Two great threats loom over our societies, one depressingly familiar, the other entirely unprecedented. Firstly, only seventy years after the Holocaust in Europe, extreme right-wing politics is once again becoming a major force here and elsewhere, as the cracks in liberal democracy widen. Secondly, alarmed scientists are warning us of the possibility of climatic and ecological breakdown, perhaps only a few short decades away. The very conditions of civilised human life on Earth are under threat. Rising to these challenges is the historical responsibility of our generation. We need to change direction, and fast. The key question is: in which direction should we move? I believe that the answer , in a word, is: in the direction of radical democracy, of putting power fully and squarely in the hands of the people. Let me try to explain.
The inability of politics to address the major challenges of our times are not simply the result of the wrong politicians or the wrong policies, but the inevitable product of our current ways of thinking and institutions. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that the very political-economic system that is driving desperate citizens into the arms of populists and failing to protect us from climate breakdown can be fixed by minor changes like PR or party funding reform. It’s too late for that kind of tinkering. In many places majorities are already getting behind one or other variety of “anti-establishment” party, led by a charismatic m/billionnaire who promises to “stand up for the little man”. History tells us where this all leads, and with ecological catastrophe added into the mix, it is not a bright future.
In this context many are starting to talk about “system change”. There is nothing unrealistic or dreamy about thinking this way: systemic change has occurred throughout history (think of the shift from feudalism to capitalism, or aristocratic rule to liberal democracy). Systemic change has never been more necessary than now, which does not mean it is inevitable: it will not happen without the concerted practical and intellectual efforts of millions. Progressives must use the present crisis as an opportunity to rethink our values, collectively produce a vision of the society we want, translate this into concrete institutions and policies, build a majority behind this vision, and head off the threat of authoritarianism.
But what does system change mean, and how can we help bring it about? There are plenty of brilliant critiques of globalised capitalism, and concrete proposals from universal basic income to a circular economy abound. What is harder to come by is some kind of overarching political philosophy, redefining our core values and providing a broad vision that progressives can unite behind. In these pages I want to explore one such possible vision: that of radical democracy. Strategically, it is far easier to unite people around a process – who could reasonably object to a major improvement of our democratic processes? – than a specific programme or detailed set of policies. And yet, I believe that the policy implications of a radicalisation of democratic processes would likely be profound. Of course, we should expect dogged resistance from those who benefit from the status quo, but radical democracy is an idea that comes with the power of legitimacy, and “we are many and they are few“.
This blog will draw on the ideas of radical democratic thinkers past and present. It aims to explore, in a brief and accessible way, the outline of a political philosophy of radical democracy for our times. Many ordinary citizens are understandably impatient of talk – especially politicians’ talk – and say that more action is what we need. They should remember that the right ideas at the right moment can change the world. Consider the impact (for good or ill) on real people’s lives of the ideas of Marx and Lenin, or those of Friedrich Hayek, the great inspiration of Margaret Thatcher and neoliberalism. I believe that the ideas of radical democracy have similar power to change the world.
So what does “radical democracy” mean exactly? The core premises (or “narrative”, if you prefer) of radical democracy are, firstly that our current, liberal democracy has brought us many good things, such as universal suffrage and regular elections, but secondly that such institutions only ever gave us limited democracy. Power has remained in the hands of a minority which has, if anything, only tightened its grip over both information and key institutions in recent decades. Democracy therefore remains an unfinished project. We need to “finish the democratic revolution”! Only by finally sharing power equally will something approximating the common good be achieved, and social and ecological disaster be averted. Despite a common perception that a more radical kind of democracy is not workable in large societies, concrete proposals for turning this vision into reality are not lacking. One of the most promising is sortition – the random selection of political representatives from the public. We will return to this and other proposals, but we need to do more than simply produce a set of institutional proposals: we need to elaborate a philosophy that underpins and justifies it.
Finally: it is vital, in reflecting on this vision, to remember that we are part of a global system of power. Our “developed” countries grew rich on slavery and cheap raw materials from the Global South. Our cheap supermarket jeans, electronic gadgets and much of our food continue to be produced by people in conditions of exploitation or even slavery. I say this not to blame those of us who can barely afford these “cheap” goods in the “rich” Global North, but as a reminder that our political and economic system is part of a wider system whose injustices must also be addressed.
I think it will be useful to have a framework to organise our ideas. When the French Revolutionaries went about abolishing aristocratic privileges after 1789 their motto was “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. I think that this motto, with its terms suitably radicalised, and with “Ecology” added – is a handy framework for thinking about what radical democracy could mean. Let’s start with liberty.>>>go to Liberty (1) Liberty for the many, not for the few.
(Illustration: La Liberte guidant le peuple, E.Delacroix (1830), Musee du Louvre.)