Modern Legitimacy

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
5 March 2009

For at least the past thirty years, our state’s claim to legitimacy can be thought of as the marriage of Hobbes and Bentham. The first duty of the state is to deliver security through its monopoly of force and its second duty is to promote the good of all, however defined, and with whatever model of society the state might be using as a working assumption at any time. The basic deal has been: ”protect us, deliver our desires and we’ll play by your rules.”

Liberty, in this deal, was all encapsulated in the desires that would be fulfilled—as Cory Doctorow tweeted on Saturday: ”A generation has been habituated to seeking and finding liberty in consumption.” ”Protect us” has become a joke, as the state has waged wars it does not feel it can publicly justify and joined the ranks of the world’s torturers and destroyers of civil rights. The rules we are meant to follow have become legion, from laws to administrative orders to ”code-law”, the rules that are made by the industrial processing of information in the database state. And now, with the world economy collapsing, even the residual claim to deliver our simplest desires is in tatters.

Civic Religions

Rousseau ends his "Social Contract" with a characteristic mix of brilliance and brutality. It is obvious, for him, that society needs a civic religion: "The Sovereign must define a civic faith .. sentiments of sociability without which good citizenship is not possible." Anyone not wishing to sign up to these values should be banished, not on the grounds that they are bad, but just on the grounds that they are incompatible with the Sovereign will. Finally, anyone signing up but then behaving in an anti-social way can legitimately be put to death, argues Rousseau. By imposing banishment or death on anyone transgressing the basic values of sociality, Rousseau's democracies (he was himself banished in his youth from Geneva) certainly ensure their own legitimacy in the eyes of their (remaining) citizens.

The need for civic religion -- for a ritualised creation of emotional attachments to a social way of life --  seemed obvious to many nineteenth century progressives. Saint Simon and Comte founded their own; Hegel simply borrowed Christianity as his; John Stuart Mill recognised its importance; Walt Whitman thought that the political democracy of America needed to be mirrored in the American soul by an "inner democracy". Civic religion ensures affective, aesthetic, emotional attachment to a way of living--a sort of attachment which became suspect in itself to many ascetic modernists--but which, to judge from the Convention on Modern Liberty, is due for a political comeback.

For thirty years now, civic religion has been dominated by security and economy--a sort of fortresses and circuses approach: the supremacy of the economic, the choice of the supermarket, the private, home-owning self, the CCTV, war-on-terror delivered safety against terror, immigration, and other "others". Entertainment and news regularly feed the fears that need this security as a solution.

For Mike Edwards, at the Love and Liberty session of the Convention on Modern Liberty, the solution to insecurity is love, not fortresses. Was this the Hippy throwback session? When Lisa Appignesi asked the love panellists why the language of love was now appropriated by organised religion, the link between civic religion and the churches was made clear. The panellists stood their ground: love can work through civil society, mass movements, personal experimentation and culture.

The whole event was a collective ritual. In a moving speech to the full convention, Philip Pullman accused the modern British state of creating "institutional paranoia and furtive hatred". "A nation whose laws engender fear and suspicion cannot sustain delight". He delivered a homily on of the virtues of a nation, especially modesty: "Modesty would give a [nation] a proper sense of position in this world and remove the self-importance of politicians who think they are fighting an extensional war to defend western civilisation, when they are actually throwing their weight about in the bike shed like playground bullies."

The Convention provided a glimpse of the civic spirit that might infuse a politics that was neither obsessed with the market nor with a supposed war on terror. Given where we are--with "shock and awe" democracy exports discredited and the masters of the (old) financial universe in disgrace-- this now has a chance to be the politics that sets the tone.

Twittersphere and National Conversation

Twitter was abuzz with one-liners.



Twittersphere buzz


Perhaps most surprisingly was the last of these from the Twittersphere. Most of us were with 1200 other people, all listening to the same words in the same place -- there was a coming together of minds. But that last tweet showed that more was going on: the tweetstream of the convention, in all its UK locations, with the live-streaming on the web site gave mattwardman the sense of participating in this social ritual from his home. Scale that and politics must change.

But this is also the Tweet that got me thinking back to Brown's first days as Prime Minister, and openDemocracy's attempt to help with the ill-fated "national conversation". Anthony Barnett (founder and animating spirit of openDemocracy for much of our existence) has been fighting an authoritarian, technocratic view of politics for a long time (for example as director of Charter 88, the organisation that campaigned from 1988 onwards for a new constitutional settlement).

Anthony was in even more than usually buoyant mood when Gordon Brown delivered his first speech to parliament as Prime Minister. It was about the constitution. The anticipation in Anthony's post about it is clear:


But Brown then failed on his promise. The commitment to the public debate -- even the hint of a national convention -- just disappeared. (As Helena Kennedy asked on Saturday: "What is it with the water in the Home Office? Within no time, it turns decent folk turn into authoritarians".)

A few weeks after Brown's speech, I accompanied Anthony and a few others from openDemocracy's UK section, OurKingdom to meet officials at the Ministry of Justice. How could this new politics, with its promise of a national convention preceded by a national conversation, be helped by the Internet? MattWardman's tweet shows that something can work here.

Not that that would impress the Ministry of Justice, I imagine. When we met the Minister's officials, a few tired young people seemed to treat the strange demands of the Minister as cynical employees might another marketing campaign to tell us the Kool Aid is, believe it or not, actually good for us. "Internet? National conversation? The government of Britain has always done just fine without either ..." That is exactly what we'd expect from a culture of technocracy: the voter enjoys the state delivered by the rules expertly and wisely concocted by the Ministry. No need to bring the voter/customer quite so near the production of rules.

openDemocracy's OurKingdom did its bit in supporting the idea of a national conversation. We convened a debate on how the internet could be used to have a national conversation leading up to a national convention. It still makes for good reading:



When the government was going to support a national conversation



What Next?

There is a sense in which the Convention on Modern Liberty was the Convention announced but never delivered by Brown--or at least the start of it. It is what comes when you subtract a willing government from a process it launched. Brown would not deliver on his pledge, so another set of organisations had to step up. Participants and delegates to the convention are asking all over the web and the papers today "What next?" (and here and here). On the convention's self-organised social networking site, people from all over the country are meeting and asking what to do now.



The convention's social network


The "What next?" question is there because a national conversation started on Saturday that has not been given a point: it must establish its own purpose. We are seeing online participation that wants to become meaningful. Saturday showed that across the country and its ether, the on and off-line could come together in a surge of energy. In fact, Brown could have given no greater gift to the forces fighting the technocratic/authoritarian state than to deny power to a national conversation. It now has to become the change it wants to see. Saturday's coming together showed that the means are there: the on and off-line worlds complement each other, allow for both aggregation and dispersal, for both self-organisation and organisational action.

So, concretely, what next? Well:

What about me? I think I'll put the Constitution of South Africa onto the openDemocracy wiki as a starting point for Chuka Umunna's suggestion that we crowdsource the drafting of a constitution. Anyone want to help with the format conversion?

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