Republicanism in Europe

The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

Karl Marx

Lea Ypi of the LSE has written a interesting blogpost arguing that the electoral left’s accommodation with the capitalist state, the movement’s left’s evaporation into the global ether, and the communist left’s condensation around Cold War nostalgia have all contributed to the collapse of civic republicanism and the rise of ethnic nationalism. The national route to socialism has failed, and only the European one remains.

There’s much to agree with in the piece. Ypi is absolutely right that the left needs ‘to rejoin its critique of the capitalist economy with a critique of the neoliberal state.’ And this is one of the central themes in Labour’s broader programme in the UK. The party is trying to begin a wide-ranging conversation about the constitution of the national state in which it finds itself. For different reasons both labourism and communism have been disastrously incurious about this structure, too quick to dismiss it as a shadow cast by business that will vanish with the abolition of private property, or to seize on it as an instrument that can be used for socialist ends. And of course, the left needs to think at once internationally and constitutionally – to replace the existing global institutions with structures for cooperation that bring international relations under review by national and transnational publics. National democracy cannot survive in a global system characterised by domination.

But I am not sure who the piece is arguing with. The Labour Party is committed to respecting the EU referendum result because it is – rightly – fearful of the electoral consequences of not doing so. A small number of people made a left-wing case for Brexit in 2016. More have tried to make the best of a bad situation since then. But there is little appetite for leaving. It will make things much more complicated for a future socialist government in the immediate term. (It is much safer to break state aid rules within the EU than outside, after all.) Labour’s responsibility right now is to survive as a nationally viable civic republican and socialist project.

[Update: I am not at all sure that civic republicanism will succeed in Europe without support from national governments who are committed to it. And anyway, I am not sure that the EU is the appropriate scale for international coordination. Surely our ambitions ought to be global?]

A Local Economic Strategy for Thanet

thriving thanetOn Friday 23rd Neil McInroy will be giving a talk on ‘Building a Thriving Thanet’. Neil is the chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, which has been at the forefront of an approach to economic planning called ‘community wealth building’.

‘Community wealth building’ sets out to use public and third sector cashflows to create positive feedback loops in local economies. Procurement policies favour local companies over large contractors, an activist council helps build capacity in the private sector where it is lacking, and promotes the co-operative sector where appropriate. There’s much more to be said about it, and Neil will be able to explain much better than I can the difference it has made.

Here I just want to make a few preliminary remarks about what a local economic strategy for Thanet might look like.

Local, Really Local

I am going to concentrate for now on Margate, because it is where I live and where I have thought most about the relevance of community wealth building. Getting Margate’s model right will have important spill-over effects for the rest of the district. But this is one piece of a puzzle that includes Ramsgate, Broadstairs and a mixed hinterland that includes high grade agricultural land and large scale retail at Westwood Cross.

It is important to remember that when we talk about Thanet we are talking about a built-up area and periphery that is home to more than 140,000 people, as large as many English cities. Given its distance, and difference from, Kent’s other main population centres, it is worth asking whether Thanet is best served by its current system of local government, or whether it would make more sense if it became a unitary authority.

The Curse of Beauty

Like many other seaside resort towns in England, Margate suffers from a particular variant on the ‘resource curse’. This was first proposed by economists who wondered why countries with massive oil and gas reserves were so often poor. The easy money from natural resources, the so-called resource rent, promotes economic inequality as revenues are captured by a relative handful of public and private elites. Behind a facade of respectability, rewards are distributed through corrupt patronage networks and their ability to move money offshore starves domestic sectors of investment and talent.

No one is suggesting that local government in Thanet is corrupt, of course. But in other respects Thanet is a bit like, say, Saudi Arabia. In its heyday as a resort, a small number of landlords captured the massive revenues generated by seasonal tourism and, rather than using the money to develop the rest of the economy in the region, they moved the money out of area. Their revenues were not dependent on the patient building of a productive base. People came for the sun, sea and sand. If the beer was expensive and the ice cream was made of pig fat, that was life. Or was until Benidorm beckoned.

As Margate’s fortunes as a resort recover, thanks in part to public investments via the Heritage Lottery Fund, it is important to grasp the extent to which the tourist sector is underpinned by the massive, unearned resource that is the town’s coastline and its capacity to generate heart-stopping skies. This should be understood as a public, commonly held asset, and the rents derived from it should be treated as source of public revenue, not as a windfall for private landlords. To put it another way, the value created by the location – the beauty resource – should be taxed and used for the purposes of general enrichment. (The value created by the ingenuity and effort of people is another matter.)

Sun, Sea, and the Socialisation of Resource Rents

The fortunes of the town depend on the distribution of revenues derived from its locational advantage. Both direct public ownership of land and taxation policy have a role to play in ensuring that the resource rent supports the local economy, instead of being lost ‘offshore’.

The public authority has an equally vital role to play in ensuring that resource rents are spent back into the local economy in ways that promote democratically agreed objectives.

Money kept in the area could be used to improve the town’s viability as a year-round resort, and to enhance the public realm. In sectors like public health it is possible to imagine a ‘sea-bathing spa’ approach to investment that both enhances its appeal as a destination and improves the quality of life of Thanet’s permanent residents. (The proximity of some of the best beaches in the South East to some of its most deprived communities is thought-provoking to say the least in this respect.) It could also be used as a source of start-up funding for local co-operatives, to strengthen local supply chains, and so on.

A spirited district council, backed by a public who understand what is at stake, could do some of this. To do more, it might be necessary to change both the structure of local government in Thanet in particular, and the tax-raising powers of coastal communities more generally. Coastal resorts are a particular kind of place and there is something to be said for an approach that takes this particularity seriously and develops a shared agenda from Margate and Great Yarmouth in the East to Blackpool and Weston-Super-Mare in the West.

Thanet, Jewel of the Thames Riviera

Margate ought to be a source of sustainable revenues for the rest of Thanet. Its needs as a visitor resort ought to be brought into harmony with the people who live in the area. Co-operative businesses created and sustained by the visitor economy ought to be able to expand and diversify from the visitor economy into other sectors as their collective capacities develop. But none of that will happen without a political fight, that will peel the small businesses away from rentiers and build a new coalition around a reformed and much more fully democratic public sector.

I’ll leave it there for now.



The Return of the Public Meeting & Pamphlet

08 Pettifor

A few weeks ago I arrived at The World Transformed festival with a hell of a lot of pamphlets – 14 boxes, each containing one of the titles that together form the New Thinking for the British Economy series. The series itself had been commissioned and edited by Laurie Macfarlane of openDemocracyUK over the summer, and the whole collection can be downloaded as a free ebook from the openDemocracy site here.

I knew that Laurie had put some inspiring writers to work on developing plans for a new way of doing economics in the UK . Each title stood alone, and together they formed a treasury of proposals for reforms to the UK political economy. So I found myself arguing some time in August, digital technology is all very well, but wouldn’t the pieces make more of an impact, have more of a presence, if they were also available in print? And  might people pay a little for such riches?

And so there I was, after some generous help from the Democracy Collaborative, with a carload of pamphlets, and a vague sense that people who go to speaker meetings might be willing to part with £1 to take away a pamphlet by the speaker, or another piece on a similar topic, or something else that looked interesting.

With help from Laurie Macfarlane himself, his colleague at openDemocracy, Adam Ramsay, and Sarah McKinley of the Democracy Collaborative, we sold the best part of a thousand pamphlets over the course of the festival. Given that we didn’t really get going until the Sunday, and we were all busy with other things, this was pretty good going.

When we were in place at the end of a talk with a pamphlet by the speaker, or speakers, we found that around 30-40% of the audience would buy a copy. Hardly anyone who wanted one was put off by the idea of paying a pound for it.

As Labour and The World Transformed ramps up their programme of political education, here is a tested way to help cover the costs of organizing a single public meeting, or of a festival. If you want to organize an event on the current shambles in banking and how to fix it, you can invite Christine Berry and Ann Pettifor to come and give a talk. At the end, you can leap out at the exiting crowds and sell them some pamphlets.

Or you can ask Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn Langton to make a presentation on platform capitalism, and the possibilities for socialist intervention in the tech sector. How about Johnna Montgomerie and Laurie Macfarlane on the rising tide of household debt, and what to do about it? Or Adam Ramsay on the need for a new constitution? Susan Himmelweit on creating a new economy of care?

Organizers can buy the titles at a very steep discount, and sell them at informal events beforehand as well as after the talks. You can use them to start conversations in the workplace and the pub. You can leave the ones you don’t sell on public transport, or give them to your friends and neighbours.

There’s a hunger for new thinking out there, and the BBC and the newspapers aren’t that good at sharing it. And while social media can help, these are platforms we don’t control and can’t rely on.

Download the free ebook and have a read. If you think a particular topic would make a good event in your area, get in touch with me on Twitter, or via the Commonwealth website. I will try my best to help make the event a success, put you in touch with authors, and make sure you have pamphlets to sell.

This is the full list of titles:

  1. Towards a People’s Banking System – Christine Berry
  2. Democratic Ownership – Andrew Cumbers and Thomas M. Hanna
  3. Building Digital Plenty – Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn Langton
  4. Building a Wellbeing Economy – Katherine Trebeck
  5. Transforming Care – Susan Himmelweit
  6. Industrial Policy – Craig Berry
  7. A Progressive Vision for Trade – Ruth Bergan
  8. Financial Globalisation and Capital Mobility – Ann Pettifor
  9. Curbing the Debt Economy – Johnna Montgomery
  10. Work and Free Time – Will Stronge
  11. Media Democracy – Dan Hind and Tom Mills
  12. ‘Race’ and Racism in the UK – Maya Goodfellow
  13. Trying to Milk a Vulture: A New Vision for the UK Constitution – Adam Ramsay
  14. Beyond the Property Owning Democracy – Laurie Macfarlane


‘Burke for Labour’ vs ‘The World Transformed’

This year I went to my first World Transformed festival. It was packed with engaged and creative audiences. There was a sense of purpose and serious intent. Labour is a party and a movement that is preparing for government.

But there is a worry, ably expressed by Adam Ramsay, that, as Labour approaches power, it will default to the Burkean conception of public life that is still predominates among the party’s MPs and in the circuits of centre-left publicity. ‘Burke for Labour’ insists that everything depends on ‘the prudence and uprightness of Ministers’. Labour MPs work harder, and are morally superior to, the current crop of Tories. If they can just get their hands on office, all will be well. Austerity will end and the railways and utilities will be nationalised and suddenly everyone will burst out singing. For five or even ten years, until the Tories get in again.

‘Burke for Labour’ is heard at its most wounded when MPs complain that they are elected by thousands of voters, not handfuls of activists, and that mandatory reselection would be  an insult to the, fortuitously unwritten, constitution.  Popular mobilisation is welcome, as long as it makes itself available as fuel for the electoral ambitions of the people’s tribunes. They insist that if the membership, and the citizenry beyond, start to ask questions about the hierarchical nature of the Party and about the anti-democratic nature of the state itself, then that same mobilisation becomes mob rule.

And the centrists have a point. To the extent that we have a constitution it organizes itself around the idea that public initiative is best kept under the close supervision of a handful of people. The judgement of oligarchy, rather than the power of a fully realised democracy, keeps undesirable elements away from power. The few decide who the extremists are, and who has the qualities needed for high office. It is a form of the state that is becoming increasingly contradictory and crisis-prone, and paranoid projection is becoming the signature style of its partisans. But it survives.

While need to be alive to the danger that a Labour government will be a moment of respite from Toryism, there are grounds for optimism. Corbyn and his allies have already been able to articulate a politics far more radical than that of the post-war settlement.

McDonnell’s proposals last week for worker representation on boards, and for ‘Inclusive Ownership Funds’ that secure for workers an equity stake in large companies, are attempts to bring democracy into the economy, and increase the numbers of those who exercise power in the workplace. The plans for nationalisation being developed by McDonnell  and Rebecca Long Bailey are informed by a desire to move away from the Morrisonian public corporation to develop institutional forms that give citizens meaningful opportunities to participate in public business. This participation will serve as an education in power that has been denied the majority of us since the late seventies.

The desire to go beyond social democracy in one country is core to the political tradition to which Corbyn and McDonnell belong. Bennism was acutely aware of, and to a considerable extent defined itself against, the limitations of the post-war welfare state. Last week at the World Transformed McDonnell spoke about the need to be ‘in and against the state’, a phrase taken from the influential pamphlet and book of the same name published in 1979-80. By then, socialists understood that the administration of benefits was not sufficient, and that the state itself, as enabler and defender of capitalism, would have to be brought to the attention of the reforming imagination.

There are signs, too, that this democratising agenda is reaching beyond the economic sphere narrowly defined. Corbyn’s speech on media reform in Edinburgh in August was the first time that the leader of a major UK party had made a serious attempt to address the implications of the move away from a broad-and-print media regime to one in which digital platforms predominate. As Anthony Barnett notes, the BBC is part of the informal British constitution, and this is true of the wider communicative apparatus. The state is inseparable from the ways in which is generally understood and misunderstood. Meanwhile, Jon Trickett’s work on a constitutional convention shows that the leadership team understand the need to build out from the proposals for industrial democracy to a new conception of the state as a space for democratic deliberation and planning.

This brings us to a more gloomy reason for thinking that the next Labour administration won’t be able to make do with shifting the dial a little to the left for a few years. As Adam Ramsay himself has pointed out, the old state form that administered public services and presided over the economy between 1945 and 1979 has been all but gutted by successive waves of privatisation, marketisation and outsourcing. Modern mandarins move to and from the public sector every few years and are used to seeing large corporations as their partners and adjutants when they are not their employers. Rebuilding state capacity cannot be a matter of restoring Keynesian aristocrats of mind to their former eminence. The species is all but extinct. While the Labour left’s instincts mean that they want to democratise the state, the current reality leaves them few other options.

The completeness of Thatcher’s victory means that the state must be reformed quite profoundly so that an informed and confident public can push for, and defend, even a modest programme of social democratic amelioration. The creation of such a state is the necessary precondition for further advance, and a powerful defence against the revival of Toryism.

The leadership’s actions so far show that they mean it when they say they want to secure an “irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people.” They won’t succeed without deep reform of the state, and of the communicative apparatus it creates, and that in turn gives it form and substance.

It is time to push forward with a conversation about communications, the constitution, and the possibilities presented by new technology. Faced with climate change, endemic gangsterism, and manipulative elites, anything less than a politics of transformation is a dangerous distraction. We have known this for years, and the cramped horizons of the political mainstream left us feeling helpless.

The unlikely return of the Labour left gives us a chance to describe the future we want, and to create it together. They have few allies among the few. But if we grasp the opportunity they present, they will have us. And we are many.

[Adam’s essay on constitutional reform, Milking a Vulture, can be found free online here, along with a number of other important pieces edited by Laurie Macfarlane as part of the New Thinking for the British Economy series. If you would like to organise speaker meetings with the authors of those pieces, and order paper versions to sell to help cover costs, then come and find me on Twitter, or via the Commonwealth Publishing website.]



A Cooperative Commonwealth

Today the Democracy Collaborative publish my essay on constitutional reform, The Constitutional Turn: Liberty and the Cooperative State. It sets out a model of the state as the shared property of its citizens that mirrors and corroborates the proposals for economic democracy that are gaining traction on the left.

At the moment we have a corporate state, in the sense that the corporation is the state’s favoured partner. A cooperative state will look to the cooperative as the default form of human organization and will legislate and administer accordingly. I try to describe what that means in concrete terms in the piece.

I hope it will make some contribution to the conversation we are starting to have, about the way we live now, and the kind of future we want to build together.

Owen Jones vs the British Media

On Friday morning Owen Jones tweeted that:

The main thing I’ve learned from working in the British media is that much of it is a cult. Afflicted by a suffocating groupthink, intolerant of critics, hounds internal dissenters, full of people who made it because of connections and/or personal background rather than merit.

The response of the British media was illuminating. ‘Much of it’ presented potted autobiographies showing how they had made it despite coming from a comprehensive school, without connections or a helpful background. To say that they hadn’t addressed Jones’ point is to understate things. The British media is clearly dominated by people from privileged backgrounds. All the evidence supports this. It is not a closed system, however, and it is still possible to progress in it without family connections, despite increasing inequality.

Not only that, the frantically autobiographical nature of the responses distracts us from the wider point. There is a remarkable unanimity in the British media on subjects of vital concern to those who own the country and those who run the state. This is perhaps most consequential in the related matters of political economy and foreign policy. Setting aside foreign policy, most journalists default to an account of the economy derived from what we might call the City-Treasury-BoE view. Whatever its merits, this view is taken as uncontroversial and sensible. Politicians gain a reputation for gravitas to the extent that they can work within it. Any deviations from it are treated with intense suspicion.

We now have an official opposition that challenges this account in important ways. This doesn’t seem unreasonable, given that the City, the central bank and the finance ministry have delivered crisis and stagnation for more than a decade. But much of the media can only process Labour’s defection from the status quo as grounds for its disqualification from serious consideration. The rump of the old Labour establishment, on the other hand, remains faithful to it and is therefore worth quoting, even though they do not control the Party and are unlikely to for the foreseeable future.

The key question is this: how do we introduce a true plurality of views in coverage of political economy? I don’t mean simply broadening the spectrum of commentators. A true plurality would allow the public to decide for itself whether the current consensual account is adequate, or whether it needs to be revised or replaced. Different approaches would be given resources to make their case. Over months and years the terrain of political debate would be changed by this reconstitution of publicly accessible speech.

We could wait for the senior managers in print and broadcast to accept that their world-view needs to be exposed to the potentially terminal experience of informed challenge, or we could create a media system in which democratic participation is the starting point. Such a system is described in outline by Tom Mills’ working paper on BBC reform for the Media Reform Coalition, here.

Democratic media would allow journalists working in their communities to build support for their reporting and analysis. It would be possible to build a career by serving the public directly and accountably. Trade union members and political activists could commission journalists and researchers to develop bodies of knowledge and understanding that could then take their chances in a wider field of debate. Professions could break the strangleholds of gerontocracy and the money power. Academics could take time off from teaching and research in universities to bring important news to the public in forms that are comprehensible and relevant.

The advantages enjoyed by people from wealthy backgrounds wouldn’t disappear. But success would depend much more than it does now on making a demonstrable contribution to the general understanding. Plutocrats could continue to fund loss-making newspapers but the claims of their sponsored commentators would be open to refutation from a wider system where professional success doesn’t depend on wealthy patrons or bureaucratic guile.

Much of the British media is as Owen Jones describes. We cannot wait for someone to save us. It is up to us to devise a new model in which we all achieve some degree of control. This is not a matter of making the media repeat things we like the sound of. This is about convening a debate about matters of consequence to which we can contribute in defined ways as civic equals, and from which we can derive an improved understanding of the world.

We have a chance with the current Labour Party to put a reforming administration in power. If they use that power to establish equality in speech, the change will be profound. But the need is not self-evident. It requires steady thought from thousands  of people, in the face of hysterical distractions from those who are committed to, and profit from, the existing order of things.

If you don’t want Facebook, what do you want?

Facebook is once again in the news. Last month a joint investigation by the Observer, the New York Times and Channel 4 revealed that a UK company, Cambridge Analytica, had used information about Facebook’s users to target voters during Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become president in 2016. But the threat that the data giants’ business model poses to individual autonomy and to democratic process is not news.
In 2013 a US government contractor called Edward Snowden leaked documents showing how Facebook and the other digital platforms had been effectively integrated with the NSA’s global intelligence apparatus. The US-UK secret state was hoovering data from Facebook and Google’s servers and could use it for anything from population-wide analysis to the stalking of individuals. Somehow the moment passed without substantial reform.

This time things look a little different. Right-wing outliers have now used social media to frustrate the agenda of the broad centre of political and economic power in both the US and the UK. Trump and Brexit were not supposed to happen. These upsets followed the surprisingly strong performance of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing transformation from obscure backbencher to plausible future Prime Minister. The same technology that permits right-wing billionaires to refine their propaganda has also given the left the means to discover itself as a political constituency. In other words, the platforms are now a problem to people who matter.
It is important to grasp that their problem is not ours. The mainstream of economic and political power in the US and elsewhere would like to see Facebook and Google more fully integrated with the state apparatus. The platforms will play much the same role as the television networks. They will be venues in which professionally produced and corporately managed journalism is systematically favoured and the impact of ‘fake news’ is minimised. Facebook and Google will remain dominant but they will be subject to regulation that aligns them with the needs of the rest of the propertied class. (Property here includes political office.) We can already see how Google is trying to accommodate itself to this regulatory agenda. If this weakens the democratic left at the same time as it marginalises the disreputable right, then this is, from their point of view, a price worth paying. Let’s be honest, most of them, including those who think that they are on the left, will see it as a bonus.

What then does the emerging majority that began to assemble around the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns do at this moment? Certainly, we can disengage from Facebook and seek to develop alternatives. Facebook is itself creature of the US universities. Students are well placed to try out alternatives. They are much more concerned with the networks they are building in real life than with the billions of profiles already in the Facebook fold – let them use their own platforms to plan their parties and whatnot. Besides, it seems increasingly odd that young people are graduating without learning about the network technology that increasingly determines their life chances. Linux was created by young people with too much time on their hands. It isn’t unrealistic to imagine that a cross-disciplinary project at one or more universities could do something much less technically challenging. The existing institutions of the left, perhaps especially the UK’s reviving labour movement, could also play an important part in a project like this. If we really are preparing for transformative administrations in first the UK and then the US, then we need to understand the possibilities of technology, and figure out what the hell technically competent people are talking about when they talk about algorithms and encryption.

But the main thrust of our response must be political. The state is where the fate of network media will be decided. Experimental alternatives to Facebook can have an important demonstration effect. But they will not break through unless our governments are compelled to support them and to help them reach scale. In this respect each national context is different. In what follows I discuss the situation in the UK, although some of what I propose might be relevant elsewhere.

In Britain the BBC remains the dominant source of politically significant speech. So far it hasn’t embraced the emancipatory potential of new technology, hampered as it is by both its risk-averse and top-heavy management culture and by a wider political context in which private interests were listened to when they complained about ‘crowding out’. It is time we rejected this flat out and insisted on the creation of a ‘public option’ in social media. A reforming administration would be well advised to create a British Digital Corporation (BDC) to develop, along with much else besides, this public option in partnership with the BBC.

A public network would have communicative equality and privacy built into its basic infrastructure. Wherever possible, communication would bypass central aggregation and data would be stored on the users’ own devices. The members of this BDC network could choose how they related to others and what kinds of data they shared. They could also decide how they engaged with institutions, including the BBC. The BBC’s output, of course, would be a compelling reason for individuals to engage with the BDC platform.
In such a system, the BBC would remain central to setting the news agenda but with this important change; at the moment the corporation uses newspapers as proxies for public opinion, in this new model the public will participate directly in the production of news and analysis through the exercise of defined powers to commission and promote content. At the same time, the BBC’s governing structures would be reformed so that we are able to maintain effective oversight of the country’s key communicative resource.
In the exercise of these powers the public becomes conversant with itself, in the sense that each user can understand something of the preferences and assumptions of others. Mediating institutions remain, of course, indeed proliferate. But the body politic ceases to be a collection of more or less isolated individuals and becomes instead articulate and legible as a whole and as a collection of collectivities.

This British Digital Corporation could develop this public option as part of a suite of resources designed to eliminate price-gouging and rent-seeking by private monopolies. Wendy Liu has made a number of proposals in this regard. For example, a publicly owned payments system combined with a renationalised Royal Mail could provide the backbone of a co-operatively owned e-commerce platform to compete with Amazon. We might also want to create and license a Linux-derived operating system for use in computers and mobile phones that don’t spy on us. By challenging the Windows/IOS/Android oligopoly this would reduce the cost of computing and, in conjunction with public social media, reduce our exposure to data harvesting.

An e-commerce platform could also, combined with the BDC’s social network, become a space where collective aspirations are discovered and met. It is becoming increasingly obvious that much that we prize, from beautiful housing in thriving communities to mental and physical health, can only be secured by the majority if we are able to pool resources and co-produce them. Money currently spent to alleviate distress would then be used to increase the total stock of happiness. You could call this democratic socialist planning or a simple expansion of republican self-government, according to taste.

This public option for tech is an important way in which the new, nationally oriented left can transcend the limitations of postwar social democracy and begin grappling with the transnational problems created by climate change, financialised capitalism and militarism. The resources developed by the British Development Corporation could be shared with those who want to develop a democratic and egalitarian alternative to oligarchic surveillance in other countries. If the right want a Global Britain, then perhaps the left should give it to them.

Democracy Collaborative Fellowship

I am very pleased to say that I will be working for the next six months as a Fellow at the Democracy Collaborative. The Democracy Collaborative has done extensive work in Cleveland, Ohio, and is a great storehouse of technical expertise and practical experience in promoting economic development that benefits the majority. I’ll be working there on a paper on constitutional design for the Next System Project there. The Next System Project looks to scale up lessons from community wealth-building and to help us think through, and work towards, a replacement for neoliberal capitalism.

My paper will look at the existing institutional array of the state and ask how this might be supplemented through the revival of older forms and the integration of new ones into the structures of government. I’ll also look at how the state has changed its area of operation since the late eighteenth century, and increasingly done so by judicial and executive fiat rather than through a democratically legitimate process of reform.

This project builds on a research paper I prepared for the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance‘s Colloquium on Constitutional Remedies for Oligarchic Democracy in the Summer, Restoring the Assembly: Equality in Speech and Democratic Power, which can be found here.

My 2016 ebook, The Public and the Mass, is an introduction to some of the issues I will be addressing.

Restoring the Assembly: Equality in Speech and Democratic Power


Public apathy and political ignorance are a fundamental fact today, beyond any possible dispute; decisions are made by political leaders, not by popular vote, which at best has only an occasional veto power after the fact. The issue is whether this state of affairs is, under modern conditions, a necessary and desirable one, or whether new forms of popular participation, in the Athenian spirit though not in the Athenian substance, if I may phrase it that way, need to be invented.

M.I. Finley[i]


Rights and Representation in the Liberal Constitution

Writing in support of the recently drafted United States Constitution in the spring of 1788, James Madison was explicit about the difference between the ancient democracies and the modern republican system that he and his fellow Federalists proposed for post-revolutionary America:

[…] the principle of representation was neither unknown to the ancients nor wholly overlooked in their political constitutions. The true distinction between these and the American governments lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter, and not in the total exclusion of the representatives of the people from the administration of the former.[ii]

This total exclusion is a defining feature of the modern American republic. The popular will can only express itself through the choice of representatives in a social order where individual freedom depends on constitutionally recognised rights.

Madison saw two great advantages to a republic that excluded the people in this way. Firstly, representative republics can govern far larger territories. Secondly, representative systems are less likely to succumb to tyranny than democracies organized around an assembled citizenry.

Representation serves “to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations”. On the other hand, direct democracy is structurally doomed to chaos and misrule: “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”[iii]

The Madison of the Federalist Papers was not a straightforward oligarch. He believed that “the cool and deliberate sense of the people ought … ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers.” But he took it as axiomatic that they might sometimes be induced “to call for measures that which they themselves will be most ready to lament and condemn.”[iv] By removing them “in their collective capacity” he sought to protect the Republic from the fevers of popular enthusiasm.

While Madison thought that the people should prevail over their rulers when motivated by “justice and the general good”,[v] he was terrified by the thought of national majorities possessed by “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”[vi] There were certain policy demands that could never qualify as being “cool and deliberate.” The Federal constitution was explicitly intended to prevent them from being passed into law. The alternative, he warned, would be the creation of “a will in the community independent of the majority – that is, of the society itself.”[vii] Protect the propertied minority from the rest, or expect dictatorship.

It is now clear that the federal constitution’s combination of positive freedom to appoint representatives and a suite of liberal protections cannot secure the interests of the bulk of the population against oligarchic depredations. Stable majorities in the United States favour policies that both their representatives and the bulk of public speech routinely deride for being hopelessly unrealistic. Even proposals that fall far short of Madison’s nightmare of an equal division of property, such as a national system of public health insurance, cannot assert themselves in the systems of representation.[viii]

Stubborn and unresponsive representatives could not hope to achieve more than a temporary delay to proposals that enjoy strong popular support if they were subject to the attentions of a truly free press. But the media of communication on which most people rely have now been greatly concentrated. A mixture of inducements and threats has brought these media into line with other public and private elites, and with elected representatives above all: journalists are as reliant on official sources for their stories, and hence their salaries, as publishers are reliant on official subsidies for their profits; commercial pressures help ensure a proper deference to the demands of property.[ix]

In such circumstances it is all too easy to persuade citizens that their peers don’t want the policies they want, that manufactured emergencies must take precedence over domestic reforms in the popular interest, or that some technical or material objection makes it impossible for their demands to be met. And of course, accurate descriptions of this state of affairs must also pass through only a handful of narrow channels if they are to reach a mass audience. There are ample opportunities to suppress them along the way.[x]

Even if individuals and small groups can develop coherent legislative programmes that address reasonable objections they will not be able to present them to wide publics, much less elect enough representatives to enact them. Those who possess office will do everything they can to frustrate attempts to break their self-serving cartel. The few on the inside combine against the many outside.[xi]

Just as the description of high politics is severely constrained by concentrated public power, so too the citizens’ freedom of speech is all too often reduced to a nullity by concentrated private power. In many countries we can say what we like, but we can’t make a living if our superiors take exception to it.

The democratic quality of the early American republic, to the extent that a slave-owning, land-grabbing project in which women are denied citizenship can be called democratic, derived from the survival of “the people in their collective capacity” outside the formal constitution. The political geography was characterised by small towns, habits of both ecclesiastical and secular self-government, owner-occupied farms and independent small businesses. Furthermore the press was fragmented, highly competitive, and with very low barriers to entry. Any national coordination of opinion from above took time and was subject to sustained challenge. In these conditions the people were able to develop a robust sense of their collective interests and to assert themselves repeatedly against the centralising forces that Alexander Hamilton and others wanted to favour in the federal constitution.

In Machiavellian Democracy, John P. McCormick suggests that, “perhaps one reason that the American founders failed to provide a formal institutional equivalent of the tribunate is this: their late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century faith in the power of a widely proliferating free press operating within an increasingly literate public sphere kept virtually all framers of modern constitutions from seriously considering an institutional watchdog by, of, and for common citizens exclusively.”[xii] This surely applies at least as much to the assembly, the institutional form that Madison specifically wanted to exclude.

A fractious and diverse free press provided the people with a check on scheming representatives. An economy characterised by self-employment limited the scope for intimidation in the workplace. Parochial self-government provided citizens with an ongoing education in the uses and abuses of power. Popular control of representatives in the formal constitutional order was possible because the people “in their collective capacity” persisted as an informal fact through widespread participation in political communication and instruction. It is only after the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that the balance of power begins to tilt away from face-to-face publics towards the institutions of national authority – most notably the federal government and its creature the industrial corporation.

The Madisonian reliance on rights and representation has dominated the constitutional imagination ever since.[xiii] While democratic reformers have sought to qualify the monopoly on decision-making enjoyed by elected representatives through recall mechanisms, ballot initiatives and referenda, until recently there has been little interest in restoring the people in their collective capacity as a consistently active element in the formal constitution. The rare moments of popular decision-making that do occur take place on a terrain dominated by elected representatives and their partners in the media. The extent to which referenda, for example, prompt the mass of people to engage in public life varies greatly, and depends in large part on decisions made by those same elected representatives.[xiv]

The modern representative democracy does not include any institutions that Madison would have called democratic. Indeed, the exclusion of the people is so complete that we have almost entirely forgotten how the majority once expressed and exerted themselves. Before we discuss how to re-instate the people in the constitutional order, we should take some time to understand how they were once included.


Democracy and the Assembly 

In the Politics Aristotle explains that democracy is based on a twofold conception of liberty. It is both the sovereign power of the many over the few and the minimum of rule, with that minimum exercised by turns. From this general conception he goes on, in a somewhat borgesian passage, to derive the specific features a democratic constitution, which are essentially those of Athens in the 4th century BCE.

In a democracy, Aristotle writes, all citizens are eligible for office and can vote; there is “rule of all over each and of each by turns over all”; offices are filled by lot when they do not require experience or skill; there are no property qualifications for office, or those that exist are not set very high; office circulates among as many citizens as possible; the terms of office are kept short; there is universal participation on juries and these adjudicate on the most important matters, “such as those affecting the constitution, scrutinies, and contracts between individuals”; the assembly is sovereign; citizens are paid for their work in the assembly, in the courts and in office; public life is characterised by participation by the poor and those in mechanical trades; there is no perpetual occupation of office and where offices do have this character they are stripped of power and filled by lot.[xv]

The assembly was the sovereign political institution in the Athenian democracy. In it all citizens were equally eligible for most offices and, crucially, they enjoyed isegoria. Although this is sometimes glossed as “freedom of speech”, it is more accurate to call it “the right of every citizen to address the assembly”.[xvi] Isegoria confers an individuated power to speak publicly to the state’s sovereign decision-making body. At the assembly an official would ask “who wishes to address the assembly?” and citizens would then line up for their chance to address their peers. The freedom to speak that mattered was integrated with the ordinary business of government. It mattered because it could shape consequential public decisions by plausibly describing the citizen body to itself.

Isegoria is so central to the Athenian system of government that Herodotus uses the word when trying to account for the previously obscure city-state’s victories over Persia’s universal monarchy.[xvii] Similarly, Polybius invokes it when explaining the success of the Achaean League in the final years of Greek independence:

It seems to me that the reason is that one would be hard put to find equality and the right to speak one’s mind in assembly [isegoria and parrhesia] – in short, the system and principles of true democracy – in a purer form than among the Achaeans.[xviii]

Not only was the assembly sovereign, it was also Athens’ apex communicative form. Indeed its sovereignty and its communicative supremacy were indivisible. In assembly citizens had direct access to the views of their fellow citizens and experienced their status as self-governing citizens without mediation or representation. Each could make proposals and each could oppose them. Attempts to characterise the mood of the assembly could be challenged or simply disproved in real time. The citizenry might sometimes be bamboozled or seduced. It could not be durably estranged from itself. In this classical democracy, as Madison notes with something approaching panic, “a communication and concert results from the form of government itself.”[xix]

All constitutional settlements are communicative orders. They are inseparable from the ways in which information about them is distributed among citizens. As Aristotle puts it in the Ethics, “it is political science that prescribes what subjects are to be taught in states, and which of these the different sections of the community are to learn, and up to what point”.[xx] Tyranny, oligarchy and democracy all imply their particular distributions of knowledge. Serious democratic reform implies that the current distribution changes.

In the Athenian democracy each citizen repeatedly and unavoidably discovered himself as a citizen. This status simultaneously derived from, and was made visible and intelligible through, the lawful conduct of public business. The citizenry saw itself speak, and its speech becoming law. More generally, the conduct of government entailed a very wide distribution of political knowledge. Jury duty and appointment to office by lot would have acted as a permanent programme of demystification. Even when a post required specialist knowledge and expertise, the citizenry were responsible for assessing performance after the fact and for punishing derelictions of duty.

Our system, on the other hand, leaves elected representatives to decide on, and then convey knowledge of, the substance of the political to the people. To the extent that they reduce the media of communication to a state of dependence they are free to treat the citizenry as the audience of a drama. This theatre only intermittently informs, and does so in line with the wishes of this oligarchy “in their collective capacity.”

The media and communications resources of a modern democracy determine how political institutions are understood, and indeed whether the citizenry as a whole understand these institutions at all. Yet an enormous obscurity surrounds this apparatus of instruction. Compare the open discussions of an assembly with the sessions of a congress or parliament. Even when the latter are nominally public they will impinge on public awareness only when they are declared newsworthy, according to standards of judgement that are an uncertain mixture of commercial tradecraft and the raw exercise of power. It is important to note that we can’t ever know for sure how much power the plutocrats and professionals of the press enjoy relative to the elected representatives they cover. But it is more important for our purposes that a tiny minority, however constituted, effectively control the main avenues of information.

Yet the media stand in for the citizens’ assembly. That is, newspapers and broadcasters (and more recently digital platforms) provide us with specifically political information, including information about the preferences of citizens we don’t know. The media form part of the constitutional order, in that they determine, to a very great extent, what we know about ourselves, each other and the world beyond our direct experience, including the various institutions of government. Hence the media play a part in establishing the conditions in which these institutions operate.

The conventions governing this substitute assembly are very different from those that applied in Athens. While the modern media do not enforce exclusions based on gender or legal status, in practice they deny almost everyone the means to speak before any significant fraction of their fellow citizens. Those who speak to large audiences do so because they meet a formidable property qualification; they own, or can afford to rent, major media, they enjoy the confidence of someone who does, or they possess elected office.[xxi] Our access to politically relevant information depends on the good faith and selfless candour of a propertied minority who have every incentive to deceive us if they can do so while retaining our trust. And, as Machiavelli points out, “the few always act in the interest of the few”.[xxii]

Like the Athenian assembly, the modern media provide repeated and unavoidable instruction to the citizen about the kind of constitution we live in. They tell us that we have no right to speak in publicly consequential ways, that our perceptions of the world have no purchase on the conduct of public life, that we are permanently inferior to those who can speak, and whose perceptions do matter.

Each of us is gagged and stalled so that we can only see the speakers on the rostrum. They tell us what our neighbours think, and what is possible. Every now and again they might call on a group of us to provide the raw data for an opinion poll. But they will decide on the questions, and will interpret the answers. If we attempt to address citizens we don’t know on any day other than Election Day, at best we will be treated as an impolite nuisance, at worst as a menace to public order. Oligarchic control of this communicative equivalent of the assembly is vital to the continued domination of both the state and the economy by those who possess wealth, office or access to privileged positions in the corporate and financial bureaucracies.

The spectrum of admissible opinion excludes almost anyone who does not treat this state of affairs as an uncontroversial fact of life. We should expect this organization of effectually public speech to marginalise popular concerns and discredit policy options that would strengthen the majority in political terms and improve their material conditions.

This process of exclusion applies most rigorously in matters of war, credit and property. More careful scrutiny shows an equal, if necessarily more obscure, effort to misinform the population about the media. Consider the scorn and derision that open communicative forms and critical fields of research attract. The same penumbra of contempt that surrounds citizens’ band radio and the blogosphere attaches itself to sociology and media studies. Consider, too, the ludicrously inflated reputation enjoyed by those economists whose work derives elegant conclusions from premises that do not include the facts of class power or the reality of rent. Meanwhile the philosophers that sought to discredit 4th century Athenian democracy are bathed in the bright sunlight of both academic and journalistic respectability.[xxiii]

A tiny minority have considerable freedom to promote ideas, assumptions and descriptions that serve their interests. A somewhat larger body provides intellectual guard labour by reproducing these ideas and denouncing those who object. Troublesome experts can be dismissed as cranks and helpful cranks recast as experts. As a result, widely shared and authoritative representations of the social world can diverge from reality for long periods of time. Even when, as in the 2007-2008 crisis, the approved version collapsed under the weight of events there was no serious attempt at a reckoning. The architects and publicists of the conventional fantasy presided over the post-mortems and declared the whole affair an unfathomable mystery.

Oligarchic power itself is so thorough and unexamined that belief in its existence is sometimes treated as evidence of a conspiratorial turn of mind. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the statement “even though we live in a democracy a few people will always run things anyway” qualifies as a “conspiracy claim”.[xxiv] If acknowledging the broad outlines of social reality is disreputable, any attempt to describe it in detail struggles to find expression in ways that reach large audiences. After all, why should we pay attention to conclusions that flow from the premises of the paranoid imagination?

Although we now pay more attention to the leverage moneyed interests enjoy over elected representatives, it is the pervasive shaping of the general field of publicity that does most to frustrate the popular will and entrench oligarchic control. After all, representatives often respond to public opinion when it manages to assert itself effectively. The task is to provide this public opinion with the facts of power so that the majority can, in an orderly fashion, sweep away organized and collusive resistance to their legitimate wishes. If we want to change the conduct of representatives so that they favour popular constituencies instead of themselves and their partners in oligarchy, then we must change the communicative order in which they act. In this isegoria, one of the core features of actually existing democracy, has an important role to play.


Restoring the Assembly 

So far we have noted the exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from the federal constitution and its many imitators around the world. We have gone on to discuss the assembly as the sovereign political body and the apex communicative institution in the classical democracies. We’ve also compared the ancient assembly with its equivalents in the modern media-political (that is, constitutional) order. If we are to revive democracy and challenge the tendency towards oligarchy in the Madisonian system of representation, it makes sense to consider how best to re-admit the assembly characterised by isegoria as an element of constitutional design.[xxv]

Here we come to a dilemma. As an agent of direct administration, the assembly is limited to very small areas of operation. It cannot hope to serve the needs of even a small modern nation state, much less those of a large compound republic like the United States or a shame-faced federation like the European Union. But it is useful here to make a distinction between the administrative and communicative functions of the classical assembly. It is these latter that are crucial to a democratic restoration. Unless we can speak to one another as equals and develop ideas and bodies of knowledge autonomously we will not be able to coordinate successfully against oligarchic power.

The practical revival of the communicative assembly consists in this; the allocation of resources on an egalitarian basis to support the production of effectually public speech. This is the most direct way to revive isegoria, understood as equality in public speech. In concrete terms this would require that the constitution give each citizen a sum of money to spend as they wish on journalism, research and analysis, as well as on publications and communication platforms.

This sum could be set annually by the legislature, subject to some defined minimum calculated as a multiple of the median wage, such that the citizen body could, with a minimum of prudence, employ enough people and resources to both supply and structure public speech. This total could be set at the same level as the current expenditures on corporate public relations, think tanks and media.[xxvi]

Let us consider some of the benefits that will accrue from the creation of an array of communicative spaces given autonomy and resources by the constitutional order. The assembly understood in this sense will greatly increase our ability to raise issues. It will tend to prevent both cognitive capture of the majority by their representatives, and of representatives by domestic magnates and foreign powers.

We will be able to make independent inquiries into “that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge”, knowledge of “the character and conduct” of our rulers[xxvii]; there will be greater communicative parity between the rich and the rest – the majority will be able to create venues for communication that rival the golf clubs and other fraternities where the oligarchy plan their raids on the future; we will have the means to develop and share a refined understanding of both public and private power, and of the obscure connections between them.[xxviii] The language of technical expertise will be subject to reasoned challenge and public discussion can be conducted in a manner consistent with effective democratic control.

This opportunity to allocate resources will secure for vulnerable employees the power to shape public speech, to give their grievances a civic character and to discover their own remedies. It will mean that individuals subject to prejudicial treatment in the existing avenues of communication can work with others to build their own bodies of knowledge and make good on their formal right to equal treatment in the public arena.

The exercise of isegoria in this way does not require the same rigours of exposure as the classical assembly. Individuals can use their powers to shape speech anonymously and to form communities at will. Self-defined groups, including those currently marginalised, will be able to develop programmes of inquiry and promote political initiatives without having to enter the gendered and prejudicial space of political performance.

Perhaps most crucially, this addition to popular power will enable the citizenry to develop and refine digital platforms that protect anonymity, secure a proper equality in speech, and allow a steady and unrelenting pressure to be exerted on elected officials. We are currently moving from a communicative system dominated by broadcast to one in which digital platforms take a central position. This change is taking place with almost no public debate, as we would expect in an oligarchic system of government.

At the moment, the vast majority of us have nothing but the blunt instrument of the vote, supplemented by protests that the media can describe as they wish, or petitions that representatives can cheerfully ignore. The control of funds to shape public speech will give us a regular opportunity to change the minds of our fellow citizens, and for them to change our minds. Journalists will work directly for their audiences and will therefore be subject to different incentives. This matters because only a citizenry that enjoys substantive isegoria will be able to make sense of contemporary conditions and develop “a cool and deliberate” sense of its wishes, in the face of attempts at subversion by an energetic, intelligent and well-resourced oligarchic opposition.

Isegoria will need popular institutions to safeguard it. Civic juries seem especially promising in this regard. Juries could be used to review the individuals and organizations that seek public funds. These juries would not necessarily be able to proscribe those they disliked, but they would have powers to make their dislike, and the reasons for it, widely known. Juries could also assist in the development of digital platforms that safeguard anonymity, promote civility and equality, and engage positively but unabashedly with the institutions of power.

The partial restoration of the assembly through the autonomous funding of speech, while necessary, will not be sufficient to provide popular interests with effective counterweight to oligarchic power. Isegoria is a matter of equality in public speech. There is no point in each of use being free to address an empty assembly, And while it is vital that we are free to develop and refine forms of speech in self-governing groups, in order to be effective, this speech must find its way into the wider circuits of publicity.

To this end, local assemblies could be convened to discuss the findings of research that residents consider relevant and worthy of more general consideration. “Viewers’ panels” appointed regularly by lot could be used to assess particular fields of inquiry and present edited selections from publicly funded projects on public service media. General votes at regional and national level could be used to similar effect. In this way, the power to discover information will be twinned with the power to shape the distribution of general attention.

Given these powers, we will be able to ensure that public speech – the information and analysis, the criticisms and proposed remedies that reach the ordinarily distracted individuals of a large polity – reflects our concerns and interests. While the citizens of even a small nation state cannot practically convene in the same time and place, securing a degree of popular control over the content found in shared communicative spaces will enable us to approximate the assembly as an experience in daily, democratic life. The oligarchic monopoly on public speech will be broken.

I do not wish to pronounce here on the virtues or defects of other proposals for democratic empowerment through juries, ward assemblies or tribunician offices.[xxix] But the success of all these efforts to revive self-government will depend at least in part, and perhaps to a very considerable extent, on how these institutional forms are understood by broad publics, and on how their day-to-day operations are described. A communicative order that remains effectively oligarchic will have every incentive to persuade audiences that juries and assemblies are misguided or dangerous, or, in a more conciliatory tone, that it is unfair to demand so much from ordinary and inexpert citizens. Without effective isegoria, these necessarily fragmentary and incomplete participatory institutions will be easy meat for the oligarchs.[xxx] It is the universal experience of a right to public speech that brings democratic principle into the realm of lived experience.

Similarly, absent isegoria, competition for office, including for tribunician posts, will still take place around issues the citizenry do not choose. And in circumstances where most people lack first- or second-hand knowledge of the candidates, paid consultants will still be able to build popularly appealing brands around candidates who are resolutely committed to the interests of the oligarchy.

The invigilating citizenry will need to spend time and exercise discretion when deciding how to spend money to improve the general stock of descriptions. And their work will generate rich dividends, in terms of the public good. A sustained attempt to understand and then reform the financial sector, for example, will pay for itself many times over in a more productive and more equal economic order. Similarly, even those who nominally control national tax systems are often woefully ill-informed about them. More careful public scrutiny will lead to better assessment and collection.

So the revival of isegoria is a way to reframe the debate about universal basic income. No one seriously suggests that public relations executives, commissioning editors and elected representatives should work for nothing. If the citizen body takes on some of their responsibilities, then it is only right that it should also be given material support to do so. Besides, if universal payments are not accompanied by powers to inquire into the mainsprings of economic obligation they will soon be devoured by monopoly charges on land in the form of rents and debt repayments. Citizens were paid to attend the assembly and to serve on juries in Athens and it is hard to argue that a modern industrial economy is less able to support widespread public deliberation than an ancient city-state.[xxxi]



The communicative powers proposed above are intended to meet, and ultimately overawe, the power of elected representatives. In another idiom they might be described as a means to make good on a collective right to information that is reasonably safe to believe. The field of descriptions is at least as vulnerable to private enclosure and pollution as the natural environment and the effective preservation of the latter depends crucially on a communicative order characterised by candour and equality of voice. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that the right to participate effectively in the shaping of generally held beliefs is the guarantor of all other rights. We will never be safe while fictions that serve the oligarchy are allowed to roam around unchallenged.

Although the reassertion of isegoria as a constitutional principle might seem unfamiliar and impractical, it offers a number of benefits. In the immediate term, everyone who is interested in constitutional remedies for oligarchy stands to gain from a renewed emphasis on equality in public speech. After all, the success of other reform efforts requires that we create constituency for change that achieves a “communication and a concert” before it alters the form of government. It is not enough to exhort people to be more civic-minded. We must describe the difference that reform will make to the material conditions of life and, wherever possible, inscribe that difference in our organizations.

With this in mind, we might look to promote research that is anti-oligarchical by design. For example, we might create large juries to pursue knowledge of subjects currently characterised by widespread apathy and ignorance. The enlightening impact of material support for deliberation between equals could be subject to both scholarly assessment and dissemination through partnerships with independent media. Even more pointedly, the output from these juries could be compared with the current state of understanding in the relevant academic disciplines. James S. Fishkin and others have given us good reason to think that democratic deliberation helps to refine and improve public opinion.[xxxii] We might also discover that juries are less vulnerable to oligarchic subversion than universities.

An emphasis on isegoria also provides us with a language to connect the cause of constitutional reform with debates about the media. A media-political regime in which radio, large circulation newspapers and, especially, television were central is giving way to one in which digital platforms predominate. The nature of this emerging communicative order is a matter of deep constitutional significance. It is also, as the controversy over “fake news” demonstrates, a matter of serious public concern. But the regulatory impulse is at best aristocratic in spirit, for all its appeal to a certain kind of liberal. As such it is less likely to attract popular support than proposals to make public speech more robustly democratic by opening up its production to the citizen body as a whole.

Isegoria also gives us a way of assessing private initiatives to improve media coverage. To the extent that news media allow their audiences to shape the priorities, and discuss the implications, of their journalism, they begin to re-constitute the media space as an egalitarian assembly. A project like Wikitribune offers us a real world example that can act as a rough working model of a media system that embodies communicative equality, or as a warning of what goes wrong when democracy principle is overlooked.[xxxiii] By focusing on the need to establish equality in speech, constitutional reformers can help to build institutions in the present that make their proposals for state-level change seem increasingly commonsensical.

Without the general right to effective public speech, the oligarchs will regroup and seek to recapture any ground they lose to reformers. Efforts to revive popular power will struggle in a communicative order that is itself hostile to democracy. By giving it a more directly democratic character, isegoria makes constitutional reform to diminish oligarchic power more likely to happen. It also makes it more likely to succeed.


[i] M.I. Finley, Democracy Ancient and Modern (London, 1985), p. 36.

[ii] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Oxford, 1987), Number 63, p.373.

[iii] ibid, Number 55, p.336. Madison’s claim here is entirely baseless, of course.

[iv] ibid, Number 63, p.371.

[v] ibid, Number 51, p.322.

[vi] ibid, Number 10, p.128.

[vii] ibid, Number 51, p. 321.

[viii] On foreign policy, for example, see Benjamin I. Page and Marshall M. Bouton, The Foreign Policy Disconnect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders But Don’t Get (Chicago, 2006). Extensive US polling data is available on support for public healthcare. See, for example, ‘More American say government should ensure health care coverage’, Kristen Bialik, Pugh Research Center, January 13, 2017.

[ix] As Justin Lewis notes, elected representatives have increased this pressure , thereby making advertising the dominant broadcast genre, “with little consultation or discussion”. Justin Lewis, Beyond Consumer Capitalism: Media and the Limits to Imagination (Cambridge, 2013), p.66. Advertising provides media companies with moment-by-moment intelligence about the preferences of other economic sectors. Meanwhile, a shared structure helps ensure that media companies embrace the existing order of property and its accompanying political mentality.

[x] The digital platforms like Twitter and, especially, Facebook seem to be contradict this claim, at least in part. But they are commercial operations and will no doubt be brought into line with the needs of representatives, who have a very vigorous way with threats to their control of the news agenda. The US-UK secret state has already integrated the major platforms with its programme of information dominance. In the “fake news” drama of early 2017 we can perhaps now see, as if from a great distance, a move by elected representatives to remodel Facebook and Google into orderly means of transmission from themselves to a passive electorate. See, for example Rachel Revesz, ‘Boris Johnson Calls Google Disgusting for Profiting from Extremist Content’, Independent, March 26, 2017.

[xi] In 1985 Walter Karp reported that ‘58 percent of the thirteen-year-olds tested by the National Assessment for Educational Progress think that it is against the law to start a third party in America.’ As he noted, this was not “a sad educational failure” but rather “a remarkably subtle success.” See Walter Karp, Buried Alive: Essays on Our Endangered Republic (New York, 1992), p.54.

[xii] John P. McCormick, Machiavellian Democracy (New York, 2011), p.179.

[xiii] These rights sometimes extend beyond the individual, to encompass collective claims on education, health and other public goods. But they have not been accompanied by popular powers to enforce them. See Geraldine Van Bueren, ‘Take Back Control’, Times Literary Supplement, March 10, 2017, p. 23-5.

[xiv] In the UK a referendum on Scottish independence held at the instigation of that country’s largest party was voted on by 84.6% of the electorate. A referendum on voting reform held at the instigation of one of the smaller national parties, the Liberal Democrats, managed to attract only 42.2% of those eligible to vote.

[xv] Aristotle, The Politics (London, 1992), p.362-3.

[xvi] J.D. Lewis, ‘Isegoria at Athens: Where Did It Begin?’, ‘Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte’, BD 20, H.213 (2nd Qtr, 1971), pp. 129-140.

[xvii] Herodotus, Histories (London, 1972), p. 369.

[xviii] Polybius, The Histories (Oxford, 2010), p. 106.

[xix] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Oxford, 1987), Number 10, p. 126.

[xx] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (London, 1976), p. 64.

[xxi] Office is a particularly gratifying kind of property, even if the owners prefer not to describe it as such. Still, possession of office is rarely enough on its own. The media look to party leaders for cues on whose words are newsworthy.

[xxii] Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (Oxford, 1997), p. 40.

[xxiii] See, for example, Andrew Sullivan’s recent, widely praised revival of Plato’s highfalutin gibberish about the perils of democratic power, broadcast on January 18th, 2017 by Newsnight, BBC television’s main late night news analysis programme. It is available on Newsnight’s Youtube channel with the title, “What can Plato teach us about Donald Trump?”

[xxiv] Brendan Nyhan. ‘Why More Democrats are Embracing Conspiracy Theories’, New York Times, February 15, 2017.

[xxv] I am very conscious that this is to draw on a very narrow and problematic range of sources. Democracy was not invented by the Athenians out of nowhere and there many other democratic traditions that repay study. But Athens is useful to democrats, as oligarchs know all too well.

[xxvi] We do not want or need to ban oligarchic speech. We only need to provide a check and balance in the form of democratic speech.

[xxvii] Richard D. Brown, The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650-1870 (Chapel Hill, 1996), p.56.

[xxviii] The current relationship between elected officials and economic power is clearly one of master and slave, even if it is maddeningly difficult to work out which is which.

[xxix] I will say that I hope that juries will be convened to make a permanent study of credit, communication and the corporate form, healthcare and land use.

[xxx] Elite hostility to popular innovations is amply documented. See, for example, Lawrence LeDuc, ‘How and Why Electoral Reform Fails: Evaluating the Canadian Experience’, presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions Workshops, Lisbon, April 14-19, 2009, available online at

[xxxi] In time the majority might decide to relieve investment managers and banking executives of their duties. This will free up fresh resources to pay the public for the great work of democratic self-government. It will also occasion the hard-pressed masters of the universe a much-needed rest.

[xxxii] James F. Fishkin, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (New York, 2011)


The Public Network

In order to access the BBC’s online TV and radio content now requires a login profile. By tracking the behaviour of each profile the corporation will be able to develop a far more detailed and sophisticated understanding of its audience. This is a structure that seeks to replicate and enhance the power relations of broadcast in the digital age. Market research and the complaints procedure are to be supplemented by automated and permanent consumer surveillance.

BBC viewers are to remain isolated from one another but individually accessible to the centre. Transforming this structure into a network would, at a minimum, giving each of us a profile page and allowing us to communicate with one another in various ways. This is not a trivial task. But it is not insuperably difficult or intolerably expensive, either. As a public service institution, the BBC does need to monetise its users in the way that Facebook, for example, does. This alone saves a lot of investment – the really clever coding at Facebook is designed to figure out things about us that we don’t even know about ourselves. And, because it does not depend on maintaining a commercial edge, the BBC can also provide a different, and in some ways more compelling, user experience.

Facebook wants to understand its users so that it can sell us to advertisers. A public social network could be designed so that we are able to understand one another, on the basis of information we give freely and consciously. Furthermore, it would be free to allow audiences to become active participants in media production, and hence in the formation and reformation of public opinion. If we wanted to learn more about something, or if we wanted to see different perspectives given a public platform, then we could say so in a way that was audible and intelligible to others.

Of course a public network run by the BBC would face challenges that the Silicon Valley monsters can avoid. Much more thought and investment will have to go into tackling the problem of online abuse in particular. But there is nothing untoward about the idea of a network that starts from default of anonymity. Indeed, as the secret ballot shows, anonymity is in some senses a condition for public status.

A public network would not need to cater to us as anything other than citizens and residents. Incorrigibly sociable as we are, friendships would form and people would fall out. But the purpose of the BBC’s network would be to provide us with information about the world, each other and ourselves that we need if we are to make informed political (and aesthetic) judgments. This is something that the BBC is only fitfully able to do at the moment.

The BBC’s audience has few opportunities to make itself known to itself. Twitter users can vent on the #BBCQT hashtag and that is more or less it. The technology allows something much richer and more constructive. Instead of complaining consumers we each and severally become co-operating members of a self-aware body politic.

This is a relatively minor change to the BBC’s online offering that would bring substantial benefits. It is becoming increasingly clear that major changes in the political and economic order are necessary. We would all benefit from public service media where these changes can be debated thoroughly and fairly. There aren’t many votes in media reform, but public media that makes full use of digital technology might mean the difference between success and failure for a reforming administration.