How Powerful is our Democracy?

It may be argued that parliamentary democracy is a trap. And if politics is about how to get from state A to state B it is instructive to consider how it has been done throughout history: rarely by voting in elections only, or at all.

If the nature of the political system on the planet Zog was wholly unfair and corrupt, if you voted and they burned the votes and laughed at you, you might decide on a political strategy that aimed at by-passing such a system. It is arguable that the system we have is not so different.

We need to explore the breadth of our definition of politics. To the traditional political parties, the grey parties, politics is strictly about voting in elections and using the time between elections for collecting money and raising the profile of the party and its candidates in preparation for the next election. Such parties do not include any attempts to change the situation directly.

On the other hand, pressure groups are increasingly constrained to avoid political activity since their financial base depends upon cross-party support. Furthermore, it is generally true that the larger and more institutionalised (and therefore richer) the campaigning group is, the more its style is limited by the political beliefs of its supporters. A consequence of this is that radical groups are almost always small and poor. Compare for example Greenpeace and Earth First! and note in particular the change in the former’s activity as it established itself.

Furthermore, pressure groups always concentrate on a narrow range of issues, whereas Green theory holds that problems can rarely be isolated from each other and a holistic approach is necessary. The case for a political campaigning group is therefore clear.

What is needed is a new type of political party. One which extends the breadth of politics to include all democratic methods for effecting change. A direct consequence of this is the extension of our political activity into non-violent direct action.

Democratic Opportunities

Our political strategy should be to seek out democratic opportunities which actually exist to change things directly and exploiting them. This is what the working group will be doing. There are many such opportunities including: the use of European legislation, expanding the powers of local councils, providing alternative analyses of official statistics, directly challenging government statutory bodies, use of the judicial review, etc.

Physical non-violent direct action has pride of place within such a strategy. But such action must be used cleverly. We are not interested in routinely throwing ourselves in front of bulldozers. Rather, as the GC100 New Squatland Yard action showed, a well thought-out action can be used to expose the massive unfairness of some aspect of government policy. As part of a homelessness campaign which was well researched and competently documented the action gained a media platform which would otherwise have been unavailable.

Challenging Culture in our Everyday Lives

Do you cut your bread vertically or horizontally? Do you listen to the Archers or watch Eastenders? Have you ever driven the wrong way down a one-way street intentionally? Would you shoplift if your children were hungry and you were sure of not being caught?

These are the kinds of questions which might play a part in the process of questioning `all historically and culturally defined structures’. We might decide that laws outlawing stealing can be shown to `accrue benefit to people and planet’, or maybe only stealing from large supermarkets and not local businesses. What about Robin Hood? Was he a hero or a villain?

We need to question institutions and concepts such as marriage, the nuclear family, television, organized religion, moral codes, sport, eating habits, work, the beauty myth, education, hygiene. And what about robbing banks, nudity, parking on double-yellow lines, writing in library books, giving to beggars, sabotaging cruise missiles?

The extent to which the ways in which we think about how we live are already defined for us by our culture and run in our brains as a program for analysing our everyday experience cannot be overestimated. Think of the stress involved in engaging in any behaviour which is frowned upon by our culture: divorce, picking your nose in public, being unemployed, farting in a tube-train, being mentally ill, transvestism, etc.

Anthropologists have shown us how different societies act differently in the same circumstances and have discussed at length how their different perceptions are a consequence of these cultural programs. Before we can change the way in which people see the world that they live in we have to realize the great difficulties that this entails for most people. Since we are in the business, as the Green Party, of bringing about a total paradigm shift, we must approach the present system at a deeper level, one of culture and conditioning.

The greatest tyranny we have to suffer is the tyranny of culture.

Further Reading

Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, 1972.

U. Beck, S. Lasch, and A. Giddens, Theories of Reflexive Modernisation, Cambridge, 1994.

Frederique Apfel Marglin and Stephen Marglin, Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture, and Resistance, Oxford, 1990.

Stephen Lukes, Power: A Radical View, London, 1974.

Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist, London, 1985.

A. Callinicos, Althusser’s Marxism, London, 1976.

Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, London, 1983.


The Habits

When they put him in rompers the habits

Fanned out to close in, they were dressed

In primary colours and each of them

Carried a rattle and a hypodermic;

His parents said it was all for the best.


Next, the barracks of boys: the habits

Slapped him on the back, they were dressed

In pinstripe trousers and carried

A cheque book, a passport, and a sjambok;

The master said it was all for the best.


And then came the woman: the habits

Pretended to leave, they were dressed

In bittersweet undertones and carried

A Parthian shaft and an affidavit;

The adgirl said it was all for the best.


Age became middle: the habits

Made themselves at home, they were dressed

In quilted dressing-gowns and carried

A decanter, a siphon, and a tranquilliser;

The computer said it was all for the best.


Then age became real: the habits

Outstayed their welcome, they were dressed

In nothing and carried nothing.

He said: If you won’t go, I go.

The Lord God said it was all for the best.


Louis MacNeice