Episode #44 Trauma, Politics and Empathy: re-democratising democracy with Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick
At the start of Lockdown, Eva and Justin set out to interview 100 people in Scotland – deep, wide, broad interviews across the widest range of opinions. Now, they are bringing those together, creating the foundations for a consultative democracy that really listens to people’s cares and concerns. If it can happen in Scotland, it can happen all around the world. We need new structures. This podcast, and the Medium article that led to it, aim to be the absolute foundation resources for those wanting to create whole, healing institutions based on the best of human Being.
Eva Schonveld is a climate activist, process designer and facilitator, supporting sociocratic system development, decision-making and facilitation in a range of contexts including XR Scotland. After many years working in the arts, she went on to co-found Scotland’s first Transition town and city, networked to inspire the Transition movement across Scotland, and was commissioned by the Scottish Government to establish and manage Transition Scotland Support. More recently she has co-founded Starter Culture, which is developing a range of projects to tackle the marginalisation of the inner dimension at different levels of scale including working on supporting more relational ways of doing politics in Scotland. She is also co-founder of Heartpolitics which exists to address the interconnected social and environmental threats that arise from dividing humans from the wider ecology, and from dividing our minds from our hearts, which is currently working on a fractal Grassroots to Global process which aims to connect open-hearted listening and creative culture re-design processes with a global citizens assembly.
The original Medium article: Politics, Trauma and Empathy: breakthrough to a politics of the heart?
Manda: So, Eva and Justin, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast and thank you for jumping through all the hoops to get sound good. That was really kind. How is it up in Scotland? You guys are in Scotland, aren’t you?
Eva: Yeah, we’re in we’re in Sunny Portabello in Edinburgh.
Manda: Oh, I am envious. You have a proper government and it’s sunny. What else could you ask for. Are you guys in lockdown.
Justin: But I mean it’s the strange lockdown that’s not not like the first few months that were kind of really significant. It’s the strange kind of the closed lockdown. Things are closed, but everyone is moving around.
Manda: So I kind of pretend lockdown. Yes. All right. We didn’t come here to talk about how good or not the Scottish government was versus the English one, although I do envy you, your government. And I am trying to persuade my partner that what we really want to do is, is run north and create a Shamanic monastery somewhere in the Western Highlands. So, yeah, I’m working on that one. We have grandchildren. It is hard.
So anyway, we are talking today because you wrote the most amazing paper on Medium that came out in the summer, which was the first time that I had read something that so clearly linked human personal trauma to the trauma of the planet through the link of our entire political processes and how they are structured and how they work.
And I read something yesterday which really spoke to this, which is, ‘The problem we have now is that we have Palaeolithic emotions feeding into mediaeval governance structures and the technology of Gods’. And this is not a good combination. And I thought that your paper really gave an insight not only into how that happens, but how we can move beyond it, because understanding the problem is, is a small part of the process and moving beyond it is the larger part.
So what I’d like to do today is find out, first of all, a little bit about how you came to write the paper, what it is for the people who are driving us to listen to this and hear it. And then we can look at what can we as individuals and as a collective actually do. So how did you get to here?
Eva: Well, I guess I kicked off that particular article, although, because we’re a couple and we’re increasingly working together, everything that we do and write is part of a conversation between us and we tend to leapfrog each other.
So one of us will come up with like the next step. And so that was my next step at the time. It took me a really long time to start because I kept on wanting to write about politics and and the inner – our emotional side, which doesn’t doesn’t get really clearly seen with in politics. It’s there in all kinds of sort of demagoguery, but an actual intelligent understanding of it just isn’t on the page.
I really liked your snappy little quote, and it does kind of sum the whole thing up. But I kept on writing about trauma. I kept on going really quickly to our childhood hurts and I really didn’t want to go there. So every time I started it, I’d be going, ‘Nno, no, no, I want to avoid that. People can’t people can’t cope with that.I can’t speak about that.’.
And every time I wrote it, that’s just where I ended up. So eventually I thought I’d just follow this through because there’s clearly something here that I want to say. The article formed around the question of why that is so important? I sat for quite a long time with the unpicking of my sense of what was up for ruling class people. But I knew that that was only part of the picture, so there was a later reweaving of, what that’s like for all of us. And that’s really where the decolonisation bit came in, or rather the colonial domination mindset that came in. And then, I want to Justin to add his voice to it because he’s brilliant and he’s an anthropologist and he brings a huge amount of insight into how we don’t have to live, how we live. This is one way of zillions of ways that humans have and do continue to do things. And so he combed through and added other sections.
Justin: The strand that I was bringing into that was around the enclosures of the land in England and the clearances in Scotland and the fact that colonialism happened to us first before we did it to other people and then were used to do the same elsewhere. So I loved your initial input, but maybe it’s not quite right. The palaeolithic is actually perfectly OK. Who we have been and who we can be is really fine. Mediaeval – yes, absolutely – it’s a really brutalising process, which never had a lot of free time to people on the ground.
There’s a lot of space outside of those structures for the Commons to exist -until they were enclosed. So it’s an interesting one because the politics there starts to become really oppressive. And then you move into this colonial process that we’ve been in, where we think the only way of doing well is to exploit other beings, other creatures, other people. And we’re told that that’s the only way that we can be OK. So we moved into that very traumatised place politically, structurally. And then what Eva was pointing to was the way that it’s mirrored inside us and that emotional, empathic sense of self in which we care for others our sense that who we are is made by a good relationship, – that vanishes when you hit the political scene. However well-intentioned you are going into it as a politician, you suddenly become just part of that argy bargy, push-pull, kind of mediaeval fight going on that.
Manda: Have you guys read Isobel Harding ‘Why we get the wrong politicians?’ I thought I knew about politics until I read that book and discovered there is an actual process of soul destruction that goes into even the process of being picked as a prospective parliamentary candidate. The level of humiliation deliberately imposed on potential candidates by the two main parties before they ever even get to stand, pretty much by definition means you’ve got emotionally broken people running for office.
Justin: You’ve got the same in academia, or in corporations – it is something much deeper than just politics. It’s also there in our infancy, which is what Eva was pointing to. It’s there is there and how we brought up. We learn to stand on our own two feet before we can walk. We’re supposed to be able to be independent when actually we’re not. We’re actually relational beings at that stage and are really taking a sense of who we are from, how people are treating us.
So I guess from the anthropology side of things, the infancy experience is really bizarre in the West. It’s a very unusual experience of abandonment. It is there in some other cultures, but it’s really not widespread. I think we’re in contact under 10 percent of the time by the time we’re 7 or 8 months old. Psychologists say that if you have less than 5 percent, you’re experiencing real abandonment. So we’re very close to our own definition of abundance. So for an infant, having their needs humiliated by being abandoned and not really being met is there in all of us, not just politicians. And then that goes through school as well. So seeing politicians as the problem out there is part of what we’re seeing as the need to shift from. Of course, it’s the problem. It’s problem because of the whole system, bigger problem. And that involves our own feelings and our own traumas. So we need to connect those.
Manda: Just before we move on to something else, because I might forget to come back to this – in your anthropology -I don’t know what areas you have studied – but do we have models of really fully functioning humanity that are present on the Earth just now that we could re-learn from how to not destroy our children? Because I have watched Faith’s grandchildren being born and their little Forager-hunters.
They come out alive and connected to everything and the domestication of our children, which is exactly what you’re describing, that turning them into people who can function in our deeply broken reality is horrible to watch. And I’ve never been a mother, so I’ve never had to do it. And I can see why it happens. But, my goodness, it’s it’s quite distressing. So who have we got that would act as a a mirror or a model for us?
Justin: Well, I work with indigenous peoples mostly in Africa, but I work in an organisation that works with forest peoples across the world. And you have many, many, many peoples, including people here as well. But many life ways that really recognise interdependence as fundamental.
For us, we think about future generations, that’s the way that we think about time. For most of these people to think about ancestors. You’re embodying your ancestors. You have respect for your ancestors. Your ancestors are part of the the land you’re in. So your care for your land is your care for yourself, and you have your wider family.
One Ogiek man said to me when he was explaining why being evicted from his land was so awful. And he said, ‘If you imagine for you being taken away from your partner and your kids and being given a different partner and different kids, if you imagine that, that’s how it is for us to be taken from our land. So it’s that deep connexion to place which is prevalent throughout? In Africa, probably 75% of the land is under common management in terms of how people people are relating to it in that way.
Governments claim it all. But even so it’s very pervasive. It’s there also in Canada and elsewhere. But the thing is, all of these peoples are under complete threat because they’re all being smashed, because they don’t fit into this commodification process that we’re all caught in.
But looking at it the other way round, we’re all free of it too. We’re not only defined by the system. And I think that’s really fundamental to this understanding. We’re not just traumatised by a traumatic system. We’re actually only traumatised because we’re already healthy. There would be nothing to traumatise if we weren’t already healthy. If you’re traumatised, it’s because you are a healthy whole human being who knows how to relate and who can deeply relate, but you are not you’re not the trauma, you’re something else, you’re something much deeper than that. So it goes both ways.
Manda: Ok, so we have the capacity. We have a we have an energetic system that is striving to be whole.
Justin: Sue Gerhardt writes on that beautifully about early infancy and how and infant’s brain is shaped by the relational quality of how a caregiver will respond to them and how they have chemicals in the brain, the way they respond to that affection and that kind of responsiveness and how we are shaped by that process. So we really experience that, so it’s really possible. But then school demands us to be competitive, whereas at home we’re supposed to be cooperative. The whole politics demands us to be confrontational, whereas it could demand us to be empathic. So we have that really deep health and wellbeing, but we come up against a system which is fundamentally colonial.
Manda: So Eva, back to the paper and to your writing of it. And can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you had that depth of understanding of trauma that then came out in the paper?
Eva: I have always been really interested in how people work. And I think that’s partly because there is a little strain of something like being on the spectrum in my family that I’ve noticed in my dad and me and in one of my kids. And it’s not massive. It’s just like we don’t get that kind of social soup. I see it in people like Justin just swimming in without even knowing it. It’s like, ‘How do you have those conversations that just like flow and make people like you?’ And, you know, all I want to do is talk about the really deep stuff and I don’t get this.
So there’s been a lot of puzzling for me about how to people work? How do you how do you make those relationships? And in a way it’s had to be a bit intellectual. I get how to do the deep stuff. It’s the it’s the social stuff that I don’t. It’s a funny thing to grow up with and to to have to learn that way. But our relationship has really fed into that hugely because we’re very, very different in some ways and we’re also very strongly aligned. And it’s been really tough at times.
And we were in counselling for years and years and years because it was the only way we could stay together. We wanted to stay together, but we fought all the time. So there was a years long practise of ‘What’s that about? Why is that happening?’
We really deeply researched and embodied understanding of how trauma works, of how the fact that, you know, issues that happened in my childhood make me react throughout my entire adult life in particular ways, because I don’t see reality how it is – once I’ve been triggered, suddenly I’m seeing a different thing happened.
Manda: That’s all of us. We need to say that – to everybody. Once you’re triggered, you’re seeing the old history
Eva: Yes, you’re not you’re no longer in the present moment. And that really is for me the crux of how things work. Why politics – our collective decision making – (and the most important decisions that we make are the ones that we make on behalf of all of us), why we have to get an understanding of how that particular mechanism within us moves in our politics. Because if we don’t, it means that we can just thrash about. And for those in the ruling class – and actually for everybody – you can’t feel empathy when you’re triggered. You only seeing this old, painful, horrible story where you’re the victim and everyone else is awful and you’re just not in a position to make good decisions. And you shouldn’t be allowed you to.
I haven’t by any means got it all figured out. And I don’t know how we can build a politics that really brings that understanding in. But I think it’s that we need different people involved in politics. We need people who have got that self reflexivity, who’ve got that understanding of themselves. People for whom it’s not a massive threat to the entire edifice of this socially constructed personality to say, ‘Oh, my God, yes, that was something that was all about me and I need to go and think about it and I’ll be back,’ Or whatever it is.
But it’s that ability to understand your own process and be open and honest and vulnerable about it, that that means we can trust people in those in those situations. And that is such a different politics. That looks completely and utterly different.
Manda: I have a quote from the paper, which I think for me sums up at least part of it. And it’s, ‘The extent to which we believe that we are separate individuals, that the Earth can be owned, that our hearts are not as wise as our heads and our bodies are incapable of thought, that those in power are there because they know best. All this and more is our colonial inheritance, and it is this alienation from ourselves, one another and our Land that makes it possible for the ruling class to tear up our communities, wreck our lands and poison our air.
And apart from the fact that I think your writing is utterly beautiful, can we dive a little bit more deeply into what you say in the paper about that utter dissociation of self from other, that particularly our ruling classes seem deliberately to perpetuate that the public school system, is designed to crush empathy from people and then to train them to take control.
Eva: I was thinking about it, I was thinking, that this is a formula for how you grow people who can maintain power. And it doesn’t always work. It frequently doesn’t work. You get a lot of people who are casualties of that system. Normally absolutely lovely, delightful people who have been deeply, deeply hurt by their experience of being taken out of their families aged seven and sent to these places where part of the agenda (I doubt that it’s even expressed overtly) but part of the agenda is to humiliate people around their sensitivity and their vulnerability.
So that’s the bit that they have to root out. That’s the bit that has to get completely controlled and the resulting ability to empathise with other people. Because if you empathise with other people, you can’t possibly maintain power over them. You want them to have as good a life as you have. The whole structure of inequality would crumble if those who were at the top had access to the empathy fully because we don’t want that for other people.
And I think the way that the colonial mindset has filtered through to all of us is based in our history and the fact that we needed we need to be co-opted into agreeing that. That’s the way we do things and there isn’t any other way.
Manda: Yeah, there is no alternative.
Eva: We get taught in a really embodied way at school. We can also be taught in our families in different ways, but less so. The whole thing about sitting in your seat, about listening to the teacher and shutting up and not talking about what you want to talk about, but talking about what the teacher says and coming up with the right answer and doing what you’re told… lots of lots of things which aren’t part of the curriculum, but a part of the experience of being in school.
And it’s all inside that. You know, we do now have attempts at Forest Schooling, which are amazing. And it will be interesting to see if there are kids who’ve gone through that for their whole schooling, whether that whether there’s an interesting fallout from that.
Manda: I have had a number of those amongst my shamanic students. They are grown people now who have their own children. And they were forest schooled and they are remarkable people. And I think one of the great things about covered the lockdown is so many more people are homeschooling now. They started doing lockdown and they’re not sending the kids back to school, certainly around here. These are ordinary farm workers who just decided that actually school was damaging their children so badly and their children are so much happier not going that they’re just never going to send them back.
Justin: Covid was amazing that way
We homeschooled our eldest until he wanted to go to school. and I was reading something about when they introduced compulsory schooling, just how devastating it was for families. It had to be compulsory so people wouldn’t send their kids to school.
It’s like Fred Matei talking about being taken off your Land. It’s the same thing. You’re being taken from your family, being forced into an inhuman context. And there is a context of separation and of isolation where you’re learning to complete your exam. As we saw with that exams fiasco if you’re going to do this for yourselves, we push down because, of course, you are not as good as others.
So there’s this whole structuring that goes right the way through in that way. For me, there’s something about keeping in mind the two strands. There’s one about the infancy experience and that abandonment and then that gets played through school and so on. And then the other is that colonial experience out there.
The paper was really interesting when I read Eva’s first draft of it bringing those two together. Rather than saying you’re dealing with a personal herere, and then over here, we’re in the political. As if these are two separate worlds. And that’s the problem. That’s where the problem starts. You’re either in your personal world or you’re in the political world. But we actually need to bring these together .
Manda: Yes. And the ancestral lines, because for me, this goes back to the Romans for our colonisation. The kind of first wave that we know of was when we had a very rigidly patriarchal structure that broke up a tribal structure and started creating a system in which a woman is a chattel, ownership of which passes from her father to her husband.
Everything we know about the tribal structure before that was that it was much more egalitarian. That ownership was of a human being was anathema. And we have 2000 years of Romanisation, which we then spread around the world, in which people are valued by their monetary worth. And you can buy and sell people. And even if you’re not buying and selling them as slaves, those with the money treat those without the money, as, in Marxist terms, part of the means of producing. And that’s it. They are they are items of production.
So healing the ancestral line seems to me also quite important. Because I hear you that we come in with a living vital force that wishes to be whole, but my experience within the shamanic world and now I’m training as a homeopath, is that a lot of people turn up also with ancestral lines that somehow we need to heal as well. And that doing the work of that can make an extraordinary difference in people’s lives.
Eva: Hugely important. Exactly as you were saying, the way that people live indigenous lives is uniquely connected to their ancestors. And yet often when we think about our ancestors, we back off again asking ‘what did my ancestors do? What did they get up to? Because it wasn’t good.’
Justin: But it wasn’t. So when we’re looking at our ancestors, we’re looking at colonialists. Whether they’ve been suffering in factories and been conscripted, or whether they’ve been perpetuating it from the top. There’s been really damage. When I think about my ancestral lines going back, I can see real damage happening there.
But you need to look beyond that, which I guess I was thinking when you talked about mediaeval, looking beyond that to actually what was healthy. It’s not that far back. Certainly a Scotland we didn’t have the Romans and also in Ireland. There’s much less distance back. But that enclosure period in England and the clearances in Scotland that were preparing people, getting them off the land for the colonial project was was absolutely vicious. But yet reconnecting in that way, getting out of the way. And I guess that’s what the Covid thing when you said that: getting out of the way and allowing people to actually realise they have a park around the corner, that there are birds singing, that their partner is actually nice to be with.
Just getting out of the way. Then everything replenishes. The nature of the beast is that it’s a beautiful miracle to be alive. And then we put this horrible system on that we think we’re dependent on when we’re absolutely not. But we conned into that which is which the trauma.
Manda: Yes and Rob Hopkins sayd – though I think he’s quoting somebody else – that the failure of our culture is a failure of the imagination. Because it is easier to imagine the total extinction of humanity and pretty much every other species than it is to imagine a different model to the one we have now. Because our trauma holds us in this very linear structure where we’re trying to survive within the current model rather than trying to create a new one.
However, Buckminster Fuller says the way to change things is to create a new model that makes the old model obsolete rather than trying to fight the old one.
And the paper I felt really, really deeply gave us insight into ourselves, into our ancestry, into our cultural meta-trauma, which is then perpetuated in the utterly dysfunctional governance systems that we have in the West.
How do you see us moving beyond that? Because towards the end of the paper, you began to look at alternatives. So I’d really like for people listening to have a sense of what’s possible, what we can do individually. And more importantly, what we can do collectively to really begin to to change the trajectory of the oil tanker.
Eva: It feels like a lot of those pieces are already there. I did the training in Sociocracy a couple of years ago, and it’s hugely illuminating in how we can organise ourselves. It’s highly organised, highly structured and shows us how we can organise ourselves horizontally.
There are elements of verticality within that, but that they are often self organising. For those who don’t know, Sociocracy is a way of organising ourselves in general. It’s used in organisations and it has applications right down to the meeting level and then right up to the kind of meta-structure of our organisation.
Manda: And it offers systemic ways of of reinventing how meetings or bigger structures might work.
Eva: Yes. It organises in circles and and there is a hierarchy of circles. But at each level of the hierarchy, there are links. So there’s a link that comes from the circle above and there’s a link person who comes from the circle below. And they work together to make sure that communication and also expression of needs and priorities goes in both directions.
So a circle above can appoint somebody to be a member of a circle below. But that person has to be accepted by the circle below. And if they don’t like that person or don’t feel that they’re doing their job properly, then they can say so.
Justin: We tend to think of meetings as boring. So when you talk about meetings, I can imagine people listening, thinking, ‘Well, yeah, meetings, God help us!’ But David Graeber (the anthropologist of the imagination who died recently) had this lovely thing about meetings and just how much he loved meetings.
He hated university meetings, but he loved meetings in which people are collectively, equally gathering to imagine, to think through what’s next to make decisions. I want to infuse that in the spirit of what you’re saying. These are meetings of real people as full human beings who are passionate about what they’re doing or pissed off or angry or whatever. But these are real people meeting, not people as kind of representing things. People functioning as people. And they’re great people are fantastic and fascinating!
Eva: One really important element that that is how much we differentiate between ourselves as people and ourselves in our roles. And it’s become really clear to me that one of the reasons that we’ve been able to get into this situation, particularly with climate change, which is my particular issue, is that people are making decisions as their role. So ‘I’m CEO of this organisation. I have these responsibilities.’ Or ‘I’m a civil servant in this role, in this highly stratified hierarchical system. I can’t say I’m not allowed to say that I’m absolutely fucking terrified or I don’t know what to do or I’m really frightened for my kids.’
Manda: Because they’ll lose their job and they’ll get someone who doesn’t say that, even though they may feel that.
Justin: There’s a study of politicians in Westminster who know what the crisis is like in terms the climate, but don’t voice it because they can’t. And then scientists themselves who don’t who don’t say in public what they say in the pub or in private because they feel like it’s not acceptable. So there’s and incredible disconnect between this public realm where only a certain paradigm is allowed to be spoken about, which is really that everything’s OK, apart from a few things we need to sort rather than this system is fundamentally corrupted and vicious and really nasty to us. And we need to really transform that. And then the rest will sort themselves.
It’s a very different place to believe that we are really wonderful rather than we’re awful and the system is really appalling. It’s a switch that transforms what we’ve been taught. We’ve been taught that really we’re not really good enough and we need to try and succeed within the system. It’s actually not OK. That’s not really helping us..
Manda: I bought into the concept that Citizens’ Assemblies would really make a difference because you’re bringing large groups of people together. You’ve got that ability to bring different voices into the room. And I was desperately disappointed by the output of the Citizens’ Assembly brought together by Westminster. It felt as if the worst kind of muzzling had happened in that process. I’m sure the people who took part came away with with broader perspectives. Do you think this is the nature of Citizens’ Assemblies or was it the way in which that particular one had been convened?
Eva: It’s a little bit of both. Justin has a massive perspective on this because he’s actually involved in stewarding a Scottish CA. I just want to say while he groups his thoughts and decides what he can and can’t share on that.
I am interested that Citizen’s Assemblies are being used so badly. I think a lot of this is unconscious, but whether it’s almost an attempt to prove that they don’t work – that this great idea that people have come up with that doesn’t work either.
I think that they’re partial and they need a lot of improvement, but they’re absolutely brilliant. Because they bring together people who don’t have vested interests, who are not in role – they are there as human beings, to be well informed by people frm across the spectrum and to deliberate together to take time to be facilitated – all the things that are crucial to making good decisions.
Manda: And they worked in Ireland: the two Citizens’ Assemblies that brought us the two referenda of gay marriage and the right to choose. Those seem to me really functional examples of the best.
Justin: But they emerged out of the movement. So they weren’t they weren’t appointed by government. Government did take part, but the results were pushed through by a movement. They came from the ground up.
So the problem with Extinction Rebellion is that it makes demands of government to do these things. And though Eva is absolutely right that Citizens Assemblies can be fantastic, precisely because people are there as themselves without any other agenda, but to really consider the issue and decide what they feel about. They’re going to be there just as human beings trying to understand the diversity.
The problem is who’s setting it up? Who’s choosing the experts? Who’s facilitating? I’m involved in the steering group of the Scottish government’s Climate Citizens’ Assembly. We had another meeting yesterday, and I can’t really say very much and I’m feeling a bit traumatised, actually. This is pretty hard stuff because what you’re wanting is a space where people can really consider the alternatives, not a space where the alternatives they’re given, as was the case in the UK Citizent’s Assembly was so narrow, it was all basically, ‘How do we fulfil what we’ve already agreed to in a way that will be acceptable to you?’
And what they’ve agreed to – the concept of reaching zero emissions by 2050 – that was done by a trick of accountancy, by increasing the amount that we would imagine we could draw down through the means by another 40 percent. So it’s just business as usual, carrying on, presented as being something radical. And then citizens are asked to contribute. And they did wonderfully. And you could hear the citizens afterwards, really they’d really been thinking about stuff. But within this very narrow, confined, it happened with the French climate system and to the decisions they all want to talk about economics. That’s what we want to look at because that’s the driver and that’s great.
How can we continue to grow? And when when Jem Bendell is not invited to speak, you know that it’s pretty darn narrow. The parameters within which look.
Totally but I’m saying in France, they want to challenge economics. So what I meant was always the challenge. At the end of the first day they heard about the climate, they all went to groups and all twenty five tables wanted to talk about the fact that the profit driven motive, economic growth is the problem, but that wasn’t within the remit. And in the UK one that wasn’t even on the table.
In the Scottish one, we’re looking to see whether that can be on the table. We’re in negotiations now as to whether it can be. Because that’s fundamental. It’s all expressed through economics. The politics is what we’re describing now. But economics is what drives that through. So yes, if they can be held well, and I think that means it’s Citizen led, not government led, with government invited to in on the table and businesses in every place.
But it’s citizens who are who are running it. It’s facilitated at real depth. And the way of creating it is a deliberative process itself. That’s the key. It’s actually deliberation that creates it rather than experts creating it. So experts of all sorts are welcome. But it’s got to be a deliberation process. I’m a bit passionate about that.
Manda: And so if you have not got the capacity as a member of the Assembly to call in people and you’re told who you’re going to be able to listen to, then that, I would have thought, undermines the entire process. But that’s what I’m hearing, is that you’re having to negotiate to be able to call in the people that you want to listen to.
I’m on the steering group shaping what this is. So we’re negotiating over who they will be able to hear and then what we what’s the range? I want the range of people I really don’t agree with. And I really agree with. I’m not asking for my lot to be there. I’m asking for the range to be there and then citizens decide. Then I think they’ll come up with something very different to what any of us would say if they have the chance to think about it. There’s a creative leap of imagination that can happen in that space. So I totally believe in them, but I totally believe they can be captured.
So we have sociocracy, we have citizens assemblies. If you two were to sit down today and the Scottish government were to say,’We’ve had a referendum, we have declared independence and we want Eva and Justin to create the new model of a governance system that works. What would it look like?
Justin: I think what we would do is we would be creating a kind of a process for people to come together to decide that. It’s not for anybody to decide. But it’s creating the deliberative process that allows that to happen. And actually, I’d really like us to start doing that soon because independence isn’t that far off and it’s much better to do that sooner rather than later. And that’s part of what we’re looking at in terms of the steps ahead.
Eva: But let’s go into that larger picture. That’s what the paper was for. We could have put some extra work into it and turned it into a book. Or we could have gone around touting it and trying to get other people to publish it. But the point of it was that it’s a working document.
It’s about making the change. And what we’re using it to do is to initiate conversations with people about how do we make this? How do we shift our governance structures to give us a hope in hell of coming up with a commensurate response to the kind of threats that we’re now facing?
Manda: And are you getting traction? Because I imagine the vested interest is digging its heels in quite hard to remain in control.
Justin: So we’re doing 100 interviews over lockdown, of people from all backgrounds to kind of get an understanding of what is it that really people feel is at risk here? What’s the challenge? What’s the crisis for them as opposed to for us? Climate is very paramount for us, but we’re aware of all the other crises. And so we’re asking people what is the crisis? Why do you think it’s happening? How should we go about responding to it?
And on the basis of those interviews, we’re looking at inviting people to People’s Assemblies. So we’re looking having two or three Peoples’s Assemblies that really look at these issues. We have meetings today around this. But just looking at how can we gather people to really consider what is the problem with the system that’s facing us and how do we transform it? And we’re looking at moving from that. We could feed into the climate citizen’s assembly that’s happening in Scotland and away from the government? But I think this idea of a Constitutional Convention asking how do we reconstitute ourselves as a society?
As Eva said, it’s a working document. We’re also connecting people across the world at the moment. And that’s another aspect, because unless this happens globally, you can’t do it. You can’t do it just for the Cree in Canada. You can’t do it just in Nicaragua. You can’t do it just in Rojava. You can’t do it in any place. It’ll get crushed unless we do it collectively. So we’re looking at how do you build to a molten global moment where we collectively realise that it’s up to us, it’s not up to a system of government.
Governments are incapable of taking action. They can’t. By definition, they can’t because they’ve gone through this structured process where the trauma is really driving them, however well-intentioned they are. So we’re looking at how do we build over a two year period to a global movement, which could be a citizens assembly, could be some kind of form that would draw from all sorts of traditions and cultures and backgrounds. But it’s a collective moment of decision-making where we as people decide what happens next and governments either agree or they need to be removed.
But unless we have that level of ambition, unless we actually go for it, I don’t mean we you, me and you, I mean we collectively.So us, us, us and us.
Manda: Yes. Everybody listening and all of their friends and everybody they know totally.
Justin: And I know talking to people in Africa that I work with, they’re totally up for the kind of this needs to happen. There’s no other way around this. We need actually to switch off the bulldozer in the cabin right in there, just turning that off and then things can flourish. But if we don’t get in there, if we just protest outside it or kind of complain or say, could you drive that way? Not this way, the bulldozer continues. It has to stop.
Eva: What I wanted to say is, is that we’re picking up on the Buckminster Fuller quote that, you know, we’re trying to create another system that will make the old one obsolete. So we’re not really at this stage interested in trying to challenge. We’re trying to create other systems to give people experience of what decision making can be like. And that is something that we’re building along the way.
So we’re going to build it in Scotland this year and we’re going to start building it collectively a gathering internationally early next year, which will be the first of several. So that we’re deeply, deeply informed by people from all different kinds of cultures and backgrounds and national situations. And even if we do have a kind of global moment in a year or two of global citizens assembly, that will probably just be the first of several, although it’s kind of a bit strange to be focussing on that global level when it’s actually the local that’s the most important.
But in a way, it’s like getting getting into the cabin of the bulldozer. I like that analogy and switching off – that you have to do at the global level, but it’s to make space for ordinary people in their places to understand what they need to have a good life.
Manda: And then you have a constitutional convention or that’s an idea. Can you just speak a little bit to what that looks like and feels like?
Justin: So in Scotland, on the Western Isles now, seventy five percent of people are living on community Land now. Community land been coming back strongly since the parliament. So that was one of the first acts and while it hasn’t been at all as strong as it should have been, it’s really been a compromise. Now there’s a huge amount has happened. I was on a bus in 1998 just before the the referendum on whether we’d have a parliament or not, and hearing people behind me saying that if we could do it on Eigg, which was a small island of 50 people, then surely we do it elsewhere, too.
And there’s something about the power of example of just showing up. So what Eva was saying there about what matters as that it happens on the ground in different places and people have different ways, in different places. So the idea of a Constitutional Convention process is just one idea of what might happen here in Scotland. These people’s assemblies can then can work out. I would be bringing that as a suggestion. So we’re not in any way doing anything but trying to propose and suggest and then be met by people who agree – or not. And it’s a deliberative process right the way through.
Manda: But I’m thinking of people who have the misfortune not to live in Scotland yet. What can we be doing to help accelerate this process in our own localities, in our own political structures, at work, at home, in our communities, in our villages, in our towns? What are the things that people listening could get out and start doing tomorrow?
Eva: Well, we’re planning to make what we’ve done into an action pack and that people can copy what we did, which is really straightforward. We basically just went out and interviewed people who we thought were different to us, and we were looking for their analysis and their language, and we were looking for an understanding of where the system hits them because it hits all of us in different places.
We want to be able to articulate this at a systemic level. So climate change is just a symptom, just like poverty and racism and homelessness and refugees. They’re all products of a system that’s not working. And if we can find the ways to speak to people in their own language about the bit of the system that’s impacting on them and invite them in that way into a conversation which is wider, which is about the various impacts of the system, then we can move forward.
We’re fed up of having conversations with people who see the world like we do. We should be able to have conversations across difference. We have a great tendency not to trust each other and to put each other in boxes. And so someone who speaks with my accent often gets written off as a middle class do-gooder or whatever and I can do that, too.
I have done that. And that’s how I understand that that mechanism. So we need actually to get into a relationship with people, having real conversations with real people, with a kind of a sense of earnestness and respect for where they’re coming from.
And if they’re saying things that we can’t handle, then not just bouncing off that, but digging into that experience and asking what is underneath that? What is underneath that is a human being that’s had some bad stuff happening and has been persuaded quite often by by mainstream media that it’s a certain bunch of people’s fault.
And we need to be able to have those conversations without bouncing off each other and blaming each other, but deepening our understanding, because at the bottom, what we get to is we’re all human beings. We all want a good life. But actually we also want one another to have a good life, too. And although we will always have difference, because that’s what being human is about, we also we can find solutions to problems, but they need to include everybody. They can’t be imposed from above. They have to be through respectful conversations as equals.
Justin: So it begins by listening. We found it wasn’t even conversation because we were then learning that we’re not it’s not a conversation. We’re trying to really listen. So for me, shutting up can be hard, you know, and actually really listening and not bouncing in response. I think the skill you have of listening is one that we all need to learn. How do we really deeply listen and be really engaged in interest in others who are very different to us?
What matters is re-learning empathy in that very practical way as a practical skill, which then leads to people’s assemblies and all sorts of other things which we can go into. But unless that initial bit is done, then the rest means nothing. It’s not some magic thing over there that will save us – it’s us, being fully human in connexion with others who are allowed to be fully human through our connectedness with them.
Manda: How far through your hundred interviews are you at the time of recording?
Have you changed internally in ways that you could pinpoint as a result? Have any of your ideas markedly shifted or have they deepened or something different?
Justin: I found that I hadn’t been listening to some people that I knew well. I realised that I hadn’t really listened to them. And that’s why I made the emphasis on conversation. It was because of my relaising what riches there are there if I really listen even to my friends. So there’s something about setting this up as an interview where you’re saying, ‘What are the major challenges that we face? Why do you think that happening? How should we act in response to them?’
Really simple questions, but really fundamental ones. And you can take them at whatever level you like – as challenges in their life, or it could be challenges in the world or in society or whatever. Whatever challenge means to them or crisis means to them. And I was just astonished by the depth of the amazing depth that I was getting from people.
And the Covid period allowed for people to be really vulnerable, really tender, really aware of our mortality, really aware that we’re bodies in this world. And it’s amazing that we are. The birds are singing and it’s magical. But also aware of how vicious the system is and how unequal it is and how inequality is smashing people is so visibly. And and how key workers are not the bosses and the politicians, but the people who make the food and deliver the food and who do the nursing and the care.
And it was so obvious that none of this is needed apart from passionate relationships of care and nurturing. Which is where we really got this strong notion of calling a pause. That if this work towards a global moment happens, it’s like wanting to turn that bulldozer’s switch off and have a two year pause where we’re no longer do anything apart from activity that we need to care for each other and to be able to be fed and warm.
We need a two year holiday collectively across the world. And post people would be much better off because they be being fed, they’ll have their needs met. But then some people won’t have the great riches that they have. But it’s just a two year pause where we redesign how we beat together, informed by empathy.
When I was arrested in London at the Extinction Rebellion action and walking back at 4:00 in the morning to the camping out at Parliament Square, it was really lovely. Dawn was coming and and the birds were just rising. And there was a banner across the encampment and it said ‘Empathy’ and that’s a political banner I can get behind. And I think that’s really all. That’s the banner.
Manda: So this idea of a two year circuit break might be a whole other podcast, actually. In fact, if you’re up for that, could we leave that for another podcast? Because I think there’s so much in that idea and exploring its parameters and exploring what do we do. How does money change the way that it works? What services are basic and what ones can we not just stop without, you know, the entire life force falling off the edge of a cliff? That would be so interesting.
So in our last few closing minutes, we’ve covered an awful lot of ground. Can we look at what for you are the key arguments or concepts that we have now that will take us towards where we need to be?
Eva: It feels like where we’re heading with all of this is a conversation or argument about where legitimacy lies. We have all agreed that legitimate decision making lies within our parliamentary systems and processes.
Manda: Or we haven’t disagreed loudly enough.
Eva: But I haven’t heard anybody saying. That that’s the wrong place to have legitimacy in the first place. And for me, the idea of citizen led Citizens Assemblies and People’s Assemblies which aren’t initiated by government are the key. Because government is not capable of giving up enough of their idea of power to make the decisions that need to be made.
But if we manage to create decision-making processes that are really transparent, that are really inclusive, that are emotionally intelligent, that basically we can prove have been as as thorough and rigorous as they could possibly be, why are those not as legitimate as anything that our governments might come up with?
And that’s really our bid to shift where power lies from, basically a kind of captured elite, to those of us who are willing to put the time and effort in. And we can make that possible for people who who might struggle to find the time and effort so that we can find those who are willing to bring their whole selves to the table and actually engage with one another in difficult conversations and thinking processes, but for the benefit of all of us.
Justin: So one particularly doing that is through this interaction between people’s assemblies and assemblies. So people’s assemblies are simply a gathering of anybody who is passionate about an issue or a place that he wants to be there to contribute their ideas, their anger, their feelings, their love, their thoughts. So Peoples Assemblies are welcome to anybody to come who cares about an issue or about a place.
Citizen’s Assemblies are very different in that they are a risk because they are a randomly selected representative sample of a population. In the case of the government’s climate assembly there are 100 citizens from across Scotland weighted by gender and age and ethnicity and various things. So there’s a representative sample, not just random. So the key with that it’s actually a risk. And with elections they are in theory a risk. Legitimacy comes from a risk taking. Dictatorships are not legitimate. They have power. They have control. They don’t have legitimacy because there’s no sense that people have put them in place in any way. As so the parliamentary system has legitimacy because there’s a risk happening.
But what we’ve seen is there’s very little risk happening. People are captured, politics is captured. Despite the fact that we’ve got much more reasonable politics up here than down south, what our 100 interviews show is that government is still not able to respond in the way that it needs to people’s real needs.
So with a Citizen’s assembly, it’s a risk because the thinking is what you have is people’s assemblies that then put proposals forward to citizens assemblies so if people are passionate about something and they come up with a range of views, they can put those forward citizens assemblies who then consider consider those.
So you can have a better way. That’s how parliament could be. We culd have PAs at one level and CAs at another and that dynamic allows for the risk to happen. Because unless you have trust, you don’t have a legitmate body and trust requires risk taking. You don’t trust somebody if you control them. You only trust them when you don’t have control over them, but you’re trusting they will act with your good interests.
The risk trust involves developing empathy rather than control. It involves taking risks rather than control. Trust is at the heart of that legitimacy and therefore risk needs to be. So that’s one way of doing what you were describing.
Manda: Brilliant. And in the last closing moment and the process of creating the either the people’s or the citizens assemblies, do you have facilitators there to help people to find the ways to have the difficult conversations either through sociocracy or other more modern social technologies?
Eva: Absolutely. Facilitation role is crucial. And in some ways it’s the the weak link because it’s a very powerful position. But so facilitators will need to have a huge amount of that property of self reflexivity.
But increasingly they are able to help people to create context for conversations that are as little triggering as possible. So that people feel safe, they feel relaxed, they feel that their voices are going to get heard, but they’re not going to get swamped by other people. So you need facilitators to create those contexts and then within those to have the kind of emotional intelligence to notice when people are getting triggered and to know what to do about it.
So that’s another strand of the work that I’m picking up at the moment in Scotland and really want to dig into is, ‘What does that facilitator role look like? And what does it need in order to both create safety and to be safe itself?’
Manda: That, I think, is a fantastic place to end that concept of creating safe spaces where all the conversations that need to be had can happen. And then you get the creativity because he can’t be creative if you feel unsafe. So if we can build safe spaces where conversations can happen and then decisions can arise from intelligent, deep, authentic conversation, then we can shift the reality that we have.
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