Other ideas

Why we need a Citizens’ Assembly for the Future

Citizens' assembly set to offer UK government climate advice ...

How do we escape the political helter-skelter we find ourselves on? How can western societies avoid the rapid downwards spiral towards authoritarianism, ever greater inequality and environmental devastation? It looks increasingly as if our political institutions have become “constitutionally” incapable of promoting the common good. But if that is so, then maybe we should look to our constitutions, be they “written” or unwritten”. I think that the setting up of Citizens’ Assemblies could be part of the answer.

Citizens’ assemblies are inspired by ancient Athenian democracy.  How they work is simple. Ordinary citizens are selected by sortition, i.e. randomly, just as for jury selection. They are given expert briefings on the various policy options, and afforded ample time to deliberate before coming to a decision. Participants are compensated financially for their time and any lost earnings.

In recent years citizens’ assemblies have been deployed on topics ranging from changes to the voting system (in some Canadian states) to abortion laws (in Ireland). They have recently been used for the first time in the UK, in the form of advisory local and national climate assemblies. All of these pioneering projects have demonstrated that ordinary citizens are perfectly capable of making wise, balanced policy judgements. Given their success, and the failure of present institutions to promote the public good, I believe that it is time to consider extending the powers of Citizens’ Assemblies.

Citizens’ Assemblies have several in-built advantages over the present system of electing political representatives.

Firstly, they are more inclusive than elected bodies. Stratified random sampling ensures that they mirror the wider population, automatically including 50% women, and with greater representation of low-paid workers, BAME citizens, and other under-represented groups. For this reason, they have often been called “mini-publics”. If you are not invited to serve on one, you can be sure that someone like you will be. Citizens’ assemblies therefore combine the best features of direct and representative democracy, really putting ordinary people in control of politics, whilst avoiding the need for the majority of us to spend endless evenings and weekends debating the details of transport policy or youth crime, with little time left over for our families or other interests.

Secondly, citizens’ assemblies aren’t swayed by the need to win the next election. Members of citizens’ assemblies are invited for fixed terms, and know they will be replaced by other citizens when their time is up. They are therefore free to act in the long-term public interest.

Finally, and critically, they do not need to please – or avoid upsetting – party funders and media barons. This kind of “soft” corruption is a perennial blight on democracy, ensuring that the interests of m/billionaires, the banking sector, and large corporations are always looked after – at the expense of the common good. Citizens’ assemblies neatly sidestep this hazard, and the parties and papers would have to readjust to a new political reality.

What are the downsides? We have seen that the worry that ordinary citizens are incapable of making decisions on complex policy matters has been disproven in practice. Others believe that members of citizens’ assemblies might be gently nudged towards the “right” decision by Establishment experts. This is a genuine concern, but experience has shown that it can be minimised by careful design of process and scrupulous facilitation. Perhaps the weightiest objection is that citizens’ assemblies break the sacred link of accountability between the population and their representatives. It does indeed feel empowering to know that we can “vote the scoundrels out” if they fail to live up to their pre-election promises. But far less so when there is little real choice between parties because the game has been rigged in advance by powerful interest groups, as witnessed by the fate of the Sanders and Corbyn election campaigns.

Citizens’ assemblies are of course not immune from making unwise decisions – no system is. But they are always “our” decisions, free from domination by powerful minorities.

In May this year over forty prominent academics, lawyers, writers and activists signed the Krisis Manifesto, intended to illustrate the yawning chasm between what is and what might be in British society. Its final demand is for a “Citizens’ Assembly for the Future”.

A “Citizens Assembly for the Future” would work alongside Parliament, leaving it (but critically, not Government, nor any political party) as the final decision-maker: it would empower Parliament as a body, as well as ordinary people. It would deliberate solely on vital medium to long-term issues like climate change mitigation and adaptation, disaster planning and further institutional reform. It would have the power to present three new pieces of legislation each parliamentary session, via parliamentary sponsors, which would then be subject to a free vote.

This is no recipe for revolution: it nevertheless might just be the first step to unlocking our country’s untapped democratic potential. If you agree please see below for how you can be part of a growing movement to make Citizens’ Assemblies a reality.


Back in May, I initiated a Government E-petition for a “Citizens’ Assembly for the Future”. If it reaches 100,000 signatures, it will go to a debate in Parliament. You can sign the petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/321196 – and please share widely.

A Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill has also been prepared for the British Parliament, and a key demand is the setting up of a Citizens’ Assembly. If you agree with the logic of this article, please support this initiative too by signing up to the CEE Bill initiative here: https://www.ceebill.uk/

Finally, Extinction Rebellion will be focusing on the demand for a Citizens’ Assembly in their September actions. Find out how to take part here.

Supporting and sharing these initiatives will help bring a Citizens’ Assembly closer to reality.

(This blog is currently unfunded. Any donations – however small – will help me keep building and sharing this vision for the future.)

Citizens' assembly set to offer UK government climate advice ...

Coronavirus, Spinoza, and the five principles of a better society (with Andreia Paixão)

Only a couple of short months ago, it was difficult to imagine that our lives could change so quickly and so totally. For many of us – and not just those on the “frontlines” – this is proving to be one of the most testing periods of our lives. The pandemic has revealed unsuspected qualities in many however, and has forced us to adopt new habits which might turn out to be indispensable in the years and decades ahead. And, unless you are on the frontline, or have small children at home, it provides a vital pause for thought, time to reflect on how we might overcome the big challenges of our time and work towards a better and more resilient future. There has already been much reflection on this theme. Guided by the philosophy of the great Dutch thinker Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza, we’d like to consider this question through the prism of five principles, five fundamental values which our societies have neglected, and which might guide us towards a better society.

Ecology must be the first principle and greatest priority, because terrible as it is, in retrospect coronavirus will only seem like a minor squall should the hurricane of full-blown ecological breakdown hit humankind. We do not have to go down that path.

Western societies do not have a good track record on ecology. The father of modern Western philosophy René Descartes is most famous for having declared “I think therefore I am” in his search for certain knowledge. I am, I exist, but what am I? Essentially a mind or spirit separate from my bodily nature, claimed Descartes. Later in the same work he wrote that we should consider ourselves “as masters and possessors of nature”.

Descartes’ intellectual disciple Spinoza can be considered as the author of the “minority report” of modern western thought. His critical departure from his master’s thought came when, in his great masterpiece, Ethics (1677) he claimed that man is not a soul separate from nature, “a domain within a domain” as he put it. Rather we are natural beings through and through, and causally interconnected with the rest of nature (the totality of all that exists, which he also called “God”). For Spinoza, all individuals, including human individuals, were no more than dependent, temporary formations within nature (or God). Minus the references to the Divine perhaps, this is the essence of ecological awareness. 

The distanced and instrumental attitude towards nature that Descartes initiated brought us all the benefits of modern science, medicine, and technology, but also alienation from nature and ultimately the extreme extractivism of modern capitalism, which has led to the present global ecological crisis.

By now it is clear what needs to be done: we must transform our industrial and agricultural practices, embrace the circular economy and agroecology, localise production where possible, and wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and fast. Developing resilience must be a priority. Growth of GDP, which encourages ever-increasing consumption, waste and emissions, must be abandoned as a target and as the primary indicator of social well-being. And maybe we should go back and read Spinoza.

Just as we are enveloped by and dependent on nature, we are enveloped by and dependent on society. We are social animals, as Aristotle observed long ago, and Spinoza insisted that we fulfil our own interests as members of communities. The myth of the self-made man is just that – a myth.

Community is therefore our second principle. The meaning of this term goes beyond the “communities” we belong to by choice, so-called “elective communities”, like a Facebook “community”, your friends from the creative writing class, or even “intentional communities” like ecovillages, vital though they are as models for the future. In the end we will have to share a space, a territory, with people who are very different from us, who we may have little in common with, and who we might not immediately (or ever) “like”. Communities in this sense do not possess a fixed essence, like some eternal notion of Englishness or Frenchness. They are an ongoing process, the sometimes difficult but mutually enriching work of learning to live with the other, and together build society despite our differences.

The coronavirus pandemic reminds us of how vital community organisations are, starting with a public health service. Community is also built on libraries, children’s centres, youth clubs, older citizens’ day centres and so many other institutions that make us resilient as a society, but which have been run down and must be restored.

In line with Spinoza’s holistic philosophy we might add that community is not just people and organisations but also the places we live – the natural and built environment that has such an impact on the quality of our lives. Encroaching on national parks and green belts, and privatising public spaces have negatively impacted our collective well-being. We need to reverse such policies, and for rural and urban planners, and architects, to be guided primarily by public, not private benefit.

Truth is our third principle. For Spinoza, pursuit of truth should be the central goal of any individual life, and is enabled by the State. As truth-telling has declined, so has mistrust grown. What is stated publicly follows economic interests rather than a desire for truth. People now only tend to believe those whose interests happen to coincide with theirs, and only so long as they do. This is cultural tribalism. Lies and half-truths undermine democracy: if the old dictum that knowledge is power is not quite accurate, knowing the truth is at least one vital ingredient in holding our leaders to account. It is well-known that dictators hide the truth from their people and rewrite history, and we are already half-way down that path.

We need to make sure that universities are devoted to the pursuit of knowledge rather than being the R & D departments of large corporations, and that media content is free from the pressures of corporate funding. And we must demand that politicians and public figures once again make truthfulness a badge of honour, resigning if they have found to have been “economical with the truth”, as the late Lord Armstrong famously put it.

 Justice is our fourth principle. The until recently dominant political philosophy of neoliberalism built on a foundation of Kantian ethics, which claims that individuals possess free will, that they can simply step outside the forces of psychology, society and history in order to act freely and morally. Neoliberals argue that inequality in society results from the exercise of individual free will, and is therefore the existing social order is not only just but inevitable. If you are rich and/or powerful, then well-done! Never mind any privileges you have enjoyed: an expensive private education, useful family connections, excellent physical and mental health, or just pure luck on the markets – your success is all down to your own wise choices and hard work! If you are poor and/or powerless, then it is all your fault! You’ve made poor choices, you’re lazy, pull your socks up, get on your bike! Never mind that you went to a second rate school, that you were brought up in a “crime family” , that you suffer from physical or mental ill-health – or simply had more than your share of bad luck! None of this is relevant, because we possess free will, say the neoliberals.

As well as embodying injustice, we should emphasise that inequality is positively harmful, for two reasons. Firstly, it fractures society and creates conflict between social classes, sapping the vital energy which would be better used for cooperative and creative enterprise. Secondly it makes a mockery of the idea that we live in a democracy, when the wealthy lay a heavy hand on politics, through the funding of politicians, parties, think tanks and the media.

The message is clear: to heal our divided societies, and to restore a democracy that works for the common good, we must reduce inequality and social privilege. If someone objects that this will harm “the profit motive” and turn us all into a society of layabouts, let them go and consider the evidence for that claim.

Liberty is the fifth principle. Rejecting the notion of free will, Spinoza equated freedom with knowledge. For example, understanding our own “passions” (his term for emotions) weakened their grip over us, or knowing that an event was necessary would entail that we did not waste our efforts trying to stop it. Through the acquisition of knowledge of self, others and the world, we could increasingly take control over our own actions, rather than be the plaything of false beliefs, or powerful psychological or social forces operating through us.

Modifying this perhaps over-intellectualist conception, we might add that an individual is free to the extent that they have acquired not only knowledge, but also the kind of good emotional habits that Aristotle called moral virtues, and the practical capabilities of Sen and Nussbaum.

Liberals and neoliberals alike favour what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty”: the idea that we are free if no other individual (or the State) prevents us from acting, and it remains important for guaranteeing basic democratic rights like freedom of speech and association. The idea of liberty we are outlining here corresponds to what Berlin called “positive liberty” – capacities internal to the individual. Berlin quite justifiably saw a danger in positive liberty – elite claims to sole possession of reason and virtue, that justified authoritarian rule, but failed to see its potential for liberating the masses.

In addition to internal capacities, individuals also need the material and immaterial resources necessary for effective action, resources which are unequally distributed across society. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu taught us, money not the only resource that is unfairly distributed in society. We must also consider the unequal distribution of what he called social, cultural and symbolic capital: the social connections we have, the education we possess, and our status in society.

Only a strong society that can enable all to develop or possess these qualities and resources will produce a society of free individuals capable of skilfully guiding a democracy. Raul Martinez sets out a powerful vision along these lines in his book Creating Freedom and associated documentaries.

These then are our five principles: Ecology, Community, Truth, Justice and Liberty, in that order. How do we bring about a society based on such principles? One important dimension is winning the battle of ideas, using the “ideas counterpower” that the writer and activist Tim Gee describes in his book Counterpower, the others being “physical counterpower” – violent or (as we would advocate) non-violent direct action – and “economic counterpower” – the use of strikes, boycotts, divestment etc. Gee notes that most successful historical movements have used a combination of all three kinds of counterpower.

The ideas fightback is well underway. There are numerous devastating analyses of contemporary capitalism, many of them coming from the socialist tradition, and though valuable as the latter is, a simple class-based politics will no longer suffice in the age of ecological breakdown and a rapidly sinking middle-class. There are also plenty of innovative policy proposals, from the Universal Basic Income to the Green New Deal. Proposals for overhauling democracy from sortition to a “fuller democracy” are not lacking, and “doughnut economics” presents a new framework for a discipline badly in need of renewal. What is more often lacking is an overarching political philosophy for our times, a values framework that can both guide policy and inspire citizens, along the lines that we have been developing in this very brief synthesis. 

Social transformation often seems impossible until it happens. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated once again that societies can move very quickly to solve big problems, when it is deemed necessary. We know that British and American industry transformed itself over a few months at the start of World War Two. Deeper changes occurred in 1945 when millions of houses were built, and the NHS and a welfare safety net for all were created in just a few years. Addressing the deep problems of our society – ecological breakdown and the collapse of trust in democratic institutions – will call for even more profound social transformation. We should use this long pause in “normal” activity to prepare for a new normal: to create new practices, develop new habits, but also to share new ideas for a better society. Returning to the lessons of a Seventeenth Century Dutch philosopher may not be a bad place to start.

Peter Coville

This blog is currently unfunded. Any donations – however small – will help me keep building and sharing this vision for the future.

Building a new world under lockdown

In these weird times, holed up in our flats and semis, hypnotised by 24-hour news, avoiding each other on the street, many of us are already longing for a return to “normal” life. But underneath we know that this only means a return to slow-motion ecological breakdown, hollowed-out democracies run by the richest 1%, and business-as-usual exploitation of the natural world, the working poor and the global south. If we carry on down this path, humanity will not survive the century.

We must come together to beat Covid-19, but let’s not treat this pandemic as a pause in political life. We mustn’t allow our leaders use this opportunity to fabricate a phoney unity under the pretence that they are only following scientific advice, to caste themselves in the role of the Churchills and De Gaulles of their narcissistic fantasies. Instead, we should expose how their responses are political to the core, and fight for an equitable response to the pandemic. We must demand measures which are badly needed even in “normal” times but which have become necessities now: a strong and genuinely public health service, a reduction in unnecessary travel, a decent income for all.

We must remain highly vigilant regarding the extent of any so-called “emergency laws” and “temporary suspensions” of our rights as citizens and workers. We must find effective ways of opposing them, new forms of activism which do not involve taking to the streets.

For some, obliged to stay in one place or for longer than one usually might with extended family members, this could be the moment to rediscover all the difficulties, but also the joys and deep significance of family and community. The cosmopolitan liberals and nomadic intellectuals that so many of us are consider so often consider such things as dead weights or shackles on our sacred liberty, when engaging with them more deeply can gift us the keys to our own soul, and bring us new political insights. We abandon family and community to the more regressive forces in politics at our peril.

And now is the moment – especially for those who have unexpectedly found themselves with extra leisure time – for deeper reflection on why, despite the glaring moral and intellectual bankruptcy of a politics controlled by the 1% – a radical alternative is still failing to make the breakthrough that ordinary people all over the world so badly need. Collectively we have the moral, intellectual and historical resources to address this conundrum. But we will need to dig deep, within ourselves, in discussion with others, and drawing on centuries of radical thinking, whose time may finally have come. Activism-as-usual will no more bring the answers we need than business-as-usual. When we emerge from our chrysalises after this is all over, let us emerge individually and collectively transformed and ready, at last, to transform our world.

Peter Coville

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity…and Ecology (draft – comments welcome)

Despite the great financial crash of 2008, years of increasing inequality and austerity, and a patent failure of the right to address the climate and ecological crisis, the left is still failing to inspire voters and win back power. This may result in part from poor strategy, or other factors, like Brexit in the UK. But what if the problem were not poor strategy, but an overemphasis on strategy, and insufficient reflection about our values, what we really stand for? I believe that this is the case, and that it’s time to re-formulate the guiding principles of the left for our times, an exercise which could enable an ideas offensive with the same power and reach as the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s.

“Left” and “right” in politics go back to the time of the French Revolution, when members of the Assemblée Nationale divided into supporters of the King to the President’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left. Their creed: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – or death!” Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, we may do well to reconsider these founding values of the left. Here I can only sketch an outline of this vast project.

One thing we know for sure is that these ideals were never fully implemented – counter-revolutions saw to that, and many would argue that the French Revolution was from the start a revolution by and for the middle-classes, and never brought liberty, equality and fraternity to the masses. What is true for France is undoubtedly true for the modern West more generally. But taken along with ecology, and radicalised, I believe that these ideals still have the power to radically transform society.

Take liberty. The assumption of much modern thinking, from Descartes onwards, is that the individual is master of his or her own thought – and actions. Modern legal and political institutions, not to mention economics, are largely built on this assumption, and it is a core belief of neoliberalism. But there is a minority report in modern thought, a counter-current that starts with Spinoza, and which is confirmed by modern psychology and sociology, which sees individual liberty as a project rather than an innate capacity. According to this conception, freedom is not something we simply possess, so long as no-one interferes with our actions. Rather an individual is only free to the extent that they have acquired education, self-belief and other virtues, and the material resources necessary for action. Subverting Isaiah Berlin, we may say that negative liberty – the idea that simply leaving the individual alone to act on his or her desires equates with freedom – is not enough when so many only possess a limited quantity of these resources. We need positive liberty, which in practice means ensuring that every individual gets the immaterial and material resources they need to think and act independently.

Or take equality. Dominant beliefs about equality result from similar assumptions to those regarding liberty. Indeed, the right has largely convinced society that inequality results from people’s free choices. If you are rich and/or powerful, then feel that warm glow of self-satisfaction: never mind any privileges of family or education, good physical or mental health, or pure luck, your success is all down to your own hard efforts. If you are poor, then give yourself a good beating! You’re lazy, you should get an education, pull your socks up! Never mind that you have had to contend with poor physical and/or mental health, repeated setbacks due to a low level of education or discrimination, the lack of support from others at critical moments etc. And the fact that historically, common land and other resources were taken from the majority – including the global south – by force, establishing durable and self-reinforcing patterns of privilege which last until present times, is often conveniently overlooked. As well as deconstructing the right’s views on inequality, we should emphasise that it is positively harmful, for two reasons. Firstly it fractures society and creates conflict between social classes, sapping the vital energy which would be better used for cooperative and creative enterprise. Secondly it makes a mockery of the idea that we live in a democracy, when the dominant class controls politics, through the funding of politicians, parties, think tanks and the media. The message is clear: to heal divisions in society, and to restore democracy, we must reduce inequality.

What about fraternity? Three factors have undermined social bonds in the modern world. Firstly, the beliefs and practices of individualism: a valid desire for individual liberty, for liberation from stifling traditional norms and practices, has made us forget our need for others and turned us into a society of lonely individuals. Consumerism and digital culture have certainly exacerbated this tendency. Secondly, the organisations that in the past acted as “social glue”, organising fraternity at a grassroots level: parties, churches, trade unions etc., have been in decline. Thirdly, there can be no fraternity in a society fractured by growing inequality. Where rich and poor live in different worlds, they cannot regard each other as citizens on an equal footing, and any idea of a “common good” is undermined. Grasping what has dissolved the social glue of society can help us to see what needs to be done to reverse the process. A renewed emphasis on the importance of friendship and cooperation, the fostering of new forms of civil organisation, and the reduction of inequality are essential.

And ecology? It might appear that by leaving it till last I am considering it as merely an add-on to the three venerable principles outlined above, but ecological thinking runs through everything I have said so far. The current of thought that began with Spinoza is intrinsically ecological: it holds that everything is causally interconnected, and thus interdependent. So far we have only been talking about interconnections within human society, just one subset of nature, but we can extend this way of thinking to the entire natural world and our relations with it. Descartes famously wrote that we are “as masters and possessors of nature”, but the less influential Spinoza always held that individuals and societies are just temporary formations within nature, and utterly dependent on it. Physical and mental illness have always reminded us of our fragility as individuals. The ecological crisis reminds us of our fragility as a species. It is clear what needs to be done: we must radically transform industrial and agricultural practices, localise our economies, and wean ourselves off fossil fuels, and fast. We must abandon growth of GDP as the primary indicator of social well-being.

It is highly doubtful whether liberty, equality, fraternity, and ecology, thus understood, will be implemented by our current institutions. These institutions are too closely tied to the existing, inequitable and unsustainable economic system. We will need another political revolution on the scale of the great French Revolution – but a 21st century revolution will look nothing like an 18th Century revolution. Storming of the centres of power will not bring change, rather a growing pressure outside governments and parliaments, making societies ungovernable, will make their radical transformation inevitable. We will need a new way of doing democracy, one that genuinely pursues the common good. Only then can we realise the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Liberty, equality, fraternity, ecology…compass points for the left in the 21st Century. (draft – comments welcome)

We live in confused and confusing times. Following defeats for the left by populist nationalists in the US, Brazil, Hungary and elsewhere, the British left is dumbstruck as it ponders on how voters could have voted for a similar figure here. There has been much discussion of why this happened – Corbyn’s prevarication on Brexit, his psycho-rigid advisers, lingering mistrust of voters of Labour on the economy…many reasons for this catastrophic and historical defeat have been put forward. One factor which has received little attention is Labour’s political philosophy. Could it be that the lack of a coherent and convincing set of political values is part of what is holding the left back in the UK, and elsewhere? I believe it could.

Since Thatcher and Reagan, and following the work of neoliberal economists and philosophers raised to semi-divine status, the right for its part has produced a well-defined political philosophy. Through the efforts of well-funded think-tanks and a corporate media, it has known how to communicate it effectively to the public. Labour and the other parties of the British left have made some popular policy proposals, but discussion of fundamental values is rarer, with Labour often seeming divided between the old socialist formulas and Blair-style compromises with neoliberal capitalism. The years ahead are critical – we are engaged in a fight against creeping fascism and war, and for a planet which can sustain any kind of human civilization. We need to rethink the values of the left, and launch an intellectual offensive with the same power and reach as the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s, one that will unite activists, bring voters over to our side, and push politics back towards the left i.e. towards a genuine sharing of power and wealth. But how? This is obviously a huge collective project, and one that is already underway in some quarters, but I would like to contribute a few thoughts to the debate.

As readers of this publication will know, “the left” is a term that goes back to the organisation of the French Parliament following the revolution of 1789, when members of the Assemblée Nationale divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left. On 14th July of that year the people of Paris stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, that great symbol of abusive royal power. Their motto: “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite…ou la mort!”. As readers will also know, while it was supported by the “lower orders”, the sans-culottes,the French Revolution was a revolution by and for the middle-classes. It did bring all French citizens some important basic rights, and its influence spread them around the world, but whether it brought liberty, equality or fraternity to the majority is questionable. Marxists have always regarded such concepts as vague liberal ideals – formal rights – but liberty, equality, and fraternity should be the ABC of the left, ideals for anyone who seeks a fair and democratic society. Others will object that such general ideals are not for the British, with their empiricist temperament. But precisely defined, and radicalised i.e. extended to all, these values are not just for the middle-classes, and as we know, British pragmatism has not prevented the British right from making politically effective use of the idea of liberty. Although “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” sounds like a simple motto, the meanings of these concepts are manifold and were not fixed once and for all in the Enlightenment. They need to be rethought anew by each generation, and with “Ecology” added for our times. Another objection against a focus on these values will be that a purely intellectual approach is insufficient – the left needs to appeal to people’s emotions, to what they care about, concrete issues like the NHS or secure jobs or education. Of course it does, but these things are the concrete applicatations of deeper ideals, and these are what we are trying to get at in redefining liberty, equality and fraternity. Parties of the left and activists, at least, need to have a very clear idea of what these might be. It is true that reflection on such concepts are usually the preserve of academic philosophers – we need to show how they can be updated and translated into the language of ordinary people’s lives.

Take liberty. As Yannis Varoufakis recently put it “the left lost the plot when it stopped talking about liberty”[i]. He was right – of all political values, liberty inspires most, winning over hearts and minds. Most of the historical struggles of the left have been struggles of liberation, and yet, in recent decades liberty has become the cornerstone of rightist ideology. Along with massive funding from corporations and hedge-fund owners, the Conservative Party’s emphasis on liberty is one of the keys to its political success. The right has hijacked all discourse on liberty, successfully portraying the left as “the enemies of freedom and democracy” as Margaret Thatcher put it in 1984 in remarks directed at the striking miners but originally intended for the Labour Party itself[ii]. Whereas past liberation struggles were about ending slavery, poverty, patriarchy, or foreign domination, essentially fights for basic human dignity, liberation has been redefined by the right as the “liberation” of corporations and wealthy individuals from taxes and regulations, thus freeing up their “creative energies” – supposedly to work for the common good, in reality to entrench their own power and wealth. To the consternation of traditional conservatives like the late Roger Scruton, this kind of “liberation” was gradually combined with socially liberal values on things like multiculturalism, gay marriage and (theoretically) women’s rights. This marriage between economic and social liberalism turned out to be a winning combination! Underlying both these ways of thinking about liberty is the notion that someone is free when they are left alone to do what they desire, when nobody stands in their way. The 20th Century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin called this kind of liberty “negative liberty”. For liberals like Berlin not only right-wing fascist regimes but also the “really existing socialism” of the former Soviet Union and its satellites denied people this kind of liberty. This is the shadow that still frightens many of our citizens when they think of socialism, and the left needs to work hard to bring light to this dark corner of the collective imagination.

Berlin’s negative liberty is undoubtedly one important part of what it means to be free. It has brought us vital basic rights like free speech, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and freedom of worship – rights that are increasingly under threat and must be defended. The problem, of course, and the point politicians on the left should be hammering home, is that it’s not enough to remove obstacles to free action to make people free. Freedom means being able to act, to transform your desires into reality, and for this it is not enough that no-one is standing in your way. Action usually requires the kind of material and social resources that people lower down the present social hierarchy often lack. Without all the different kinds of “capital” that the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu taught us about– not only economic, but also social, cultural, and educational – many are left nursing their hopes and desires, whilst those that possess those resources in abundance take control of society’s agenda. Not necessarily through any conscious desire for domination – though that also exists. As they and all those who surround them are raised with such advantages, they come to see them as “normal”, and their social privilege becomes invisible to them. It looks to them as if their social and economic success can only be down to their talent and hard work, whereas the failure of others must result from their laziness and lack of talent: they are spontaneous neoliberals. But of course, the reality is that they already possess what many others do not: the resources that enable what Berlin called positive liberty, though he himself focused on virtue and rationality, and neglected to consider the social distribution of these resources. In the grassroots activist circles in which I move, privilege workshops are set up to help middle-class activists understand their own privilege and not to rush in and organise everyone else! Positive liberty is a capacity to act grounded in the possession of personal or social resources like education and social confidence which make agency possible. Without the wider sharing of such resources in society we will only have liberty for the few, never for the many. You cannot be free if you are a single mother with no help, no education, and no cultural opportunities, still less stitching trainers for Nike in a prison-factory with no hope of escape. Positive liberty liberates individuals, not only for their own good but for the good of society, as the positive example of the Scandinavian countries demonstrates in practice. The right should be called out on its conception of liberty, not just with anger and indignation, but coolly, and with its own, much richer idea of positive liberty to replace it.

Regarding equality, the left might seem to be on more solid ground, especially as inequality has become a glaring and obscene reality in recent decades. It’s not enough to simply assume that everyone agrees that inequality is a bad thing however, because many of our fellow citizens consider it as the price that must be paid for innovation and economic progress, and swallow the right’s promise of “equality of opportunity”. We need to spell out just what is wrong with inequality, why it is so destructive of society and of individuals, and why equality of opportunity never delivers what it seems to be promising. Faced with massive inequality, the left has been more combative on this issue in recent times. It has had some good arguments to support its fight against inequality, following recent academic work like Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level. This important work demonstrated that more unequal societies do worse on a whole range of indicators of social well-being, from crime to educational failure, and crucially that even the wealthy are less happy in unequal societies. Politicians of the left need to press home these arguments, and add a few more. Since many have (supposedly) benefited from the great council house sell-off, consumer goods and the entertainment industry, the argument is not won, and the left remains vulnerable to Margaret Thatcher’s taunt that the left only cared about the gap between rich and poor, not raising the level of the poorest[iii]. We need to be clear that inequality is bad for two important reasons: firstly it fractures society, creating a divided society where different groups live in different social and cultural worlds, have different interests, and therefore will necessarily have a conflictual relationship. Secondly, inequality, especially of the extreme kind we have seen in recent times, allows those with greater wealth to take control of the political agenda, by funding parties and think-tanks and owning large parts of the media, which duly represent their world-view, and hence their interests. Inequality undermines democracy: the act of voting counts for nothing if business interests dominate public debate. This is why we should never feel “intensely relaxed”, as Peter Mandelson famously put it, about some individuals being extremely wealthy.

What about fraternity? This is perhaps the most neglected of the three terms of the French revolutionaries’ motto in current political discourse, partly no doubt because it was rightly criticised by feminist thinkers for the way it promises the sharing of all good things among the “brothers”, all the male members of the community. But also, because we’ve all become individualists in this age of consumerism and the breakdown of civil and workplace associations of all kinds, from Trade Unions to the churches. Nevertheless, the core idea of fraternity, that “we are all in this together”, that “I am my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper” remains as relevant as ever. Whilst C/conservatives get het up about cultural or ethnic divisions, they are less worried about economic inequality, which always and everywhere creates separate and antagonistic groups in society. There is no fraternity in an unequal society. Nor can there be any feeling of responsibility for each other in a society in which people are constantly being encouraged to look out for number one, whether in their career, or in their consumption habits. Isolated acts of selflessness – for example when a terrorist attack occurs – move us precisely because they highlight how selfish society has become. Self-reliance is no doubt an important virtue to cultivate, but as my remarks on liberty show we cannot do it alone. The “self-made man” that icon of the left, does not and has never existed. A strong, independent individual is always the product of a strong and supportive family and/or wider community, and politicians on the left should be trumpeting this message loud and clear.

The ideologists of the French revolution could not have foreseen the importance of another important ideal – the value of ecology, or sustainability in the original sense of the term – notwithstanding Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s pre-romantic “reveries” in the forests of Ermenonville. At that period in history nature was an inexhaustible resource to be exploited for the benefit and pleasure of humankind. No longer. We all know that. And yet our economic system still operates as if it were, mindlessly sucking resources from nature and pumping pollution back into the air, water and soil, accelerating climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution-related illnesses. Increasing numbers of concerned citizens are taking a stand against this absurdity, but collectively, even on parts of the radical left, we are whistling with our fingers in our ears and chanting “I can’t hear you” as the tone of the scientists’ warnings get ever more strident. Or increasingly, our political representatives whether of right or left say “I hear you”, and then change precisely nothing in their policy proposals. Is the threat of civilisational collapse not enough to galvanise action? Radical popular movements based on the scientific consensus, like Extinction Rebellion, have arisen in response to such inaction. The left in its entirety needs to follow their lead – and make their demands part of its programme. The Green New Deal – in a robust version which fully incorporates these demands – is a way of popularising this message and making sure that all benefit from the transition to a low-carbon economy. Alas, it was painfully neglected in Labour’s election campaign. It should be a rallying call at the front and centre of any future campaigns. Any less would amount to a dereliction of the awesome historical duty which has fallen to our generations. 

Rather than self-indulgently bandying around labels like “democratic socialism” and “anti-capitalism” which only serve to alienate a majority of voters, we should be appealing to these fundamental values of liberty, equality, fraternity and ecology. We mustn’t forget that for many of our fellow citizens, “socialism” equates with planning, central control, and grim apartment blocks, whereas they associate “capitalism” not with austerity or inequality as we may do, but with freedom (low taxes, minimal bureaucracy) and all those delicious electronic and consumer goodies that flooded our homes in the credit-fuelled 90s and which many people continue to crave. We can have a radical agenda that empowers ordinary people – what we might call socialism – without having to use the label at every turn. What matters most is whatever shifts wealth and power from the few to the many. And in reality, not even the most radical amongst us is planning state ownership of companies that make electronic gadgets or clothes, even though they clearly need tighter regulations. There will still be competitive markets in most consumer goods and services – what many people think of as capitalism. We’re not about to take away people’s iPhones or fashionable sneakers and dress them all in blue workers’ overalls.

Neoliberal capitalism is a busted flush – economically, socially, ecologically, and intellectually. This house of cards really shouldn’t need much of a push. But moral indignation is not enough. Nor are the old socialist ideas – though obviously they remain an inspiration and the source of many good ideas and arguments. The left needs to develop a coherent, robust and popular political philosophy for our times, and then start arguing for it. “People love arguing…working class life is about an argument” said Paul Mason recently when asked if the Labour areas that had gone over to Conservative were now unreachable or could be persuaded back[iv]. But before taking on the sceptics in pubs and on the doorstep we’d better have an idea of exactly what we stand for, beyond vague appeals to the working class or “the many and the few”. Rethinking liberty, equality and fraternity for our times – with ecology added – might not be a bad place to start.

[i] Novara meet Yannis Varoufakis live at The World Transformed, 23/9/2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ck0Jg92bPk

[ii] Revealed: the Speech Margaret Thatcher dared not to give… https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-the-speech-thatcher-dared-not-give-after-brighton-ira-bombing-9771124.html

[iii] Following a response to Simon Hughes MP 22/11/1990 https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/108256

[iv] Channel 4 News, Who will lead the Labour Party? 17/1/2020:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27lStVTT2tQ


There has been a lot of criticism of Extinction Rebellion recently, that it is too white, too male, culturally unaware, cultish, monolithic in its perspectives, closed in on itself, naively “apolitical” and indeed too forgiving of fascists, undemocratic, disrespectful of previous activism, and so on and so forth. Some of this criticism is justified, and I have offered my own criticisms. My personal gripe is that, with XR proposing citizens’ assemblies, it should itself be more democratic in its own procedures, and should start modelling the citizens’ assemblies it proposes. Extinction Rebellion needs to open up and engage with all of these criticisms, and indeed they have started this process – not enough, but a start. But some of the criticism has felt bitter and divisive, rather than engaged and constructive. This is equally unwelcome, and harmful for the movement, in my opinion. For sure, it is deeply demotivating for many – including some highly dedicated and experienced activists – to see some of the ways XR has acted, and continue to want to engage and work with them. But I hope they will not disengage with XR, because like it or not, XR has become central to bringing about change – they have shifted the debate in the UK by getting thousands of ordinary people ready to commit civil disobedience to bring about radical change – as net zero by 2025 (though carbon neutral would be better) and citizens assemblies that Govt has to follow are fairly radical proposals if you follow through their consequences. With present levels of social and political awareness in the UK – and no doubt elsewhere – we will not get widespread support for anything more radical and wide-ranging in terms of social change. I really believe that the problems in XR are due more to a lack of awareness, particularly in some of its white and middle-class leaders and participants, than any deeply ingrained undemocratic or fascistic tendencies as some seem to be claiming. Engaging with XR, trying to raise its awareness of certain cultural and social realities they sometimes seem to be oblivious of, and to change some of its discourse and practices in line with that, is in my view the best approach. Everyone is on a journey and we all need help with this at times. We can’t afford in-fighting. This doesn’t mean we must have unity at any price – obviously we don’t want to unite with fascists or neoliberals – but if we don’t build enough unity around a message of climate and social justice, then we will not succeed, and will be condemning inhabitants of the global south – who are already being hit, and will be hit hardest, and our kids and their kids, to a climate hell of crop failure and food shortages, forced migration and war. Division is a luxury we cannot afford – but the unity we are seeking cannot (unlike that of the fascists) be a unity imposed from above: it must be one that we construct from below, by each of us going beyond our comfort zones and engaging with those we disagree with (within certain limits that only we can define) and being willing to modify our own ways of thinking and acting. It’s the responsibility of each one of us. Meanwhile here, from Ben Smoke of the Stansted 15, is an excellent article and an example of just how we can criticise in an engaged and constructive way, in a way that builds rather than threatens unity: https://www.huckmag.com/perspectives/opinion-perspectives/room-for-change-the-problem-with-extinction-rebellion/

Peter Coville