The Politics of Liberty in the Age of ‘Liquid Democracy’

23 March 2009

"It wasn’t, I realised after all, that the world had run out of ideas. It was simply that the world had forgotten how good ideas were created in the first place."

Gordon Torr, Managing Creative People (1)

The world has been turned upside down. Assumptions long held as unquestioned beliefs are now looking threadbare, while increasingly across the globe politicians and government act and think in contradictory ways, clinging to the wreckage of the neo-liberal era, while behaving in ways which bring it into question.

In the UK, the ferment that was brewing at the margins of mainstream politics has gained increasing voice, energy and attention. This can be seen across the board from the interest in ‘red Toryism', to the work of Compass in the Labour party, to the recent gathering of the Convention on Modern Liberty, to the preparations to greet the G20 summit on the streets, to numerous other campaigns and initiatives.

This essay attempts to survey the terrain that such groups now find themselves in, and explore issues and wider ideas they should nurture and nourish (2). While it particularly focuses on the centre-left, it is written in the hope that it has relevance to anyone who is concerned at the state of democracy and liberty in Britain and internationally. In a small way, I hope this piece can contribute to a genuine and open debate about what all of us as citizens can do about the state of our politics.

The Turning Points of British Politics: 1940, 1976 and 2009?

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst. He is author and editor of twelve books on Scottish and UK politics including The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas, After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade along with two studies of how we imagine the future: Scotland 2020 and The Dreaming City: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination. He can be contacted at: gerry.hassan [at] virgin.net

From the establishment of mass democracy in the early 20th century sea changes in British politics have never occurred at the same time as a general election or as a direct result of one. People talk incessantly in short hand of the importance of '45 and '79, yet the actual respective turning points were firstly 1940 and 1976. 1940 saw the establishment of the National Coalition with Churchill becoming Prime Minister, Labour entering office and the emergence of a mobilising, radicalising ‘people's war'; 1976 witnessed the death knell of a Labour Government crucified on the alter of the IMF which openly abandoned many of the tenets of the post-war consensus and embraced monetarism.

In both cases the subsequent election legitimised a shift that had already taken place, and did not offer the prospect of any potential challenge to it -in effect all the main political parties subscribed to the emerging new order.

Today we are in a similar situation at least in terms of a watershed in attitudes, values and mores. 2009 has seen the demise of the neo-liberal consensus. And yet this is only a part sea change compared to 1940 and 1976, for a coherent counter narrative has yet to emerge. We can all see that the older order is broken. But the forthcoming general election shows no prospect of the parties seeking to bury neo-liberalism; rather, they all seem to want to put it back together again.

‘The Movement You Make'

In the last thirty years in British, as well as global, politics a number of forces have emerged which have shown the potential for new progressive movements. First, there has been the success of the green and feminist movements, which tapped into new identities, reflected a shift in consciousness, and posed serious challenges to the existing political order including the left. In Britain and elsewhere, these movements have taken the shape not of traditional parties and hierarchies, but a rich ecology of groups and activities ranging from traditional politics to NGOs and single-issue groups and local activities. Second, in the UK there was the rise of a politics associated with constitutional reform, democracy and remaking politics, centred on Charter 88 in London and more important, the development of successful campaigns for parliaments in Scotland and Wales..

There are commonalities and differences between these two groups. First, although both used the rhetoric of ‘movements' neither group was one in the traditional sense. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Charter 88 were all organisations with a professional elite leadership and a loose network of supporters. Charter 88 was in Mark Evan's words characterised by ‘democratic elitism' (3).

Second, these movements sat within the progressive grain of the non and even post-labourist political classes and opinion in opposition to not only Thatcherism but also much of what passed for conventional wisdom on the left.

However, there was a profound difference between the green and feminist perspectives in that, while both have a gap between the rhetoric and reality of ‘movement', sitting alongside these professional, authoritative and undemocratic voices, was a sense of a fluid, diverse community of interests which sustained itself over many years, part being incorporated, part remaining outsider. The green movement continuum runs from Jonathan Porritt, arch-insider, to the direct action of Plane Stupid. It is this kind of ecology and energy of politics in practice and organisation that supporters of democracy and liberty need to explore and develop.

The Shape We Are In

The state of politics in the UK and globally is much more serious than thirty years ago. While there have been causes for celebration in the end of apartheid and collapse of Stalinism, we are now witnessing the effect of thirty years of neo-liberalism and remorseless marketisation on the planet. In the UK we have seen our political system, political classes and large parts of our public life gripped by business and corporate logic.

The nature of our political classes has become narrower with more women and ethnic minorities disguising the increasing professionalisation of a closed cadre. This is intertwined with the rise of managerialism and consultancy class thinking. These two phenomena are comprehensively linked. Once our political class had as its nurseries independent institutions such as trade unions, local government and small businesses, that gave people a grounding, experience and perspective. Today the incubation zones of our political classes have become frighteningly narrow. Consultancy, management advice and corporate relations have become one of the major routes in all the main parties into politics(4).

Take as an example Liam Byrne, Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill since 2004 and currently Minister for the Cabinet Office. Byrne has worked for merchant bankers NM Rothschild and consultants Accenture, was author of the Fabian Society pamphlet ‘Information Age Government' (5) and became a minister within nine months of becoming an MP (6). What principles and values does Liam Byrne have which mean he should be a Labour politician? His social constituency and ethos are that of the management consultant class.

This is related to the rise of the think tank industry. The explosion of think tanks in the UK is a relatively recent occurrence directly connected to the rise of a corporate politics with its self-interested agenda of eroding the public sector Pre-crash none of the major UK think tanks were engaged in significant work on the big issues of political economy, how our economy and society works and addressing the over-reaching influence of corporate power, finance and the City.

There have been exceptions, such as the New Economics Foundation (nef), some of the work of IPPR and Demos, and Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, but more often than not they seem to have been happy playing the mood music back to politicians they wanted to hear about ‘localism', or engaging in fluff, fuzzy thinking or what were branding exercises such as ‘Britain TM' or twittering about ‘creativity' (7).

A good example of the damage a think tank can do is the New Local Government Network set up in 1996 whose aim is ‘to transform public services', ‘empower local communities' and encourage the spread of ‘new localism' (8). The NLGN with its lofty aspirations and concern for governance led by former minister Chris Leslie and academic chair Gerry Stoker has become a leading advocate of contracting out and privatising local services. Behind the rhetoric of partnership its partners are heavily skewed towards the corporate sector with five public and 23 corporate partners including a range of consultancy firms.

These two factors reinforce the emergence of the British state as a neo-liberal state whereby politicians, government and public agencies have been agents and instruments for advancing marketisation and business interests (9). This has profoundly changed the way the British state thinks and acts, and the way politics and policy development occur.

A whole new way of politics and business has arisen illustrated in the work of Serco, one of many multi-national business advice organisations, which began life as an offshoot from RCA running services to British cinemas from 1929 (10). Serco claim insight and in-depth expertise across a breathtaking range of areas: running private prisons, IT systems for government, and even the British nuclear deterrent. Since 2000 they have managed the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in a 25-year joint venture with Lockheed Martin and BNFL to make the nuclear warheads. Their website proudly boasts: ‘Uniquely among the nuclear powers, AWE covers the whole life cycle of nuclear warheads in a single establishment: design, manufacture and assembly, in-service support and decommissioning and disposal' (11).

This is the state of the British state; with the methods of incarceration and mass annihilation privatised; curiously as a footnote Serco overstates its technical role of ‘design' given the Trident warheads are made in the United States!

They are also involved in the whole ‘Transformational Government' programme which proposes to create a single network of government services. This will be a UK wide service and would be a powerful part of the database state, providing an over-arching network which links Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into the centre.

The Limits and Weaknesses of ‘the Official Future'

There was always a paradox at the heart of neo-liberalism the sum of the way governments, corporates and elites present the world and its ‘official future'. Even at the seeming zenith of the ‘official future', when it seemed all pervasive, persuasive and impervious to criticism, it was actually much less omnipotent than it appeared. And this was because although it seemed to be everywhere and monopolise orthodoxy, its true believers and adherents were in fact few and far between. Almost everyone else were fellow travellers, or apologists, or felt they had to go along with it.

Many cases illustrate this. For instance, as Chris Mullin portrays in his recent ministerial diaries, air traffic control privatisation was supported in the Labour Government by only Gordon Brown and John Prescott; Tony Blair was completely agnostic and over half the Parliamentary Labour Party publicly resistant (12). It became government policy and legislation. The same is true of Royal Mail part-privatisation currently being pushed through by Peter Mandelson under the most disingenuous reasoning. Probably the only true believers in this are Mandelson and Brown, and yet, it will become law and take place.

Why this is allowed to happen in case after case is a complex story. In part, there is the nature of the British imperial state which allows the executive to dominate the legislature, and thus allows ministers to treat public opinion with contempt. Traditionally, this was accompanied by a strong informal respect for checks and balances such as genuine Cabinet debate or the need to balance entrenched party interests. Today, New Labour have created a politics of positioning and outmanoeuvring the Tories led by a media operation and very narrow support for what is seen as corporate power usually expressed by Rupert Murdoch and his papers.

The state becomes an active agent for privatisation and Anglo-American capitalism. Clare Short, the epitome of a left-leaning Labour minister at International Development, openly presided over a programme of supporting water and other essential services being privatised across Africa (13).

‘The Good Life' Ain't Nothing But A Tony Bennett Song

Post-crash we can already see what look like green shoots of hope everywhere breaking out, yet there is something missing. This can be seen in Neal Lawson and John Harris's piece in the New Statesman and resulting ten point plan against market fundamentalism (14). Many of the right things are in place: PR, localism and economic and social justice, but somehow it just doesn't add up. What is missing is a wider sense of how we achieve it in other words issues of philosophy and movement.

After social democracy's collusion with neo-liberalism what can we believe in? Indeed, who are the ‘we' we are talking about? Lawson and Harris talk of ‘a good society' while others talk of ‘the good life' and the supposedly higher-level ‘meaningful life' of ‘positive psychologist' Martin Seligman (15). Richard Layard invoked the concept of ‘the common good', while Richard Wilkinson in his comprehensive account of the cost of inequality concludes lamely talking of ‘a better society' (16).

Not only are these vague concepts, they are fundamentally flawed. There should be no singular idea of ‘a good life' or ‘good society', argues Michael Walzer, only a plurality of lives and societies (17); a singular vision is the route to totalitarianism. However, this plurality allows it to be an empty vessel to contain a range of wish-lists, ranging from Compass's detailed policy programme on tackling wealth, inequality and the limits of growth, to the frankly value-free insights of an internationally acclaimed psychologist such as Seligman, whose ‘good' and ‘meaningful life' could fit into any context from the Third Reich to social democratic Sweden.

The Age and Challenge of ‘Liquid Democracy'

Drawing on Zygmunt Bauman's description of how a new, more fluid, fragmented, hyper-individualised ‘liquid modernity' has replaced the solid modernity of previous times (18), I suggest we adapt accordingly and nurture our practice and ideas to the requirements of what I have called ‘liquid democracy'.

What would ‘liquid democratic' organisations look like? They would:

  • Have a sense of inhabiting spaces which both engage with the system, while not being wholly part of it;
  • Be at least part-outsider: engaging in a politics of direct action, fun and imagination, as well as serious, insider-orientated politics;
  • Use new technologies and older senses of belonging and gathering to develop collective identities and democratic voice;
  • In many cases be localist or defined by the importance of the local
    which goes beyond Westminster window dressing to embrace the idea of
  • Oppose the reach of big business - refusing to take or be dominated by corporate sponsorship.

There are already lots of examples of initiatives which fit these characteristics. There is the example of London Citizens, which grew out of The East London Community Organisation (TELCO). It took a stand for a living wage and local employment vis-a-via the London Olympic bid. London Citizens does not take public or corporate monies and includes a wide array of local groups and members ranging from faith based people to trade unionists; it has found many of its most successful local campaigns have come up against the centralist nature of decision making in Britain (19).

Another was the time-limited Glasgow 2020 project which I was involved in leading which created across the city of Glasgow a set of public spaces which in their conversations involved thousands of citizens amounting to nearly one percent of the city reimagining and democratising the future. The project was a first in the UK and worldwide in doing this through the stories people tell and create  (20).

There are also lessons to be learnt from the success of MoveOn and Daily Kos in the US which took back the Democratic Party pre-Obama from the pro-corporate Clinton leadership of groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council, who many party activists had grown angry and dismayed at due to their constant appropriation of a right-wing Republican agenda (21). All of this laid the ground for Obama achieving the nomination by changing the party and ultimately winning the Presidency. There are still many questions about the sustainability and radical potential for these new constituencies, but they have made an impact at the level of the Democratic Party and changed American politics. What would it entail to conceive how it might be possible to take back the Labour Party from the corporate capture which it sits within?

How can we challenge an entire political class who have comprehensively bought into the neo-liberal order? Compass and ‘red Toryism' may diagnose some of the correct problems and solutions, but they are not going to convince the Labour and Conservative leaderships to change. The Lib Dems have a much more radical grass roots willing change, yet their parliamentary leadership seems as much part of ‘the club' as the other parties. Vincent Cable may have been prescient in predicting the economic crisis, but across the wider terrain the Lib Dems illustrate that there is a systematic chasm between the Westminster political classes and those outside ‘the village'.

Can we build a model for progressive movements which reflects the age and spirit of ‘liquid democracy'? This will not involve supplanting political parties, but developing different methods of organising and doing politics to that of the traditional parties, pressure groups and think tanks which have fallen into playing the game of the neo-liberal state.

This search for new forms is going to involve new forms of meaning. After socialism, ‘social democracy', ‘progressive politics', ‘centre left' and ‘left' have all become hollowed out and imprecise in what they actually mean. This search requires us to find a new narrative and anchor for ‘liquid democratic' times which works back from the values of a world we want to live in.

If we look at the right-wing opposition across the globe and their journey through post-war times they went through several different incantations: from laissez-faire capitalism to monetarism to eventually, neo-liberalism, reflecting their evolution and development. Similarly, those of us on the left need to concentrate on working out what our values and principles are first and then and only then ‘name' the ‘overall project'.

Where we start from is the dilution and entropy of British and Western democracies and the fundamental imbalance between how we conduct our politics, public affairs and everyday lives, and corporate power. This has returned us to a politics with eerie similarities to the 18th and 19th centuries with a closed political elite and increasingly ‘court' politics from Berlusconi to Brown to Sarkozy. Faced with this environment, we will require a politics in the UK and internationally which goes back to re-establishing and reimaging the principles of democracy, justice and liberty.

This is the terrain that the Convention on Modern Liberty should situate itself on, building the widest possible constituency and a politics and practice which is ‘liquid democratic'. The Convention showed ‘a glimpse of the civic spirit' that is ‘neither obsessed with the market nor with a supposed war on terror' (22). It has created a space, goodwill and momentum for creating something significant, but an open, generous debate will be needed to even begin the next stage of such an initiative.

Can the traditional pressure groups in this area join in to act in a way which sees the urgent need for the bigger picture? If we are to succeed we will have to be bold and challenge some of the assumptions many of us hold about our ideas of change and pet projects. Can we move beyond the ‘national conversation' Brown promised the UK, to a country-wide ‘imagination' of our society and its future? Can we recognise that we do not need another Constitutional Convention made up of professional and political elites as Scotland's was, but a People's Convention which breaks new ground? And can we move beyond the demand for a written constitution to the wider goal of transforming our politics, economy and society?

There are grounds for hope and optimism. Despite all the retreats and defeats of the last thirty years, we do not live in a 19th century political world. Instead, we inhabit a political culture which carries within it the history, resources and memories and achievements that have changed the lives of millions of people for the better(23).

This is not a clarion call for ‘back to the future'. It is about being open to learning and unlearning, and the possibilities of new identities and formations rising and falling. The politics of neo-liberalism are in collapse. The British state and its politics have become a leviathan: 60 welfare ‘reform' bills since 1997, 37 criminal justice acts, 3,000 ‘new' criminal offences created alongside the database state. It has privatised prisons and nuclear weapons and become a caricature beyond Tom Nairn's most piercing rhetoric; it has become a state with many similarities to pre-democratic times with much more power and reach in its hands.

The struggle for liberty is going to be both British and global one. Part of our values will come from Marquand's ‘democratic republicanism', part from Crouch's ‘egalitarian democracy', part from a democratic centre-right, but it will also need new voices and philosophies (24). We will have to have confidence and daring along with a sense of urgency, because out of the wreckage and carnage of the neo-liberal disaster, all sorts of forces could be born, some positive, some dark and ugly playing to the forces of racism and xenophobia. A new age and world is coming which requires a new politics and idea of liberty.


1. Gordon Torr, Managing Creative People: Lessons in Leadership for the Ideas Economy, John Wiley and Sons 2008, p. 9.

2. This essay has been hugely influenced by two books which are brilliant and original explorations of the times and predicaments we live in: Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Polity Press 2004; Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Polity Press 2000.

3. Mark Evans, Charter 88: A Successful Challenge to the British Political Tradition?, Dartmouth 1995, p. 147.

4. Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Classes, Simon and Schuster 2007.

5. Liam Byrne, Information Age Government: Delivering the Blair Government, Fabian Society 1997.

6. http://www.liambyrne.co.uk/

7. Gerry Hassan, ‘The Limits of the ‘Think-Tank' Revolution, Open Democracy, August 2008, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/yes/the-limits-of-the-think-tank-revolution

8. http://www.nlgn.org.uk/public/

9. Gerry Hassan and Anthony Barnett, Breaking Out of Britain's Neo-Liberal State, Compass Thinkpiece, January 2009, http://www.compassonline.org.uk/publications/thinkpieces

10. David Osler, Labour Party PLC: New Labour as a Party of Business, Mainstream 2002, p. 137.

11. http://www.serco.com/markets/defence/awe.asp

12. Chris Mullin, A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin, Profile 2009.

13. Clare Short, quoted in Hassan, ‘The Limits of the ‘Think-Tank' Revolution'.

14. Neal Lawson and John Harris, ‘No Turning Back', New Statesman, March 9th 2009.

15. Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment, Nicholas Brealey 2003, p. 260.

16. Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Allen Lane 2005, p. 234;

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better, Allen Lane 2009, p. 264.

17. Michael Walzer, ‘What is ‘The Good Society'?', Dissent, Winter 2009, pp. 74-78.

18. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity.

19. http://www.londoncitizens.org.uk/ And see: Catherine Howarth and Lina Jamoul, ‘London Citizens: Practising Citizenship, Rebuilding Democracy', Renewal: A Journal of Labour Politics, Vol. 12 No. 3, 2004, 40-50.

20. Gerry Hassan, Melissa Mean and Charlie Tims, The Dreaming City: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination, Demos 2007.

21. http://www.dailykos.com/; http://www.move-on.org/ See also: Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, Chelsea Green Publishing 2006.

22. Tony Curzon Price, ‘Modern Legitimacy', Open Democracy, March 2009, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article.email/modern-legitimacy

23. Goran Therborn, From Marxism to Post-Marxism?, Verso 2008, pp. 179-180.

24. David Marquand, Britain since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2008; Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy.


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