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Rekindling Democracy

Author: Cormac Russell

Reviewed by: Simon Duffy

This new book by Cormac Russell condenses worlds of wisdom on what really matters and outlines the kind of citizen revolution we need. It offers radical perspectives on democracy, economics, society and the value of human life. If citizenship is your goal then this book will provide encouragement, stories and ideas that you can take with you as we all work together to restore community to the centre of our lives.

The challenge we face, and which this book helps us to recognise, is that we’ve become blind to many of the things that really make for a good human life. This harms us both at an individual and at a collective level. Probably most of us will know those famous optical illusions - the duck-rabbit or the old-young woman - where, once you see the object one way, it is very hard to see it the other way. But now imagine that seeing the duck or seeing the old woman is actually bad for us. It’s no longer just a failure of vision and imagination, it is a problem that is threatening our health, our well-being and the fabric of our society. We need to see the rabbit, we need to see the young woman - but somehow we just can’t do it.

Although there are many examples in the book of different kinds of faulty vision the central example is Servicitis: we keep trying to solve problems by creating professionalised, regulated and centrally organised services to do things that we can often do much better for ourselves, individually or collectively. 

Each such service looks like a good thing: well-intentioned politicians create well-intentioned services that are full of well-intentioned professionals offering to solve your problems. In order to find its place in the world the service is given power and given money and it is fixed within a system of regulated and bureaucratic accountability to central government that means that local people must just accept what has been done - for their own good.

This may seem an extreme analysis, but to anyone familiar with the real history of the welfare state it is not so far-fetched. Notice how asylums and workhouses were justified, organised and thereby empowered to swallow up people, removing them from community life, putting them at increased risk of abuse, stifling freedom and human creativity. Notice too that mental health does not improve as mental health services increase; it is love and community, meaning and freedom, that help people flourish and grow. Drugs and therapy may be helpful in extreme cases, but they take our eyes away from the underlying causes of mental illness. They are sticking-plaster solutions.

What is worse, when these institutional service responses fail, or at least reveal their limitations, the powerful respond by blaming the citizen: we’re lazy, poor and too dependent. The era of austerity has managed to convert the limitations of services into an excuse for destroying services - what in the UK we now know as Big Society Bullshit.

What it will take to restore balance, or rekindle community, is something very different to austerity. As Cormac Russell argues, what we lack is an authentic commitment to democracy - at every level. 

True democrats - that is literally those of us who are really committed to people power - should be exploring how to:

  • Shift power to citizens - using basic income or personal budgets for example
  • Expect contribution - welcome those who are excluded, marginalised or impoverished
  • Build power at a community level - demanding constitutional reform to protect the small and the local
  • Ensure sustainability - end the tyranny of GDP and consumerism to protect our common inheritance

This book is a book of theory - in the best sense - it offers a new way of seeing things. It reminds us that the world is built from nature, from our capacities and our gifts and from the relationships that hold us together. It may not be a book to persuade sceptics, but it is certainly a book to inspire and encourage those of us who already believe, those who can already see the outlines of a new world, emerging from the shadows of the old.

More information about Rekindling Democracy is available via Nurture Development here.


The publisher is Cascade Books.

Rekindling Democracy: A Professional's Guide to Working in Citizen Space © Cormac Russell 2020.

Review: Rekindling Democracy © Simon Duffy 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.