Debating democracy

WILL BROWN examines two welcome contributions to debates on democratic renewal and progressive social change

The need to extend democratic practices within society, beyond the confines of the parliamentary system, has been widely recognised on the political left for some time. However, in a context of rising political apathy and a perceived ‘crisis’ of democracy, the issue is now of concern more broadly as well. Two recent pamphlets represent two considerations on the issue from leading groups on the left.

The first, Dare More Democracy, is written by Neal Lawson, chair of the left of centre group Compass which, as we have reported in previous issues of Democratic Socialist, has been making waves on the left of the Labour Party over the past couple of years.

Lawson’s central thesis is that new Labour has delivered an ‘over-enthusiastic accommodation with neo-liberalism and [a] continuing adherence to the culture and practice of Labourism. At its core new Labour’s goal is enlightened neo-liberalism and the means by which it seeks to achieve it is rooted in the old politics of command and control.’ The result, he argues, is a disempowerment of people as citizens coupled with a celebration of their empowerment as consumers (however unequal or fictitious in reality).

The living dead

However, the social basis for the old Labourist top-down form of politics has disappeared, he claims, as individualism, consumerism and marketisation has spread ever further through society. On this point Lawson echoes the late 1980s Communist Party magazine Marxism Today and its characterisation of ‘new times’, and he cites both Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall in support. Politically it means we are left with the hierarchical, centralised political structures of old Labour yet without the social solidarity, identification and political participation characteristic of previous eras. Indeed, Lawson argues that the Labour Party is reduced to a wreck of its former self – a ‘party of the living dead’ – denuded of political debate and democratic practice and ‘broken by the compromises of being in power on terms dictated by our enemies’.

Centralised, undemocratic political practice is now used by new Labour, he maintains, to accommodate society to the market. Government intervention is used to equip the population to cope with (rather than to challenge) the competitive nature and uncertainties of global capitalism but both democratic practice and more progressive politics are damaged as a result.

The disillusion Lawson feels with new Labour is reflected in Compass’s focus group research which underlies the perspective of this pamphlet. In those groups, voters who had swung to new Labour in 1997 vented their sense of betrayal. In many ways, Lawson appears to have travelled a similar journey. Indeed, Lawson’s view now is that there is a fundamental conflict between markets and democracy: ‘When I started [lobbying activity] around the formative years of new Labour, there was (and still is with some) a sense that we can have it all – markets and democracy, economic efficiency and social justice. My view now is that you can’t. The march of the market denies the space for democracy.’

Democratic renewal

Yet, while the focus group participants could see relatively little alternative other than a hope for leaders who ‘told the truth and did what they said they’d do’, Lawson argues for a programme of democratic revitalisation to combat the market. ‘Democracy,’ Lawson states, ‘has to be about competing visions of the good life and the good society – otherwise elections become merely the replacement of one set of managers, technocrats and administrators with another.’ For the left, the focus of this alternative vision has to be built on a public, collective ethic with which to confront the market.

On the back of this, he puts forward a programme for democratic renewal. The most conventional, and least inspiring, part of this is about ‘saving representative democracy’: a list of familiar constitutional reforms (proportional representation, written constitution, reformed second chamber, stronger select committees, and so on) as well as hints at something more radical (public involvement in legislation and the development of citizenship rights).

More interestingly, he argues for participatory democracy, especially of a deliberative kind: citizens’ juries, national issues forums, participatory budget setting, and deliberative opinion polling. He also includes a somewhat undeveloped case for greater economic democracy, arguing for the use of tax and other incentives to promote mutualisation, co-operatives, pension fund democracy and ‘stakeholder economic governance’.

Socialism, markets and democracy

As such, there is much to be commended and welcomed in this pamphlet. But there are two areas where his argument needs further probing.

One of these relates to the assertion, which is never really backed up by a detailed argument, of a fundamental conflict between the market and democracy: ‘capitalism and democracy do not mix and instead have a zero-sum relationship – more market inevitably means less democracy’. It is true that in one sense deliberate, authoritative public action on the one hand, and the market on the other, represent alternative mechanisms for making decisions in society. Indeed, Lawson does not differ from many others, including right-wing theorists, who share this view of a conflict; they just come to different conclusions about which is preferable. Whereas the right argues that the market offers a far more subtle, responsive and effective mechanism for people to pursue their wants than political systems (of whatever kind) which are always captured by vested interests, Lawson claims that self-management and autonomy can only be realised through collective, democratic means.

However, as Lawson himself hints, it is the way these two are related and, fundamentally, the social and economic context within which both markets and democracy operate, which is the crucial issue. In a context in which massive accumulations of private wealth and power go unchallenged and unreformed, neither markets nor democracy, nor any mix of the two are likely to deliver progressive social(ist) outcomes.

This relates to a second problem – Lawson’s view of social democracy. At times in the pamphlet – in the section calling for greater economic democracy, say, or in stating that capitalism is democracy’s ‘nemesis’ – Lawson comes across as anti-capitalist. However, at other times he appears to be a much more conventional, old-style social democrat. He says that: ‘Social democrats have always recognised the important role of wealth creation and indeed the place for consumerism’, for example; and later that: ‘Market mechanisms do empower people by lowering costs and providing choice and diversity. In many ways markets can and do make our lives better and more rewarding. And in a global economy we do need to compete.’

If one makes a distinction between markets and capitalism, these statements might be acceptable – one might envisage markets operating in a radically different social system to capitalism and fulfilling some of these aims. However, Lawson makes no such distinction and uses the terms market and capitalism interchangeably. For Lawson, it may be that social democracy of the radically democratic model he argues for, equates to something fundamentally different from capitalism. However, he also acknowledges that ‘markets cannot address imbalances in power relationships – they simply allow effective choice within the context of a given power relationship…’. But he doesn’t propose any means of altering this context.

Maybe when he talks about ‘democratisation of the economy’ he means altering the given power relationships in society, but the case is not made explicitly. Nowhere, as far as I can see, are issues of wealth distribution, private ownership and control of the economy, nor the wealth inequalities they create, addressed explicitly.

While Lawson may be right to argue that the left has too often been concerned with the social or socialist side of social democracy, and not the democratic side, there are still important reasons why we need to maintain some of the core claims of the socialist case.

Everyday democracy

Tom Bentley’s pamphlet, Everyday Democracy, starts from a somewhat different position. He shares Lawson’s concern with the declining legitimacy of political institutions and the ‘crisis’ of democracy they claim is the result. However, he is less motivated by the specific problems and challenges this poses for the left. Indeed, despite its origins in the old Communist Party, Demos – the think tank that publishes Bentley’s pamphlet – is resolutely democratic, not social or socialist.

Nevertheless, Bentley shares Lawson’s concern for how ‘liberal democracy combined with market capitalism has reinforced the tendency of individuals to act in ways that reduce our ability to make collective choices.’ In the face of declining faith in party politics across Europe, declining turnout at elections, and a gulf between citizens and their leaders, Bentley argues that democratic choices must be re-connected to ‘people’s direct experience of everyday life and to extend democratic principles to everyday situations and organisations.’ Without this, he maintains, abandoning existing political institutions merely leaves bad politicians in place: ‘we get the politicians we deserve’.

As a result, Bentley is considerably less focussed on changing the central state and parliamentary system than Lawson. The emphasis on, and examples of the ‘everyday’ are a refreshing change from yet more worthy-but-uninspiring discussions of Westminster-focussed constitutional change. Valid though these may be, Bentley is surely right to point out that the problem goes deeper. Even in countries with elaborate PR systems such as Australia, apathy and cynicism reign, he argues. Bentley’s focus on the everyday seems more exciting and imaginative. He provides a series of examples, including ‘the democratic school community’, ‘a democratic media’, and even ‘the democratic family’.

This is not to say that Bentley neglects existing institutional structures. Indeed, he argues that ‘without institutions it becomes impossible to protect and create common social goods’. However, the challenge as he sees it is to combine organic, autonomous institutions with the exercise of public and state power. ‘For democracies to thrive,’ he asserts, ‘… we must stop discussing them as if “the public” could be herded back into a pen and convinced to follow the routines and obligations of a set of external institutions. Instead, the institutions must become endogenous – embedded in the fabric of everyday life.’

For all this imagination, however, Bentley, driven by his focus on the problems of democracy per se, has little more to offer than Lawson when it comes to the problems of private power. Like Lawson, Bentley sees a conflict between markets and public action, and suggests that the relentless championing of the market has done much to undermine the legitimacy of the public realm. Yet his claim that neither left nor right has found ‘a convincing account of how the public and private realms can be combined sustainably’ barely scratches the surface.

Blind spot

Both these pamphlets have much to add to debates on the left about how democratic renewal can feed into progressive social change. Both should be read as welcome contributions. Lawson’s perspective is far more closely tied to a specific political vision than Bentley’s – Bentley focuses on the process of democracy and how this can re-invigorate politics across the board, where Lawson is primarily concerned with the social democratic project.

However, while both are critical of the encroachment of markets on social life at the expense of democracy, neither really offers a convincing case for how radical democracy can be successfully combined with markets for progressive ends. Indeed, they share something of a blind spot over what might reasonably be seen as the most fundamental characteristic of capitalist economies – the vast social inequalities that they generate. Without a convincing account of how a project of democratic renewal can counter this, both essays remain important but partial contributions.

Dare More Democracy: from steam-age politics to democratic self-governance, by Neal Lawson, is published by Compass:; Everyday Democracy: why we get the politicians we deserve, by Tom Bentley, is published by Demos.