Tuesday 3 February 2009

What is democratic republicanism?

Sunder's post on 'progressive dilemmas and democratic republicanism' has prompted me finally to write on this mysterious entity called 'democratic republicanism' which has surfaced periodically in my posts on Next Left without ever being quite pinned down. (Of course, if you want the full answer to the question, I can only say: 'Read the book!' )

I'll start with a word on what democratic republicanism isn't; then I'll give a definition of what it is; and, finally, I'll make the abstract definition more concrete by indicating some ways in which democratic republicanism differs from mainstream post-war social democracy.

First, democratic republicanism - or republican democracy as Dan Leighton and I call it in our recently co-edited book - is not about (or not primarily about) getting rid of monarchy. I take it as given that having an hereditary head of state is utterly indefensible. But getting rid of monarchy is not necessarily where the most important action is for a contemporaty democratic republican.

Democratic republicanism is better defined, in general terms, using the range of commitments which I argued we see in Barack Obama's Inauguration speech:

(1) Popular sovereignty. A legitimate state is founded on the authority of the people. Ultimate responsibility for the laws and welfare of society properly rests not with leaders, or a Parliament, but with 'we, the people'. That authorty is our right and our responsibility.

(2) Democracy's moral ends. Legitimacy also depends on the state, under popular sovereignty, pursuing appropriate moral ends. Authority, to be legitimate, must not only derive from all, but serve the interests of all (what is called, in the republican tradition, the 'common good').

(3) Liberty and equality. Two of the core regulative ideals of democracy, its appropriate moral ends, are liberty and equality.

(4) Liberty and 'non-domination'. Liberty is centrally about the absence of 'domination' in political and social relationships (as argued by Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner). Domination occurs when one person lives 'at the mercy' of another, is subject to another's power of arbitrary interference. The republican state must make laws to prevent domination in society and economy. It must itself be structured so that it cannot treat individuals with arbitrary power.

(5) Economic egalitarianism. Some limitation of economic inequality is necessary to protect liberty and/or to preserve popular sovereignty (e.g., to prevent a rich class emerging with undue political influence). Some democratic republicans would go further (as I would) and argue, with philosophers like John Rawls, that a state only shows genuine equal concern and respect for its members if it pursues a degree of economic equality for its own sake.

(6) Participatory democracy. Citizenship is not simply a legal status, but a moral and political role that involves taking active responsibility for the achievement's of democracy's moral ends. Thus, democracy must have a strong participatory element.

Now this is a very abstract characterisation of democratic republicanism. So let me try to draw out some more concrete implications of the perspective and explain how they contrast with those of mainstream post-war social democracy.

First, consider ownership issues. Post-war social democracy tended, at least in practice, to downplay issues concerning the ownership of wealth (and I mean wealth, not income). It rejected the traditional socialist commitment to take all major industries into public ownership, but didn't put much in place of this. Democratic republicanism supports renewed attention to ownership questions.

For one thing, a much wider dispersion of wealth is essential to achieve liberty (for all). Without property of their own, individuals become reliant on others - employers, spouses, family - for vital resources. But someone with property has crucial bargaining power. For example, they needn't scramble desperately into this or that job, because they can, for a limited time at least, live off their property. This is why a democratic republicanism looks favourably on proposals to universalize capital ownership or to create near-equivalents like a scheme of unconditional basic income.

From the point of view of popular sovereignty, it also matters who controls property - or, more exactly, who controls investment decisions. While democracy and capitalism are partly complementary, they are in part at odds with each other because the private control of investment flows by a (usually) small elite places definite limits on what a democratically-elected government can feasibly do: if it goes 'too far' in a reformist direction, there will be a capital strike, and reforms will have to be abandoned to revive the economy.

Democratic republicanism looks in the long-run to overcome this contradiction at the heart of capitalist democracy by bringing investment itself under greater democratic control. This does not mean giving control over investment to central government. Rather, it means democratizing the way in which investment funds are controlled from within society. Particularly relevant here are the recent proposals by Robin Blackburn to put pension funds more firmly under the control of those who have investments in them, and to establish, by means of a capital levy, new 'social funds' under the control of trade unions and citizen groups.

Second, consider the nature of citizenship. For the most part, post-war social democracy accepted - even encouraged - a relatively passive notion of citizenship. Yes, citizens should usually come out and vote for an MP once every 4 or 5 years. But it was not necessary or desirable for them to do much more than this. After all, as Douglas Jay famously put it, 'the man in Whitehall knows best'.

But there are a number of reasons why social democracy is likely to fare badly on the basis of this kind of passive citizenship. First, participation in collective decision-making arguably has important educative effects. In his Democracy in America (1835, 1840), Alexis de Tocqueville argued that 'the Americans' of the 1820s/30s had rescued themselves from 'individualism' - the immersion of individuals and families in their own affairs to the neglect of a concern for the wider society - by devolving governmental power down to localities. This, he argued, pushed people out of the narrow circle of their private concerns, increased their sense of interdependence, and their sensitivity to the interests of others. John Stuart Mill, hugely impressed by Tocqueville's analysis, developed a similar argument in Considerations on Representative Government (1861). In short: participation in collective decision-making can help to nurture a sense of civic membership and concern for the common good.

This is one reason why a contemporary democratic republicanism will be sympathetic to various proposals for restructuring the state in ways that increase popular participation: citizens' juries, participatory budgeting, and the whole panoply of 'democratic innovations' that political scientists have identified and studied in recent years.

Second, participation matters because of its potential power effects. As the level of popular participation in political life, broadly construed, changes, so too does the balance of power in society. Stated crudely, 'people power' emerges as a counter-weight to the power of money. This is why a contemporary democratic republicanism will be hugely supportive of citizen-organizing movements, like London Citizens, which seek to bring church groups and unions and other organizations together to campaign for policies like Living Wages and better treatment of asylum seekers.

Democratic republicanism, therefore, is not simplistically 'anti-statist'. It suspects the state; it wants to limit its power to act arbitrarily; it wants to restructure the state so as to make it more open to popular participation. But it also seeks to use the state to combat economic inequality and, thereby, to protect individual liberty and popular sovereignty from subversion by the market.

It seeks not, as some socialists have done, to absorb society into the state; nor, as 'neo-liberals' want, to absorb society into the market. It seeks to put market and state in their place so as to build a citizen society.


Sunder Katwala said...


Many thanks for this. The emergence of this theme has been a useful and important educative role played by our running this blog, for me, and so I hope by extension for other readers! In terms of my concern about keeping equality in, I can have no concerns whatsoeover about your desire to do that, and your articulation of the theory behind why that matters.

And this is part of what helps to convince me that this is a necessary direction of travel for the egalitarian left, though there are many questions about what this might mean.

But here it does seem to me that you place a heavier emphasis on issues of wealth and asset distribution, and on industrial democracy, than many (any?) of those who pick up these language and ideas and apply them in politics; and some of the sources of pressure politics too. (Marquand cites feminism; democratic reform movements - Charter88 and the Scottish Constitutional Convention). I think you yourself made a similar point about Bernard Crick's work.

This suggests the need for vigilance: some may say - I buy this, but without any economic component, thank you. And the rhetoric of anti-statism (we see this in Cameron clearly, but perhaps also from some New Labour voices - for example, Alan Milburn) then can worry me, given my Fabian instincts and commitments.

Finally, we are in a period of time when the state is expanding, and probably for good reasons. Of course, more state does not automatically mean more equality (cf George W Bush) but it seems to me important to articulate why eg Obama, from a democratic republican perspective, should see an extension of a state guarantee of health coverage as important to autonomy and liberty.

Stuart White said...

Sunder, I agree with your reservations. I see democratic republicanism as (implying) a form of social democracy, as involving a radicalization of social democracy in certain areas, particularly around ownership. But I agree that others might want to read a different agenda into it, so vigilance is needed.

Over at the Demos website, Richard Reeves has posted a blog today linking republicanism to 'Red Toryism' via David Cameron's words about 'recapitalising the poor'. Of course, if the Conservatives did commit to some really ambitious program of universalising asset ownership, that would be great (from a republican point of view). But they haven't yet (to put it mildly). And even if they did, there are other aspects of democratic republicanism, as I understand it - like building up social funds - which just don't fit with Conservative philosophy.

But, as republicans say, vigilance is the price of liberty....

Paul E. said...

I'd agree completely with you about the necessity for social democrats to embrace a more participatory democracy - I'd go further and argue that the *only* thing that social democrats need to do is to argue for a more effective expression of democracy - everything else follows from that. Campaigning on individual issues is, in the long term, less productive than working towards an effective participatory democracy.

My problem with this (and it may be that you left something out in summarising here) is that there's little recognition of the need to renew and reinvigorate *representative* democracy. It's not at odds with the participative model you're advocating - indeed, done properly, it can provide the catalyst for a more participatory system.

The left - and Labour in particular - need to address the decline in the quality of representation and the power that has been stripped from representatives at all levels. I'd argue that this is easily our biggest immediate challenge.

Michael Calderbank said...

Paulie - you're spot on with this observation. Too often "democratic innovations" in the sense of deliberative mechanisms as seen as simple add- ons to a core set of representative institutions that just need to be augmented. Hazel Blears is a good example of this - all for "participatory budgeting" and citizen's juries etc., but refusing to acknowledge the structural deficiencies of the institutions of representative democracy themselves.

Absolutely, there is an important and necessary place for introducing forms of participation that go beyond the simple act of voting. But this in no way negates the importance of imaginatively reforming the very nature of representative democracy itself, such that it's fit for the 21st Century. Things like the voting system are critical in determining how popular sovereignty gets articulated through a representative assembly. We need to be looking at how different political cultures of representation are emerging - for example in the context of devolution - and putting existing constitutional arrangements under serious critical scrutiny.

_______ said...

Dear Stuart.

What would a democratic republican approach to universal healthcare look like?