Democratic wealth: exploring ideas for a citizens’ economy

Could republicanism provide the model for a political economy that belongs to us all and works for the common good? OurKingdom and Politics in Spires’ new series explores this question, introduced here by its editor.

In 2008, as the severity of our current economic crisis started to become clear, many expected the rapid demise of ‘neo-liberalism’ as the reigning economic philosophy. This has not happened. Over time the dominant policy responses to the crisis have increasingly looked to free-market ideas or served to reinforce them. David Cameron’s latest call for the UK to wage an ‘economic war’ based on a new wave of deregulation is just one example of this. New citizen movements, such as the indignados in Spain, and Occupy in other countries, have articulated a sense that there must be an alternative. They are, in part, protests at a poverty of political imagination in the face of the crisis.

We need urgently, therefore, to explore in an open-minded and creative fashion what resources we have for a renewal of economic thinking – ‘resources of hope’, to use Raymond Williams’s helpful phrase. As one contribution to this, OurKingdom is partnering with Politics in Spires to host a discussion of republicanism and political economy.

What’s republicanism?

The past two decades or so have seen a renewal of interest within academic political theory in something, or some things, called ‘republicanism’. As a tradition (or set of traditions) within political theory, republicanism is not going to give us a direct handle on, say, the details of monetary and fiscal policy. But it can perhaps provide a constructive basis for thinking about what we fundamentally want from an economic order and about some of the institutions or approaches that will promote these goals. It can help us think about the relationships between society, economy and politics.

By republicanism we don’t mean (just) opposition to monarchy, or the US Republican party. A highly contested term, a rough and ready stab at a working definition would probably include the following four things:

(1)  Popular sovereignty. A legitimate political order must make law and policy through processes that are appropriately inclusive of all citizens. Classical republicans understood this idea in terms of a ‘mixed constitution’ that balances popular and elite forces. Modern republicans understand it in more democratic terms, as requiring popular sovereignty in the process by which laws and policies are made. This excludes oligarchy: rule by wealthy elites.

(2)  Common good. A legitimate political order must direct law and policy to a genuine common good. Economic arrangements, being a construction of the political order, must serve this common good.

(3)  Freedom. A central part of the common good of the citizenry is each citizen’s interest in freedom. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau says that ‘the worst thing that can happen to one in the relations between man and man [sic] is to find oneself at the mercy of another’. According to Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner there is a distinctively republican (or ‘neo-Roman’) conception of freedom which  consists precisely in not living ‘at the mercy of another’. We are free when we are able to live without being subject to the arbitrary will of another, when we enjoy what Pettit calls ‘non-domination’.

To achieve its common good, therefore, a people must deploy its sovereignty to create political and economic arrangements that secure freedom in this sense for all citizens. It is not only a question of protecting the individual from domination by the state, but of harnessing the state constructively to prevent relations of domination emerging in the economy and wider society.

(4)  Civic participation. A citizen is not only someone with a specific legal status, but is properly a participant in shared decision-making, with a concern for the common good. Political and economic arrangements must enable and encourage this participation.

Republican themes in recent protest movements?

Movements such as Occupy are very diverse, drawing on a wide range of ideological traditions. At least initially, the indignados resisted ideological definition in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’. But republicanism, as just defined, arguably provides one framework within which we can interpret these movements. 

Consider some of the concerns and criticisms associated with them. One theme is the alleged failure of contemporary capitalisms to promote economic opportunity and prosperity as a sufficiently common good. The slogan distinguishing the 99% and the 1% obviously draws attention to this. Living standards grow for some, while they stagnate for many.

These protest movements also voice a concern that democratic politics has become imbalanced in favour of corporations and the very rich and/or (as with the indignados) that politicians have become a class separate from ordinary citizens: concerns about the loss of genuine popular sovereignty.

There is also an underlying anxiety about precariousness in labour and housing markets. Proposals to increase market flexibility, often promoted as necessary structural reforms to get economies growing again, are viewed by critics as likely to increase this problem. Precarity is bad, in part, because it creates a vulnerability to domination – a loss of freedom. 

At the same time, the protest movements themselves have assembled in public spaces, not merely to protest, but to deliberate and debate. In these public spaces, they have manifested directly the republican ideal of the active citizen engaged with others in seeking a common good. They model, however imperfectly and transiently, an alternative republic to what many see as the broken, failed republics of mainstream politics.

An economy for citizens?

If, then, we try to turn these concerns, criticisms and aspirations into a constructive question, this might be expressed as: How do we make our economy republican? How do we make it an economy worthy of citizens?

In exploring this question, republican thinking itself puts a strong emphasis on the ownership and distribution of wealth (i.e., not just income but underlying assets). Classical republicans, going back to Aristotle, worried about the way gross inequalities of wealth imbalance the polity and skew it away from pursuit of a recognisable common good. Rousseau worried about the way wealth inequalities render citizens dependent on the will of others – and, hence, unfree. While a focus on the distribution of income is essential, republican economics is likely to draw attention to the underlying distribution of productive and financial assets and to the relations under which these assets are controlled and deployed.

A vital question for those interested in exploring republican economics, therefore, is what can and should be done to democratise the ownership and control of assets. What is the role for cooperatives and schemes to promote employee ownership? What about proposals for collectively-owned ‘social funds’, e.g., to help finance pensions provision, which can be used to exert popular control over investment? Or for universal grant schemes that endow all citizens with capital on maturity (a proposal similar in some ways to the proposal for an unconditional basic income)? In what ways might communities more equitably tax assets for the public good (e.g., through a land value tax)?

The scope of the debate: across parties and nations

The idea of a republican economy does not belong to any specific, narrowly-defined ideological tradition – it cuts across them - and it certainly does not belong to any particular political party. But in the context of the UK, we hope to consider how it might feed into debates within the various political parties.

For example, the focus on the distribution and control of assets might have suggestive connections with Labour’s current interest in ‘predistribution’

As the Liberal Democrats reflect on the experience of the Coalition, they will have to confront some basic questions of party philosophy and identity. A discussion of republican economics might help party members reconnect with their party’s somewhat occluded tradition of interest in the distribution of wealth and workplace democracy. 

What about a Conservative republicanism? If this sounds too unlikely, recall that the 18th-century Country Party drew on Tory support and opposed the Whig regime of the day in republican terms that stressed the public good and individual liberty. Since the rise of Thatcherism, the Conservative party has faced the challenge of defining itself as more than a vehicle for free-market ideas. Can republican ideas possibly point to a different Conservatism? Are there connections with the ideas of ‘Red Toryism’ and ‘progressive Conservatism’, so prominent before the 2010 election, but afterwards pushed to one side? Even if ignored by the Conservatives, can these Toryisms contribute to the development of contemporary republican thought? 

Greens and civic nationalists might also have things to learn from, and contribute to, a discussion of republican economics.

Our discussion will not, however, take the UK as its sole point of reference. There are researchers and activists in a number of countries who are currently exploring how republican values might be applied in the economy. We will try to draw contributions from these researchers and activists in an attempt to promote and learn from an international debate. 

The Spanish case is particularly interesting given the explicit public role which republican theory played under the previous Socialist government. How do academic researchers and activists in Spain, such as Eva Botella-Ordinas, David Cassasas, José Luis Martí, Daniel Raventós and Julie Wark, see the relevance of republicanism now, after the crash, and with the demand for independence in Catalonia growing? 

Researchers in France, such as Vincent Bourdeau and Alice Le Goff, have been specifically exploring the idea of a republican political economy, hosting the first colloquium on the subject in Paris in 2007 (an important edited volume on the subject is forthcoming). In the United States, researchers such as Michael Sandel, Alex Gourevitch, Stephen Elkin and Thad Williamson are exploring republican and related movements and ideas in the US political tradition. Many of the institutional proposals discussed under the auspices of the ‘Real Utopias Project’, directed by Erik Olin Wright at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are also highly relevant. We aim to bring their ideas into the discussion.

Throughout we will aim to make clear that there are many republicanisms and, therefore, many different notions of what a republican economy might be. 

In a republican spirit, our discussion will also be open to questions and challenges to the relevance of the republican framework(s). How far and how successfully do contemporary republicanisms overcome the exclusions which were a feature of classical republicanism? Is the republican model of the virtuous citizen too demanding for people in a contemporary commercial society? Can republican ideas apply in the contemporary global economy? If so, how? Is the idea of republican economics too conservative, possibly distracting attention from more radical transformative possibilities?

Finally, can republicanism(s) help us think through to an alternative to neo-liberalism? We hope you will join us in creating a vibrant on-line republic of ideas to explore this question.

The next piece in this series, 'An iron chain of bondage': lessons from the Knights of Labour, will be published this Thursday. 

See all of the Politics in Spires debate here in openDemocracy's OurKingdom or here in Oxford's Politics In Spires 

About the author

Stuart White is a political theorist with an interest in ideas and their application. His research analyses political ideals such as social justice, equality and liberty and considers the kind of policies and institutions that advance these ideals. He lectures at Oxford University.