Common Ground

An introduction to Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism. 

Jeremy Gilbert
18 June 2014

Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre - ActionAid

My book Common Ground tries to do a number of things at the same time. On the one hand, it looks at the reasons why existing forms of representative democracy are unlikely to be able to resolve any of the pressing social problems which face us today. On the other hand, it suggests that the individualistic ideology which saturates contemporary culture must be both understood and overcome if any real democratic progress is to be possible. The book begins with an analysis of the ‘crisis’ of democracy in our epoch, although ‘crisis’ is not really an appropriate term for a situation which has been ongoing for decades. 

In fact, I suggest, representative democracy has not really been effective in countries such as the UK since the 1970s, when the era of post-war ‘consensus’ gave way to one in which successive governments have implemented a neoliberal programme in the interests of a tiny elite, while rarely if ever enjoying a legitimate popular mandate for doing so. This is not to say that there was ever much of a democratic ‘golden age’, but governments from the 30s to the 70s more-or-less required popular support for the general direction of policy and for major undertakings such as foreign wars, and during this period - almost uniquely since the industrial revolution - the gap between rich and poor shrank significantly. However, this was a very different age from our own or from the ones which preceded it. It was the epoch of mass industry, mass culture, social conformism and centralised state power, the latter being manifested both in the extremes of Soviet and fascist totalitarianism and in the more benign bureaucratic paternalism of the welfare state. But the repressive dimensions of such authoritarianism were always likely to provoke resistance, and the1960s revolt against discipline and homogeneity in the factory, the university, and the wider culture was one of the major reasons why that social system broke down. 

In its place has arisen a culture which tolerates a very wide diversity of individual lifestyles, but which conversely makes it extremely difficult to achieve the types of collective feat which typified the mid-twentieth century, and which was the basis for achievements such as the National Health Service. In contemporary consumer society, everyone is free to do their own thing as long as they can pay for it and don’t get in anyone’s face; but what we can’t do is the kinds of things that require us to co-ordinate our desires and capabilities with those of others. The inherited systems of party democracy were designed for that old epoch. Mass political parties were appropriate political vehicles for people who experienced very similar lifestyles and life-courses and who consequently shared outlooks and opinions across a whole range of topics with millions of other people, doing similar jobs, living similar lives. They have become increasingly ineffective as people’s lifestyles have diversified and society has become more complex, leaving the political class increasingly cut off from any substantial constituency whose opinions and interests they could be expected to represent. 

Of course, it is crucial to remember that what the young people, militant workers, feminists, anti-racists, etc. of the the 1960s wanted wasn’t just the freedom to do their own thing (although this is still the media caricature), but a chance to have their voices heard, to participate more fully in the decision-making that affected their lives. The demand for a more radical and substantive type of democracy - which, for example, Raymond Williams suggested would be necessary as early as 1961 - was not met; what we got instead was the neoliberal world of privatised lives and commercialised culture. This wasn’t an accident. Democracy and collective politics had become terrifying to the agents of corporate power by the end of the 60s, and the embrace of neoliberalism was their political and economic response. The consequence has been the emergence of a world in which individual freedom for consumers is guaranteed and encouraged on an unprecedented scale; but the emergence of any form of potent collectivity - any group capable of actually getting things done together (other than the accumulation of profits)  - is actively discouraged and inhibited. 

Under these circumstances it becomes necessary to think very carefully about what it is that makes potent collectivities possible at all. How is that groups - from neighbourhood associations to vast nations come together? What holds them together and makes them effective? There is an answer to this question which has dominated liberal political thought and theory since the 17th century, but it isn’t very pretty. This tradition tends to assume that in truth the only thing that holds groups together is the fact that each of its individual members identifies with, or is at least willingly subjected to, some overall leader, or some symbolic or abstract term (‘Britain’, the flag, ‘socialism’, etc.).

It assumes that groups are basically made up of isolated individuals who happen to enter into short term, contractual relationships with each other, either via commerce or via the legal relationships which underpin the state. Ultimately, such groups are imagined as fragile things, dependent upon a central leadership, be it actual or symbolic, with no real relations of reciprocity existing between the members. This is the world-view which reaches its apogee in the age of neoliberal ideology, which uses everything from TV programmes to school exam systems to try to persuade us that the natural and desirable state for human beings to live in is one of constant, individualised competition with each other. Of course, any anthropologist can tell you that that’s nonsense: most human groups throughout most of the history of our species have treated inter-group co-operation as normal and necessary.

Supposedly opposed to this tradition of competitive liberal individualism stands a more conservative tradition which would stress the importance of shared identity, common history, cultural homogeneity, linguistic unity and, above all, national or ideological purity, to any experience of collectivity. I say ‘supposedly’, because my argument is that actually, these perspectives are just two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, we have an image of society as a bunch of atomised individuals, running around in constant competition with each other and only ever restrained from killing each other by commercial self-interest or by an authoritarian state. On the other hand we have the image of a people united by their homogeneity: one people, one country, one leader, as the Nazis put it. Advocates of neoliberal ideology will often claim that such oppressive regimes are the only alternative to their way of doing things: ‘it’s this or North Korea’, as I heard one American policymaker put it, not too long ago. But in a sense both visions are dominated by the idea of the individual, be it the single individual person or the great collective individual which is the Nation or the People, conceived as a homogenous mass with a singular will and a single set of shared beliefs.

The trouble is - things just aren’t really like that. Neither groups nor singular people are actually ‘individuals’ at all. Just think about what that word means - ‘individual’ literally means ‘that which cannot be divided’. But people, and groups on any scale, are always divided, all the time, in the sense that they are complex entities, defined by their relations with others and by their own constantly changing internal dynamics. A favourite slogan of the individualist mentality is ‘we come into the world alone’: but we simply don’t (I shouldn’t even have to spell out why that is, if you know where babies come from…). The social relationships which make our world are in place before we are born and define every aspect of our existence. This aspect of human experience has become more and more important to understand as our societies have become more and more complex: globally interrelated yet internally differentiated as never before. In fact I suggest that the human condition (and perhaps all existence, human or otherwise) must be understood in terms of its ‘infinite relationality’, if we are really to understand the important processes which constitute our world. A good deal of the book is taken up with philosophical explorations of this idea, which I’m not going to go into detail about here (you can read it if you’re that interested).  

But the upshot is basically this: the opposition between ‘the individual’ and ‘society’ is an optical illusion. Social relations make us who we are, and our distinctiveness is the sum of our relations and that which they enable us to do. There is no such thing as ‘individual’ freedom. That’s not to say that freedom isn’t crucial, or that people aren’t unique and entitled to be so. But our potential to act in the world creatively and effectively is all about our capacity to enter into productive social relations and to make our existing social relations productive: which means making them political, changeable, and potentially experimental. The freedoms that matter are always about the question of what relationships we are allowed to enter into, with whom, on what terms and for what purpose.

Why is this important to thinking about democracy and its future? On the one hand, it’s because existing forms of representative democracy are hampered both by the outdated assumptions which they have inherited from one strand of this individualist tradition. They assume the existence of a relatively homogenous public and a potentially unified national community, or one which can be divided into neat blocs along party lines. Without those things, they quickly break down. On the other hand, it’s because any form of collective or democratic endeavour is obstructed by the neoliberal effort to inhibit all potent collectivities, ultimately reducing us to a set of impotent, individualised consumers.

But there is a long tradition on the radical Left (and even within some strands of the ‘moderate’ Left)  of arguing for the importance of democratic innovation with the aim of creating new, more devolved, participatory and effective forms of democratic engagement. From the best traditions of the co-operative and, syndicalist  ‘guild socialist’ traditions, to the worker’s councils of revolutionary Russia and the utopian experiments in Paris (1870)  and Spain (1936),  through to the famous ‘participatory budgeting’ ’ pioneered in Porto Alegre  and the communal councils of Venezuela, these methods of democratic governance are by their nature far less dependent upon a homogenous political public to be effective than are those which require huge constituencies to support a party’s entire programme for 4-5 years at a time. This is because they enable the ‘governed’ to engage more directly, deliberatively and continuously in the process of decision-making than do systems based solely on parliamentary-style representation. Without a culture and a politics which is willing to pursue such experiments, I argue, it seems unlikely that democracy has much future in the 21st century. 

If we want to rediscover the creative power of collective action, then we must do say in ways which make the complex heterogeneity of our societies into a virtue and a source of democratic dynamism, in ways which do not reduce our culture to nothing more than a set of consumer choices. Conceptualising this process requires a high level of abstract theorisation. More importantly, making it into a political reality requires that the kind of courage and imagination typical of radical movements and cultural innovators be combined with the pragmatism and strategic seriousness of the mainstream social-democratic tradition (which has much to be proud of, at the end of a decade which sees Communism in ruins, but the NHS still standing - just…). This is the basic argument of Common Ground.

This piece first appeared on the Compass website

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