Which Plurality? A response to Rosemary's response...

Jeremy Gilbert
5 August 2009

An OurKingdom conversation [History: Jeremy Gilbert > Rosemary Bechler > this post > Rosemary Bechler (part one; part two) > Jeremy Gilbert]

Rosemary Bechler has written a wonderfully thought-provoking and typically erudite response to my two recent contributions. No doubt her very valuable and well-made arguments and observations would have stood up perfectly well without any reference to mine at all, so I am very flattered that she has chosen to present them as an engagement with my pieces.

However, I also think that Rosemary, in the process of making her own, highly persuasive case, represents my position in terms which I don't quite recognise as my own. It's clear that in several places Rosemary has rightly picked up on some points on which I was not clear or simply confused. So in the interests of further clarity I am going to offer three responses to Rosemary’s remarks about my contributions.

1: The Politics of Pluralism

Rosemary seems to read me merely as a critic of ‘plurality’. I think she overlooks here my references to Hardt & Negri and Laclau & Mouffe, who, as I try to explain, all regard the pluralisation of postmodern culture as a democratic opportunity, as do I; but my treatment of these arguments was worse than cursory, so Rosemary is hardly to be blamed for overlooking it.

Instead of noting or querying these references, Rosemary does make rather a lot of a single passage in my postmodernity essay in which I claim that ‘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 seems to have confused and upset a lot of readers, judging from responses that I’ve had, and I accept that it was the point in the essay at which a very complicated position was most over-condensed into a confused and confusing sentence, so I’m going to try to unpack here what I meant there.Hopefully this will help to sort out exactly where Rosemary and I disagree and exactly where I’ve simply failed to explain myself.

My point here was not that forms of collective agency are impossible or undesirable in the postmodern context.

Nor was it that plurality is a bad thing.

My point was simply this: that unlocking the real potential inherent in - for example - the internet as a site of collective deliberation, would require far more radical institutional changes than are generally envisaged by UK reformers.

My point was not at all anti-pluralist. My point was that the multiple and often very fluid forms of collectivity which postmodernity makes possible could only achieve some kind of progressive political efficacy in the context of very different kinds of institution to those currently envisaged by most democratic reformers in the UK. Merely increasing the number of political parties represented in parliament might itself be a good thing (I have no doubt that it would), but it would not come anywhere close to enabling the forms of complex deliberation and participation which a real 21st century democracy would require.

So my whole point here was that the established institutions of representative democracy are not capable of enabling the type of virtual, networked collectivities which Rosemary celebrates to actualise their potential at the level of effective interventions in the material world; and that merely introducing reforms such as PR to a system like the UK’s would not be a sufficient innovation to make those institutions capable of doing that.

In order to make effective the kinds of political potential which Rosemary discerns in the ‘wealth of networks’, I believe we would need a real movement for effective participatory democracy which would enable forms of political deliberation and contestation not limited by the 20st century model of party politics, but not reducible to an individualisation or further professionalisation of politics.

What this would mean in practice I cannot claim to know (although Rosemary makes some good suggestions which I would heartily endorse, and I did make some at the end of the postmodernity essay), but it would need to involve processes which would allow two different but complementary kinds of thing to happen.

On the one hand, it would have to allow our political institutions to become properly and effectively responsive to the kinds of often very temporary collectivity which can now emerge in the networked world, as ideas, identities and campaigns emerge, coalesce and disperse in a matter of months (e.g. in opposition to some egregious military adventure by a major power).

On the other hand, it would also have to enable sustained and long-term collectivities to emerge which were capable of pursuing entire, coherent economic and political agendas not entirely dictated by corporate interests. Merely celebrating ‘plurality’ as an inherent good overlooks this crucial aspect of democracy. If majorities can never be formed and can never be made to cohere around specific agendas, then there can be no democracy, and political institutions can never have the legitimacy or force with which to take on the agendas of great commercial institutions. This, frankly, is the part of my argument with Rosemary simply ignores. Plurality is certainly a good thing. But plurality in and of itself is not enough to make it possible for alternative agendas to emerge and effectuate themselves in the face of neoliberal hegemony.

It certainly would be fair to say that at the level of party politics in the UK, the ‘lack of pluralism’ is a problem, in that a wide range of political views is not routinely heard. However, I would argue that this is not fundamentally a consequence of the lack of pluralism in our wider culture. Rather, it is a consequence of the hegemony of (neo)liberalism. One of the key factors ensuring the continuation of this hegemony is the the failure and inability of a vast and very plural range of agencies, constituencies and actors to stabilise an alternative agenda on the basis of their common antagonism towards neoliberalism.

It is certainly true that neoliberalism generates a political and cultural monoculture of sorts, which true pluralists must oppose. But opposing it merely by asserting the value of plurality over uniformity is not enough. It must be possible, if only contingently, to stabilise coherent common agendas amongst a range of other actors and constituencies, if the hegemony of that monoculture is itself ever to be broken.

Perhaps we come here to a fundamental disagreement between myself and Rosemary. From my perspective, politics is not only about deliberation and opinions: it is is also about power. We can have the most networked and deliberative public sphere imaginable, but without forms of democratic political organisation which can co-ordinate the actions of large numbers of people around singular goals - which is exactly what global corporations do every day, as they mobilise the actions and desires of their workers and customers - then it is those same corporations who will actually decide what happens and gets done in the world, no matter what gets said in the deliberative public sphere. I’m not clear whether Rosemary would agree with this or not.

2: Pluralisation vs. Individualisation

Rosemary, in my view, mistakenly conflates pluralisation with individualisation. I would say that they are not the same thing at all. From my perspective, pluralisation is a progressive force when it enables multiple collectivities to emerge, co-exist and (at times) contest each other. Individualisation, on the other hand, is a process which tends to make it difficult for unique persons to conceive of themselves as belonging to any kind of collectivity at all.

I think that there’s an absolute difference between a pluralism which enables me to think of myself as belonging to multiple overlapping collectivities, and an individualism which tends to make it impossible for me to imagine myself as belonging to any kind of collectivity whatsoever.

From this perspective, individualisation is not a progressive force, and it has never been a driver for democracy in any meaningful sense of the term: I would challenge anyone to offer a historical example of individualisation furthering a process of democratisation as opposed to a process of liberalisation. These two things are not necessarily contradictory, but they are clearly distinct and different, because liberalisation tends to strengthen individuals at the expense of collectivities while democracy tends to strengthen collectivities at the expense of individuals.

In fact, I would argue that when we find ourselves in a situation in which the only form of pluralisation that can be imagined is one which operates through individualisation, then we are in a situation in which the hegemony of liberal individualism is absolute, and there can be no democratic progress, because there can be no faith in the power of collectivities (however plural, contingent, overlapping and multiple) to act as collectivities. My worry about Rosemary’s argument is that it risks falling into precisely this trap.

This may just be a fundamental philosophical difference between us. See for example, Cruddas & Rutherford’s recent critique of Richard Reeves’ ‘liberal republicanism’ in the latest issues of Soundings (opens as pdf).Clearly I’m with Cruddas and Rutherford; the logic of Rosemary’s position is to put her on Reeve’s side. Fair enough.

Incidentally, I’m currently working on a book for Pluto which will engage with these issues of democracy, collectivity and individualism in much greater detail, so I’m very grateful to Rosemary for challenging me into thinking about it in this way. I'm not sure how much further I could go in delineating my own pro-pluralist, libertarian anti-individualism without simply writing the entire text of the book on this blog...but this is very useful!

3: A successful formula?

I do think that Rosemary rather mischaracterises my most recent essay and its intentions both by claiming that I was I was ‘looking for a successful formula, and at the same time...adding up the candidates to see whether they amount to a convincing force for change’ and by accusing me of ignoring ‘the networked public sphere’ as such a potential force.

I don’t think I ever claimed to be surveying the entire current scene and enumerating ever possible progressive force, or that I was looking for a formula. All I was trying to do in that article was discuss the relative valencies of some very specific British constituencies with regard to the objectives of the ‘Real Change’ campaign. Rosemary, on the other hand, is identifying a very broad set of potentials inherent in the current historical epoch, which she doesn’t actually tie explicitly to any such specific constituencies or agencies.I don't mean to say that that's a bad thing to do by any means - but it's a different order of analysis.

In case anyone is interested - not that they should be - I have actually undertaken a survey rather more like the one which Rosemary seems to think I was, or should have been, attempting in that article, in a chapter of my recent book (Anticapitalism and Culture, chapter 6). There I identified 3 widely-distributed elements of contemporary culture which could arguably be seen as containing radical democratic potential: cosmopolitanism, the participatory culture engendered by web 2.0, and environmentalism. But this is really a different order of analysis to the one that I was attempting in my recent piece on ‘Real Change’, which was concerned with much more concrete examples of actually existing groups and institutions (of which, as I say, Rosemary offers no examples of her own…).

Well that’s all. I’m not that clear if there are any real disagreements between myself and Rosemary, as I didn’t find myself disagreeing with anything she said apart from in her characterisation of my arguments!

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