An OurKingdom conversation. This is Part 2 of Rosemary's response in our 'Which Plurality?' debate [History: Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler > Jeremy Gilbert > first part of this reply > this post > Jeremy Gilbert]
Jeremy – in the first part of my reply I challenged you to see that the individual is critical to democracy and the strength of the individual, intelligent, judgemental citizen should be celebrated even as, at the same time, we seek shared solutions and recognise that we are social beings. In this second part of my response I want to challenge you on the more traditional ground of nature of power and how, in my view, we need a different understanding of it. One that is not based on the calibration of opposing forces whether 'hard' or 'soft', coercive or hegemonic, but rather based on the capacity to gatekeep, to permit or prevent questions being asked and issues addressed in influential ways.
There is much more ground to be cleared, no doubt. But let's at least provisionally help each other fix some of the broader parameters of the challenge since we have a lot in common. We agree:
- that the long-overdue replacement of first-past-the-post with proportional representation “would not come anywhere close to enabling the forms of complex deliberation and participation which a real 21st century democracy would require”
- that we need “a movement for effective participatory democracy… not limited by the 20th century model of party politics and not reducible to an individualisation or further professionalisation of politics.”
The question is: what would this politics be like and how might it come about?
Compiling a reading list is invaluable, so thanks for bringing more of your own work and Cruddas and Rutherford vs.Collins and Reeves to my attention. You are right to detect republican tendencies in my reply , though not, perhaps, the 'liberal republic' proposed by Collins and Reeves. I do believe that if Tom Nairn's much-wished for 'revived social democracy' is to appear convincingly on the horizon, it will have to have absorbed many of the mechanisms and concerns David Marquand refers to in Britain since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy as the fourth tradition, the only one that has not been “tested pretty well to destruction”: 'democratic republicanism'. I would like to add the latter, as well as Chapter VII of Iseult Honohan's Civic Republicanism, to my previous recommendation of Paul Hirst's Associative Democracy,and a marvellous and underestimated book published by Pluto press in 1996, Deep Citizenship, by Paul Barry Clarke.
Let me confess - I did dwell on some by-products of your initial argument not germane to your central concern with the Real Change campaign. This was because I detected an underlying notion of 'power' I wanted to engage with. In your response you identify this as an area where we may fundamentally disagree. We do, however, agree that the concept of power we rely on is central to any thesis about the way forward.
In your analysis of various British leftwing constituencies, I suggested that you were “adding up the candidates to see whether they amount to a convincing force for change”. Whether or not you were making this calculation on this occasion, what I was trying to get at was a reliance on a notion of power as numerical superiority or greater force. You have rather proven my point in your last, when you restate your overriding interest in democratic majorities that provide the necessary “legitimacy or force with which to take on the agendas of great commercial institutions”; alternatively, where “common agendas are coherent enough” to “break the hegemony” of the neo-liberal monoculture. Another variant argues that these “sustained and long-term collectivities” must be able to counter the latter by being themselves capable of “pursuing entire, coherent economic and political agendas not entirely dictated by corporate interests”. This latter description also depends on force, not the force of numbers, but the total replacement of one hegemony by another. This is a notion of 'power' and indeed of what is involved in a change of power that ascribes to it two overwhelming characteristics: force and coherence. I'm not sure that neo-liberal hegemony is that coherent, and I don't believe it holds sway through force such that it can be destroyed only if it is “broken”. (You may point to the preparatory work going into the formation of a surveillance state in the UK against a time when it is envisaged force may have to be used to protect 'the national interest'. But there is a great deal of politics between that day and this, as the climb-down over '42 days' reminds us, and given the weapons of mass destruction that capitalism currently has at its disposal, we have to hope as a species that politics wins the day!) Politics, nevertheless, is what this account of power leaves out; for example the 'managerial populism' which precisely manages people, through numerous mechanisms including the great panoply of the media.
However, if you are going to subscribe to this indomitable notion of power - then an interest in democratic majorities seems hardly sufficient as a form of opposition, especially under the post-modern conditions that you have identified, whereby we can no longer seek real national consensus, for example, but must hope, at best, for provisional formulations of common concerns, tentative embodiments of the common goods of those who deliberate and – if we are lucky, more reflective judgements of how to deal with continuing differences. There is a general tendency on the left who have long ago abjured violent revolution, to mismatch the power they wish to oust and the means to do it. Cruddas and Rutherford rightly point to the insufficiency in the claim of liberal republicans, Collins and Reeves, that a shift from “one class, the bureaucracy, to another, the people” would constitute a “revolutionary transfer of power”. This is to swap an adequate notion of power - state power and/or capitalist power - for what is effectively only its delivery mechanism. But Cruddas and Rutherford effect a similar sleight of hand when they replace 'class' with 'status' and preoccupy themselves with the kind of equality that counters shame and humiliation in a society that remains structurally intact. In overestimating and underestimating power in this way, neither of them, it seems to me, recognise the central role played by 'people power' in our democracies, in the form of millions of individual choices, and the challenge which faces us today. That challenge is to renew our democracy through ensuring that choice is better informed - one essential mechanism for which, I am arguing, is pluralism.
To take this choice seriously must immediately shift our emphasis from adding up numbers - the discovery and articulation of already existing shared understandings implicit in the liberal approach to the 'people's will' - to the more active participation and deliberation by those affected. Instead of mechanically aggregating individual preferences, combining elements to determine social choice, the sort of politics that republican theory suggests is more a process of better informing decisions, and shaping shared goods. Republicans are concerned first and foremost to bring citizens to engage with one another.
The military metaphor which calculates force on our side versus force on theirs is so universal an underpinning in political thinking (especially in a country benighted by a first-past-the-post electoral system) that it is easy not even to notice the assumptions it brings in its wake. Yet one result is the prevailing model of contemporary politics: a kind of formalised adversarial interaction in parliamentary and legal deliberation which is focused immediately on authoritative decision-making processes in a putative single public realm. What if we contemplate a different metaphor for power - one better suited to a post-modern society with multiple centres, where a formal state public can be paralleled by vigorous informal publics of discussion. This is power as gate-keeping of a particular kind – gate-keeping to ensure that the pertinent questions will never be asked. This metaphor argues that a monocultural hegemony is best sustained not by force or coherence, but by the questions that don't get asked (in a way that is very familiar to anyone who has ever felt frustrated about whether we should be discussing why we don't have more helicopters in Afghanistan before we are clear about why we are in Afghanistan in the first place; or which institutions should be regulating the banks before we have discussed in whose interests they must be regulated; or what should happen to the Lockerbie bomber before it is established that he is responsible for what occurred.)
This metaphor for power, in recognising the sheer significance of raising an issue that the dominant hegemony requires not to be raised - gives us access to a different kind of non-managerial, people's politics. One of the things I do believe about the exercise of power today is that the huge effort of media control, entertainment, fear-mongering and spin that accompanies 'managerial populism' both in its leftwing and rightwing variants is an enormous compliment to the potentiality of 'people power', were it ever to find its own voice/voices in our democracy. Every time I watch or listen to another of the tribe of Paxman cornering a politician to minimal effect, or am told what 'the public' thinks without any sense of recognition, I am more convinced that this is a pantomime enactment, a fictional replacement for the genuinely deliberative and participatory democracy which is standing in the historical wings. So much effort being made on behalf of an almost absent public, and so many Establishment and gatekeeper fingers being crossed in the hope that people will largely stick to the agenda set for them and not get around to the horizontal conversations that are increasingly available to them, worldwide… well I think this alternative metaphor is at least worth bearing in mind. How to obtain the power that comes from having political influence, of course, largely remains up for grabs between us. I am not uninterested in power: quite the reverse.
So I don't agree with you when you say that the power of capital would still remain intact and all-powerful if we had “the most networked and deliberative public sphere imaginable”, regardless of what might be said there. I think a 'networked and deliberative public sphere' might make all the difference: the problem is getting there. Take a small example. Peter Mandelson, who has long espoused 'first-past-the-post' elections on the grounds that the British like a good knock-out contest - it keeps them entertained - has called for a TV ding-dong between Brown and Cameron in the run-up to the next elections. Of course it spoils it entirely if you have to take Nick Clegg into account. And Alex Salmond has apparently volunteered himself for inclusion. What happens to the spectacular ding-dong if there are several more contesting versions? Isn't there a real risk that one might start looking at the nuance of alternative options on particular policies with a third or fourth perspective, or that the third perspective might be rather clear about the false or even non-existent choice offered between the first two – and so on and so forth. In other words, people might have to think about them.
On a larger scale, a 'plurality' which could make all the difference is any combination of voices that complicate, let alone bridge, the numerous 'Them' and “Us' enemy images that bedevil our current politics, beginning with the subject of Martin Rose's “evil twin” geopolitical fables that predict 'inevitable confrontation' between 'the western and Muslim worlds'. But the same principle could be infinitely extended. What is interesting to ask oneself is not just 'wouldn't that better reflect the richer and more complicated place that the world is?' - but 'wouldn't it make it much less easy for those to govern who rely on enemy images, as do all those who rely on power as the use of force?' So one serious answer to your “which plurality?” question is – whatever challenges those who rely, state or non-state, on the use of force in the world, wherever they may be. I think this contestation against power as the use of force must replace class war for the left. Here too – pluralism is an essential tool.
When it comes to the power of global corporations, the kind of deliberative pluralism that I am after would include in public debate, as Iseult Honahan says, “much broader constituencies of concern than has been common in Western democracies, where producers and organised interests – for example, oil companies or farmers – can often play a dominant role in determining energy or food policy respectively”. But I also refer you back to one emergent challenge mentioned in my last i.e. the shift in the mass media from a hub-and-spoke architecture with unidirectional links to the end points to the distributed architecture with multidirectional connections among all nodes of the networked environment. One outcome of this shift – “from the edges, bottom-up, and long tail” - is to overtake mass products with a much more diverse range of products reaching more finely grained audiences than are possible for the industrial model. This in turn might give nimble niche retailers the advantage over their larger competitors, and it poses a huge challenge for advertisers – here is Esther Dyson in the Wall St. Journal in 2006 describing the impact of the fluid, changing coalescences that you have identified:
“[We will see] a fundamental shift in the balance of power towards individuals. Individuals will declare what kind of vendors they want sponsoring their content, and then those vendors will have the privilege of appearing, discreetly, around the user's content. There will be much less 'advertising' and much more communication to interested customers. Advertisers will have to learn to listen.”
This is only the beginning of an answer. It brings me neatly back to the role of the individual in all this (see Part 1). But, I'll finish by returning to the Liberal Republic doubles, at least as represented in the Soundings review.
In their review, Cruddas and Rutherford accuse the authors of The Liberal Republic of serving“a coercive and interventionist state” which “uses indirect techniques for controlling individuals without at the same time being responsible for them”, techniques that attempt to shape the character of individuals to fit “the institutions the market needs.” I mistrust the claim that another sort of social democracy will be properly “responsible” for the people, if the people themselves are not ensuring that this is the case. Moreover, when Cruddas and Rutherford promise themselves that “the progressive future belongs” to those able to achieve “a popular balance between individual self-realisation and social solidarity” - aren't they according the people themselves, like every other would-be managerial populism in the making, only at best a minor or indirect role in rubber-stamping, or simply appreciating the balance that “we” have come up with? Isn't their aspiration to “strike a popular chord and transform the centre ground of politics” only another “indirect” party political “technique for controlling individuals”? All four authors want to reform the market and the state through various forms of social engineering. But they are looking the wrong way. The market and the state will never be reformed until there is a reform of the British people's relationship to both, and the release of their creative, rational and emotional energies to that end. That's why, I hope you will agree, we need a different kind of democracy.