Civic Republicanism: a North Star for hard times

The key principle of Republicanism is to minimise domination wherever it is found. The Zapatero governments in Spain showed how this idea can shape the policies of nation states. More work must be done to extend the principle to the global arena.

I start with what everybody knows. We live in hard times. There is much more suffering in Europe right now than just five years ago – much more domination too. Arguably, a sort of global redistribution is benefiting ‘developing’ countries to the detriment of the ‘developed’ world. But Western democracies are doing badly, and their prospects are not promising. Here are just some of the factors that I argue are increasing the room for domination in Europe and around the world:

• The globalization of markets, particularly of financial markets, with huge flow of capital from one corner of the planet to another.

• As a result, the increasing ability of the powerful to escape or avoid their political and legal duties – whether by literally escaping from one place to another or through the implicit threat of departure, as recent cases in France exemplify.

• The power of new technologies, which generate new opportunities for freedom but also new forms of domination.

• The emergence of new global challenges like climate change, global pandemics, or global terrorism, which require international responses.

In Europe we are learning that the euro crisis requires coordinated action; one might say that countries like Spain, Italy or Greece no longer possess sovereignty in their ability to find their way out of the crisis.

It is not only EU institutions but non-EU agents, including national political leaders, that are taking decisions with far-reaching consequences for Europe. Last July 2012, the leaders of the two biggest unions in Spain had a meeting with Angela Merkel in Berlin, only informing the Spanish Prime Minister afterwards on its content. Worse still, the power of international institutions such as the IMF, and also non-institutional agents – like rating agencies, investment banks or powerful investment management corporations – is on the rise. Most of these organizations are not democratically accountable, despite the fact that their decisions have clear impact on the wellbeing of publics.

All this implies that the room for global domination is increasing, as the ability of citizens to hold power to account diminishes. We know that in order to combat this we need to set up new political frameworks, change our discourse, views and patterns of behaviour. But very few of these changes have yet taken place.

As I said, this is what everybody knows.

What is civic republicanism?

Philosophers love to start with obvious truths, and then leap to an obscure language that few understand. Philosophies often seem distant from the real world; ordinary people and politicians are simply left out of such elegant discourses, while some consider them totally useless. But political philosophy is a form of practical philosophy. Thus, it should be applicable, shareable, realistic and energizing – whether or not it is idealistic... That is what I believe civic republicanism can be: in short, useful.

Civic republicanism has a very simple idea: we must avoid or minimize domination in the world. No matter what kind of domination, no matter what source, no matter who is being dominated and by whom. We must minimize domination, being careful of not producing a greater domination in the process. To do so is to empower the weak, while controlling and restricting the powerful. According to this view, the source of all political evils is the imbalance of power that makes domination possible. Power, of course, comes not only from economic means – although obviously these are very effective. Power may come, for instance, from unequal access to information, from cultural inequalities, from sexist cultural patterns, and from many other sources.

Socialists are traditionally concerned about workers’ exploitation by the owners of the means of production. So are republicans. Feminists are concerned about gender and domination. So are republicans. Multiculturalists are concerned about the domination of cultural or religious minorities by their majoritarian counterparts. So are republicans. Democrats want more transparency, accountability, and opportunities for political engagement and popular control by citizens. So do republicans. And republicans, in addition, are concerned about many other issues: the discrimination faced by the LGBT community, consumers at the mercy of retailers or companies, web users at the mercy of providers or regulatory states, children at the mercy of their parents or teachers, the elder at the mercy of younger disrespectful citizens, the kid being bullied by a classmate at school, the prisoner abused by his jail mates or by the prison authorities, etc. The varieties of domination are almost infinite.

According to republicans, being subject to alien control constitutes domination even if such an influence is benevolent or well-intentioned. The mere fact of being at the mercy of others is a case of domination. And this is the opposite of being free. Freedom is the central republican value. But freedom understood in this particular way, as the absence of domination. This is one of the respects in which republicanism is different from liberalism, which traditionally favours a negative idea of freedom. When I am under the arbitrary power or alien control of others, I am subordinated. They may or may not actually interfere in my life. But I am being dominated, even if I believe that I am free.

The idea is, again, quite simple. To be free is to enjoy an equal social and political status and an equal protection by the law. As Philip Pettit puts it, free persons – according to this republican view – are those who “can speak their minds, walk tall among their fellows, and look others squarely in the eye. They can command respect from those with whom they deal, not being subject to their arbitrary interference” (José Luis Martí and Philip Pettit, A Political Philosophy in Public Life, page 38).

The forms of domination can be separated into two main sources: i) private agents, like individual citizens, criminal organizations, religious communities, corporations and companies, unions, other civil associations, etc; and ii) public agents or institutions, like governments – our own or a foreign government – any type of public institution including the agencies of the administration but also the corporations owned by the government, international organizations, and even institutions with no agency, such as cultural patterns or structures, etc. 

According to Pettit, the first task to avoid private domination is “to firm up the infrastructure of nondomination, providing as far as possible for a resilient economy, a reliable rule of law, an inclusive knowledge system, a sound health system, and a sustainable environment”. But the republican government, according to him, must also do at least three other things: empowering the weak by giving them the resources of basic functioning, protecting all citizens through the law from both internal and external enemies, and regulating and restricting the powerful.

Republicanism, in contrast to liberalism, is not suspicious of governmental intervention. On the contrary, there is a belief that the government and the law is the only way to achieve the goal of reducing significant private domination. But the government itself must be subject to control and regulations in order to avoid the risk of public domination, the arbitrary power of public agents. This is why constitutional arrangements with separation of powers, some kind of federalism, a judicially enforceable bill of rights, the rule of law, and other traditional legal strategies are needed.

Isn’t it appealing? But how do we apply it? If civic republicanism is really to be our North Star, it must be able to guide us through the world as it stands. Is it able to do that?

Republicanism in Spain

It is of course possible to recognize some republican policies in almost any developed democracy in the world. Some are not necessarily distinctive of a civic republican political philosophy, but this would apply to any other political philosophy you can think of, from utilitarianism to libertarianism. The question is, then: is or has there been any government that could be properly identified with a republican program? Yes, Spain.

Former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero publicly endorsed the political philosophy of republicanism when he was still an opposition candidate in 2000, particularly the ideas of Philip Pettit. Once elected in 2004, his government was said to be inspired by and to apply republican principles. Sociologist José Andrés Torres Mora, one of Zapatero’s closest advisers and Spanish Congress MP at that time, described this influence: “Philip Pettit provided us with the appropriate grammar to furnish our political intuitions, to express the kind of proposals and dreams we had in mind for Spain. Pettit’s republicanism has been our north star”. The republican agenda was pursued particularly during Zapatero’s first term, given that the second, starting in 2008, was marked by a difficult handling of the economic crisis and by severe funding cuts on several fronts, including in welfare. Below are just some of the government’s policies that can be said to have a republican inprint:

• The same-sex marriage law (2005), publicly defended as an initiative to grant equality of rights and to allow gays and lesbians to look others squarely in the eye. A few months later, the law was challenged before the Tribunal Constitucional by the right wing party Partido Popular, because they considered it unconstitutional. Seven years after it was passed by the Chambers and challenged before the courts, the Tribunal Constitucional finally declared it compatible with the constitution in late 2012.

• The Dependency Act (2007), which for the first time in Spain’s history substantially recognized the needs of dependent people – the elder, the disabled, the ill, etc – who live with their relatives at home, offering them personal care services and/or direct allowances. The explicit aim was to strengthen their autonomy.

• Several new statutes (the Gender Violence Act, 2005; the Equality Act, 2007) with the explicit aim of empowering women, most of them adopting affirmative action policies. For instance, 40% quotas on all electoral lists, harsher punishments for men in cases of domestic violence, special judicial and economic assistance for women who are victims of gender violence, a requirement for corporations with more than 250 employees to have their own equality plan aimed at eliminating discrimination against women, etc.

• The transformation of RTVE, the national television and radio broadcaster owning several popular and influent channels, giving it more independence from the government – a policy which has been reversed by the Partido Popular, now in power.

• Further territorial decentralization approaching a federal arrangement. The idea was to encourage the autonomous communities to change their “Estatutos de Autonomía” – the equivalent to regional constitutions – in order to facilitate a transfer of powers from the central state. This process was initiated by the Catalan movement to gain further capacity for self-government. The new Catalan Estatuto was finally amended and cut back by the Tribunal Constitucional, a move which has strengthened secessionism there.

• Better treatment of immigrants, including illegal workers. The latter were given a general amnesty in 2005, making them legal residents and benefiting around 700,000 immigrants, mainly from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa.

• International strategies to contribute to a more egalitarian and fair global order, such as the Alliance of Civilizations, established by Spain and Turkey with United Nations’ sponsorship, aimed at achieving better dialogue and cooperation between different cultures and countries, particular on the Northern and Southern sides of the Mediterranean Sea.

Minimizing global domination

Spain is an example of a nation that has been guided by republican principles, drawing on a long and deeply ingrained republican tradition in that country. But surely it can’t apply on the global scale? In fact, most contemporary republicans have advocated global republican models, overcoming the traditional statist view. In effect, Pettit advocates a republican law of peoples for the world, while James Bohman, Samantha Besson, John Dryzek, and Francis Cheneval favour a transnational deliberative demoi-cracy. Jürgen Habermas and Cristina Lafont, meanwhile, have proposed a global set of judicial institutions to protect human rights and enforce international law.

What all these proposals have in common is the acknowledgement that something like the global common good exists and needs to be protected and promoted. This global common good, from the republican perspective, cannot be other than the reduction or minimization of global domination, that is, ensuring freedom on an international scale. All these scholars have become convinced, by different degrees, that traditional nation states are no longer capable of coping on their own with the new forms and manifestations of global domination. We need a new approach. Republicanism can help us find this, by providing a clear and simple guiding principle against which we can measure any new proposal. It is the kind of North Star we need now more than ever: the goal of minimizing, if not ending, global domination. 

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.

About the author

José Luis Martí is Associate Professor of Law at Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona (Spain)