‘We’re not going to be ruled by decree’: How a retired social worker got active and began running free courses on democracy and neoliberalism

Caitlin Logan

Activist John Rogers tells CommonSpace of the big ambitions behind Glasgow’s free courses on democracy and neoliberalism

SOME OF the concepts, ideologies and structures behind the practical problems facing people in the world today can seem alien, hard to get to grips with, or maybe just not that interesting – activist John Rogers was aware of these facts when he decided to launch free courses on these very subjects.

Rogers is a former social worker who developed and delivered parenting courses, and only got involved in activism over the last year in his retirement. On a whim, he attended an event on ‘Neoliberalism v Democracy’ run by Glasgow-based collective Solidarity Against Neoliberal Extremism (SANE), and from there made connections with other likeminded, “leftward leaning” people and helped set up a group called Democracy Unchained.

Now, he is teaching a course on democracy at The Space in Glasgow and helping to promote a follow up course called ‘WTF is Neoliberalism?’ starting at the CCA next month, and he’s involved in his local Common Weal group in Glasgow Southside.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Rogers said he believes that the first step to challenging the unjust structures of the present economic and political system is ensuring people have the chance to debate the ideas and understand that they have the right, and the potential, to make a difference.

READ MORE: John Rogers – If we’re really serious about getting change the fragmentation of activism needs to end

“I came into the area of activism as a complete ignoramus, to me democracy was a Good Thing – capital G, capital T – and not much else,” he said. “It was something I did every so often at an election and that was me, and I really didn’t know too much about how it actually works. I’d never heard of neoliberalism either – I didn’t know what that was a year ago.

“So our motivation has been that we need to get these two subjects – democracy and neoliberalism – which are directly opposed, out in the open to be debated. If people can start talking about it hopefully they will feel enthusiastic enough to do something about it.”

Rogers, with his newfound knowledge and passion for the subject, explained ‘neoliberalism’ as the “invidious, amoral system under which the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer” and through which corporations are given an undue amount of influence over public policy.

“There are a number of organisations that are a mix of corporations and legislators that meet regularly – very regularly, in fact. The EU have met with corporations in 75 per cent of the meetings they have, in America it’s even higher, about 84 per cent.

READ MORE: Ross Pollard: How social enterprise can replace neoliberalism

“If they’re having that kind of influence, what influence are ordinary people having? How do we get to meet some of these legislators? How do we get to influence some of this?” Rogers asked.

“The whole idea of neoliberalism is to reduce the state down to nothing, it’s a return to 19th century free trade politics where government wasn’t supposed to interfere in the business of business, and this is a retrograde step.”

Under this system, he said, policies which seek to help the more vulnerable in society and advance equality such as welfare and free healthcare start to appear “extraneous” and expendable. Despite this stark situation, which Rogers said is affecting people in practical ways across the UK and beyond – from young people and student debt, to older people and cuts to pensions – he said there are very few forums for debate about the principles behind it.

“Neoliberalism doesn’t come out as a subject in the newspapers, it’s just described as ‘economics’, and it’s sort of like a bible that universities sell to economics students exclusively,” he said. “I don’t think people realise that it doesn’t work.

READ MORE: Jonathon Shafi: There is such a thing as society, Maggie Thatcher, and we’re taking it back

“I think that’s just sort of passed by as a load of assumptions that people have in the back of their minds but never become overt and never become the subject of deliberation, where people can actually start to think, what actually is it that we want, what can we do differently?”

These are the questions which the courses in Glasgow hope to spark among the participants. “The whole idea of doing this course is not based on a didactic approach – a wee lecture on what it is – it’s based on the idea of a quest into what it is, so one course might be different to another depending on who attends,” he explained.

The long-term ambition, Rogers said, is that this might allow a degree of confidence to take hold. “There’s this sort of perspective of ‘What influence can little me have over this?’ Well, actually we can. We can say ‘no, you can’t do this anymore. We’re not going to be ruled by decree’.”

The first 10-week Unchained Democracy course runs every Thursday from 7-9 at The Space until 17 May, with plans to run another one soon, and the 11-session biweekly neo-liberalism course at the CCA, led by the SANE collective, starts at 6.30pm on Wednesday 9 May.

Picture courtesy of Koala99

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