Power from the People. Power to the People.

This is the third and final blog within the short series: Connectors, Conductors and Circuit breakers. You can read the first instalment here and the second, here.

In the first two blogs of this series I have argued that small must become the new big. Not a new argument it has to be said; E.F. Schumacher cogently argued the same in Small is Beautiful during the 1973 energy crisis and emergence of globalisation. In those blogs I also attempted to make a case for a way to do it, inspired by an idea of “smallness within bigness”: a specific form of decentralisation developed by Schumacher, which involves connecting energy and growing it into new community-led power that proliferates without losing its local integrity.

In this the third and final blog in this series I want to build on this argument, by describing what that power looks like and why it matters. Essentially the first two blogs were describing how connectors, conductors, circuit breakers, spare fuses and dynamos could create power through the people. Here I want to build on this to show how ‘power from the people’ can grow to become ‘power to the people’, and hence, how when power flows through and from people it positions them (us!) in real terms at the centre of democracy. Leaving us as local people perfectly placed to assert, our rightful place over anyone who would seek to disenfranchise us, and to freely express our citizenship. Thereby ensuring collective power to ALL the People.

Power to the People

One of the most familiar rallying calls for social change is: ‘Power to the People’. Yet in Power from the People (2012) Greg Pahl notes:

“More than ninety percent of the electricity we use to light our communities, and nearly all the energy we use to run our cars, heat our homes, and power our factories comes from large, centralized, highly polluting, non-renewable sources of energy.”

Do we really want such power coming to the People?

Of course power comes in many forms, and there are also many ways of viewing power and growing it. Two perspectives on growing power that seem to dominate are the competitive view and the cooperative one.

Competitive vs. Cooperative

The competitive view sees power as finite; therefore, if my boss has power, I don’t, and to that extent to have power I must get it from him/her. If I can’t, I am powerless. Essentially he/she has power over me and I must compete to get my rightful share of that limited power base. It is a zero sum game. In this model of power I am essentially a consumer.

The cooperative view by contrast sees power as infinite, it considers everyone to have some power of one variety or another, and it is by connecting disparate slivers of power together that power grows. Hence ensuring that cooperation beats competition. In this model of power I am essentially a producer, or co-producer.

As autonomous adults living in a democracy, we can choose which model we will operate from. Which is to say we can measure the depth of democracy by the relative freedom to choose between cooperation and competition. Cooperation is far more likely to flourish in a civic context, than in a corporate one.

The contrast between competitive and cooperative approaches is clearest in how people interact with land and other people. Bill Mollison, co-founder of Permaculture, reminds us that resources are typically mediated through two questions:

1. What can I get from this land, or person?


2. What does this person, or land, have to give if I cooperate with them?

He goes on to say: ‘of these two approaches, the former leads to war and waste, the latter to peace and plenty.’

There are those who strip our assets and those who help us discover, connect and mobilise them. We need strategies to engage both.

To deal with competitive greed and dominant forces, those that are oppressed often use cooperative tactics among themselves to build solidarity, so that they can use more powerful competitive tactics to wrench power back from their oppressor. The prize for that effort often comes in the form of additional consumer rights: the right to increased access to services, better provision of services, change in legislation to ensure better programmatic offers etc. But these kinds of social movements are not just about consumer rights; they are also about human rights, and social justice, the right to vote, end apartheid, fight against totalitarian regimes, the right of women to have autonomy over their bodies. In this regard they offer a very important process for change and a highly effective one too. These are examples of campaigns that cry: “Power to the People”.

But, in the same way that I would not chose to use a saw to open a tin of beans when I have access to a tin opener, ‘Power to the People’ campaigns are not always the best tool for the given job. There are some things that they simply cannot do. Added to this point, wrenching power from a common nemesis is not the only reason people grow collective power, people also use collective power to educate their children at home, care for each other, have fun, celebrate and sustain their culture, protect their environment, grow local economic opportunities, and respond to natural disasters. This is what some describe as Power from the People.

Power from the People

I believe Power to the People and Power from the People approaches are the estranged twins of social change. They have become separated, even polarised from each other. Those in the ‘Power to’ camp, see those in the ‘Power from’ camp as naïve, feeding into a ‘right-wing’ agenda of ‘self-help, small state’, while the ‘froms’ see the ‘tos’ as naively feeding into a disabling, over bearing state, and market force.

I believe that unless we find a way of reuniting them we will not achieve enduring social, economical, political and environmental change. John McKnight would say that doing one without the other is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. I would add that sequence matters, and ideally growing power from the people as starting point, will lead to greater impact and deeper democracy for a greater mass of people. That’s not to say that Power to the People is not a legitimate starting point, but that I’m not convinced it’s the most inclusive one.

One of the reasons for the estrangement lies in a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the ‘Power to the People’ folks about citizen-led production. To them they see it as ‘soft power’, if they are not outwardly opposed to it because they fear it feeds into a ‘cuts agenda’ or ‘letting the government off the hook’. They consider it to be limp and ineffectual in changing major societal issues, a ‘nice to do if you have the time, but not likely to lead to change where it matters’. I’d like to gently suggest to those who take such a view that they are cutting their nose off to spite their face.

Energy expert Pahl argues communities can plan, finance, and produce their own local, renewable energy that is reliable, safe, and clean. This expression of power shifts the narrative considerably from one where citizens and communities are consumers of energy that is produced outside their communities, to one where they are ethical producers of energy from inside out.

As well as using this narrative to navigate towards a post-fossil fuel/carbon era, can we not also leverage this line of thought to move towards a deeper democracy, and economic justice? The primary site of power from the people is place, or neighbourhoods effectively.

Connected neighbours are more economically vibrant

My impression is that many people see neighbourhoods as benign, and are therefore lukewarm about local approaches to social change. While Neighbourhood based change movements have their place in most people’s minds; it’s a small place. The general view is that it is good for the purposes of creating mutuality, and who doesn’t love the ‘be good to your neighbour, you’ll need them some day’ idea?

Neighbour power is also great if you want to stop unsightly development; who wouldn’t mobilise to protect their homes and neighbourhoods? But the notion that neighbourhoods are a central locus of wider socio-economic change, where economic growth, health and wellbeing, justice, and democracy can be produced? Now that’s a step too far! But is it? Let’s look at the evidence.

The Soul of Community

According to a multi-year study by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the answer to the question ‘can communities produce power that creates economic dividend’, is yes. After interviewing close to 43,000 people in 26 communities across the US over three years, the study found ‘attachment’ is an important metric for communities, since it links to key outcomes like local economic growth (GDP).

In the face of serious budget cuts, traditional strategies for economic stimulus like tax incentives for new business, have been taken off the table. In their absence a lot of Local Councils are left scratching their heads as to what to do instead to stimulate local economic development.

There are a few ‘outliers’ who, inspired by the findings of this research, are investing in ‘attachment’ with a view to stimulating new economic potential. So effectively some cities are investing in community building not just to improve health and wellbeing across the life course and promote community safety, but as a means of increasing local GDP.

The driver is hard-edged economics, not the soft spongy stuff like quality of life or community development. The research evidences a relational – if not a causal – link between inclusive communities and economically vibrant communities. NESTA’s Mass Localism discussion paper provides yet more evidence, this time from a UK perspective, that shows that local action can also impact on big environmental issues.

These are big thoughts and democracy like economy and environmental issues is typically thought of in equally large scale, hence as with economy, talk of democracy very quickly becomes a discussion about the functions of a nation state, matters of social contract and the relationship between citizen and state. Before we know it, discussions about active citizenship are corralled into limiting discussions about voter participation, and activism at one level and volunteering at another.

Scale really matters here, because if people are to experience ‘citizenship’ then that needs to register at a personal and associational level, and then emanate from there. One of the finest thought pieces I have read on the power of local people to influence democracy from ground up was published by DEMOS, Start with People. How community organisations put citizens in the driving seat.  The big message of the report is summed up here:

“Community involvement has a recognised niche as a small but well established area of government policy. But in reality, whole swathes of public service reform depend on whether or not people can be engaged in this way. Policies to improve public health, reduce fear of crime and boost people’s skills – now central to the promises of every major party – cannot succeed without the active involvement of millions of people. As our research shows, this involvement comes through practical relationships with certain kinds of organisation, not through some more abstract decision or form of communication.” [Pg.13]

In his TEDx talk, Why Mayors Should Rule the World, political theorist Benjamin Barber argues that Mayors are the ones that hold real power for change, not those in Ministerial positions of power, because of their capacity to influence locally led action; and by implication that they and the cities they serve will shape our futures.

The introduction piece on the TEDx site sums up his presentation nicely:

“It often seems like federal-level politicians care more about creating gridlock than solving the world’s problems. So who’s actually getting bold things done? City mayors. So, political theorist Benjamin Barber suggests: Let’s give them more control over global policy. Barber shows how these ‘urban homeboys’ are solving pressing problems on their own turf — and maybe in the world.”

Deepening this point further, Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, believed that great cities are, at their best, a federation of neighbourhoods. Twenty years ago in Seattle a Mayor came into office who, in my view, understood the potential of this kind of ground up democratic power.

In 1988, Mayor Charles Royer appointed Jim Diers (now Director at Neighbor Power; world renowned author and speaker, as well as being a senior associate with Nurture Development) to direct Seattle’s new Office of Neighborhoods. The subsequent mayors, Norm Rice in 1990 and Paul Schell in 1998, reappointed Jim. By the end of Jim’s 14-year tenure, the four-person Office had grown into a Department of Neighborhoods with 100 staff.

The Department’s mission was to decentralise and coordinate city services, strengthen communities and their organisations, and work in partnership with these organisations to preserve and enhance the neighbourhoods. Until recently the Department managed 13 Little City Halls that provide basic services to citizens and serve as meeting places for neighbourhood organisations. It supported about 400 community self-help projects each year through a $4.5 million Neighborhood Matching Fund that was recognised by the Ford Foundation and Kennedy School of Government as one of the most innovative local government programs in the United States. Another programme of community empowerment involved 30,000 people in the development of 37 neighbourhood plans. The Department also manages the City’s historic preservation program, a P-Patch Program of 75 community gardens, and a leadership-training program.

In 2001, the Municipal League of King County named Jim Public Employee of the Year. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law from Grinnell College.

But while Mayors can giveth, Mayors can also taketh away. The current Mayor has a different view on how to administer the cities dwindling budgets, and his ‘back to basics’ policy is seeing a significant rolling back of Little City Halls and neighbourhood coordinators. ‘Back to basics’ seems to mean, taking power and resource out of neighbourhoods and back to City Hall. Listen to Jim Diers recent interview where he expresses his concerns around the direction the city Mayor Ed Murray has chosen.

Oops! Seattle Mayor mourns death of local official who’s very much alive, was the headline of a recent CNN blog sharing the gaff from the Seattle Mayors office that mistakenly reported the demise of Jim Diers, confusing him with another public servant that worked for the City. It’s an understandable error, after all, institutions that large can’t possibly maintain personal connections, and sometimes that means they simply don’t know if we’re dead or alive. But isn’t that why local government strengths civil society, and why the principles of subsidiarity are so critical? Institutions produce service, communities produce care. Communities are the place where others know if we’re dead or alive. Decades of disinvestment in Communities and Community Building has meant that is less likely than it could otherwise be.

Many of our local government institutions have become too corporatised and distant from their core business, which is not the provision of services, but the stewardship of local democracy. Their mandatory/statutory functions have meant that many no longer see people as citizens but as customers and ratepayers. Local Government has become a business and accordingly people have become their clients or customers to one degree or another.

Local democracy is not a product to be consumed, but a way of living that must be co-produced with citizens in the lead. The more you provide services for things that people can do themselves, the more you diminish social capital and democracy. People are transformed from citizens into clients, and the consequences for civic power are devastating. While I take it as a given that people should have as a right the ability to say of their place:

  • The necessities are here, they are inexpensive and they are close at hand.
  • Services are available, but not overpowering.
  • You can contribute and participate, and truly make a difference around here and beyond.
  • Here you can feel accepted, people have empathy.
  • Here people work for social justice and inclusion.
  • Here the sense of community is strong and our state institutions to keep it so, support us.
  • Here everyone can find the resources to have enough to live a good life.
  • Here our views and actions have an impact beyond our community.

I believe as well as universal right of access to such things as listed above, we need the right and power to produce as well as the right and power to determine the outcome of what others produce in our name. The right to produce is at the very heart of our right as citizens, and it is intimately wedded to freedom of expression and free association.

“The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.” Jane Jacobs

If we care about participatory democracy we will go to where the connectors, conductors, and circuit breakers can constructively steward energy in a way that is inclusive and supports people to generate disparate energy into collective democratic power.

That place is local, hence democracy is not just an ideal, it has a location, and that location is our communities of place. The act of building democracy is therefore an act of homecoming that extends outwards to govern the health, wealth and justice of a nation. And so it is, as well as occupying Wall Street, we must come to occupy our street.

Cormac Russell

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