As we’ve recently passed the 100-year mark since some women first got the vote, I think it’s a good time to talk about citizen power.
We all know power is very unequally distributed in UK and US society, and this concentration of power at the top of the socio-economic ladder is much more extreme at the global level. The richest 1% now own half the world’s wealth. Many places are ruled by completely unaccountable violent dictators and militias. I’m lucky to live in a liberal democracy. But just because other parts of the world are so much less fortunate, doesn’t mean we in the West should be content with the watered-down versions of “democracy” that actually aren’t that democratic. Or liberal, for that matter.
I can’t speak for other countries that I haven’t experienced, but I know that in the UK although we have democracy, our politicians are not obliged to do what we want, nor what they promise to do. Most of them (especially the ruling Conservatives) appear to be much more interested with lining the pockets of their corporate chums and, indirectly, themselves.
Big Business gets to scrounge off the state constantly with corrupt contracts (as the collapse of outsourcing giant Carillion exposes) tax breaks, unchallenged tax avoidance, direct subsidies and indirect subsidies such as topping up poverty wages with benefits – while the poorest are vilified to legitimise the speedy erosion of their rights. Austerity for the poor and socialism for the rich. The injustice of it all is breathtaking, to anyone who bothers to look.
I know, it’s a bleak picture. And it’s easy to understand why so many people in this country have become apathetic. It’s easy to take a glance at the corruption, hypocrisy and deceit and decide that the elite is all-powerful and normal everyday citizens (who aren’t politicians and don’t run a big company or a big news outlet) are powerless.
It’s easy to see why you might think that, because that’s what the powerful want us to think. Citizen apathy is in their favour, big time.
But it’s not true.
Yes, we don’t have the extreme wealth and the decision-making and influence that rolls with it, but ordinary people do have real power in several ways. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but I think the main types of citizen power are as follows:
This is, after all, a democracy – unfair ‘first past the post’ voting system or not. It may be a flawed democracy, but the fact remains that we have a significant way to influence who’s in charge by ticking a little box every five years (or, here in the UK, these days it’s apparently more like every year…). This works best when everyone votes, as non-voting weakens it dramatically. Yet non-voters always outnumber the voters for any one party, which is ridiculous. Take the time to read manifestos and watch debates, and keep climate change in mind when you decide who to vote for. It’s not enough on its own, but use your vote thoughtfully. We take it for granted but remember people literally died for the right to vote not so long ago.
To unlock this power you need to have a job, and ideally, if you can, get a job that is in line with your values and benefits society in a tangible way. Joining a union is another way to upgrade this power. Those at the top may call the shots and scoop up the profits, but the fact remains that employees (and self-employed workers) do the vast majority of the work – without them, we would not have an economy or a society. Like all on this list, this power is collective – each individual only has a little bit but together it is huge. This is where unions come in, because they harness the power of the collective by organised bargaining for better rights and wages, sometimes by withholding their labour (striking). Unions have had their reputation dragged through the mud since the Thatcher era, but in my opinion only a small proportion of that was deserved and the rest was ideologically driven because they were effective.
You might be surprised to see this make the list, because I’m so often bitching about consumerism and I can’t stand the way some fractions of the environmental movement depoliticise the issues and assume the consumer can and should pick up the extra cost of ethical production. I would never suggest our only (or even our main) power lays in our role as consumers. But we are all constantly buying things, and we have a wide choice about what to buy. Exercising this choice (voting with yo dollar) is a valid form of power. Be honest with yourself about your financial situation. If you are struggling to get by as it is, no one should judge you for leaving the pricey green version on the shelf. There are still a few ways you can use this power without spending more, from buying vegetables from farmers markets (often cheaper than supermarkets) to choosing recycled loo rolls (often the same price) to buying second-hand (much cheaper). If you possibly can afford it, spending a little bit more on organic, Fairtrade, local, recycled or chemical-free options really does make a difference by sending a clear market signal that consumers are interested in ethics. Yes – it should be the company that absorbs the cost, but alongside other actions, this is a legitimate way to have collective influence today.
Surprisingly, to unlock this power you need to have a child. Having a child is the most resource-intensive thing you can possibly do, no doubt about it. And as cute as they are, the world has plenty of bubbas already – arguably too many. But if you are already a parent, utilise this power by passing on the values of social justice and environmental sustainability to your little ones – through your lifestyle, what you eat, what you do, what you tell them about the world. This is an incredibly important power. People’s core values are largely shaped by their upbringing, so parents today are really helping to decide what the next generation will find important. This is a direct way to influence the future beyond your own lifespan. (Even if you don’t have your own child or step-child you can still use a weaker form of this power with any kids that your regularly spend time with).
To unlock this power, you need to start your own business, and use it to make some positive impact in society as well as to earn a living. Small to medium businesses create more jobs, and are often (though not always) more ethical. If you have a great idea and lot of commitment, starting your own enterprise can be a fantastic way to extend your positive influence. Obviously, you will have much more power than as a worker. You can decide which suppliers to use, how to treat your employees, how to engage with your customers. You can make your product or service greener and better quality. You could make your business a co-operative to bring democracy into the workplace and share wealth more equitably. You could even be a real pioneer and set up a not-for-profit enterprise. The Post Growth Institute is writing an exciting book on how these can transform the economy.
No, not the Wolf of Wallstreet kind. The ‘having a bank account and maybe even a pension’ kind. A big proportion of the money in the finance system comes not just from the rich but from huge numbers of ordinary people’s savings and pensions. What do the banks and funds do with your money? Very often it’s invested in fossil fuels – using your hard earned savings to trash the climate. Not ideal. To unlock this power, you need to actively choose a bank or scheme that has an ethical policy – is divested from particularly damaging activities like fossil fuels and ideally actively works to finance the transition to a sustainable economy. I personally bank with the Cooperative, which I think are the most ethical of the mainstream UK banks. Triodos is much better as they actively invest all their money in positive projects. I have just started a savings account with them (we’ll see how much use that gets…) and they now offer current accounts too. Credit unions are also a great option as they are not-for-profit. The organisation I work for uses Aviva for our pension scheme, which is one of the most climate-friendly options. It is a bit of hassle to research and switch these things, but it’s worth the effort. The divestment movement is making a real difference, and your money can be used for good stuff instead.
To unlock this power, you need to have passion, dedication and a little bit of time to spare. Activism has a wide spectrum of commitment, all the way from non-committal clicktivism like signing petitions, solidarity hashtags and emailing your MP, to the middle-ground of attending protest marches and volunteering, all the way up to the high-commitment end of organising campaigns yourself. The beautiful thing about activism is that it blows “what can one person do” out of the water. Sometimes I read in Positive News or listen on People Fixing the World about successful campaigns that have made a significant difference and were started by just one person. However, as always, the real power is in the collective. Big social movements like those for civil rights for black Americans, for women’s suffrage, for workers’ rights, for gay rights, depended on vast numbers of individual activists all doing a little bit and joining together.
If you liked this post, sign up to get notifications about fresh posts!
What other forms of citizen power can you think of? And do you utilise the types of citizen power I’ve mentioned?
Remember – it’s in the political and corporate elites’ interest to have you think you can’t make a difference. It’s in all our interest to realise we can. And to carry that realisation into real actions.
I’ll just leave you with one of my favourite quotes.