The dangers of illiberalism call for a pluralist state

Paul Hirst explored one particular cause for the creeping authoritarianism of the liberal democratic state that he identified before 9/11: the worsening crisis caused by the attempt to govern by one community standard in a diversifying world.

Rosemary Bechler
10 January 2011

It was in the 1930’s, that, by Hirst’s account, the state had become the locus of effective macro-economic administration and the two great wars that followed had sealed this centralisation by reinforcing the legitimacy of the state’s claim to sovereignty, to ensure national survival. No sooner had the nation state become firmly established as the dominant form of social organisation, at that time managing both the economy and the society, than its primacy began to be threatened – by the collapse of the Cold War, the development of supranational and regional processes of governance to deal with more internationalised and more localised sets of economic and social relations, and by a set of new problems. The ‘omnicompetent state’ in fact found itself unable to maintain growth or to sustain full employment and effective work and welfare. In tandem, diverse new political forces were emerging that were no longer represented by the traditional parties of left and right, together with more diffuse social problems and sources of unrest such as crime, social deviancy and drug addiction – problems that centralised bureaucracies and repressive structures cope with so badly that these could no longer provide sclerotic state structures with a convincing ‘raison d’etre’.

What Hirst had to say about modern government was not only that it didn’t work. But that the way that it didn’t work - as an omnicompetent state seeing itself as essential in every way to the welfare of its citizens (or subjects, perhaps we should say) - was dangerous. It was not only that it was too complex and too large to be rendered accountable through supervision by a representative legislature and the election of the highest executive office holders. But also, it had grown to be big government by attempting uniformity of state policy and forms of social provision, imposing common rules and standard services on the increasingly diverse and pluralistic objectives of members of modern societies. What we were left with was the gathering alienation of a passive and impotent electorate caught in the escalating conflict between new social problems and the disablingly authoritarian measures which aim at self-justification through the protection of the majority.

At this point in his account, where he is talking about the “growing reality of a two-thirds versus one-third society… in the USA, in Britain, even in Germany” - Hirst invoked a social democratic central premise: “Property will never be legitimate unless it offers real welfare – that is a stake in society – to all in return… The disaffected cannot overthrow society, but they can make it impossible to live in!”

In his opinion, the surest sign that conventional structures of politics were already in crisis was that the “economic difficulties of the late C20th have not led to a widespread return to social democratic pragmatism…”. Instead in countries such as the UK, Germany, and Sweden he observed that, “the compulsory and uniform provision of services was less and less popular with more sophisticated and diverse publics.” The “only effective answer” to this growing divide in society, Hirst argued, was – “a mixture of social crusading by those ‘haves’ who care and the empowerment of the ‘have nots’.” New forms of solidarity would have to be built from the bottom up in these more individuated populations, and built voluntarily. This, he suggested was where associative democracy came in.


Poster 1914.Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

“Your country needs you”

Hirst once wrote that due to the legislative primacy and highly centralised and powerful administration of modern states, “Democracy makes the power of the state especially dangerous” ( “J.N.Figgis, Churches and the State”, Political Quarterly, 2000 p.111) – since its rulers can claim that their policy is derived from the will of the people, and therefore in the general interest. Re-reading Associative Democracy, his account of the deep-seated dangers of an ‘omnicompetent state’, in fact less than competent and disempowering, puts its finger on just that unfortunate combination of what we might call the ‘full spectral dominance’ coupled with real political impotence of the British nation state today. Under New Labour’s watch we had a graphic opportunity to see this in action. But as the recently deceased Lord Bingham said in his moving address to the Convention on Modern Liberty in February 2009:

“It seems clear that the last half century has seen an erosion of values once held dear. It is not the work of one party or one government, certainly not of the present government which, in enacting the Human Rights Act on coming into office, took the single most powerful step in the other direction. But, overall, an erosion nonetheless.”

In his speech, Lord Bingham thought back over the last half century to a committee set up by a “very distinguished former Lord Chancellor”, Lord Sankey, during the Second World War, when, as Bingham said, “the survival of the nation was really on the line”. Set up to answer H.G.Wells’ question - “what are we fighting for?” - it produced a declaration of rights, published in 1947. Bingham wanted to read out Article 9 of this declaration, on ‘personal liberty’, in full, so that he could point out that it made no reference:

“to the databases, the cameras, the gathering of huge quantities of personal and biometric material, the empowering of over 650 public bodies (including 474 local authorities) to obtain communications data, the introduction of an ID card rich in personal information, and so on.”

It made no reference to these, he conceded, because “doubtless it failed to foresee these developments. Orwell’s 1984 had yet to be written”. Nonetheless this must raise the question of what had so profoundly changed in 60 years. The answer he suggested was twofold: “The first catalyst is technological advance”. We must of course avoid Luddism, “But the possession of great powers by the state, is not a reason for using them. We have, after all, enjoyed for many years, the power to destroy the world, but have wisely refrained from doing so.” “The second catalyst of change”, he said, “has been security: security against terrorist attack; security against the commission of crime.”

“These are not considerations - he continued - which any rational person would dismiss. But nor are they considerations the mere invocation of which trumps any other. Eternal vigilance must again be the watchword: to ensure that intrusive powers are limited to what is demonstrably necessary; to ensure that powers conferred for one purpose are not used for another; to detect and eradicate abuses. It is worth recalling Benjamin Franklin’s observation that ‘he who would put security before liberty deserves neither’. It is also worth recalling John Locke’s even more salutary warning:

As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy.”

Being seen to deal with terrorist attack and crime could prove rather useful, however, to the type of centralised bureaucracy with repressive structures engaged in self-justification, that Hirst identified in the UK. I don’t want to put words into Lord Bingham’s mouth, but I think in distinguishing between a time when ‘the survival of the nation was really on the line’ and the so-called ‘war on terror’, he is pointing to a certain bad faith in the current securitisation of the nation state that is more to do with justifying the maintenance and extension of centralised power than a proportional response to a threat - justification that ends in only ratcheting up the problems and the fear that it is designed to address. One doesn’t have to argue that this is a straightforward cover either for the loss of civil liberties or for the refusal to extend those liberties for this to become the case. One simply has to coopt officialdom in the manner described at the same Convention by Ken Macdonald QC, Head of the Crown Prosecution Service until 2008, whereby, “When your every day begins with security briefings and threat assessments… you start to develop a form of protective zeal… ”

If “the state is beset with enemies”, Paul Hirst was the first to agree, “then Carl Shmitt’s logic of the political will take its course” – (Carl Schmitt in the 1930’s had challenged the English pluralists on the viability of pluralist communities on this point) - and even the pluralist state “will acquire extensive powers over life and property, the season-ticket holders will endorse their community and raise funds to support its fight with the enemy… ”.

One of the things I think we have to do today is to ask ourselves, as Lord Bingham did, whether the survival of our nation is on the line. And if not, why the response? Could it be the case that if the state is not beset with enemies, there nevertheless comes a time in the maintenance of the status quo when it is necessary to invent them – both without, in the unending ‘war on terror’ and within. Maybe the real threat here is the steady and inexorable rise of “more sophisticated and diverse publics” beginning to demand a far more complex, devolved and responsive pluralist state, one in which they actually have some say.

Eternal vigilance would indeed be required to monitor the impact that both digitalisation and the ‘war on terror’ have had on our formal rights and liberties in the UK, on ‘trust’ and on its social fabric at many different levels. But let us mention one or two ways in which this ‘double act’ strengthens the endemic tendency towards totalitarianism that Hirst detected in the sovereign modern state. ‘Omnicompetence’ and its attendant disempowerments are evident enough in what Sir David Varney envisages for us in 2020, in his 2006 report for the Treasury on the ‘transformational state’:

“All the people, children and young people, workless people and other customer groups can choose packages of public services tailored to their needs. Public, private and third sector partners collaborate across the delivery chain in a way that is invisible to the public. The partners pool their intelligence about the needs and preferences of local people and this informs the design of public services and the tailoring of packages for individuals and groups. Measured benefits, services and facilities are shared between all tiers of central and local government and other public bodies. The public do not see this process, they experience only public services packaged for their needs."

The salient difference between this form of collaboration between, “public, private and third sector partners … across the delivery chain” and the type envisaged in Hirst’s Associative Democracy is of course the total absence of the British public in Varney’s set-up. The British public is here relegated to being perfectly known and passive, package-consuming consumers - for whom indeed Varney’s ‘transformational state’ is to be invisible. This is the obverse of the process of restoring choice and control to the individual that interested Hirst. Those hoping to make such provision might argue that neither are needed when such heights of efficiency in customisation or tailoring are being scaled. But rather than the ultimate in choice, doesn’t this look like the end-game of Hirst’s ‘organisational society’ whereby, instead of fostering “democratic values of consultation of the interests affected by a decision, or participation in public debate on policy”, it rather “encourages hierarchical control and its obverse, passivity on the part of the controlled”? The gap between state and society has in fact turned into an unbridgeable chasm.

Another prophetic glimpse of the way in which the all-knowing state could know us much better than we know ourselves to our detriment, also cited at the Convention on Modern Liberty, was this prediction by Sir David Omand, for some years Security and Intelligence Coordinator in the Cabinet Office:

“the application of modern data mining and processing techniques does involve examination of the innocent as well as the suspect to identify patterns of interest for further investigation. The realm of intelligence operations is of course a zone to which the normal ethical rules we might hope to govern private conduct cannot apply. Finding out other people’s secrets is going to mean breaking everyday rules.”

Amazingly, David Omand concluded in that paper that, “public trust in the essential reasonableness of UK police, security and intelligence agency activity will continue to be essential if we are to move into that world”– to which fellow-speaker Ken Macdonald QC responded: “How could essential public trust possibly survive?... How would the public regard their security services in that world? Of course such a world would tend to recast all of us as subservient and unworthy of autonomy. It would destroy accountability and it would destroy trust. This is for one very simple reason: because to abolish the distinction between suspects and those suspected of nothing, to place them entirely in the same category of the state is a clear hallmark of authoritarianism.

What could possibly pave the way for such developments? Only the declaration of some kind of state of exception in which the level of fears in society allowed one to argue that the security of the state was at stake.

Can we forget about these dangers, and hope that now this troubling vision has seen the light of day, it will simply disappear along with New Labour? I don’t think so. It was not New Labour that invented this propensity of the British state, which was in its first formation, as Hirst reminds us, “the locus of military administration”. Well before ‘the cuts’ arrived to occupy a similar space, we might have gathered that despite a change of government we were still in an era in which the hyperbole of fear - fear for one’s-self and fear of others - will be one of the first resorts of government in binding the nation together. “Your country needs you” as Cameron says.

But the Coalition came to power on the promise that there would be a rolling back of the surveillance state. Surely we will be spared a repeat of that extraordinary instance in 2008 when Poole Borough Council admitted to using powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to put adults and children under surveillance both in their home and in their daily movements, not in the investigation of terrorism, but to police school catchment areas, on the grounds that this criminalisation, “protects the majority of honest parents” - this in a system in fact riddled with “shadow education” and all other forms of covert one-upmanship otherwise known as giving one’s child a chance in life? Unfortunately it seems that this is not the case. If we are to be spared a repeat, it is likely to be because when such issues come to court nowadays, no-one can be found to take responsibility for installing a given group of CCTV cameras – a tendency noted in Henry Porter’s contribution last September, to the opening of a Tate Modern Exhibition on ‘Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera’, in which he reminded us that “outside North Korea we are the most watched society in the world”, and that:

“From Carlisle to Huntington, from Birmingham to Loughton, surveillance systems are slowly taking hold of this country, and reducing our autonomy as individuals. This has devastating effects for the quality of our democracy, the responsiveness and performance of government.”

There is another reason for the inexorable nature of these trends that the libertarian right in this country curiously seems more willing to contemplate than the left – the way in which the state becomes an autonomous vested interest, with a potential for sheer revenue maximisation that brings it into a natural alliance with oligopolies in finance, energy, defence, media and intellectual property rights. Hirst’s picture of western liberalism in retreat before state bureaucracy and corporate power doesn’t take this merger between the two into account, but I don’t believe it can be absent from a fully up-to-date assessment of the dreams, nightmares and irresistible temptations of the ‘omnicompetent state’. However Paul Hirst was more interested in another underlying cause that no-one else seemed to have noticed: simply the endemic and worsening crisis caused by the attempt to govern by one community national standard in a diversifying world.

The “National Us”

Hirst’s central concern was with social fragmentation and division and its impact upon democracy - the inevitable result, as he saw it, of the attempt by the omnicompetent state to realize the unrealizable. This, he argued in Associative Democracy was particularly the case for those societies that “have abandoned social coordination in favour of the market principle”:

“Economic failure leads to social fragmentation, and that leads to political blockage. Consensus policies become impossible as winners and losers diverge more dramatically and become mutually antagonistic. The result is that the social sources of competitive failure become self-reinforcing and so infect the political system that it is incapable of taking effective political action. If this sounds alarmist then one should take pause, for it is all too close to the situation in the UK today…” pp.123-4

This concern of Hirst’s should place his thinking in the vanguard of attempts at renewal by social democratic forces, and the left. But Hirst’s commitment to the ‘pluralist state’ as the only answer to this fragmentation has been less well understood and remains a deterrent. It is this conclusion of his that I want to explore here. He was the first to acknowledge that it was hard at first sight to explain how “permitting groups to opt out of a common political culture” could possibly provide a solution to social fragmentation and lessen the tensions between communities. But this is an argument that has become clearer today in the UK, not least because of the multiplying cracks in the edifice of the common political culture.

Hirst most clearly presented this argument in an essay contributed to an edition of the Political Quarterly devoted to ‘Religion and Democracy’ in 2000, in which he looked at the threat posed to liberal democracies by the ‘return of religion’. His rapid overview described some of the conflicts that arise from increasing religious pluralism as such, a plethora of new cults to add to the variety of Christian denominations, “but more significantly, substantial Muslim and other non-European religious communities” - as well as the growth in the number of extremist cults and a rise in religious political activism.

The danger, Hirst argued, was not the one that even before 9/11, alarmists were pointing towards – i.e. the re-emergence of a theocratic state. The danger, he insisted, was rather a crisis of authority arising from activist groups increasingly competing to have their views on key ‘lifestyle issues’ made into law, whether on abortion, gay marriage, or offence against religion, on behalf of churches and sects seeking to propagate doctrine and make converts. Such competing claims had terminally weakened the settlement that emerged after the protracted carnage of the religious civil wars of the seventeenth century - toleration of religious communities other than the established church, at the price of certain restrictions on religious practice. Nor was this assault confined to religious groups. Other politically extreme groups also sought to hijack state power to alter and to control social mores. This had pushed what was left of limited state sovereignty to its limits. “These struggles are intractable,” he predicted, “ because the diversity of views is unlikely to decline and because, as things stand, there can be only one community standard in state law. If the present state of affairs persists, we can expect increasing and ongoing political and social turbulence.”

Then as now the US offered the most obvious example of a demotic system in which “a depoliticised mass culture and a dissociated public” led to a magnification of “the dangers both of narrow minority rule and the tyranny of the majority.” But in the intervening years, many countries in Europe and beyond have found themselves in the same difficulty. As for the UK, Ed Stourton’s Sunday-morning ‘religious news show’ on Radio 4 is packed full of this turbulence, and also one of the most truly revealing cameos of UK political life today. Since Hirst wrote about this, we have watched these conflicts become greatly amplified by the echoing chamber of our national medias circling around the one community standard. We have seen clearly how Labour governments, whatever their aspirations, are sucked into this whirlpool at least as quickly as their political competitors. What we have not seen is any concerted attempt by the political class even to articulate, let alone address the syndrome that Hirst identified. A tiny toe in these murky waters, such as Rowan Williams’ suggestion that an “accommodation” might be reached with sharia courts produced such an anguished outcry in the echo-chamber that he was lucky not to lose his job outright. We are and we remain in denial.

Hirst however posed and answered the question: How would even the most liberal of states respond to this pluralist challenge? It was, I believe, an instructive and prophetic answer, drafted before 9/11, but nevertheless anticipating much of the creeping authoritarianism which afflicts so many mature liberal democracies today. Under siege, he warned, ‘Embattled defenders of liberalism often thicken the doctrine to the point where it becomes prescriptive and exclusive rather than neutral and procedural’. In his paper on ‘Religion and Democracy’ he turned for evidence to the attempts ‘to impose ever stricter politically correct limits on what counts as derogatory - or “hate” speech’ - already under way in western societies. Again, he points unerringly to a festering wound in our liberal democracies not obvious at the time. It is worth looking at what has happened to anti-hate speech legislation across Europe in the intervening years.

These measures have, I believe, fulfilled his worst predictions. In the UK, no sooner was the Racial and Religious Hatred Act passed in 2006, “making it an offence to stir up hatred against people on religious grounds”, than it was in trouble, thanks to the acquittal by a British jury of Nick Griffin and another BNP colleague for describing Islam as a ‘wicked, vicious faith’. Headlines reported that the Government was “facing a major split over race hate laws, with cabinet colleagues divided over whether the legislation should be toughened.” The then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in a move which was a kind of foretaste of his ill-fated response to ‘bigotry’ over immigration in the last UK elections, was reported as in favour of a further clampdown: as he put it, anything that "offends mainstream opinion" would have to be "rooted out.” The trouble of course, then as now, was that ‘mainstream opinion’ like the ‘honest parent’ in Poole remains a rather more complex and elusive category than successive governments might hope. Meanwhile, the BNP’s vociferous stand against ‘political correctness’ and in defence of ‘free speech’ was arguably a better basis for recruitment than all its views put together. Nor has this legislation prevented the steady spread of Islamophobia in the UK, as in the rest of Europe and beyond.

Again in his paper, Hirst very well imagined the remonstrances of his critics, particularly, in this case he thought, secular liberals: “ Why should not society protect people from bad ideas and form individuals in good ways?” he asks himself and everyone else, replying immediately, “ The answer turns on who is to judge?”

This challenge - ‘who is to judge whom?’ - has haunted anti-hate speech legislation from the outset. The dilemma is at the centre of the ongoing controversy over a new definition of anti-Semitism, adopted by the OSCE countries in the last decade, which just happened to extend ‘hate speech’ to include criticisms of the Israeli state and its policies. On Islamophobia, Markha Valenta, openDemocracy’s new columnist on religion, politics and culture, took up the story with her first column:

“Anti-hate speech legislation” across Europe, she suggests, is a “playing field largely tilted in favour of Islamophobes. They may with great freedom caricature and express public criticism of Muslims, Islam and the Muslim world, while Muslims are highly constrained both in their access to the public and political domains and in their freedom to express anti-western, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, or anti-national criticisms in these public domains.”

For Markha Valenta, this tilting arises from Europe’s absorption of the Holocaust into its official history whilst failing to do the same for colonialism. I would probably want to foreground the military alliances and conflict in the Middle East. But whatever the complexities behind this lack of even-handedness, we can agree on its being an ominous development. Valenta rejects the suggestion that the remarkable success of Islamophobia across western Europe today represents a resurgence of old Europe’s racism and fascism. But what she does say is that the current situation:

“has left the door wide open to the import by continental European populists of a form of cultural politics developed outside continental Europe. The ideology sustaining European Islamophobic politics today draws both its logic and its strategies largely from Anglo-American-style identity politics. This is a politics of righteous moral indignation that demands recognition and state protection for socio-cultural groups unjustly marginalised and minoritised. Such politics strategically deploys a repertoire of anger, authenticity, truth-speaking and public presence. Critically, the minority whose identity is today being asserted politically by European populists is the very same national culture that is simultaneously described as that of ‘the majority’. This majority culture, it is argued, has been unjustly neglected and sidelined by the cosmopolitan and political elite at the very moment that it is under threat from a (much larger) global Islamic culture.”

Even in the recent Swedish elections, in a still thriving economy where the ‘national idea’ was always an idea of the left rather than of the right – it seems that the Sweden Democrats have secured their advances thanks to a vacuum around the question of the ‘National Us’, now partly defined by Islamophobia. The problem, as Valenta summarises it, is that:

“Across Europe there is legislation against hate speech, against racism and anti-Semitism, against the defamation of whole groups, minorities, and (if inconsistently) religions…. The paradox that greets us then, is that time and again, across much of Europe, when this apparatus is brought to bear on Islamophobia, it has in practice made the perpetrators more popular rather than less… While many national law enforcers are becoming increasingly hesitant to prosecute those who make hateful anti-Islamic or anti-immigrant remarks, out of a fear of simply increasing their support and influence, prosecutors continue to fiercely enforce other forms of anti-racism, particularly with regard to the Holocaust… In response, across different countries, we see generally one of two strategies: appeasement (in which some of the rhetoric is taken over, its rough edges softened) or cold exclusion by the establishment. Neither of these, however, have worked over time.”

In Britain, of course, the mix is a slightly different one again. Migration and Euro-skepticism have probably played more of a role in structuring our unique combination of grievance and nostalgia for a time when we still knew what it meant to be ‘one of us’. But it is always a mixture of grievance and nostalgia, and there is always some ‘Other’, it seems, which will fit the bill. In Britain too, successive governments have bent over backwards to accommodate this particular backlash effect of a pluralising world. They have done this by denying the obvious fact of multiculturalism in an exercise in what David Goodhart of Prospect magazine at the time designated, “majority reassurance”.

This is not to deny the limitations of British multiculturalism. Hirst too thought that the state’s previous “multi-cultural programmes within uniform structures of provision… satisfy no community and at worst degenerate into a decultured pap.” But nor does “majority reassurance” reassure; or if it does, only at the price of a confirmation of bigotry which is also a further descent into fear of the Other. What we have seen as a result is a plethora of mainly infantilising attempts to invent a new kind of reassuring Britishness, accompanied by the escalating illiberalism that Hirst identified.

In recent years, this remarkably potent 'National Us' syndrome has taken quite different shapes in many societies across the world, in all cases to the detriment of social peace, solidarity and democracy. The image that sticks in my mind from last year is the banner carried by protesters defending Ground Zero against Muslim plans to build a cultural centre nearby, which simply said, “What is it about the word, No, that you don’t understand?” I would hazard a guess that the poster-bearer knows little of his target and has no intention of learning more. The sentiment on this poster, so easily fuelled by ‘majority reassurance’, has nothing to do with self-governance and everything to do with mistrust, alienation and fear. It takes its cue from a sense of dispossession and political impotence - the hope that a strong state on your behalf will effect the victory over your enemy that you cannot hope to achieve for yourself, and the fear and frustration that it will not. Like the Varney model of service provision this communication is very much a one-way street - a communication chasm in fact where only fear can flourish.

A pluralist solution

What then was Hirst’s answer? How could such a competition for community standards be contained and the conflict of competing lifestyle groups, mitigated? The only way to contain the conflicts arising from cultural heterogeneity, he thought, is to extend the principle of pluralism from belief to conduct.

The state should become only one governing body among many, strictly neutral between the sects, a limited rather than an omnicompetent body. It would be the primary source of such essential, binding rules as those governing non-violence and rights of associational exit and entry. But it would only have primacy in its specific function of securing ‘the freedom of individuals in respect of associations and the rights of associations with respect to each other.’

A pluralist state that had devolved governance through the forms of cooperation and competition available to associations in this way, publicly funded according to a common formula, could maximise opposition to extremists who use the freedom of political association to promote their own cause, while minimising the stake of competing for political power. Groups would have to give up trying to shape the laws that apply to all, to suit their beliefs alone. They would exchange the ultimately futile struggle for dominance of the political agenda for the practise of governing themselves and competing to realise their beliefs about conduct. The monocultural echoing chamber of the national media would disappear as the plethora of constituencies, large and small, moderate and extremist, were cut down to whatever size they are. As he put it, adding cheerfully that this formulation should at least appeal to Christians, who believe in Original Sin, “Power divided and limited reduces the damage that evil people can do if they acquire it, and also their incentive to do so… “

The alternative is stark. The liberal state, which claims to respect the rights of individuals, must be increasingly engaged in undermining those rights by acting against the institutions where individuals pursue their common life. This was the second, equally important gain, that it could stem the turn towards totalitarianism of a state ever-more engaged in enforcing legal and cultural homogeneity.

For Hirst instead, a “truly plural society” can only flourish where it is recognised, “that democratic governance does not consist just in the powers of citizen election or majority decision, but in the continuous flow of information between the governors and the governed, whereby the former seek the consent and cooperation of the latter.” His associations are not isolated Burkean little platoons designed for keeping people quiet and bound into the hierarchy, where a well-ordered family is a good dress rehearsal for revering one’s monarch. The hugely various forms of horizontal cooperation and competition that he pursues in Associative Democracy across local and regional levels, buttressed by an activist, interventionist but pluralist state, have one thing in common – they educate through the voluntary encounter with others, thereby increasing the capacity for self-governance of the people involved. Citizens learn, through negotiation, how to live side by side. Even the least active have far more sway than citizens living in liberal democracies today, both in terms of voice and – more crucially – in terms of exit. This negotiation is what democratic citizenship is, and its skills emerge from the promotion of choice through cooperation and competition.

For Hirst, self-governance is grounded in voluntary, and cooperative initiatives: and it is part of an attempt to build something, not to prevent others from building something different. It is only this liberty, exercised in our own interest, which teaches us that, “We cannot claim liberty for ourselves while at the same time denying it to others.” Hirst knew that it was essential to find new sources of social solidarity: “Solidarity” he said,” cannot be taken as a given, it has to be built up from active cooperation in more complexly-divided and more individuated populations.” Because he took these sophisticated and individuated populations seriously for who they were, he put empowerment, “rather than the illusory hope of equality of outcomes as the means to the goal of social justice” at the core of his vision.

The left who tend to make an exception of themselves when it comes to Hirst’s opening premise that there cannot be one overarching judge imposing his or her view of the good life on any complex and free society, balk at this decision. But for his part, Hirst was convinced that the gains of such a move were considerable (even for the left). Associationalism might have a chance precisely because this “vital supplement to existing institutions” could give “a real stake in society” to “a constituency that goes way beyond the left”. In his discussion of religious pluralism he listed, for example, “radical advocates of multicultural policies, religious conservatives and many secular liberals” i.e. nearly all of those most actively concerned with the relationship between religion and the state, as all expressing “strong dissatisfactions with the existing state of affairs.” All of these, he reasoned, not to mention the many as yet relatively untouched by such concerns, could only benefit from the opportunity given them by associative democracy to practise what one preaches.

Hirst was quite scathing about “social democratic conservatives wedded to the nation state” for whom associationalism was “too radical”. But we have to remember, as Graham Smith reminds us in his cogent contribution to Revisiting Associative Democracy, that Hirst also gave the state a particularly significant role in this gradualist project of reform, which would not become widespread, “unless it has a state at least not actively hostile.” It is this balancing act or calculation regarding the state that he left us to consider, a consideration I believe germane to the future of democracy.

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. See page 44 of the e-book for this article as originally published.

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