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  • Writer's pictureMunicipal Enquiry

Democratising the crisis

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

What does the current crisis, sparked by the Covid-19 outbreak, mean for how we go about this enquiry? 

Currently there are different groups interpreting and responding to the current crisis in competing ways - these differences are consequential for how we understand the project which is at the heart of this enquiry: the project of defending, supporting and developing public spaces for community level discussion, democratic decision making and public action. 

In terms of the different groups interpreting and responding to the current crisis, at one end of the spectrum we see a mushrooming of mutual aid and the acceleration of initiatives to organise precariously employed and low-paid workers.

Mutual aid is powered by self-organised community action emerging in response to urgent needs and priorities in particular locales. It’s about solidarity not charity and neither seeks nor relies on permission from the state (central or local government). Mutual aid instead privileges the agency, creativity, competence and co-operative capacity of the public. 

In a similar way, some of the smaller and newer unions such as Industrial Workers of the World and Independent Workers of Great Britain are now at the forefront of efforts to support the organisation of precarious and low-paid workers on the ground. Challenging the government to strengthen legislative protections, health and safety frameworks and to extend full rights for these groups, these activities build on existing organising and direct action undertaken with Uber drivers, Deliveroo workers, couriers, fast-food employees, cleaners, private hire drivers, couriers and foster carers.

The government’s chaotic response to the Covid-19 outbreak, in contrast, has been characterised by a strategy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ orchestrated from the centre. It initially down-played the seriousness of the situation and cautioned against over-reaction, then initiated what was always a partial lock-down. Now it’s loosening this ‘lock-down’ to start to restore ‘lost freedoms’. 

The central government response is top-down and opaque, rejecting the idea that local people have agency, intelligence and an organising capacity of their own.

For example, the government has not so far, at any point whatsoever, tried to establish or encourage processes of public or community level discussion about how best to deal with the situation, either to reach a better informed position about ways of preventing the spread of infection, or to minimise the fallout on people’s lives by supporting local decision making or neighbourhood level organisation. It has also not attempted to devolve democratic responsibilities for public action and public health to local authorities.

Amidst these two ends of the spectrum – between the government’s response and the

response of mutual aid groups and the smaller unions - there have been and continues to be a great number of other types of local response to the current crisis, whether from local government, businesses, charities, funders, social tech operators or NGO-based campaigns. 

In the main, this third group of actors have sought to provide targeted interventions that aim to either plug-into or address perceived ‘gaps’ in both the central government response and the more self-organised forms of local public action. 

In the context of this enquiry the key question we need to ask about these more targeted interventions concerns the extent to which they are reproducing long-standing hierarchies between politicians, experts, professionals, funders, businesses and local publics. With publics in these settings typically still being positioned as residents, tech users, consumers, or sometimes as part of ‘vulnerable’ groups, our concern here is therefore primarily about the role of local publics. 

Namely, the ways that publics are continuing to be largely excluded from vital discussions about issues that are clearly of grave public concern; the extent to which decision making is taking place without democratic public involvement and how local people are thereby once again being side-lined. It appears that in many of these, more mainstream, interventions public involvement and democracy is just as limited, or non-existent, as ever.

So while mutual aid groups, the new unions, progressive local government actors, social entrepreneurs, funders, businesses as well as many people in government are all apparently united in viewing the current crisis as a break with the past. And while all the three different sets of actors we’ve briefly touched on here profess to know what’s needed and to be in close touch with what public priorities are – the majority of these actors still do not yet appear to be calling for any significant change in the balance of power between themselves and the public, let alone any kind of democratisation, or even any significant devolution of decision-making.

What they are generally doing is still technocratic, paternalistic and top-down.

The analysis here is obviously not exhaustive, not least because there are many other groups that are also active now, such as those currently working to help organise renters. But of the groups we have described here, it appears it is only the people and groups working to organise mutual aid and those involved in new forms of union organising that are currently working to foster some new ways of bringing people into relation to each other in this crisis - to discuss, decide and act on their needs, priorities and concerns in more democratically engaged and publicly accountable ways.

In terms of this project - the aim of which is to help develop clearer and

more collective understandings of how to defend, support and develop public spaces

for discussion, community level democratic decision making and public action

for the common good - this is where we can already see some of the political tensions emerging between different groups and forms of public action. These tensions are between the groups and initiatives supporting greater public involvement, more progressive relations of power, the expansion of democracy and alternative approaches to public organising in the context of the current crisis and those that aren’t. 

As this enquiry talks to people directly involved across different local settings, to find out in more depth about what’s happening and about how these different approaches to supporting local publics interact, the aim will be to present a more nuanced analysis of how these differences and tensions are playing out in practice.

The aim is to work collaboratively to help clarify what can be done to support the democratisation of public work at local level in these exceptionally difficult circumstances. We’ll look forward to posting regular reports soon. If in the meantime you’d like to speak with us as part of this process or get involved in some other way, do get in touch.

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