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Time to revisit Associative Democracy?

Revisiting Associative Democracy, an e-book, draws together the ideas and thoughts of a group of people who met last October to discuss, scrutinise and develop Paul Hirst’s views of Associative Democracy and their current relevance. The editor and seminar organiser gives us a tour de horizon of the ensuing debate to open up discussion.



What are the limits of representative, deliberative or participative democracy? Is there anything else? How can all forms of democracy respond to the future and the environment? How might the language we use, and our unconscious assumptions, limit, or even disable, our ability to respond to some of the biggest challenges of our day? How do you understand and change systemic and complex situations, without creating catastrophic unintended consequences? And just how should we run, or think about, economic activity?

These are some of the big questions that sit at the end of society’s ‘to do’ list. Like ‘Change my life’ we never quite get round to them properly. We have lots of ideas but − through habit or the need for survival − we tend to put the action off for later. And we can’t do them by ourselves, whatever the self-help gurus or management consultants might say.

In order to break out of habitual ways of thinking, or to promote creativity, sometimes it is worth focusing on ideas or approaches that challenge and provoke you. This was the thinking that brought together a group of people around a particular text and a particular concept. Associative Democracy, a book by Paul Hirst, was written in 1994. The results are summarised in the e-book, Revisiting Associative Democracy: how to get more co-operation, co-ordination and collaboration into our economy, our democracy, our public services, and our lives. 

Forms of associative or associational democracy have been discussed for many years. The event, however, focused on Paul Hirst’s particular take and what he thought were the practical implications. The idea was not to scrutinise this book in an academic way, or blindly accept its analysis and suggestions, but to use it as a starting point to generate ideas.

There was an overall sense that the concept of associative democracy enabled people to ‘join-up’ ideas that were being developed or thought about separately. It also provided a new frame, or way of drawing together, existing practices that are currently regarded either as marginal or exceptional.

Competition AND collaboration

As a way of grounding the discussion, Anthony Barnett begins by comparing associative democracy with the Big Society, recognising that the latter, an attempt by the Conservatives to ‘create shared ethical values and mobilise citizens’, also responds to a vague but pressing and widespread acknowledgement that our society isn’t working. But many participants in this event felt that the Big Society responds to only a partial analysis of the problem and is unlikely to reach far enough.

As Ian Christie points out, neither left nor right has come to terms with, and fully understood, what has gone wrong in our society and the economy. The left has yet to recognise the ‘ill-effects of the otherwise essential and welcome cultural and social liberalism of the 1960s’, develop ‘a coherent response to cultural pluralism’ or recognise the limits of economic liberalism. And the right has ‘an inability to admit fully to the social disasters wrought by neoliberal experiments in the 1980s and 1990s’ or to ‘recognise “brokenness” at the top of the social pile’. He adds ominously that ‘the language and policies of three decades of neoliberalism’ have gone so deep within our politicians, our local government, and our own behaviour, that change will not be easy.

Part of the problem is that we have become too constrained by an individualised, abstract and largely economistic set of beliefs and practices. So how can we become more collaborative and human, to improve our wellbeing, increase the effectiveness of what we do and manage the processes and tensions of both desired as well as unavoidable change?

Paul Hirst’s view was that more associational forms of democracy and wider decision-making would help re-balance the centralisation of the state and the dominance of big business. In this view ‘association’ means groups of people who have similar concerns, views, and aims. It envisages decision-making and collaboration between different groupings, whether within the economy or society (for example, formal networks of multi-stakeholders, cross-sectoral partnerships etc.)

Paul also wanted to see welfare delivery carried out by competing groups of associations, catering for different interests, which coordinated sectorally and regionally. This response to today’s pluralism poses profound challenges for combining a need for collective agreements and solidarity with the recognition of, and appropriate responses to, diversity and difference. The discussions in the e-book reflect these tensions and ongoing debates.

Paul Hirst’s subtitle was New forms of economic and social governance. In other words, he believed that widely distributed methods of decision-making, (both within and between organisations and groups throughout society and the economy) would better enable effective, informed and appropriate action. He also thought that this approach would increase the flow of information, accountability, trust, inclusion, choice, as well as enable individual empowerment and freedom. It might reduce the need for complex top-down regulation, better distribute wealth and security, and offer a potential solution to mistrust and social disintegration within communities. These are very strong claims and deserve consideration. They also demand robust scrutiny of how the ideas could work in practice.

Hirst believed that individual freedom was enabled by voluntary involvement in groups. He also argued that our ability to make decisions that are effective, accepted and acted-on, also requires considerable engagement with and understanding of different viewpoints and perspectives. These are not necessarily controversial statements but, for some reason, where they happen in practice, they are either unseen, unexamined, or interpreted as ‘one-offs’.

It is as though our simplified and simplifying framework of thought and concepts takes away our ability to understand and realise collaborative ways of working.

Democratic renewal

Collaboration is also about embedding activities in democratic oversight and societal concerns. This is the dimension of associative democracy that Ian Christie singled out as missing in the Coalition’s approach – the need to connect citizenship and democratic renewal. His examples include practical innovations such as democratic spaces (or even second chambers) in local government which build on partnerships of different players (third sector, businesses, unions etc), while also linking to direct citizen participation.

Other ideas of this kind came from Robin Murray who suggests social-public partnerships or mini-trusts which could guarantee performance and purpose in public service delivery. Robin also focuses on the need to re-engage democracy with the economy, as does Su Maddock who argues that local governance should recognise what is successful in ‘connected economies’ and better create, understand and engage cross-sectoral partnerships at appropriate geographical levels.

These are examples of how participants responded to Paul Hirst’s vision of social and economic governance extending throughout society, while complementing (not replacing) both representative and direct forms of democracy.

Humanising and improving the economy

The dominance of a particular form of economic and business ‘as usual’ thinking is just as problematic in our economies, as in our local government.

Jonathan Michie points out that differences between organisations and companies in different sectors need to be properly recognised. For example, football used to be viewed as sporting and cultural and as such, an area where you should not make money. It is now a pure commodity, and treated like any other sector. Maurice Glasman argues that ‘this is a good example of the severance between meaning and thing’ which has destroyed the notion of a football club – ‘a form of associational power, which linked you to place’.

Jonathan also argues for more diversity of organisational forms, particularly mutuals, in economic sectors such as finance, to respond to crises and need. Penny Shepherd complements these views by showing the important role associations in finance play in changing culture and practice, for example, through membership of professional associations and codes of practice; or by forms of multi-stakeholder partnerships or governance which bring together customers and suppliers to better innovate and meet need. This micro-analysis draws on her systemic view of what does not work in capital markets. It is a way of responding to a complex and self-reinforcing system, that goes beyond taxation or regulation.

The economy, Hirst argued, should be embedded within society through a ‘network of coordinative and regulatory institutions’. Maurice Glasman, developing this aspect, argues that the time is right to reconsider how associative democracy, together with other approaches such as that of Karl Polanyi, might be able to inform ways of domesticating capitalism through institutional and associational constraints. He also sees the development of relations between people with a common aim in the economy as the basis for creating meaning and a better life. Examples might be forms of vocational governance for people doing similar jobs, or through more democratic and multi-stakeholder organisational structures.

When he wrote Associative Democracy, Paul Hirst was inspired by work on ‘industrial districts’ which illustrated the benefits of co-ordination and collaboration between economic actors, for example, in joint services such as training or R&D. In the intervening years, such examples have been dismissed as dependent on their geography and history (or downplayed as relevant only to areas of deprivation). Robin Murray, however, highlights his recent work on ’distributed economic systems’ for Co-operatives UK which shows how similar approaches are being motivated both by an increased political interest in co-operation, and a desire to create more resilient and effective local and regional economies.

I consider how associative spaces within the economy can be regarded as an integral part of an industrial policy (or economic governance) that goes beyond the macro-economic to recognise and support the benefits of co-ordination, collaboration and cooperation − sectorally, cross-sectorally or geographically.

Economic governance is not only relevant at a local level and between small firms, but might also be appropriate for enabling larger systemic shifts across sectors – for example in coordinating actions and large-scale research around energy production or use, or for developing appropriate forms of finance. There are some international examples of multi-stakeholder governance, but, again, these are often seen as specific one-offs, rather than being part of how economies might be better governed, or might become more effective and innovative.

Associations are also tools for rebalancing power. I suggest, for example, peer groups or unions of the self-employed. But single stakeholder groups also need to complement the promotion of their immediate self-interest by engagement in wider forms of multi-stakeholder governance.

Going forward

Associative democracy can therefore suggest some answers to the ‘to do’ list set out above. But do they sufficiently, for example, address the implications of the wider public interest, future generations and the environment for new models of democracy and decision-making. These kinds of long term or wider concerns pose pronounced difficulties for any form of democracy. But they also mark a critical area that has to be incorporated into any practical democratic developments. Contributors to this e-book made a start, suggesting the incorporation of public interest representatives in professional associations, as well as widened forms of corporate and multi-stakeholder or multi-interest governance.

Read the e-book for more information and see what else might inspire you. You might find a few lines are added to your own ‘to do’ list for this year. But, together with others, do make them happen.


This article is part of the openDemocracy series 'Associative Democracy Revisited'. The series follows a debate held in October 2010 around Paul Hirst’s views on associative democracy and their current relevance, with a particular focus on Hirst’s book Associative Democracy(1994). The results of the debate are summarized in the e-book, Revisiting Associative Democracy. (Read the book as a PDF, here.) 






About the author

Andrea Westall is a Strategy and Policy Consultant, writer and changemaker. She has been Deputy Director of the new economics foundation, a policy director for entrepreneurship at the London Business School, and a Senior Research Fellow at the institute for public policy research.

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