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Democratic Control

In Newsletter 59 we wrote about the risks associated with the normalization of deviance. We concluded by saying that only true democratic control will allow us to prevent ever more degrading limits from becoming the norm. We have had a request to clarify what we mean by democratic control, because some might confuse it with “snooping” or even “spying”.

Rather than trying to provide a definition, let’s give a concrete example.

In 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus launched the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a bank that offered credit to the poorest people. The mechanism, which has been repeated in Europe and in other parts of the world, is based on sharing: credit is offered to an individual, but as a member of a group that takes on responsibility for it. So the way the funds granted are used is followed by all the group’s members. Its success was huge and immediate: those who received the funds knew that if they did not follow the rules, the other members of the group would be penalized.

In Newsletter n. 54  we mentioned the SAFER (Société d’Aménagement Foncier et d’Etablissement Rural) of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in France. This SAFER, finding it was no longer able to intervene in transactions involving agricultural land, created a network of people throughout the area who would give early warning of the sale of land. The aim of this arrangement is to block the sale of land to investors who are not local to the area, avoid speculation and at the same time facilitate purchase by young people who wish to cultivate the land but lack the necessary financial resources.

Anyone who has visited the Sassi di Matera (European Capital of Culture 2019) will have heard of the “vicinato” (neighbourhood), that is, a group of settlements based around a single public space, usually a “piazza” (square). Daily life took place there, outside the insanitary caves, and this led to a way of life based on mutual respect and rules that were not written down but shared. There was solidarity between neighbours but also mutual surveillance, for good and ill. There was no need for police or courts to resolve problems or conflicts.

Another example closer to home is the Italian cooperatives: in principle at least they are controlled by their members who run them and take decisions collectively. They have legal validity and are officially registered.

Some have maintained that in a democratic state, control is already by its nature “democratic”. Institutions and structures have been created in a context of institutional balance that ensures the safety of individual members of society. Yet at times we see the manipulation of institutions that are gradually transformed from service-providing structures into structures of discomfort, or even oppression, for the most vulnerable and the least well off. At that point the individual democratic process becomes unachievable and the normalization of deviance takes over.

What does democratic control actually mean?

First and above all participation, then non-delegataion, and finally communication.

For example, on the railways the concept of service has been replaced by that of profit. Choices have been made in favour of high speed connections, while the Regions are left to bear the burden of “local” services.  This has led to reductions in and even the removal railway lines that were once important carriers of passengers and goods. What could democratic control have done? If those responsible for taking decisions have been obliged to obtain the approval of appointed or elected bodies, choices could have been made that were more beneficial for both people and the environment.

And what about the land? We are spectators at a dance of planning choices that are made and then imposed. Only afterwards do citizens organize to use all the tools at their disposal to try and modify choices that are not in the general interest. The experience of the Gilets Jaunes in France is an estreme example. Examples are not lacking in Italy either, and we have discussed some of them in our newsletters. So here’s a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it be better if these choices were subject to approval by self-organizing or deliberately created groups? Is this utopian? The experience of the municipality of Malles and its inhabitants’ fight to ban pesticide use (described in Newsletter 52 ) is an excellent example of what we are talking about.

What are we suggesting in concrete terms?

We can no longer be satisfied with simply voting for a candidate, whether at national or local level. The relationship between individuals and institutions must change: we must be individually involved in the decision process that concerns our futures. To this end we must join with others – friends, acquaintances, neighbours – with the precise aim of working alongside the person who has been elected or has a particular responsibility. This means maintaining an ongoing “privileged” relationship with the elected person, both as regards what is being discussed and the positions that are proposed, and to be able to offer their opinions on them. Is this fantasy? Not exactly, with the means of communication that are available today it costs nothing: all that is needed is the will to put it into practice and fortunately this approach is developing all the time, especially in some EU member states.