If all of this seems somewhat far-fetched, it may be worthwhile pointing out that after the 2008 crisis, one country did in fact attempt to apply a similar system. For Iceland, the crisis was so catastrophic that it was effectively bankrupt. The IMF and the European Union were quick to offer to take over its debt, but only in return for Iceland adopting their neo-liberal agenda (austerity measures, privatisation, prioritising the control of inflation over unemployment, and forcing Icelandic citizens to pay 100 euros a month each for fifteen years to repay the banks’ debts). However, the people of Iceland gave two fingers to some of these dictates and instead effectively formed a tripartite system: direct participatory democracy (referendums and opportunities for direct input to new policies); meritocracy (twenty-five citizens not belonging to any political party but recommended by at least thirty other citizens were elected to a Constitutional Assembly to write a new constitution) and parliament (to which the new constitution was submitted for approval)[1]. Contrary to the IMF’s recommendations, Iceland renationalised its banks, heavily regulated its financial sector and imprisoned the bankers responsible for the crash. The rest is history: Iceland has managed to get out of the crisis faster and in better shape than most of the countries that slavishly followed the dominant economic and political ideology. Of course, there were some factors specific to Iceland that worked in its favour: it is a small country of only about 340,000 people; its financial sector was relatively new; and its politicians were not yet controlled by big money. Nevertheless, it is an example that shows that making constructive and positive political changes is possible if people are willing. This is not a pipe-dream – it is within our reach.

~ What we can do now ~

There is already little enthusiasm for politics as usual – people are tired of it. If ever there is a chance to make a difference, the time is now. How it can be made, of course, depends on where you are, as the process may differ from country to country. For example, parliamentary democracies may require the evolving, reshaping and strengthening of the meritocratic component, while including more elements of indirect and direct democracy may be required in countries such as China. This should not be as difficult as it seems, considering that there is already potential for such changes. For instance, the House of Lords in the UK has been gradually moving away from being composed of hereditary peers towards membership by meritocratic peers and could relatively easily be transformed into a fully meritocratic assembly with more clearly defined roles. In the US, the Supreme Court is a meritocratic institution, and the Senate, as already mentioned, was originally envisaged as another meritocratic institution[2]. Many other countries have two chambers in their parliaments – their roles only need to be redefined. China, meanwhile, is already tentatively experimenting with allowing non-communist candidates in some local elections. A reason why progress is relatively slow is that there is not yet a sufficient need, nor a clear rationale, for these changes. The rationale can be found here and the need is likely to grow in time. This does not mean we should wait, though, we can take some actions now:

  • We can promote direct democracy, particularly at a local level. Small political units such as wards and neighbourhoods already exist in many countries, but they are often politically neglected. Reviving their role on the principles of direct democracy can be a major evolutionary move. To do so, these conditions need to be met:
    • people need to feel that getting involved matters
    • they need to believe that they can make a difference
    • they need to like it

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The first condition requires identifying an issue that can make a difference. People are already spontaneously organising themselves in many places around issues that matter to them (this is not only the case in the West; for example, in a small town in China, people were galvanised by the air and water pollution that a local factory was producing). The second condition is met by forging a strategy that can work – as far as confidence is concerned, it is better to go for a small success than risk a big failure. The third condition may need some clarification: by and large, people either find political involvement tedious or are spurred by anger or fear. And yet positive emotions, such as hope, courage and a sense of togetherness, can be good motivational factors, especially at a local level. Religious and other institutions have already managed to tap into this source – political initiatives can do the same (this does not need to be something big – just going for a drink after a serious debate can do the trick).

  • Many local communities and towns throughout the world also show great potential in this respect. Towns are important as progressives tend to congregate in them, so a progressive agenda may be more successful there than on national level. This happened recently in Spain. While citizen platforms, led by activists from social movements, won mayoralties in the largest cities across the country in 2015, their national allies, Unidos Podemos, stalled in third place at the general elections in the same year. Towns also can be connected in a network, and by working as a network, they can turn isolated acts into a national movement with a multiplier effect. Again, in Spain, the network of ‘rebel cities’ has been putting up some of the most effective resistance to the conservative central government.
  • Petitions can be effective too. There are a number of online platforms for petitions, such as Avaaz, 38 degrees, or org that we can join or support. In Finland, gay rights activists used an online crowd-sourcing platform, dubbed the Open Ministry, to collaboratively draft legislation for gender-neutral marriage. A petition in support of the bill won more than three times the number needed to bring the bill before the Finnish parliament, where it was swiftly voted into law (Whitford, 2016).
  • We can join and support existing organisations that are already going in the right direction. If you want to contribute to reducing the influence of big money on politics in the US, you are not alone. Represent Us works on passing state and local anti-corruption acts. It is one of many organisations fighting for reform and using local wins to build momentum for national reform. And it’s working: the first municipal anti-corruption act in the US hasalready been passed, and more cities and two states are on their way. There’s also Lawrence Lessig’s May Day America, a crowdfunded Super Political Action Committee (PAC) – to take down other Super PACs. Such initiatives are not reserved for only one side of the political spectrum. Take Back Our Republic is a conservative-leaning organisation devoted to fighting corruption and cronyism. The choice is huge – here are a few more: Every Voice, Common Cause, People for the American Way, The Stampede, Wolf PAC, and Move to Amend.

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  • In some places it is also possible to press for constitutional changes. Again in the US, there is already a proposed constitutional amendment(Democracy is for people) to overturn ‘Citizens United’, as well as CREW, an initiative urging the Internal Revenue Serviceto forbid political groups from transmogrifying non-profit social welfare organisations into havens for dark money from rich donors who don’t want their identities disclosed. There have also been petitions asking for federal contractors, as well as their directors, officers, affiliates and subsidiaries, to disclose political spending.
  • There are many projects in other Western countries, albeit with somewhat different agendas. For example, in the UK, a good start could be completing the survey and joining the ‘Vote for policies‘ initiative. In Europe, Democracy International is a project that includes the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a new democratic Convention and the establishment of Europe-wide referendums regarding major decisions. Most European countries also have their own national initiatives with the aim of reforming or improving their political system.
  • In India, Africa and South America there are already a huge number of initiatives that are trying to make a difference and evolve their societies. For example, in Brazil, more than 10,000 people contributed via online platforms to the drafting of 2014’s ground-breaking bill of rights for Brazilian internet users. Another similar crowd-sourcing project helped convince Brazil’s Supreme Court to bar corporations from bankrolling political campaigns.
  • In China, it may be important to raise awareness in the ruling party that local democracy would be an asset, not a threat. Small, incremental steps to introduce direct or representative democracy at a local level (e.g. a parents’ assembly in a local school) are already possible. That could eventually lead to the Communist Party evolving into a fully-fledged meritocratic component by peaceful means. This may seem, right now, a long way off, but this country pulled some surprises in the past and may do it again.
  • Is there anything that can be done in oppressive and/or corrupted regimes such as those in parts of Central Asia, Middle East, Eastern Europe and in Russia? The Arab Spring in 2010 demonstrated that sometimes a single act can be a catalyst for a widespread social transformation. Sadly (although predictably) that particular wave of revolts did not, by and large, end well. It showed though that people can make a difference if they come together. However, that’s rarely enough. Getting rid of an oppressive or corrupt system is not going to work, if there is nothing to put in its place. For these reasons, we suggest to start creating parallel structures well before the old structures crumble. For example, worthy individuals can be brought together to work on a constitution and other blueprints for the new political system. Also, a parallel representative assembly can be formed through informal connections. This assembly could bring opposition parties together if there are any, and even more importantly representatives from the industry, civil service, military, police, food suppliers, transport, unions (if existent), as well as religious and ethnic leaders when relevant, to gage what would it take for them to support the change and the subsequent transition. This helped overthrow the president Milosevic of Serbia in 2000 with minimal casualties. Only then people can be galvanised with a realistic chance that it will lead to something better in the future.
  • Even if none of these are viable for you, winning hearts and minds always is – making people aware that there is an alternative is the first step, and the first step matters most. More about this in the final part, The How of Change.

[1] It should be noted that the constitutional reform did not go smoothly due to the political changes in 2013 and subsequent stalling in the Icelandic parliament.
[2] Senators had been selected on the basis of their merits, rather than voted in by the electorate.

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