Resilient politics?

Contributor: Samir Jeraj

‘Resilience’ is both about adapting to change and creating institutions that can survive extreme events. So, what do resilient political institutions look like in a modern democracy?

Democracy, it has been said, is necessarily the radical and fundamental examination and reconstruction of institutions in society. You could argue that the UK has been undergoing this process for many years; with major scandals prompting re-evaluation and reform; in politics (the expenses scandal), the economy (banking reform), the media (phone hacking), and in society itself (the riots).

Gramsci said that real strength lies with civil society and not with the state, which was merely an ‘outer ditch’. Currently, politics, and especially government, is often seen to be opposed to society rather than part of it. Thus you have the ‘big society’ rhetoric whereby civil society (charities, community groups and so on) are encouraged to take on the functions of government providing services such as libraries, care, and housing.

As a veteran of sorts in local politics, and someone who has researched the interconnection of politics and society, I would argue that resilient political institutions mean vibrant and democratic organisations operating at the local level.

Lessons from New Orleans

The destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and the loss of just under 1500 lives gives us an insight into the resilience, or lack of, within political institutions. The lack of repairs to the Levee system, as recommended by several reports published in the years prior to the disaster, and the continued destruction of the surrounding wetlands are examples of top-down governmental failure to improve resilience.

However, the immediate events around the Hurricane attracted most criticism. Evacuation plans were poorly designed and implemented, with little appreciation of the poverty present in New Orleans, which forced the authorities into using the now notorious Superdome to house those who were too poor to leave the city.

The slow response from Federal Authorities and their top-down, controlling attitude to coordination hindered relief efforts and drew criticism at the time and in subsequent investigations.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the government was accused of cleansing the city of its poor – a process documented in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. In another series of articles, Klein and others documented attempts to privatise schools, hospitals, and housing. The City and State government’s relationship to the citizens appeared to have disappeared. The House of Representatives report in 2006 noted the disconnect between state and civil society efforts stating that:

“The Select Committee identified failures at all levels of government that significantly undermined and detracted from the heroic efforts of first responders, private individuals and organizations, faith-based groups, and others.”

Lessons from Brazil

One of the more mainstream ‘radical’ ideas which may offer a more resilient form of local government and politics emerged from Brazil in the late 80s and early 90s. This is the idea of ‘Participatory Budgeting’ (PB), a system which emerged from the struggle to democratise the state after a period of dictatorship.

The basic idea is that streets have meetings to discuss and decide on what they want to be improved in their local areas. They elect delegates who put their case to the neighbourhood assembly, which in turn puts the case to a city-wide assembly. The proposals are costed, and a budget produced which is voted on by delegates and signed off by the city council. The following year, the process begins again.

The democratic institutions which support the PB process also make these areas more resilient. Firstly, part of the PB process involves identifying problems and issues locally and then addressing them, in Brazil, this often meant infrastructure and sanitation issues. Whilst not necessarily all the issues addressed would improve resilience, it is pretty likely that most would contribute towards a more resilient physical environment.

Secondly, the building up of democratic civil society institutions means that they are more likely to be involved in planning for resilience.  In the event of a disaster or other major disruption, there would be structures in place to deal with issues at the local level and to liaise with local government and other authorities.

Resilient politics is about more than just the structures and decisions at the top. Policy is most responsive when it is formulated on the streets, and in the neighbourhoods that it will affect.

Samir Jeraj is a Green Party City Councillor in Norwich where he is currently the deputy leader of the opposition. He has worked in local government and the voluntary sector, and recently completed an MA in Development Studies focusing on the rise of the far right in India.

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