Colonel Rainsborough's Plaque, St.Mary's Church, Putney. Flickr/Jim Linwood. Some rights reserved.Britain’s Labour party today is facing one of its most extreme challenges, and at the same time one of its greatest opportunities. Can it grasp this extraordinary moment, reforming itself into a broad-based popular movement that can also successfully enter the national institutions of the state? Earlier this summer, at a conference devoted to restoring republicanism’s radical tradition (co-convened with Stuart White and Bruno Leipold), a number of us were able to discuss just why this radical heritage still matters – never more so, it now appears, than in September 2015.
The reason is that republicanism recaptures exactly what we have lost and wish to regain in our own political organising, giving a national horizon to our endeavours, and also explains how it might be most practicably done. We now confront a constant corrosion of individual and collective freedoms, all hard-won long ago: loss of protections for the vulnerable and poor at home and abroad; disenchantment and disempowerment in people’s sense of how they are governed and how they control their own lives; the confusion over whether it is possible to overcome the lethal power of entrenched special interests, especially the coercive ‘global governance’ of international bodies, along with the international financial regimes of banking and large multinational corporations; the insistent encroachment on individual liberties and public space by the invasive yet distant hand of government; the justified contempt for electoral politics of large swathes of youth; above all, the pervasive doubt as to whether tangible change is really possible – and if so how it can be achieved in today’s circumstances, where institutions have become so powerful and people so small.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Jean-Baptiste Farochon, Louvre. Wikicommons/ Jastrow. Some rights reserved.The universality of our common aims can be found in a set of collective understandings about and practices of democratic freedom that have fallen into disuse and are rarely (if ever) discussed today. Republicanism brings into sharp focus an articulation of common freedoms strived for under extremely varying political conditions, in different times and places, with the shared commonality of facing unequal odds.
Another way of describing this is the customs and practices of bringing about, or retrieving, lost popular sovereignty – where every human is sovereign, and free. Put most simply, popular sovereignty is the foundational principle of a just political society: that people are the source of all power and legitimacy, and therefore that all laws and institutions created should be the reflection and outcome of their will.
This constant location of power and authority in people themselves, not in the state or even its national institutions, is what can be seen to make these very institutions breathe, take life, and have force. The principle of popular sovereignty, when applied, means that the decisions of any national body are made through its people’s determining, and with their consent. In this way, their general will and its expression is understood as the basis for all legitimate collective political arrangements, structures, laws, strategies and policies.
Popular sovereignty has been expressed in different types of political arrangements, structures and institutionalisations. Historically, these expressions have taken liberal-democratic, revolutionary, socialist, and national liberation movement forms. Its revolutionary expressions have a rich heritage and tradition across the world; equally, socialist frameworks of popular sovereignty have a vibrant history in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Arab world and Europe. In liberal-democratic systems of governance, the sophisticated electoral systems and bureaucratisations that slowly emerged were designed to capture the workings of popular sovereignty, and its foundational heritage can still be seen in some of the trappings and common language of modern democracies, which claim to govern in the name of ‘the people’.
These substantively different forms nevertheless possess common features. Popular sovereignty rests, in all these models, on two conditions: that the populace participate in its institutional workings, and that they recognise the political structures that emerge from their will – and in which they play a role – as being representative of them as a people. Through a set of philosophically grounded practices, republicanism is rooted in a common history with people who took up the same mission: to somehow solve both the individual and collective desire to live free. The tracing of these common histories furnishes us with a deep reservoir of customs and practices that are worth exploring in light of our current concerns.
Through a set of philosophically grounded practices, republicanism is rooted in a common history with people who took up the same mission: to somehow solve both the individual and collective desire to live free.
Popular sovereignty is usually defined as a legal status, an abstract idea, a political principle. But it is also a tradition of practice and skills, something that is passed on between generations in what is an increasingly enigmatic craft – a now almost secret but once vast and public guild. The mystery of the precise methods used to bring about the unlikely phenomena that is radical republican change only adds to current disillusionment. This gap of knowledge, understanding and experience between generations touches young people across the world: the skills and artistry that could take on the governance structures that overwhelm them today, and do so in a way that might take hold, seem to have vanished into smoke.
Republicanism – with its guiding principles of freedom, fraternity, equality and popular sovereignty, hand-in-hand with the extraordinary practices devised to achieve them – represented the most decisive challenge to the ordering of the international system of states between the second half of the eighteenth century and the end of the twentieth. Distinctive in certain features from contemporary Anglo-American republican theory, republicanism as a living movement has a doctrine with a large number of practices associated with it that are designed specifically to confront much larger, better equipped structural forces. So this tradition provides the grammar of an innovatory language that is used for a particular kind of mobilising: national in scope and offering useful guidelines, rules, principles and lessons from the past.
Learning from our republican history
This rich, elaborate and complex political tradition provides, in its manifest workings, the methods and tools to rejuvenate the public realm today, if one could only know precisely which lessons to take from it. Recent works on the history of republicanism have retrieved patterns of associational practices, illustrating the important reality that it was republicans who created republics – not the republics that went on to create republicans. Sequentially, the creation of the citizen comes well before any democratic state can appear; their talents, commitments, political artistry and achievements are prerequisites for a republic that is truly free, and is able to maintain that freedom against the constantly developing power of elites. Sequentially, the creation of the citizen comes well before any democratic state can appear; their talents, commitments, political artistry and achievements are prerequisites for a republic that is truly free, and is able to maintain that freedom against the constantly developing power of elites.
This may appear counterintuitive. But if we look at Britain, for example, history demonstrates that attempts at making the transition from absolute monarchy to democracy were neither spontaneous, nor granted by the state. Instead, they were won by a number of different actors over arduous centuries of struggle and enfranchisement, and the reforms were both shaped and established by those who organised to make the demand for them.
Contemporary understandings of politics, however, train the eye to look first at the state and only then at the relationship of people to it. This view, Hobbesian and deeply anti-democratic in nature, constantly locates sovereignty inside the state. It becomes the locus of power, and its people, instead, belong to it. The central point here is the extent to which modern liberal democracies have become ‘Hobbesian’ through their obsession with fear and security, their prioritisation of order over justice, and their handing over of power and rule to unaccountable groups, both public and private.
On the other hand, republicans see the state as belonging to the people, and that the life and wellbeing of the country exists within the individual and collective freedoms of its people and in their relations to each other. Understood in this manner, republicanism comes to life again: a body politic whose very purpose is creating and preserving freedom for each and for all, not a limited search for the establishment of a democratic state, nor the enfranchisement of individual rights and liberties against the inevitable encroachments of the modern state (whose absolute perogative to make decisions of this nature, however, seems to be accepted).
If the common starting point is those citizens and their unknown collective work, then it is this earlier story which holds the practical lessons of how to create public freedom, and once it is won, how to maintain it. This tradition of republicanism is therefore both radical and familiar at the same time. It captures a way of living freely that people sometimes experience, and constantly seek to experience, in their own personal lives.
Yet its customs, so intrinsic to its philosophy, have not been passed on to the current generation. They have no signposts, maps or manuals to show how the freedoms they seek are to be won. With only the dusty remnants of popular sovereignty remaining today in an institutional democracy of the most formal kind, the emptiness of its promise of freedom is evident in any national institution or parliament. The great historical secret has not been handed on to the next generation, for they have been told the battle has been won – or worse, that there never was one.
Pessimism and individualism: defining our political void
Third Volume of a 1727 edition of Plutarch's Lives printed by Jacob Tonson. Wikicommons/ S Whitehead.Some rights reserved.As a result, when they are actually confronted with democratic renewal, progressive intellectuals and politicians regularly declare themselves to be perplexed about the nature of what they are witnessing. The central point here is the extent to which modern liberal democracies have become ‘Hobbesian’ through their obsession with fear and security, their prioritisation of order over justice, and their handing over of power and rule to unaccountable groups, both public and private.
By the time Barack Obama ran for the primary of the US Democratic party in 2008 – unleashing such a remarkable surge of civic engagement among a huge range of actors and associations – political analysts, academics and avowed democrats had already concluded that this type of large-scale progressive mobilisation was, in America at least, utterly dead. And over a few weeks this summer, hundreds of thousands of people (mostly young and not-so-far left) joined Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for leader of the Labour party, simultaneously horrifying and baffling those who had spent decades wondering where democratic engagement had disappeared to, and mourning its loss.
There is no contemporary political lexicon with which to appreciate these classic moments, trace their extraordinary lineage, or to understand what they mean, how they are engendered, or how they can be maintained in the face of institutionalised opposition.
There are a multitude of reasons, which have taken hold on the public imagination in a number of ways, for this void at the heart of contemporary politics. For a start, most intellectual frameworks are derived from a generation of university courses in postcolonial and cultural studies, discourses of post-nationalism, human rights and global governance, international conflict and its resolution. Even the most ‘democratic’ political theory possesses a concept of ‘civil society’ in which political engagement is reduced to ‘community organising’ (where a ruling elite continues to command their foot soldiers within a stultifying hierarchy, who remain forever perceived as soldiers, never sovereign citizens).
The clamour of critiques from every intellectual field and corner offer a bleak view of political change both domestically and internationally. Some of the most pervasive of both libertarian and left philosophies seem designed merely to demonstrate the nature and size of the problem. One asserts that any organisational structure above the narrowly local or parochial is coercive; the next that coercive power lies in all and any structure of civic and political organisation. And these analyses of the size of the problem are equalled only by the pessimism surrounding the possibility of altering the enormous structural bureaucracies that are with us, it seems, forever.
Recent attempts to achieve such change have only calcified this view: the massed crowds of the Arab spring faced with the might of superpower-backed armies; Barack Obama entering the White House alone to face the full force of special interests; the biggest demonstration in British history, against this country invading another, proving unable to stop its own elected leaders – all seem to give proof of the foolishness of even trying against such odds. all seem to give proof of the foolishness of even trying against such odds.
Possessing neither theoretical nor empirical knowledge of precisely how collective liberties were previously won and maintained, today’s political culture offers us instead a grim series of competing analyses of what has been lost. Entirely negative in its cumulative effects, the identity of what was once valued is fought over right across the political spectrum, the losses denounced, and blame apportioned to those individuals, groups and institutions who have robbed us of them.
Reflecting the individualism that drives these structural understandings, our loss of freedom is conceived as a personal loss, since we now see any sort of collective freedom, from the left to the right, as some form of tyranny. The intellectual frameworks furnished to cope with this dark landscape encourage a further withdrawal from a toxic public sphere, an inevitable turning away from a political realm that, once understood in this way, can deceive us no longer. This fatalism is common: those who have tried to achieve progress through an individualist liberal view of human rights (along with those of a more radical orientation) through campaigns, petitions and protests have seen them fizzle away: after an initial flurry of activity, they seem to run up against an immovable wall.
Filling the void: how republican traditions speak to our present challenges
Reflecting the individualism that drives these structural understandings, our loss of freedom is conceived as a personal loss,Any account that aspires to transcend this extremely narrow intellectual and political base must persuasively overcome these negative visions. Republicanism is the one that did so in the past, and does so today. Yet how can individuals who are no longer part of a grand movement or historical moment, learn and pass on a precious craft gained from a united endeavour which held meaning only in its time and place?
The first place to look is Britain, which has its own deep reservoir of republican practices and customs, local in design and national in scale, which over the centuries have successfully generated far-reaching mobilisational movements both inside and outside of national institutions. Specific methods from the rich organising traditions of these progressive, labour and union movements can be fruitfully drawn upon – there is no need to rely on imported organising models, conceived entirely for a Back of the Yards, non-union underclass of interwar America.
Indeed, the best use of this flat organisational style is in single-issue campaigns. One beautiful example is the (now strangely silent) ‘Strangers into Citizens’ campaign to enfranchise refugees and undocumented workers: its generosity of spirit evokes a common humanity and the virtues of inclusion of the dispossessed. The most interesting feature of Britain’s own organisational heritage (unlike imports designed for another task, another time, another arena) is that they hold real meaning and proven effectiveness. Understanding how they worked in the past, however, can only be done using the forgotten vocabulary of popular sovereignty.
This framework imparts other useful and concrete practices beyond the mechanics of institutional design. One republican practice with a long tradition in mobilising is the use of exemplars to generate an awakening around acts for the common good. Possessing a long history, it can be seen in its Enlightenment form drawing on Plutarch’s discussion of the virtues and their purpose, expanded by Rousseau and others in questions of how to restore popular sovereignty, but seen most of all in the everyday discussion, publications and practices of generations of republicans across the world.
The republican discussion here is not whether to be good (to become a virtuous person) but instead how to do it (to practise the virtues for the common good). The aim is not the self-improvement of a private morality but the creation of the means to manifest public acts of freedom for the benefit of all, which being witnessed themselves generate like practices. Practising the virtues for public happiness necessitates a dedication formed through engagement and craft, carried out with intent and knowledge of precisely what you are doing and why, where one’s contribution can have the desired public effect: to build directly towards restoring lost popular sovereignty to all.
Accordingly, instead of yet another elegiac glimpse at a nobler but unreachable past, republicanism performs the practical work we need to answer today’s problems. By reconceptualising and recontextualising the challenges we now face – seeing them instead as the challenge of restoring popular sovereignty – the basic political concepts which democracy was entirely dependent upon, when it was first fashioned, are restored. These direct lessons from those who served the public good for ‘the happiness of all’ return our most valuable of collectively owned traditions, democracy, into the hands of those who wish to experience it for themselves.
This article appears in issue 22.2 of Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal of politics and ideas. Warm thanks for permission to republish.