Can Europe Make It?

The cure for the abuse of nationalism? More democracy

If democracy is to survive, there must be a step change to an empowerment which comes from government by the people. Pt.4 of 4.

Rosemary Bechler
9 August 2018


Citizens Assembly on Brexit, 2017. Cade Hannan. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth part of a 4-part article exploring the concept of the Monocultural National Us in Europe and beyond. See other parts in Related Articles.

“He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.” William Blake’s Proverbs from Hell.

To hold different opinions and to be aware that other people think differently on the same issue shields us from Godlike certainty…Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?

So what could work to empower people to find a deeper and more constructive sense of belonging? In all these cases, left out of the equation as ever is that ‘other people’ that Giorgio Agamben refers to, the excluded and underprivileged, waiting in the wings for even the slightest acknowledgement that we exist. Is there a way that we can fight back? To take one of my running threads, who and what could unify Brexit Britain?

Leavers and remainers – come together

Some citizens have tried. An enterprising group of young people in Wolverhampton who decided that it was unacceptable that no one had invited them to discuss their future under Brexit conditions, since the future is theirs, set up their own process of debate for mutual understanding, Q&A’s with politicians, opinion surveys, radio show etc. Venandah Madanhi and her fellow activists have an upbeat and ingenious approach to youth organizing. Check them out at OurBrexit.

Or spotted recently in the Guardian, Stratford4Europe’s public effort to bring both sides together is ‘Brexit Café’, a coffee-morning forum that’s been held twice at the Townhouse Cafe for Remainers and Leavers to air their views and bridge the divide “one cup at a time”.

Then there was a valiant group in Cambridge, which not only brought together Leavers and Remainers, but also town and gown, producing a report over a year ago now, the Cambridge Brexit report.

In the useful summary of their findings they threw down the following gauntlet:

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We must ask ourselves why none of our main political parties, and neither side in the Brexit debate have ever thought to propose and enable this. If you raise the issue of Leaver and Remainer discussion groups in your local party branch, you are likely to be told, as I have been, that the relationship is too toxic. But isn’t the reverse the case? That it is the absence of contact coupled with the mounting enemy images that creates the toxicity? For political parties in particular, another factor must be the stranglehold on our political class of the first past the post, winner-take-all electoral system, and the seductions of the Monocultural National Us. But one day soon they will surely have to choose between this rusty management tool and the empowerment of people.

Then last September, in Manchester, thanks to a team put together by Anand Menon’s ‘UK in a Changing EU’, a Citizen’s Assembly brought Leavers and Remainers together by sortition from all over the UK, selected to reflect the Brexit vote, alongside factors of social class, region, age, gender and ethnicity. For a few days, they were invited to engage in in-depth discussions on everything from the Single Market to migration policy and these citizens jumped at the chance. The more technical results are noted here:

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A brief and compelling discussion of the event in openDemocracy touched on some more general results. Participants were delighted to have been chosen; glad to have access to careful, thoughtful discussion of the arguments for and against different options; and gladdest of all and relieved to realise that they could engage in discussion with fellow-Brits of an opposite persuasion without the ceiling falling in. It simply showed that, well away from the hyperboles and given a chance, people of very differing viewpoints can coexist and work towards constructive solutions to complex problems.

The exercise necessarily combined three of the lessons learned from conflict resolvers by the solutions journalist, Amanda Ripley; first, complicate the narrative; then, widen the lens: “TV news segments are dominated by a narrow focus... The narrow-lens nudges the public to hold individuals accountable for the ills of society rather than corporate leaders or government officials. We don’t connect the dots… By contrast, people who saw the wider-lens stories were more likely to blame government and society for the problems of poverty.” And lastly, encourage contact: ”The most powerful way to get people to stop demonizing each other, as decades of research into racial prejudice have shown, is to introduce them to one another.”

Freed from the solitary confinement of ideology, from the enemy images, bubbles burst. People may indeed cut each other down to size, but they listen to each other’s hopes and fears in the process. They change their minds. They compromise. They reach a liveable solution. For the duration, to steal Yanis Varoufakis’ profound phrase, they become ‘adults in the room’. You can read more about this Citizens’ Assembly here.

A deeper democracy

We are wrestling with a paradox when we try to identify the role of the Monocultural National Us in our societies today. We cannot quite believe in the spiralling authoritarianism that marks the apogee of market ‘liberalism’. Yet, paradoxically, 'free' markets require 'strong' states to suppress their socially anomic consequences.

The danger of the Monocultural National Us was clearer when war was more popular. It is noteworthy that two of the greatest recent challenges to the democratic status quo were launched from anti-war movements, anti-Vietnam and anti-Iraq. What we have failed to appreciate since then is the way that state coercion has taken over the field of governance that used to work through consent and filled it with enemy images on all sides – a major reason for the febrile selfishnesses and emotionalisms of our cultures. So much so that one could argue that ‘reason’ in our times, rather than moving from the particular to the general – doing as we would be done by and so forth – has now to include a good dose of conflict resolution before it can go ahead.

So bearing in mind our two case studies, I want to return to the debates with which I began, to draw a tentative conclusion. In particular I want to return to Edmund Fawcett’s acknowledgement that the “task of repair is daunting” for our liberal democracies, and his invitation to liberals and leftists alike to clarify our disagreements so that we may join forces to fight back. I take it that Andrew Gamble is accepting this invitation with this week's outline for us of an Open Left. What seems even more hopeful to me is that in Fawcett’s lucid account of the four things a liberal has to stand for, each of his four clauses appear indispensible in the task of repair that this debate has so far brought to the surface. All of them, if some more obviously than others, are threatened however, by the rise of the Monocultural National Us with which I have been concerned. Fawcett writes:

To be a liberal you have to stand for four things: resisting undue power whether the power of the state, wealth or oppressive social majorities; commitment to the improvability of human life; legal and social respect for everyone, whoever they are. You have also to accept that society is inevitably in conflict, materially and morally. Past unity or future brotherhood are, for liberals, fantasies. In today’s terms, you have to believe in diversity. Liberals don’t, as Barnett suggested, believe in “singular cohesion”. Theirs is a diverse, inclusive tent.

To this Edmund adds a fifth consideration for anyone who considers themselves to be a democrat. These are the commitments which have to be defended if democracy is going to survive.

“Democracy’s about who gets the protections and permissions liberalism offers, few or all. Democratic liberalism is liberalism for everyone. It’s an ideal, not a fantasy.”

And here we return to the problem of “decades of rising inequality” which Michael Sandel singles out as a prime failure of technocratic liberalism. If democracy is going to survive, this “democratic ideal” has to become more of a reality. But if current conditions require a much more in depth response, what might this newly persuasive politics look like that could start by winning the support of democratic liberals and open leftists and then go on to the much harder task of winning over those who are currently profoundly unconvinced? I think there is a clue in the example Fawcett recommends to our attention of a moment after 1945 when western societies took “measurable steps towards the ideal.’ He cites the abortion referendum in Ireland that was taking place as he wrote this May – an astonishing success, much of which can be attributed to the formidable Citizens’ Assembly of Ireland which some of us on openDemocracy have been following with particular interest. Here was an inclusive process that empowered the many not the few.

I have cited a lot of rows in the course of this discussion: a great deal of rowing online and off is going on – much uncivil and generating far more heat than light. But perhaps even in this process, Agamben’s other people are finally becoming savvy.

This at least is the argument of Paul Burton-Cartledge, responding to Michael Sandel. He argues that only a deeper democracy – with everything we must suppose this means for our uncodified constitution, our institutions, education systems, our media and of course for power itself – can ultimately rise to this challenge:

“If empowering people to take charge of their lives is more than a feel-good phrase, or a strap line for corporate social responsibility, we need a politics that is serious about it… Never before in history are so many people educated, skilled, competent, tolerant, and connected... Treating people as voters, as passive consumers of politics, is a recipe for turning them off, deactivating them… The rejuvenation of democratic politics can only pass through more democracy, of loosening politics up so it becomes less about manoeuvring and position, of ending its exalted position as something separate to and apart from an increasingly connected and savvy populace, and letting them – us – take control. Only then can politics proper begin.”

Burton-Cartledge seems to me a little complacent about how this ‘politics proper’ will come about. Pointing to the service sector, as well as socialised and networked lives outside work, he argues that people in liberal democracies have been empowered by the increased opportunities for sociality, networking and cooperation that immaterial labour depends on. However, now that the “social commons is a strategic vector of capital accumulation”, capital cannot help but undermine the cooperation, critical thinking, soft skills and collaborative working that it needs, by “individuating and atomising its employees, denying them rights and expecting them to get by on episodic and insecure work.”

With capitalism in this latest bind, Burton-Cartledge seems to think that economic determinants will somehow bring about a more tolerant world, regardless of the “rise of authoritarian capitalisms, the threats to democracy in eastern Europe, and the challenge populist politics pose to the so-called mature democracies” that he earlier identifies.

What I see in this clash between cooperation and atomisation that he locates at the core of capital accumulation is yet another facet of the contradiction between community and conflict with which I opened this discussion. So my view of the world is more of a race to the finishing line between the forces of incivility and civility, incitement and empowerment, the proliferation of enemy images, and the cultivation of a mutually assured vulnerability which is the precondition for listening and changing our minds.

In this battle, the rapid rise of the Nationalist International seems much better prepared than the rest of us. Dominic Cummings’ warning to Tory MPs and donors on the “Brexit shambles” is chilling: “If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it… Best wishes”.

The psychomachia I envisage may be the politics that I miss from Burton-Cartledge’s account. However, I cannot but agree with him on the end-result. If democracy is to survive, there must be a step change from élites no longer convincingly equipped with the ancient arts of ensuring consent, to a mutual empowerment which comes from government by the people.

The danger of nationalisms – in four parts

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