese Dream and Saudi Princes are often challenged directly by Directors of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or students of international relations. Having said that, it’s always a formal setting. Conversations are conducted with heavy doses of British reserve, in the language and style of international diplomacy.

So I was reasonably excited when Robin opened this year’s London conference with an act of culture change. For the first time we were invited to be active participants, introducing ourselves to the people sitting to the left and right of us, sharing our hopes for the next two days.

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He shared a word cloud (left) derived from responses to online questions in the lead up to the event. And invited us to use, a means of posting questions to the Chair in the course of the event.

Did it signify some new awareness of a world beyond the elites usually gathered there? One or two of the titles of sessions pointed at that possibility: “Good governance: best practice for a variegated world” or “How are political elites engaging with their publics?” Were we going to be grappling with new ways for those gathered to get connected to the global zeitgeist?

I was first invited to this gathering three years ago as Director of the Soft Power Network  having written a number of papers and articles about the rise of what Joseph Nye calls non-state actors. As I understood it, the state was steadily losing its ability to control geopolitical outcomes. Small groups of very active people could mobilise millions of others, at next to no cost, objecting to any state’s monopoly on ideas. Some of these are clearly malign – terrorists groups like IS, or those who manipulate social media with data sets, like Cambridge Analytica.

But others are benign - in that they are helping people who feel powerless in the face of global institutions and corporations to experience a sense of agency for the first time. This would range from those early adapters to the potential of the internet, like Avaaz - who created petition sites to get people participating, in a minimal way, by ticking boxes. They now have 45 million members and counting. Or Occupy, who were able to co-ordinate, amplify and publicise their very physical actions across eighty countries on a single day.

More recently, new, experimental political parties have arisen from these democracy movements, from Spain’s Podemos to Italy’s Five Star or Iceland’s Pirate Party. One might even link the election of Indonesia’s President Jokowi with this development – since Twitter played an important part in helping this ‘wild card’ reach out across 13,000 islands. Each of them with a different idea of the relationship between government and communities.

But not everyone likes the outcomes of this kind of activity, maybe because it rocks the status quo so viscerally. Few are open to the process and time it would clearly take to bring people’s voices on stream – whether through ideas like liquid democracy or more deliberative processes - in a way that works for a better global democracy. To the governors and administrators, it looks like chaos. Aside from the new political parties – none of whom can really deliver on their visions of a better democracy while they are obliged to work within the old structures – few politicians seem to grasp the radical nature of what’s on offer, in ways that produce really fertile results.

The first clue that this Chatham House audience might not be ready to engage with what is on offer was their constant reference to “populism” as a major threat to stability. There was little disaggregation of the term. Almost in the same breath, it was used to refer to what happened with Brexit and the Trump elections, as well as to how terrorist organisations are resourced. In a discussion entitled ‘Vibrancy and Shocks: A Global Economy Pulling in Different Directions’, the chair pushed several times to get the panel to face the impact of – and maybe take responsibility for – globalization on communities all over the world. But the charge was not taken up.

"Chatham House rules", of course, prevent me from quoting directly. But let me describe the prevailing attitude this way: ‘the people’ are only referred to as vulnerable to manipulation, requiring better care and management. They are not examined as the potential source of better answers. The evidence of popular civil society responses to globalisation does not come into the room. Expertise is consistently seen as residing in governments and think tanks.

And from within that logic, the responses are familiar and fair enough: more calls for political education, or to link well-being to GDP. But as far as I could hear, there were zero calls for better democratic machinery. One speaker made the point that what separated democratic countries from autocratic countries was that the first was connected to the people and the second was not. Yet in almost all the democratic countries, the rates of disengagement are shocking: only tiny percentages (2% here, 5% across Europe) of the potential electorate are members of the political parties that represent them. And party governments that are so disconnected from their voters, so self-referential in their corridors of power, are building up trouble for themselves. Sadly, as research shows, corruption is an ever-present potential of democracy, rather than democracy being any sort of guarantee against it.

And in the midst of all of this, the battle of narratives between China and the US/Europe continues. More than once, a Chinese speaker championed the idea of a global platform of change in which many diverse cultures are participating equally to bring solutions to poverty and inequality. China’s Confucian philosophy of local enablement – without the trouble of democratic representation – is never challenged, let alone debated, in these spaces. It’s just politely avoided – whereas I suspect many young Chinese are desperate for some dialogue.

We can’t take our right to vote for granted, but we also can’t refuse the call to upgrade our democratic system when it is so clearly required. Why was there no mention of localism or municipalism – substantial developments in civic engagement that link cities as far apart as Seoul, Barcelona and Sheffield in a global network? Where was the recognition that some popular “nationalisms” – Catalonia, Scotland, Rojava – were explicitly outward-looking, civic and worldly? Where were the sessions comparing new experiments in deliberative, socio-political engagement, which acknowledge the wisdom of the people on the ground – such as Citizens Assemblies or participatory budgeting? Where was the discussion on subsidiarity? Or on the exploration of the role of Universal Basic Income as a means to stabilize communities, as the gap between rich and poor increases exponentially?

Why was the vital role of women in changing the socio-political landscape only alluded to in a breakfast session entitled - hold your breath – “The Impact of #MeToo On Power and Masculinity”. The United Nations has long known that helping women into the public space, and then to get their hands on the levers of power, is the most direct way to create the kind of peaceful societies that allow local but also national economies to flourish. 

Sorry Chatham House. After two days I could see your antennae flashing for some new praxis: many of the questions harvested on-line indicated an audience ready for change. But in execution, on these two days in London, it was a spectacle of traditional elites caught in the headlights.