Communities are the atomic elements of molecular democracy: Part 1

In this series of four blogs I’d like to think about active citizenship and democracy. In this regard, I will not be writing about:

  1. How we can use civic muscle and our precious collective efforts to change a disinterested technocratic elite, fired by the moral mission of “society’s best and brightest in service to its most needy”.
  2. Reforming systems, or how we can get our leaders to be better leaders, or even how we can lobby for better policies or legislative frameworks.
  3. Getting more people to vote.

Nor will I be…

  1. Talking about volunteering.

Though clearly all of the above are important.

So in the realm of active citizenship and democracy, what’s left? Well, when democracy is framed in government-centric terms, very little is left. However, when democracy is framed in citizen-centred terms, the field of discussion opens up significantly.

To my mind this is the central challenge facing democracy today. A vision of democracy that puts citizens at the centre and puts governments, technocracy and corporates in the servant’s quarters. A democracy that attends to eco instead of ego, is a distant one. When compared to our current versions of democracy, it is clear we have a long and difficult road ahead if this vision is to be enacted. Yet, as I understand, this is the foundational premise of deep democracy.

July3 blog_01

Walt Whitman ©Wikipedia

Hence why Walt Whitman had this to say: “We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps…a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted.”

Any hope for more citizen-centred democracy exists to the backdrop of a dominant narrative in the twentieth-first century that has all too often devalued, demeaned and condescended to the talents and tacit knowledge of un-credentialed people. That is, people who primarily describe themselves as “I’m just from around here”, or “I’m just a volunteer”.

Yet, our current map of democratic society has led us down a moral, political, and economic cul-de-sac. And so our first task as citizens is to recognise the map is not the territory. The second is to ensure we are the cartographers of the future; and the third task is to get out of the cul-de-sac. In truth, I’m agnostic about what order people chose to follow. The primary error of this map is the institutional assumption which leads us to believe that the only way things are going to get better is if an outside expert or agency comes in to make our lives and communities better.

The sad but liberating fact is that social change hardly ever works that way. It is very, very rarely a unilaterally top-down affair. Added to that, the assumption that our wellbeing, knowledge, safety and economic wellbeing are unilaterally in the hands of technocrats is utterly unscientific. Let’s take the determinants of health and wellbeing as a case in point. Epidemiology enumerates the primary determinants of wellbeing as:

  • Personal behaviour/agency.
  • Social networks.
  • Economic status.
  • Environmental conditions.

A democracy defined in those terms is necessarily citizen-centred, not Government-centric, since evidentially what drives our wellbeing is primarily (though not exclusively) determined by community assets, not institutional interventions. The same is true for justice, wisdom and care. These are not commodities that a state, non-profit organisations or for-profit institutions, manufacture and we consume.

The effective state (what some call the Enabling State and what I have come to call the Altered State) establishes institutions and supports professionals who understand that their job is to support citizen-led invention, and not to be the inventors. The effective state recognises that civil society does not in fact expand commensurate with the number of citizens needs addressed by the state, but to the extent that people’s assets are connected and expressed in free space. Freedom of expression and free association therefore become enacted as the basic nucleus from which society grows, needs are tended to wherever possible by communities in the first instance, and latterly by agencies when communities no longer can or never could. And so, in this way, associations are the effective nest from which institutions are hatched to do what citizens cannot do alone.

The rightful expectation of citizens is that institutions do so in a co-productive and accountable way. When they do not function in this way, the role of citizens is to treat those institutions in the same way we treat automobiles that no longer function: trade them in for more functioning alternatives. To fulfil this role citizens need to focus on the functions of their institutions, not their form. If we are to avoid ending up with dysfunctional bangers.

‘What is within the hands of people and what is within their power alone to change?’ This question is at the heart of the democratic experiment; an experiment which is, or at least should be, intimately tied to our wellbeing at every level in a way that is good for our planet and local ecologies as well as our fellow citizens.

In an economic model which cultivates the myth of scarcity, to take this question seriously is to be ultra-radical, since it is all at once disruptive of technocratic and corporate interests. Yet, even a precursory look beyond such interests reveals the irreplaceable functions of citizens in a democracy, since we are the primary collective producers of:

  1. Our health and wellbeing.
  2. Safety.
  3. Care for the environment.
  4. Safe food production and consumption.
  5. Local economic development.
  6. Raising our children.
  7. Ageing well in place/locale.
  8. Building strong communities.
  9. Civic action towards deeper democracy.
  10. Response to natural disasters and emergencies.
  11. The curation of knowledge and sharing of wisdom, culture and heritage.
  12. Care for people who have been marginalised.
  13. Our capacity to live creatively with the unknowable.

All thirteen are critical functions of community and civic life. When such civic functions are regularly performed, citizens and communities become stronger so too does Government. It is as though we are exercising a civic muscle each time we take on one of these functions together. There is no rulebook as to how these functions should be carried out. In fact, there are no ‘should(s)’ at all, nor therefore are their standards by which the quality of outputs might be measured. As my father says, ‘if something is worth doing; it’s worth doing badly’. All of these functions are within the domain of people powered change, which is free space. If people do not bring their power to bear on these functions, they will not happen. Therefore, these are pinch-points, to paraphrase Peter Block, where we are: confronted by our own democratic freedoms.

Certainly from an Asset-Based Community Development perspective what nourishes people powered change is the intentional will to identify, connect and mobilise community assets, with people firmly in the driving seat of this process. Some call this Asset Mapping, others may recognise it as an organic iteration: ordinary people coming together to understand the challenges and opportunities that face them, come up with solutions, and implement those solutions. In short, to be producers of the future. It is a relationship driven, internally-orientated, asset-based perspective. It is also not a panacea. On the road to justice, as Jody Kretzmann says, ABCD is necessary but not sufficient. We need an eco-system of methods and approaches to advance towards deeper democracy and social justice.

March18 blog_06The challenge for institutions then is to ask:

  • Where are we replacing, controlling, overwhelming the power of people to be producers?
  • How can we listen better to what people in citizen and community space think they can do, and what they think would be helpful from outside?

These questions beg a further one, which is the subject of Careless Society, Community and its Counterfeits: ‘what happens when citizens, families and communities stop performing community functions as a consequence of being colonised by top-down institutional ways?’ And that is the subject of next week’s blog.

Cormac Russell

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  • Peter Evans

    Hi Cormac, thank you for writing this blog – it’s very interesting to read more about ABCD and ideas about citizen-centred democracy. I notice that here, and also in a preview I saw of your recent book, that you discuss the issue of scarcity in terms of it being a myth. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that at all here please?

    July 4, 2015 at 12:10 am
    • nurturedevelopment

      Hi Peter,

      I really appreciate your comments and I’ll happy explore these issues within the series and look forward to wrestling with these dilemmas together.

      I will elaborate on it in this week’s blog.
      All the best,


      July 6, 2015 at 7:57 am
  • Cormac – this is a wonderfully clear explanation of our upside down democracy which is suffocating itself. Thank you. I look forward to your further blogs on this. For the last 14 years, through community action over a wide variety of collective local actions, I have been collecting names and contacts in my neighbourhood using email and social media. We are now in contact with around 9000 individuals in a 2 mile radius. This is to help develop and strengthen precisely what you say – some useful infrastructure to help active citizens work together. But the attitude of local government – officers and politicians – is to marginalise active citizens’ organised action as much as possible. This is a Himalayan mountain. How do we work around that?
    Our weblinks: * * *

    July 5, 2015 at 12:22 pm
    • nurturedevelopment

      Thanks for this. What you describe here really excites me. This is the space that most people not alone don’t know exists, but accordingly don’t seek out. They map the social world devoid of this typology and then conclude that communities are backwaters of pathology.

      What you’ve done is therefore radical. Knowing the gifts, talents and associational possibilities of 9,000 people is an awesome power. Identifying, connecting a mobilising those assets will build huge collective power. But it will take some community building to bring it all together. I guess that’s the journey you’re now on.

      Your comment around the Himalayan mountains made me think the trick is to do the change work from inside out for as long as possible, the minute citizens become Sherpas carrying the bags of the poverty tourists all is lost.

      I’d really love to learn more about the gifts of your 9,000 neighbours, you have done something really special here, a genuine act of revelation with huge potential for power alchemy. Transform the myth of scarcity into the an abundant community. Happy to talk more about this and volunteer time to support you if that would be helpful.

      Best wishes,


      July 6, 2015 at 8:52 am
  • Hi Cormac – thank you for your positive and understanding response. Yes, I have been a community activist, mobiliser, organiser, facilitator, developer for 40 years so am well versed in the community part of the Himalayan mountain… It has been very tough pursuing this path, and I agree it will take some community building to bring it all together, and that is the slow patient journey we are on. It would be going too far just now to say we know ‘the gifts, talents and associational possibilities of 9000 people’, but we have access to something with that kind of potential.

    We are just in the lowly foothills even after 14 years of focussed work. I agree so much that inside-out work is the way to go. I call this also ‘adjacent possible’, a term I have found useful from complexity thinking in how to nurture useful change. I would be very glad to give you a walkabout in central Peckham, and talk about the multi dimensional work that has evolved over the last 14 years. Then we could see what our mutual interests might be.

    I have published some ideas on how to think about the world of interaction between the two different human social systems that I see dominating in the organisational relationships between the community and institutional worlds. I see them as two distinct and different relational systems within a shared social eco-system. Their organisational dynamics are dissimilar: they dance to very different tunes. This is largely unrecognised and invisible. Finding people in both systems who can see them is an important step through the foothills. Experiencing these two systems daily as I have now for 14 years has led me to focus on strengthening the community part as essential to transform the dysfunctional way in which decisions are made and everything managed and organised. Here are some links to that thinking:
    * Youtube –
    * Summary –
    * Published paper –

    You can also reach me through

    Eileen Conn

    July 6, 2015 at 11:30 am
  • nurturedevelopment

    Hi Eileen,

    Thank you for your reply, I look forward to meeting you. I’ll email you directly.

    Best wishes,


    July 8, 2015 at 3:21 pm

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