Friday 6 March 2009

Democratic republicanism and the economic crisis

This week has seen democratic republicanism, a familiar focus of discussion here at Next Left, emerge into the fuller glare of public scrutiny. Early in the week, David Marquand's book, Britain Since 1918, was the subject of a seminar at the British Academy. And on Thursday, Demos hosted an event, 'A Royal Republic?', which featured David, Cecile Laborde, author of Critical Republicanism, and myself talking about the book I recently coedited with Daniel Leighton, Building a Citizen Society. Jon Cruddas MP provided a very thoughtful, challenging response.

One question which emerged at the events (and I should say that my account of the first event is second-hand) is whether democratic republicanism, nice as it might or might not be, has anything to offer us in the present context. In a situation of grave economic crisis, who cares about 'democratic republicanism'? Can it help explain how we got into this mess? Can it help us out?

The republican response, as it emerged during the discussion at the Demos event, goes something like this.

First, the economic crisis means that for the first time in nearly thirty years the dominant 'neo-liberal' vision of society is in question. This raises the question of what will replace it. If there is no animating alternative social vision, then there is every chance that neo-liberalism will win through again, by default.

Democratic republicanism is highly relevant in this context because it begins to sketch out an alternative social vision. It can contribute to developing a concrete picture of what a different, more egalitarian society might look like.

David Marquand argued, more specifically, that democratic republicanism offers a way of addressing two things that people are angry about in this time of economic crisis. They are, he argued, angry with the state. Democratic republicanism offers a program of reform of the state, and an account of citizen activism, that together can both defuse and constructively channel this anger. People are also angry with the way capitalism, in its neo-liberal mode, seems to operate in a way that is amoral, oblivious of any intuitive 'moral economy'. Democratic republicanism may also have things to say about this, about how to remoralize capitalism by embedding markets and private property in institutions which render markets fairer and key economic decision-makers more accountable. (This, at least, is my take on how democratic republicanism can address the two sources of anger which David identified.)

Second, and to elaborate this latter point, democratic republicanism includes a strong line of thought about the ownership and control of wealth which might well be highly relevant in thinking about how to construct a more viable capitalism in the long-run. In part, this line of thought focuses on the distribution of wealth. Democratic republicans favour radical measures to disperse the ownership of financial assets.

But there is also an interest in the control of wealth. As Robin Blackburn has emphasised in a series of writings, such as his book, Banking on Death, even wealth which is popularly owned, such as a good deal of wealth tied up in pension funds, is not popularly controlled. Those who determine its use are not meaningfully accountable to those contributing to the funds or to the citizenry at large. Thus, democratic republicans will be interested in proposals, such as Blackburn's, to democratize the control of pension funds and to establish new capital funds which are subject to forms of popular control, e.g., by trusts which contain representatives of unions and citizen groups. Such accountability measures could help take forward, in a highly effective way, the ideal of 'socially responsible investment'. Democratic republicans will support the efforts of organizations such as FairPensions which are currently working to make pension funds more accountable to their policy-holders and their values.

Perhaps it is the absence of such accountability which has contributed to our getting into this mess? If so, then, as Cecile Laborde suggested, perhaps basic republican intuitions about the undesirability of unaccountable concentrations of power does help us to understand how we got into it in the first place.

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