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Why we founded openDemocracy 20 years ago – and why it worked

At the turn of the millennium, we needed a radical new media outlet that could keep up with a changing world. Now, the world is changing again

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
2 November 2021, 2.40pm
(L-R) David Hayes, Anthony Barnett, Paul Hilder and Susan Richards at an openDemocracy planning meeting in early 2001 - before the publication had its own office.
Fran Ware

I have been centrally involved in three attempts to create a new – or in one case, renewed – media for the Left in London. Two failed and one succeeded.

In 1971-1972, 7 DAYS was a revolutionary photojournalism weekly that lasted six months (historic months that included the first miners’ strike, Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, Nixon’s trip to China and a massive Vietnamese assault on their American occupiers) before it folded.

In 1986, I pitched for a transformative editorship of the New Statesman. I was supported by a star-studded team, and proposed a new format. Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour Party, was involved in preventing this.

In 2000 I initiated a planning process that led to a group of us launching openDemocracy – now renewing itself after 20 years.

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Comparison suggests the right conjuncture of circumstances matters hugely in terms of survival, starting with the culture and organisation of the Left, the overall state of politics and the changing pressures and vitality of capitalism.

7 DAYS was an expression of the revolutionary New Left of the English ‘1968’. It was sweeping and international in its interests, brilliant in its photojournalism, pioneering in its confrontation with mental health issues, strongly anti-racist and the first Leftist venture to formally ally and work with the new wave of feminism.

A short account of its origins by Madeleine Davis has just been published by the British Library and there is an excellent overview by Rosalind Delmar, who was its production manager, to introduce the recently digitised archive. 7 DAYS was collectivist and non-sectarian in spirit, as Davis notes: “If the paper’s radical socialist credentials were not in doubt, it differed from other Left organs in having no party allegiance nor editorial sermonising, nor even an editor in chief.” It was also ambitious for a wide public readership, its announcement boasting: “It will look good, it will read well, and it will explode onto a market that has never been touched before”.

It didn’t. Or rather, it was explosive but the market for it was not there. Not only did the new paper have no funding, there was no movement of support for it. In the early 1970s the Left was still enamoured with Trotskyist sects, whose strategic futility took a decade to wear itself out. The larger public had yet to stir, as I try to describe in the British Library discussion of 7 DAYS. 

The one that got away

In the mid-1980s I’d been writing the ‘Islander’ diary for the New Statesman. When it advertised for a new editor I organised a bid to take over the then-declining flagship of Labourism. With a team of supporters including Francis Wheen (who was on the staff), John Berger, Marina Warner, the up-and-coming Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, Joan Smith, James Curran and others, we were a cultural equivalent of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, which had just been abolished by Margaret Thatcher. My application argued that “new municipal socialism” demonstrated that a “political and cultural alliance” could support a viable weekly.

We created a dummy (which you can see here) based on the layout of the left-wing French newspaper Libération. To no avail. John Lloyd, then a journalist with the Financial Times, was appointed with the collaboration of Neil Kinnock, then the leader of the Labour Party, as Lloyd himself later recounted in Prospect. He had the honesty to add: “I made a muck of the magazine ... it might have been better with Barnett.” At the time I was incensed. To purge the experience I wrote a private account for my supporters, generously republished by Jason Cowley on the Statesman’s website on the occasion of its 2013 centenary.

Here is the dummy front page of the radical weekly that was never to exist:

Dummy cover of Liberation-style New Statesman from Anthony Barnett's bid for the editorship
What might have been
Anthony Barnett

Going global

Fast forward to the Tony Blair government just over a decade later and New Labour’s embrace of neoliberal politics. It was the zenith of market fundamentalism. The US was supreme. Soviet Communism had imploded. The unionised proletariat was decimated. China was about to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Eastern European countries were being integrated into the EU and the euro was on its way.

Official politics was stifling, as the ‘Third Way’ sought to replace Left and Right. Rather than accept asphyxiation, in the year of the new millennium a group of us began to plan openDemocracy.

There were two international developments that helped inspire us. The World Wide Web was coming into being (Google had just been created), and an ‘alter-globalisation’ protest movement was stirring.

We made three calls. First, we saw that the internet and the web had annihilated traditional start-up costs associated with print magazines and could be used to create an entirely new publication based in cyberspace.

Second, we recognised that there were both huge problems and potential for democracy, as a consequence of ‘globalisation’, which needed real debate. Five years later, in a now infamous passage in his speech to the 2005 Labour Party Conference, Blair told his party, “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” Well, we did debate it, including, for example, interviews with Peter Sutherland, who created the WTO, in 2001 and 2004 and the environmental campaigner and journalist George Monbiot in 2001 and 2003. There was a magnificent exchange in 2002 on ‘Globalisation: the argument of our time’ between two eminent professors, Paul Hirst and David Held.

Third, to resist the crushing depoliticisation of the era, we consciously opened up a democratic space for debate, integrity and imagination without a preconceived line. We declared our project to be educational, not Leftist. We wanted a meeting point for exploration. I’d argue this was more radical, certainly at the time, than any affiliation to a singular notion of socialism.

The dream readers

It also reflected the general collapse of democratic self-belief. Young radicals embraced the energies and promise of the marketplace – it was generation neoliberal. In the business plans we drew up, we understood that every magazine or publication needs a community of interest, a loose gathering of people who feel their values or interests finds a home in it, if it is to be viable. We asserted that around the world there were thousands of people working in NGOs, official UN-type international organisations, university departments concerned with development, human rights organisations and so on, who needed a place to read together. Perhaps 10% of The Economist’s million-plus readers would surely recognise a need to debate the transformations they were engaged in.

This proved not to be the case and still isn’t. In his history of openDemocracy’s first decade and in his other writing, James Curran observed the ongoing domination of national media. It is not that we projected the end of national politics and its replacement by the international marketplace. That was the neoliberal vision we opposed. But we did think there would be a consciously global readership, wanting to exchange experience. This certainly exists at the level of world financial institutions, but even today international activities have no democratic expression.

As someone involved with editing its media section when it launched, Curran was confident that openDemocracy would have failed and gone bust, had it not been for 9/11. Adam Ramsay describes in his overview of the website’s 20 years how, three months after it launched, openDemocracy was born out of the ashes of the World Trade Center. In response to the outrage, we went daily and became a genuine global forum.

We never developed the global readership on the scale we sought. But we did uncover a global ‘writership’. Many wanted to offer their voice and views to a curated, shared space. Too few read what others wrote, so the space did not accumulate wisdom and experience in the way a network might. Nonetheless, the early openDemocracy became an oasis in the desert of neoliberalism. In turn, the gift of content from writers provided the substance that justified grants and funders, attracted to the website’s educational purpose.

The new challenge

That was then, what about now? I’ll curtly assert here three arguments I develop in my book ‘Taking Control!’, which Repeater will publish early next year.

First, the 1960s took the West’s ruling establishment by surprise. Not because of calls for revolution, which they could defeat, but because the newly mass-educated consumers demonstrated the potential capacity to govern themselves and thus make their paternalistic authority redundant.

Second, since then, the history of the West can be written as an account of how our rulers sought to make people believe self-government is impossible, above all by generating political fatalism.

Third, Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Brexit) blew the whistle on electoral fatalism in the aftermath of the financial crash and America’s military-strategic defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current threat of right-wing, authoritarian populism stems from the fact that they revived democracy before the traditional Left did so.

In this new situation, with cyberspace richly developed in terms of audiovisual capacities and mobile devices compared to 20 years ago, the challenge for radical media is quite different.

For openDemocracy there is much less need to expand intellectual and cultural space as there is so much of it elsewhere. The closure we fought has been replaced by its opposite, a corrosive noise. There is a greater need for focus and investigation, as the dishonesty of the capitalist order becomes more pressing and racist. The nature of globalisation requires not debate but answers as to how to replace its market-dominated priorities, especially in terms of preventing climate catastrophe.

Nor, in our tumultuous times, does openDemocracy find itself alone any longer. Just to look at England, where there are striking developments on the Left in the digital space. To name just three: Novara Media, a product of the post-crash ‘generation Left’ that was boosted by Corbynism; Tribune, revived after being acquired by the US Jacobin; and the individual multimedia commentator Owen Jones.

There is also an emerging ‘radical centre’ that is reviving print. The weekly New European is a newspaper, initially published in protest against Brexit, now independently capitalised. Its front half is an attempt to apply cardiopulmonary resuscitation to New Labour and has little that is original. Its back half, however, is superb: a wonderful, genuinely open-minded, European space, combining English tabloid energy and self-confidence to music, books, art and history without snobbery or pretence that is always fresh and surprising.

Most interesting for me, as it has become a second home, is the creation of Byline Times, a website, TV channel and monthly newspaper with over 18,000 subscribers. It seems that its editors decided they could no longer bear the corruptions, insularity and bigotry of British public life and, in the absence of any effective opposition, decided to expose what was taking place. The result is a creative alliance stretching from its traditional conservative diarist, Peter Oborne, to its young editor Hardeep Matharu. Byline Times stands for honest politics in profoundly dishonest times – even if it is still seeking a full, cultural expression of this.

There is right-wing radicalism too, and it has struck a theme of ‘scientific’ anti-science and ‘anti-elite’ scepticism that masquerades as truthfulness while celebrating individualism. A clever expression is Toby Young’s Daily Sceptic, which collates stories that reinforce its prejudiced perspective from across the media.

A short history of Left radicalism

Looking back, one can see that at the start of the 1970s, the ruling culture on the Left was overwhelmingly Labour and didn’t take the radicalism of the 1960s seriously, confident that it could stamp it out. Brushing aside its early expression in Tony Benn’s call for democracy, Labour’s leading intellectual Tony Crosland dismissed “participation” and “liberation”. Instead, he declared, the British people, “prefer to lead a full family life and cultivate their gardens. And the good thing too ... we do not necessarily want a busy bustling society in which everyone is politically active.”

By the mid-1980s such complacency had been shattered by the rise of Thatcherism. Yet any alliance with radicalism was regarded as a danger, as Labour swung from its complacent contempt for 1960s radicalism to paranoia. It was only in the 1990s, first with John Smith, who was a radical Scottish European who committed Labour to human rights in his Charter 88 lecture, and then with Blair and Gordon Brown, that the party had leaders who separated it from traditional parliamentary Labourism. With Blair, however, it shifted to a right-wing embrace of market globalisation.

Yet there was something positive about this too, an urge to leave behind the drift and deference of ‘old’ Labour and to be effective. A radical culture of modernisation was reinforced by the immense technological transformation of the media space with digitisation, which is still under way. For sure, had those of us who founded openDemocracy limited ourselves to being a radical voice in the UK, we’d have got nowhere. Blairism closed down all domestic opposition. By going global we found an escape route to survival. The crucial funding came from New York for coverage of world issues, especially after 9/11 and the insanity of the ‘war on terror’.

The fightback

Today, a different conjuncture calls for a different kind of independent media. Since Trump’s election the danger of neo-fascist authoritarianism has become a real threat. The only way to defend the principles of democracy – not least open debate, the preservation of a capacity for doubt, the amicable exchange of views between those with differences, the need for pluralism as essential to learning – is to counter-attack.

I’m hugely impressed by the effectiveness and impact of the new openDemocracy’s coverage in this respect, using investigative journalism as a method to not only expose abuses of power but to provoke action to remedy them. The journalist behind much of that success, Peter Geoghegan, is now editor-in-chief, succeeding the extraordinary Mary Fitzgerald.

Within the UK openDemocracy has exposed the government’s contempt for truth, with journalist Jenna Corderoy giving evidence only last week to a parliamentary inquiry into Freedom of Information inspired by her own work; it has forced the government to come clean about its deals to share our medical data with a US spy tech company; it compelled the release of the ‘research’ conducted at public expense for the hard Brexiteer MPs of the European Research Group; and it provoked the government to end the right of donors to Northern Ireland’s political parties to remain anonymous.

In addition, in a way that I believe will prove decisive for its future, openDemocracy has also taken the fight to international networks of money and power. In the first instance, those fuelling the backlash against women’s and LGBTQ rights, revealing astonishing international schemes of abortion disinformation targeted at vulnerable pregnant women.

Add to that radical economic analysis, a focus on issues and regions that fall off everyone else’s agenda, and a commitment to publishing the voices of the powerless. The spirit of effective resistance which inspired openDemocracy’s birth is now taking more far-reaching forms.

Anthony Barnett’s ‘Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic’, will be published in early 2022 by Repeater Books

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