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Rewilding our dysfunctional democracy

Just as capitalism destroys ecosystems, it also maintains power imbalances in our democracies. Borrowing ecological principles could yield radical politcal changes, writes Calum McGeown

6 to 7 minute read

The chamber of the house of commons, except the green carpet has been replaced with jungle vegetation

In recent years, the ecological concept of ‘rewilding’ has blossomed into a key characteristic of contemporary environmentalism. It describes the process of reinstating the complex balance of ecological relationships that together constitute a healthy, biodiverse and regenerative habitat. Where given a foothold, nature can recreate the oases in which it thrives.

It’s no coincidence that what reduces abundant ecosystems to naked hillsides, bare riverbanks and mile after mile of monocrop fields is the very same dewilding force that has stripped our politics of democratic vibrancy and integrity.

The capitalist monoculture

In its systematic drive to extract as much as possible at as little expense as possible, capitalism within liberal democracies subordinates all other concerns to the pursuit of maximum profits and indefinite growth. It prevents our collective flourishing while leading humanity to the precipice of runaway climate breakdown and ecological collapse.

The most effective method for maintaining this order of interests is to make sure it’s never questioned. In the same way our collective social imaginary is captive to the ‘common-sense’ acceptance that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, our political horizons have become restricted by the pervasive notion that liberal society embodies the ultimate expression of democracy.

Yet it’s one that keeps the ‘big’ questions off the table altogether, such as how we structure the economy and whose interests it serves. Meanwhile, potential dissenters are faced with the omnipresent threat of forceful repression by the capitalist state.

This insulates capitalism from scrutiny so that its elites can operate with relative impunity while workers struggle to exist. It facilitated a systematic redistribution of wealth during the Covid-19 pandemic that further enriched the wealthiest. It enabled and sustained the decade of austerity that hollowed out the NHS and other essential services before the virus hit, limiting their ability to respond.

The most effective method for maintaining this order of interests is to make sure it’s never questioned

We do not have a functioning democracy. Bankers are promised uncapped bonuses while nurses, teachers, postal workers and transport workers are refused meagre pay rises amidst soaring costs of living. Big Oil and Gas report record profits when many people can’t afford to heat their homes. Fossil industry lobbyists were again platformed at COP27 while climate activists are criminalised by governments and demonised by the establishment media. These inequalities are indicative of the undemocratic power that capitalism’s elites have in determining our collective future.

Their future is not one for the working class. It’s little more than a death sentence for millions of people in the Global South. It’s one of cascading extinctions and the disintegration of the planet’s life supporting systems.

Rewilding the political

Here, we might look to the lessons of rewilded nature. This starts with acknowledging that successful rewilding does not mean the removal of humans. It means ending the capitalist mindset that values the natural world on the basis that it can and should be used to generate wealth. It comes from stopping the resulting extractivist practices that make deserts out of jungles, peatlands, loughs and forests. Ultimately, it comes from decolonising the nonhuman world of these destructive forces. We need to likewise liberate our politics and democracy.

Installing these forces in the first place required a particular view of the world that detached humans from the complex web of life on earth. Historically, it was this separation, or ‘exceptionalism’, that elevated capitalist human society over and apart from nonhuman nature and laid the ideological foundations for conceiving it as little more than resources to be exploited.

Our politics has been similarly dewilded by the exceptionalism of liberal representative democracy and capitalism’s colonisation of its institutions. It disempowers working people at the behest of vested interests, all the while selling the idea that implementing social change is simply a matter of voting for the ‘right’ person or party.

It’s a democracy for the few. It’s a system in which politics is done to the people, not by the people. This reality limits our ability to tackle the multiple crises we’re faced with.

A ‘rewilded’ politics provides a very different vision. Contrary to the passive consumerism and competitive individualism that pits workers against each other while leaving entrenched interests in place and unchallenged, it offers the ecological principles of participation, interdependency and adaptation.

Wild politics

A wilder politics is one that demands more active and at times disruptive participation. The nearest example we have of this is in the activism of groups like Just Stop Oil who, in literally putting their bodies on the line, are making direct interventions in the undemocratic politics of unsustainability and inequality. Like nature, we need to gain a foothold to re-establish human society as a site of creative and collective flourishing.

Beyond this, it’s a vision that seeks balance in diversity. That means harnessing different and at times opposing interests rather than attempting to homogenise them. Making the connections between different emancipatory struggles and forging relations of solidarity between them is crucial in this era of multiple crises.

It’s also the recognition that resilience does not come from imposing impervious institutions over everyone and everything, but from the capacity to adapt to new conditions. These principles are inimical to the system we currently have, which is concerned to maintain capitalist social relations not transform them.

In response to these challenges, innovative models for democratic reform have been proposed to expand opportunities for citizens to actively participate in decision making processes. Most notable are citizens’ assemblies, which, following the success of the advisory role they played in progressing the decriminalisation of abortion in Ireland, have been popularised by Extinction Rebellion as a way for citizens to take the lead on developing climate policy.

However, even the addition of such institutions is inadequate in capitalist society, where true political agency is tied to the private ownership of its means of production, which the state will not willingly put up for debate. It is only through a fundamental restructuring of the economy that this power can be dismantled and redistributed.

Real world models

Short of implementing full democratic common ownership of the means of production, we might look to alternative models for re-empowering communities in the meantime. Community Wealth Building (CWB) is one such model, which has facilitated transformative change in Preston, Lancashire.

Essentially a form of municipal socialism, CWB harnesses the powers of locally rooted ‘anchor’ institutions to create regenerative social and economic relations through reformed procurement strategies that prioritise local enterprises over capitalist monopolies.

These anchor institutions can be local authorities, universities, hospitals, housing associations and so on, all of which rely on the external provision of many goods and services, including food, hygiene services, maintenance, etc. Identifying and meeting these needs locally provides an invaluable opportunity to build worker-owned and cooperative enterprises that will in turn generate greater democratic control over the economy.

These and other structural reforms offer tangible progressive horizons for a more just and sustainable future. Ultimately, however, the deep transformations we so desperately need will only come from stepping outside the ‘legitimate’ liberal democratic institutions we currently have, to apply fierce pressure to the capitalist system they so effectively insulate.

This will require many more of us to join or proactively support the ranks of climate activists, trade union activists, anti-racist activists and all others who are fighting for a better world, to grow the movement from a trickle into a torrent of collective action and (un)civil disobedience. The reality is our existing politics compromises that future and, like carbon and capitalism, needs to be dismantled, transcended and replaced so that more radical forms of democracy can take root.

Calum McGeown is a PhD researcher based in Belfast. His interests include critical political economy and theories of social change

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