Plurality and democracy – a response to Jeremy Gilbert

3 August 2009

An OurKingdom conversation. This is Jeremy Gilbert's response to Rosemary Bechler in OK's debate on liberalism and democracy [History: Jeremy Gilbert > this post Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler (part 1; part 2) > Jeremy Gilbert]

I want to pick up a strand of thinking in Jeremy Gilbert’s stimulating and useful tour de horizon of the left landscape as a potential driver for democratic change. If developed, I believe it leads us to another major source of transformation overlooked in his otherwise comprehensive survey. The strand I’m talking about is plurality – individualisation, diversification, fragmentation – and its relationship not only to deliberative democracy, but to the reinvigoration and rescue of democracy in the modern nation-state as such.

Before picking up on Jeremy’s commanding call for ‘a new kind of deliberative democratic institution… a social forum for us all … vital to the fostering of the kind of democratic climate within which … reforms could take root, flower and grow’ – I want to return to the more uncertain role accorded ‘plurality’ in his previous openDemocracy contribution,‘Postmodernity and the crisis of democracy.’ Here it is regarded with a residual leftwing ambivalence. The ‘full pluralism and complexity’ of our world is laid at the feet of ‘wild, unregulated capitalism’ or ‘globalisation’, as if these were little more than a conspiracy to unpick the organisational capacity of the labour movement. Alternatively, plurality is a siren voice created by postmodern cybernetic capitalism and only narrowly averted in the 1980s, when Baudrillard and Co tempted us to deliver ourselves to ‘the nihilistic thrill of a world without shared values and meanings’. But this is to treat plurality or diversity as the rootless relativism it is reduced to being in a culture like ours.

However, plurality in its higher form - as negotiation with the other, the encounter with difference and differences that is the source of self-awareness and adult intelligence is a very different story. There is an enormous and unstoppable democratic potential inherent in the process of individualisation that has accompanied capitalism throughout its history and this process continues with the boost it has received not only from post-war consumer culture and ‘consumer choice’, but also from the communication channels opened up across the silos of national organisation by war, tourism, the internet and globalisation. This is the energy and intelligence for a new political culture, in which people negotiate how they wish to live side by side in one polity, and win some, lose some, learn how to compromise. This much deeper form of democracy is waiting impatiently in the wings (although I note in a thoughtful if sometimes jaded interview that Tony Wright thinks ordinary people, as opposed to MP’s, incapable of it. He says: ”politics is complicated, it’s difficult, it’s frustrating, it requires compromise and often politicians are choosing the least-worst options and so it’s guaranteed to disappoint vast numbers of people all the time… there’s something about politics that’s a challenge in a consumerist culture, which likes instant gratification through shopping and celebrity and all that.”)

Meanwhile, our democratic system is treading water, and what should be the engine for renewal can only deepen the crisis in democracy as we know it. As Jeremy points out:

As a result of these changes, individuals cannot be assumed to belong, as they once did, to large, relatively homogenous social groups sharing a largely similar outlook on life and a consequently similar set of political views. However, this is the assumption which underpins the party political system …. In the present context, the whole idea of mobilising large-scale majorities in support of an entire programme of government for five years without negotiation or adjustment seems improbable; and yet this is all that our political system is designed to enable us to do….’

I couldn’t agree more with Jeremy’s scathing account of the New Labour’s Third Way response to this challenging set of circumstances and its limited relevance once boom turns to bust: “What emerged here was a response which effectively acknowledged the end of the party-political model of the mid-twentieth century, and which proposed to replace it with government by an enlightened technocratic elite, who would use techniques such as focus groups and market research to find out what would make people happy, would try to give them more-or-less what they wanted, but would always keep in mind that maintaining the profitability of UK companies and investors must be regarded as the first priority of governance.” Other false alternatives that have been mooted in this era of denial include the suggestion that voters might prefer to choose between individuals, including direct election of a Prime Minister, for example, rather than alternative governments that hardly seem alternative.

Where Jeremy and I part company is in his conclusion that plurality is ‘out of control’ and an obstacle insofaras it threatens the political party:

The aim of PR is to prevent any over-mighty majority from emerging and to enable a pluralistic range of voices to be heard in public debate. No doubt there are key problems with British democracy which PR would remedy…. But the lack of pluralism and the tyranny of the majority are not the fundamental problems we face. In fact the problem is almost the opposite: postmodern culture is already too pluralistic for its collectivities to be able to operationalize themselves effectively at the level of party politics….

This is confused. And the reverse is true. The more beset governance is by the challenge of pluralism, the more frenetically it strives to compose a fictional National Us or monoculture that will distract us from the requirements and complexities of democratic pluralism. We may have plurality in bucketloads, but it is left off-stage, a set of differences that simply subsist side by side, that are not allowed to engage each other or negotiate, and that can only instill fear. Our plurality is not allowed to connect itself to our democracy in any meaningful way: the political class is in denial about the era it is in. What we need is a clearer account of the role played by plurality in the crisis of our current democratic system. Maybe this account could provide us with the outline of a solution, even if this means a root and branch overhaul of the political party as such.

The fiction of one overarching community standard

Paul Hirst, the UK’s most creative proponent of ‘associative democracy’, gave a good example of the crisis that inevitably emerges from a plural polity in a discussion of the threat posed to liberal democracies by the ‘return of religion’ written for the Political Quarterly in 2000.

Hirst took as his subject recent trends in the relationship between the liberal states of the developed West and ‘religious groups’, pointing out the many conflicts that arise from increasing religious pluralism as such, as well as the growth in the number of extremist cults and religious political activism. The contemporary danger, he argued, was not the emergence of a theocratic state. We are no longer living in a situation where each religious group seeks to impose its doctrine upon all as the only true belief as in early seventeenth century Europe, when, ‘the exhaustion of the religious civil wars forced the moderation of this theocratic will-to-power.’ But the settlement that emerged after that protracted carnage - toleration of religious communities other than the established church, at the price of certain restrictions on religious practice - is what is in trouble today. Contesting faiths question the privileges of the established church and indeed, the viability of a ‘one size fits all’ mode of governance. Ironically, they undermine the stability of majoritarian governance by trying to avail themselves of its authority.

The crisis occurs in secular and liberal states like our own which claim ‘both unlimited legislative sovereignty and omnicompetence’. Hirst reminds us that democracy makes the power of such a sovereign state, where legislative primacy is coupled with a highly centralised and powerful administration, particularly dangerous, since, ‘it enables rulers to claim that their policy is actually derived from the will of the people, and, therefore, in the general interest.’ Here, activist groups on behalf of churches and sects seeking to propagate doctrine and make converts, increasingly compete to have their views on key ‘lifestyle issues’ made into law, whether on abortion, gay marriage, or offence against religion. Such competition is not confined to religious groups. Other groups seek to hijack state power to alter and to control social mores, like the animal rights movement or environmental groups. They compete directly for members, but indirectly through the political system to have their views on how social life should be organised prevail as the ‘one community standard in state law’.

None of these groups, religious or otherwise, can hope to dominate the political system: ‘they do not create enough political energy outside of the specific issue on which they can inspire often fanatical devotion in their followers.’ But, he predicts, ‘These struggles are intractable, 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.’ Under seige, he warns,‘Embattled defenders of liberalism often thicken the doctrine to the point where it becomes prescriptive and exclusive rather than neutral and procedural’, citing attempts in Western societies ‘to impose ever stricter politically correct limits on what counts as derogatory speech’ as an example. There are other consequences of such a strain on government coherence - mountains of legislation creeping further and further into terrain that was once considered outside the remit of politics; the reassertion of monoculturalism in the teeth of the evidence and the hopeless attempt to turn one’s back on multiculturalism; and of course the ever more frenetic construction of the National Us. As if on cue, Cameron has just promised us a fresh round of infantilisation, we learn from Andy Mycock’s excellent post in Our Kingdom, this time including another attack on our multiculturalism and a Burkean return to a “more emotional connection … with ‘forgotten’ institutions that define Britishness, such as the monarchy, armed forces and parliament.” Good old Tories – no nonsense about plurality there!

What we have seen over recent years, in terms of peddling of fear about the Other – whether Europeans, Muslims, immigrants or terrorists; attempts to reinvent a ‘National Us’ from Millennial Domes, Britishness tests to ever-grander WWII memorialisation, Olympic bids and Proms programming, with the last-ditch, dangerous resort to populist demaguogery always hovering in the background – this is an ever more futile attempt to maintain the fiction of national coherence and majority decision where there is none. Why is this so important? It is the basic premise not only of our democratic representation, but our legitimacy as a nation state. Clearly it is under attack on all sides – beginning with globalisation and even the minimal amount of devolution we have experienced in the UK – but more importantly it shores up the largely unquestioned notion of ‘the national interest’. The Iraq War (and now the war in Afghanistan) followed by the banks crisis have, I believe, blown this concept wide open for interrogation. It is clearer to British people than our ruling class would ever like it to be that ‘the National Interest’, a combination of finance capital and the remnants of an older colonialism – has very little to do with their interests: if anything, the reverse.

The rest of Hirst’s essay is an exploration of what he believed was ultimately the only real alternative, the development of an associative democracy within a pluralist polity, which could ‘minimise the stakes of competing for political power.’ Here, the state becomes only one governing body among many, a limited rather than an omnicompetent body. It would become the primary source of such essential, binding rules as those governing non-violence and rights of exit and entry into associations. 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.’

Whatever one thinks of Paul Hirst’s thought-provoking elaboration of associative democracy, the fragmentation he described is well under way: British people are beginning to live radically different lives. Some new kind of representation which can accommodate our pluralist democracy must be found if we are not to fall victim to increasing populism, intolerance, illiberalism and criminalisation in the name of an ever-less-persuasive 'National Us'.

What do the political philosophers say?

So to recap, I don’t agree with Jeremy’s passing conclusion that ‘the lack of pluralism and the tyranny of the majority are not the fundamental problems we face.’ True, our daily lives are full of a plurality that undermines successive monocultural national narratives with its sheer relativism. But the response of the political class is to redouble their efforts to construct a fictional version of the latter which is in denial of that plurality. The Other, foreign or within, instead of becoming an opportunity for civic intelligence, and a devolution of self-determination, is turned into a never-ending series of enemies from which Government alone can defend us. The winner-take-all first-past-the post electoral system was still useful in this regard until recently, since it maintained the illusion of contesting narratives of this type long after their sell-by date.

What we must add to Jeremy’s scathing account of the attempt by New Labour to respond to postmodern plurality with the Third Way, is this appreciation of the extent to which it is in full flight from the need for a deeper democracy that empowers its citizens: the condescending reliance on consumerism as the binding factor is a wing and a prayer. The self-serving disconnection from the people, or any representation of the people, coupled with the frank admission that there is no higher ambition than to be seen to manage Britain’s National Interest better than the Tories – this is an endgame of denial, and it is hard to see how much further the political parties can go in this direction, especially, as Jeremy points out, as the boom gives way to bust.

It is important, I believe, that the left knows which side it is on in the attempt to frame a new monoculture with which to fend off multicultural encroachments. I’ve mentioned some versions of this battle above, but it may also be worth looking at its impact in the more rarified atmosphere of political philosophy, because it is equally important that we know what side we are on here.

Gillian Brock gives a fascinating account in her recent book, Global Justice, of the differences in what they consider to be the requirements of genuine democracy today between David Held, arguing for a ‘Cosmopolitan Democracy’ and Will Kymlicka, defending his idea that authentic democracy can only be properly achieved in nation states. The first thing to note about this debate is that there is no disagreement about the basic prerequisite for a deliberative form of democracy which is far in advance of anything the most advanced democracies actually contemplate today. Thus Will Kymlicka in Politics in the Vernacular:

Democracy is not just a formula for aggregating votes, but is also a system of collective deliberation and legitimation. The actual moment of voting (in elections,or within legislatures) is just one component in a larger process of democratic self-government. This process begins with public deliberation about the issues that need to be addressed and the options for resolving them. The decisions which result from this deliberation are then legitimated on the grounds that they reflect the considered will and common good of the people as a whole, and not just the self-interest or arbitrary whims of the majority.”

David Held absolutely agrees with Kymlicka that a key element (perhaps even the essence of democracy) involves deliberation among all who will be affected by a collective decision. For his part, this is the missing element in democratic capitalism as it now stands. In Democracy and the Global Order, he describes a political system where market exchange still has a significant role to play in determining supply and demand, but there should be much more scope for public deliberation and decisions about the aims and levels of public expenditure. For instance, a 10 % reduction in military spending in the developing world combined with a 1% reduction in military spending in the developed world would be sufficient not only to feed all those currently going without enough food, but would also make a significant contribution to ensuring that everyone has a basic education. Making people aware of such possibilities, giving them an opportunity to debate priorities and express their views in referendums, might mean that current priorities will change…

Frankly either of these scenarios seems so Utopian from where we are at that one wonders that political philosophers have the heart to continue working out their models of democracy. Isn’t this just another form of denial? Nevertheless it is interesting to note that there is no debate at all about the importance of deliberation to any genuine democracy. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the need to curb the powers of the executive and open up the system to popular involvement and deliberation is the best kept secret in the entire polity.

Take Tony Wright MP’s “ I was completely unsurprised by the expenses scandal” interview, where he is quite frank about the Government being fully aware of what needs to be done to respond to the anger and alienation of the British people:

we’re trying to formulate a proposal that will enable the Commons to control more of what it does and that will affect fundamentally the balance between the executive and the legislature. So that’s the biggest thing on our agenda because it would have implications for many, many things that occur in Parliament. A second area is… we are going to explore ways in which the House of Commons can elect members and chairs of select committees itself. The third area is to do with how we can enable the public to connect more directly with this place. That means talking about… petitions, committees and how people can have their voice taken up here more directly… we’ve got to find a way of doing politics that persuades people that it’s important, that some sort of critical citizenship is worth developing… The issues are well known, now we have to try and do something about them.

Everyone knows what needs to be done, but it seems everyone apart from Tony Wright also knows that a more deliberative democracy is the last thing that they are willing to contemplate:

I’ve proposed this to the Prime Minister although he hasn’t adopted it – that we should set up what I call a Democracy Commission, which would sit for about ten years and maybe even turn out to be permanent. It would do the sort of things you speak about – go out, start doing public hearings and try then to come forward with a worked out set of propositions, as well as pros and cons on each. But at the moment we’ve got no body in this country that does this kind of work and that engages in a continuing conversation with the public about it. So every time an issue blows up, it’s in the headlines for five minutes, everyone comes forward with their proposals and then it all dies away again. So I’m very keen that we set up some sort of body that can keep the conversation going and become a source of genuine expertise, one that doesn’t sit in an ivory tower but that actually does work with the public as well. I’m very keen that we should do that but I can’t persuade anybody else.”

To return to Held and Kymlicka – where they differ is over what proper deliberation involves. Kymlicka argues that genuine democracy is possible only within nation states, because authentic deliberation requires common nationality or identity, which generates the trust and solidarity necessary to sustain deliberation and democracy. If this is not present, Kymlicka claims, people will not be willing to make sacrifices for each other and they will not be inclined to carry out their obligations to justice. His emphasis is on the need for a common language. Held, by contrast, insists that without debate among a full set of the people who will be affected by any given act of deliberation, we have not realised the democratic ideal sufficiently well. The essentials required do not include a shared collective identity such as national identity: only enough understanding of the situation, commitment to face our collective problems, and shared values. Will we be sufficiently motivated to make sacrifices for each other without a shared identity? If a solution to a global problem is urgent enough, we have sufficient shared values and in the face of adequate leadership we can create the necessary motivation. We have the very same problems at the domestic level too, and must rely for their solution on the same factors. Gillian Brock, as you would expect from someone in pursuit of ‘global justice’ is on Held’s side in this dispute, and points out that Kymlicka’s preferred model is ‘too likely to lead to the sort of ‘us-first’ mentality that seems to be typical of the way most governments operate in the world today’. Needless to say, Held’s formula for deliberation between all relevant stakeholders seems to me the way pluralist democracy must develop.

Towards a 'new kind of deliberative democratic institution…'

Let us now return to what I would argue is the missing major source of transformation in Jeremy’s list of leftwing forces for democratic change. Where are we to find the “social forum for us all … vital to the fostering of the kind of democratic climate within which … reforms could take root, flower and grow” ? The candidates that he lists all have something to contribute to the process of democratic renewal. Jeremy is looking for a successful formula, and at the same time, he is adding up the candidates to see whether they amount to a convincing force for change. The latter activity smacks of the military metaphor so important to the left (as well as everyone else) and the calculation of what forces it will take to topple those in power. But once we have focused on plurality and deliberation as the driver, it is not clear to me that we have to confine ourselves to looking to the left for transformation at all. And even if we do, what we will require of them is to engage in that extension of democratic voice which will ultimately make certain forms of power unwieldable – not by overcoming them physically, but by dissolving their credibility.

What focuses his attention on a ‘new kind of democratic deliberative institution’ however, is the need to come up with a solution to “the far bigger problem of how to allow those citizens who do not belong to… delimited communities (and who never will again) to act together meaningfully to address social problems” - such as the challenge of democratic renewal. He is looking for something which is unlike the World Social Forum since “a social forum is not something that can make a decision and act on it, as a disciplined and ethically homogenous community can’ but which can nevertheless embrace the “complex fluidity of postmodern global society.”.

I have written elsewhere, about the remarkable creation of new, decentralised approaches to debate and organisation that have been enabled by the internet. But so close is the fit of some of these large-scale collaborative endeavours in the democratic sphere to these requirements that I am surprised Jeremy makes no mention of what Yochai Benkler calls the emergent ‘networked public sphere’. In Chapter 7 of his ‘The Wealth of Networks’ Benkler looks in detail at the deliberative and democratic advantages of the networked economy over that of mass media and politics as spectacle.

One major difference is the shift from a hub-and-spoke architecture with unidirectional links to the end points in the mass media (i.e. the passive audience that is the convenient backdrop for a projected ‘National Us’) to a distributed architecture with multidirectional connections among all nodes in the networked environment. Another difference is the practical elimination of communication costs as a barrier to speaking across associational barriers. The cost of being a speaker in a regional, national or even international political conversation is several orders of magnitude lower than the cost of speaking in the mass-mediated environment. Anyone can be a publisher, including individuals, educational institutions, and nongovernmental organisations, alongside the traditional speakers of the mass-media environment – government and commercial entities. ‘Together’, Benkler says, ‘these characteristics have fundamentally altered the capacity of individuals, acting alone or with others, to be active participants in the public sphere as opposed to its passive readers, listeners, or viewers.”

But what is the best way to organise a social forum in this networked environment – there are certain rules that need to be followed as in the use of any architecture. The culture is oriented towards ‘see for yourself’ rather than ‘trust me’, and linking to original materials and references is a core characteristic of communication. Access to underlying documents and the direct expression of the opinions of others becomes a central part of the medium. The social practise of information and discourse allow a very large number of actors to see themselves as potential contributors to public discourse and as potential actors in political arenas, rather than mostly passive recipients of mediated information who occasionally can vote their preferences. Filtering and synthesis occur through discussion, trial and error. Different people will coalesce on different modes of action, a kind of forking that avoids all the sectarian battles about who has got the correct tactic…and these clusters see where they get. Instead of the lowest-common-denominator focus typical of commercial mass media, each individual and group can focus precisely on what is most intensely interesting to its participants. This makes the emerging networked public sphere more responsive to intensely held concerns of a much wider swathe of the population than the mass media were capable of seeing, and creates a communications process that avoids its susceptibility to the exertion of control by its regulators, owners, or those who pay them.

In the networked public sphere, receiving information or getting out a finished message are only parts, and not necessarily the most important parts of democratic discourse. The decisive factor in any political campaign rooted in the net is its capacity to engage users to the point that they become effective participants in a conversation and an effort; one that they have a genuine stake in and that is linked to a larger, society-wide debate. This engagement is not easily purchased, nor is it captured by the concept of a well-educated public that receives all the information it needs to be an informed citizenry. Instead it is precisely the varied modes of participation in small-, medium-, and large-scale conversations, with varied but sustained degrees of efficacy, that makes the public sphere of the networked environment different and more attractive than what it replaces. Here we see self-organised collective actions emerging even on a large scale, from the convergence of independent individual actions, with no hierarchical control like that of a political party or an organised campaign. There may be some coordination or condensation points, but they do not control the process. For now, the networked information economy has a capacity to take in, filter, and synthesize observations and opinions from a population that is orders of magnitude larger than the population capable of being captured by mass media.

How could one set about building a campaign for democratic renewal in Britain that can welcome all comers – by paying close attention to what allows people to pool their efforts effectively. The capacity to break a project down to small discrete component parts that can be independently produced before they are assembled into a whole allows contributors the flexibility to decide when and how and to what extent they participate in the project: the more finegrained the components, the more people who can afford to participate. Open source software projects in particular show us that it may be possible for different individuals to contribute vastly different levels of effort, commensurate with their ability in this field, motivation and availability. Benkler concludes,”it turns out that some combination of true believers, people who play around, occasional contributors, and people paid to participate at the interface of peer production (for free) and markets sustain these projects.” I sincerely hope that some of the immense talent washing around in the UK blogosphere will start applying themselves to how best to provide the conditions for such a potentially rich and popular ongoing, large-scale transformative effort.

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