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]

 

Conclusion 

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. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/13/more-americans-say-government-should-ensure-health-care-coverage/

[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. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/boris-johnson-calls-google-disgusting-for-profiting-from-extremist-content-a7650466.html

[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?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnzo9qXLFUo

[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 https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/50d3b07a-e3f9-4954-b9d9-7a4d06c33e1a.pdf

[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)

[xxxiii] https://www.wikitribune.com/

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.

 

Progressive Alliance in Oxford

PRESS RELEASE                                                                                       22 April 2017

 SURGE OF TACTICAL VOTING PLANNED FOR OXFORDSHIRE CONSTITUENCIES]

A packed and lively pre-election strategy meeting was held on Friday night in St Giles, Oxford.

Around 100 concerned voters (including many activists and members from Labour, Lib Dem and the Green Party) vowed to organise and co-ordinate tactical voting across the Oxfordshire constituencies to oppose the authoritarian shift in British politics. The specific targets agreed upon were a Labour hold in Oxford East and Lib Dem gains in Oxford West and Abingdon and in Witney.

The meeting was convened by Oxford Compass / Progressive Alliance ( http://www.compassonline.org.uk/). A strategy was thrashed out to put party differences to one side. Those present pledged to work in an alliance and avoid splitting the vote of progressive-minded electors in the June 8th General Election.

Participants agreed a raft of measures to increase voter registration and promote tactical voting with media campaigns and publicity supporting Lib Dem and Labour candidates for the constituencies in which they are most likely to win.

Note to editors: In 2010 Oxford West and Abingdon was taken from the Lib Dem Evan Harris by Conservative Nicola Blackwood with a majority of just 176. In 2015 the national Lib Dem vote collapsed and Blackwood held the seat with 9,582 majority. This year it is widely expected that the Lib Dem fortunes will be reversed. On Brexit, the constituency is one of the most pro-Europe in the country and it is expected that the Lib Dems will gain votes at the expense of the Conservatives.

In Oxford East, popular local MP Andrew Smith is retiring. In 2015 Smith defied the national trend, increasing his majority from 4,581 to 15,280.

In the Witney constituency David Cameron won in 2015 with a 25,155 majority. In a by-election a year later this was reduced to 5,702.

 

(The Absence of) Power is Exhausting

The could use its membership scheme to create reader-owned co-ops across the UK. The Guardian still has enormous communicative power and this could be put to work promoting democratic, accountable media. A working model for this exists already, in the shape of the Bristol Cable.

These reader-owned co-ops would become self-sufficient if they meet the pressing need for independent & combative regional journalism. Owner-readers would pay for these papers’ operations and would enjoy democratic oversight and, ultimately, control over them.

They would steer the papers to address the key issue – arbitrary power exercised by coalitions of politicians and economic magnates. Owner-readers would collectively enjoy the power currently exercised by a handful of billionaires. They would learn, through an improved understanding of local political economy, the truth of Andreotti’s remark:

Power is exhausting – to those who do not have it.

The regional co-ops would then feed original, investigative content back to the centre. The central website could remain free. But the centre would be forced into intelligent dialogue with the (paying and self-governing) periphery. The Guardian‘s metropolitan bias would be tempered by a steady flow of news from elsewhere. Readers could trace how the same “development” strategy is being pursued in Liverpool and Lincolnshire as in London.

Instead, the Guardian is calling for no-strings funding from members so that it can continue to operate according to its own lights. Meanwhile it is losing vast sums & being scooped by Al Jazeera, Wikileaks etc. The current pitch to members has all the persuasiveness of a man burning £50 notes and demanding more because he is running out.

Top down liberalism doesn’t work. It is too vulnerable to its own preoccupations, too assured as to the correctness of its own perceptions. Too often simply wrong. Only democratic media can combat the fair-seeming myths of the right.

The Guardian could democratise itself from the outside in & prepare the ground for a new political and economic settlement. Or it could run out of money and close. Cocktails & glittering chat on a sinking luxury liner, or honest work on something scruffy but seaworthy, owned by the crew.

If we want to build collective power, then we need to direct money to organizations committed to the principles of informed self-government. If we cannot decide together how institutions use our resources, on the basis of adequate information, then we should move away from them and gravitate towards those that do.

On the media side this means withdrawing support from unaccountable institutions and supporting, or creating, accountable ones.

Over time democratic media operations will displace their oligarchic competitors if they are better at finding out what is going on. That in turn depends upon our ability to design and run institutions that serve our shared interests.

 

 

 

Middlemas on the British State

In 2014 I wrote a brief post on the role of superstition in economic management. Paul Schloss wrote an interesting response on his Serenity Science blog, which I entirely missed at the time. With his permission it is reproduced below:

*

Here’s something you might like.  It is a richer and more nuanced version of the Paul Samuelson quote you recently posted.  Its rich analysis identifies the creation of a shared political culture as the determinate factor in the limitation of debate within a society; a process whereby the public come to agree on a few quite basic assumptions, which then protects that culture from severe critical attack.  The author is Keith Middlemas, who has written one of the great books on British politics.  Here he is running at full speed (which may account for his somewhat clumsy sentences)…

Behind the formal doctrine, with its bland projection of the virtues of party and parliamentary politics and its tacit avoidance of discussion about the influence of pressure groups and institutions, lay the real and important process of opinion-testing and assimilation, accompanied by political education, and propaganda designed to distinguish, among other things, between legitimate and deviant forms of political protest and participation.  It can, of course, be argued that this diagnosis is old-fashioned conspiracy theory: a version of history open to the objection that:

The public is seen as an atomised mass, passive receptacles of messages originating from a monolithic and powerful source.  In the left-wing political version of this model, the source is controlled by and represents the interest of the ruling class… In some right-wing versions, the media are also seen as powerful, but their influence is in the direction of lowering cultural standards and propagating values of permissiveness. (S. Cohen and J. Young, eds., The Manufacture of News: Social problems, deviance and the mass media.)
Yet every case examined reveals a constant element.  From the days of Lloyd George, continually improved agencies transmitted to central government an ever-widening range of information about public opinion.  At the same time, a series of filters was evolved to reduce this torrent to a form manageable by, and palatable to, Ministers, thus enhancing the residual power of civil servants and the Cabinet Office, and tempering or diminishing the flow of party opinion in the majority of policy decisions.  The tightening of public secrecy, and security over the Ministers’ own freedom to reveal, must be seen as complementary to the creation, from an originally corrupt series of essays in opinion manipulation, of a formal system of opinion management.
Awareness of the need to take public opinion into consideration did not lead politicians and civil servants on to acceptance of popular democracy, but rather the reverse, as the political elite superimposed on the traditional cycle of general elections and party warfare something which can be called continuous contract.  Continuous contract means, simply, the fine measurement of opinion and its careful management by propaganda, together with the creation of a degree of mystification* about the political process, in the interests of harmonious government.  What governments considered to be their worst failures were precisely those where they got their estimates wrong, in highly contentious fields such as demobilisation after 1918, immigration, unemployment benefit, or rearmament.  These taught them that conformity could not be enforced.  Authority existed only where it rested on consent…  Wisdom about the tolerance of the public that government claimed to represent prevented opinion management from slipping back into manipulation, like precise metal transmuted downwards into dross; and this helps to explain why it survived unchecked into the brief golden age after 1945.
* I have in mind here not so much the formalities and fictions surrounding modern government, the orotund images of ‘government objectives’, ‘national interest’, etc., or the due processes by which citizens, individually or collectively, must approach government if they are to be heard, which are common to all modern societies, but their acceptance by the public.    To take the case of the hunger marchers: government, as the CPGB saw very clearly, could not concede their demands for direct representation, except at the risk of overwhelming the party electoral system.  In February 1934 MacDonald told representatives of the NUWM that they would not be received in Downing Street: ‘This deputation can do no service to the unemployed.  The Communist purpose of those marches is well-known.  The Government is responsible for a Bill which, when in operation, will facilitate the more satisfactory treatment of the whole question of unemployment, and that Bill is now receiving consideration in the House of Commons whose knowledge and experience enable it to discuss the best way to achieve the object of Government.’ [my italics]  What is curious, given the conditions of the depressed areas in the thirties, is that such dicta were not widely repudiated.  Bagehot’s theory of deference has to be modified to fit twentieth-century circumstances: only a theory of submission to the dominant political ethic, encouraged by opinion management and institutional collaboration, suffices. (Politics in Industrial Society)
This book, which contains many insights into twentieth century British politics, offers one answer to your question about why the trade unions are reluctant to set up their own TV studio (Why Don’t We Have an Alternative to the BBC and Corporate Media?).  The purpose of such a studio is surely to create an alternative political culture which radically questions the existing one.  But do the unions really want to own such a radical voice?  For we must remember that beginning in the First World War, the unions gradually became part of the process of government. After accepting its capitalist underpinnings their main concern was to negotiate with the state for a share of political power; not so much as to benefit their members, but so as to receive recognition as powerful institutions in their own right (one consequence was their relative indifference to improvements to working conditions in individual factories).1  Once accepted as a realm of state (Middlemas’ term) they participated in the obfuscation described above.  That is, they were as guilty as the politicians in deceiving the general population; helping to hide the truth that the business of government was no longer carried out in parliament, but had been transferred to the offices that surrounded it; the ministers and officials of state bargaining with a limited number of interest groups, such as the large corporations and the TUC, for a share of power and wealth.2  Trade unions want influence and respect, but they also want to maintain the corporate bias (Middlemas again) of the system, which they (correctly) believe will give them that influence.  After helping create this system, they have since lost nearly all control of it, as the British state has been taken over by the corporations.  Nevertheless, it is a system they want to retain, at least in some modified form.  Your ideas are as much a threat to them as Margaret Thatcher’s.
Neither must we forget that even in the social democratic decades after the Second World War the tendency of ministers and civil servants was to accept the received dogma of a limited state and a free competitive market.3  Indeed, one of the reasons for the relatively poor performance of the British corporate state was its inability to jettison its nineteenth century political culture, which found it difficult to adjust to the more state-managed capitalism of the twentieth.4  By now that culture is more ingrained that ever; making it even harder for the British government to intervene in the economy for the benefit of the nation as a whole (of course the structural constraints are greater now than in the 1950s, and so require an even stronger ideological faith to overcome them).
Middlemas also suggests one answer to your question about the supineness of the British Left.  It too has submitted to the dominant political culture, accepting its normative values through absorbing its messages and by participating in “institutional collaboration”; the long and complex history of the Labour Party a record of the incorporation, even repression, of much Left radicalism (Middlemas gives some interesting details, particularly on the early decades of the century).  Donald Sassoon seems to confirm this in his great work, A Hundred Years of Socialism; this book shows that by the 1920s the mainstream of the West European Left had accepted the legitimacy of capitalism; their role to make it work better and with more social justice.  In the 1960s the Communist Party reached the same conclusion.
The problem for Britain was that its Left accepted the nineteenth century idea of capitalism, while its European coevals had a later and more socially inclusive model with which to work, allowing them to help make their national capitalisms both more productive and socially just.  Indeed, according to Shonfield’s book, it would appear that the most radical and progressive activists, the ones that wanted a more integrated and planned economic system, tended to be the managers of the largest British corporations.  They were defeated by the conservatism of both the smaller, less technically dynamic, businessmen and the trade unions, who used the shibboleth of political representation to prevent the state acquiring the power it needed to reorient the economy.  The result?  In the crisis of British capitalism that occurred in the 1960s the City of London was to well-placed to emerge victorious; Thatcherism an ideology justifying the City’s eventual triumph, which was a return to the position of power it had lost during 1930s (Middlemas has some wonderful stuff on this too).5
The idea of a DIY radicalism that lives outside the existing political structure and seeks to replace it is a dangerous one for the organised British Left, and goes against its gut instincts, which is to complain about the system rather than to actively transform it (we must ignore all the utopian rhetoric).  That’s why its left to the bohemians, such as those at Resonance FM.  Those crazies live completely outside the established political culture, and are not affected by its norms and restrictive practices.  The American Left is a lot like these bohemian weirdos.  They also are too far outside America’s political system to be conditioned by it; and this is one reason that a show like Democracy Now! can be such a limited success; creating its own world that is yet recognisably sane and rational.
I only meant to post the quote.  I’ve gone on and on, of course.  But hey, you might like it.  I certainly did!
Paul

 

1. Andrew Shonfield’s Modern Capitalism contains some revealing details.
2.  For an insider’s account of the period see Ian Gilmour’s The Body Politic.  This book inadvertently confirms Middlemas’ thesis – Gilmour argues that while the British parliament is very stable it lacks the ability to act vigorously.  What he is actually describing is an institution losing its power.
One could argue that the 1960s were a failed attempt by the political class to reassert their control (over the executive, the corporations, the unions, the officials of the nationalised industries, and interest groups generally), in order to actually govern a country where the economy had become the source of both power and legitimacy.
Any future attempt to use politics to control the economy has to properly understand that failure, which had much to do with a lack of respect for history and culture (and their ability to create institutions and mentalities that shape and control change), and which led to the illusions of technocratic intervention, and the idea, particularly prominent in the early 1960s, that the experts would sort things out.*
We must also try to understand the limits of politics, and how little power politicians actually have in a democratic state.  Robert Michels in classic work (Political Parties) writes that the fundamental nature of modern democracy is organisation.  This is absolutely right!   Democracy is no longer about votes, and has very little to do with calling individual leaders to account. It is too organised for that.  It is a set of institutions which have created a system of processes that can only be changed from within the system itself.  To give a very simple example. In East London a number of active residents are opposing the planning decisions of the local council. However, they have discovered that calling a public meeting and demanding the presence of the lead official cannot change the planning process at all.  The same decisions will be made tomorrow as yesterday.  Why?  Because the council officials themselves have to follow the planning framework that has already been agreed; by the council in consultation with government, the European Community and big business; the whole process safeguarded by law. What can the local residents do?  They must form a group, with the aim of taking over the planning committee. They also need to form another group to lobby parliament; and perhaps another to go Strasbourg…  That is, in order to fight the institutions they have to become an institution themselves.
What I am describing is a kind of entryism, to which the Labour Party gave a bad name in the 1980s.  However, this is precisely how corporate power works; well described by Thomas Frank in his The Wrecking Crew.  The New Right are Trotskyists in reverse – they infiltrate Congress to bolster capitalism not destroy it.
Our first problem is that most people have no idea what a modern democracy means;  for we are still living with ideas and images from the 1840s, a time when British politicians really did have power, and used it.  A time, incidentally, before mass suffrage.
(*See my Freedom Against Freedom for an alternative history of this decade.)
3.  Shonfield has some extraordinary stuff on this.
4.  This is not the whole story.  David Edgerton’s Warfare State; Britain 1920-1970 is a useful corrective, showing how important the defence industry has been to the British economy, and how conventional Left-Liberal opinion has tended to dismiss it.
5.  Susan Strange’s Casino Capitalism has some very interesting things to say about the Labour Government’s encouragement of the City in the 1960s, and how this helped to create a more fluid and unstable financial services industry.  Britain, according to this argument, was a significant factor in the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system.

 

 

Seriously, what is to be done?

Two articles I read today, an opinion piece by John Pilger and an interview with Wolfgang Streeck, revealed something interesting about the two men; neither of these critics of the current order have the remotest clue about what to do now.
When pressed by Aditya Chakrabortty, this is what Streeck came up with:
The press always talks of a lack of business confidence, he says; now is the time for the voters to demonstrate a lack of public confidence.
Streeck offers a recent Occupy protest in Frankfurt as an example of the kind of action he wants to see more of:
“The authorities were scared shitless. I think more such scariness must happen. They must learn that in order to keep people quiet they need extraordinary effort.”
In the face of a crisis of capitalism, Streeck suggests that we need “more such scariness”. How a heavily armed and increasingly unaccountable state will deal with this “scariness” is left unexplained.
John Pilger is even less helpful in his piece for the Media Reform Coalition. He tells us that “the word ‘reform’ leads us down a blind alley.” He then goes on to say that:
Media courses should challenge relentlessly the myths of the so-called mainstream and offer their students, at the very least, a way of navigating through a bent system and challenging it and becoming its honourable exceptions.
What we need is not reform but a Fifth Estate, in which journalism reclaims its independence. But that’s another story. Thank you.
So, in the face of a crisis of credibility in the media, he wags his finger at media courses and then conjures up a “Fifth Estate” whose nature is left entirely mysterious. One might think that he is suggesting that we need to bring media reform into the broader context of constitutional design. This would be welcome. But since he stops there we have no idea.
Let me set out what is apparently beyond the grasp of Streeck and Pilger.
The overriding need now is for an articulate, informed and autonomous public opinion. That is, we need as a citizen body to discover our preferences and act on them. The medium term goal is to establish the assembled public as the sovereign body in society. In the short term this requires a revolution from below in order to subordinate representative institutions in civil society to the wider needs of the public.
The immediate objective is a communications platform that we own and that allows confidential communication and the sharing of collectively generated data. It will be a platform that does not seek to divide its users into economically useful categories but instead helps citizens to make common cause around a transparently developed common sense.
Such a platform is not technically unattainable but it requires that individual NGOs, political parties and other civil society groupings subordinate their own interests to the wider interests of the people that they claim to serve. A broad coalition of groups could create a competition and assemble a large judging panel to select a platform that would then be populated by an independent citizen body. This citizen body could then make clear what it thought was important, what it wanted to know more about, and how it wanted the state and other synthetic persons to behave.
To the extent that it was better than newspapers and commercial social media platforms at describing us to ourselves, this platform would become interesting and attractive to people who are currently dejected and disengaged from politics. Co-operative enterprises and small businesses  could generate commercial returns that would then cover the running costs. But the Assembly is prior and will determine how these returns are generated.
Let me try to be practical. If you give money to an organization that claims to take seriously the overlapping crises of political and economic inequality, environmental collapse and endemic warfare, then ask them to publish an article by you and co-authored with me that sets out a programme for establishing the public in its collective capacity as a motive force in country’s political system.
This programme will centre on the creation of an independent platform for discussion and decision-making along the lines outlined above.
If the organization to which you belong refuses to allow the proposition a hearing we then set up a shadow organization that pushes them to accept the overriding need for democratic communications, even if it weakens their communicative grip over their existing audiences.
This programme of revolution in civil society will build the conditions for its eventual success, if enough people can bring themselves to commit the time and share what they learn with others. Most people won’t want to do it, at least at first. Maybe no one will. But if a handful start we can do far more than now seems possible. Of course, it means recognizing that representative institutions cannot be trusted as a matter of institutional design. The interests of members and the governing centre are never exactly aligned. It means growing up, in other words.
If you can afford to act independently, and can be bothered, then drop me a line. I can be found on Twitter and Facebook. But I’d rather we continued the conversation on a platform intended to serve the needs of democratic power.
I have sought for more than five years to persuade the self-described progressive institutions of the need to create democratic communicative power, to almost no avail. They will not move until they are forced to do so by a citizenry capable of self-government that will not be lured back to docility.
Time now to take the idea to the Assembly. If no Assembly exists, then perhaps we can build it together. No one we vote for, or pay a monthly subscription to, will build it for us.
(If you are too selfish and lazy to help, the least you can do is buy multiple copies of this, The Public and the Mass)

 

 

 

 

Maybe Chamberlain, Maybe Baldwin

The outlines of Theresa May’s response to the Brexit vote could be glimpsed briefly in July. In her one major speech before she entered Downing Street she committed to worker representation on the boards of companies, something that successive Labour government neglected to do. She also talked of the need to improve productivity and to make houses more affordable. She talked about unscrupulous bosses and about insecurity at work. The debt to Labour’s left turn was as obvious as it was unremarked upon.

In the same speech she insisted that “yes, some have found themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration.” But there were other signs that she had been paying attention to the language that had given Leave its majority and that she was determined to make it her own:

Talk to almost any ordinary member of the public, and the frustration they feel about the loss of control over their day-to-day lives is obvious.

The 52% wanted to take back control, and May wasn’t going to stand in their way.

As she entered Downing Street, there was more on the One Nation theme, and again an emphasis on addressing the needs of those outside the, increasingly hated, “Westminster bubble”:

If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.

If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.

I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.

After the Conservative Party conference the May approach to government is even clearer. The aim is to combine right-wing populism on immigration with a more interventionist state. Laissez-faire, which is French for letting the City sell everything that isn’t nailed down, will be put back in its box. On Brexit May has made it clear that she will not give up control of immigration in order to trade freely with the EU. Meanwhile, her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was giving us the heavy stuff on immigration. Landlords will be in trouble if they rent to illegal immigrants. Firms will have to publish lists of foreign workers. All sorts. And this from someone with at least one foot offshore.

What’s going on here? Is it just a tactical mistake? If the rest of the EU insist that the free movement of capital, labour and goods are indivisible will the markets and pressure from the City push her into line? Nick Pearce has likened May to Joseph Chamberlain, who tried to combine protectionism (“Imperial Preference”) and social reform before the First World War. Chamberlain ran into opposition from the City of London and he never became Prime Minister. As someone who has written about Britain’s interstitial offshore empire it is tempting for me to agree with Pearce. The City – or most of it – wants to be in Europe and May will have to do what she is told. Either this talk about social justice for the native and nativist British is a rhetorical flourish that will join compassionate conservatism and the march of the makers on the bonfire of things that the Money Power doesn’t want, or she will find herself out of a job.

Certainly there are signs that this approach is going to face strong opposition. Amber Rudd has already dropped the idea of publishing lists of foreign workers. Stocks of Marmite are running dangerously low. The pound is falling, as is the appetite for sterling debt. But where else can the City and its allies turn? The whole point of UKIP is to stop free movement, whatever the real world consequences. And while I am sure there are plenty of Labour MPs who would love to return to Blair’s project of combining social liberalism with the liberalisation of the trade in services, the pesky members won’t let them. They could split and join up with the Liberal Democrats, but that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that successful careerists would contemplate.

May and her people are probably hoping that her approach has more in common with Stanley Baldwin’s successful marriage of Imperial Preference with Conservative domination in the 1930s. In September 1931 a National Government, nominally led by Ramsey Macdonald but run by Lord President of the Council Stanley Baldwin, took Britain off the Gold Standard. A year later the government signed a free trade deal with rest of the Empire and put tariffs on goods from everywhere else. For the rest of the decade the country experienced modest growth and a degree of industrial recovery. The City of London weren’t happy about the dumping of gold or the imposition of tariffs. It was the end of almost a century of free trade and “sound money.” The (previously Labour) Chancellor Philip Snowden was openly baffled when he was informed of the option of leaving the Gold Standard in the new administration. He is said to have admitted that “they didn’t tell us we could do that.” Snowden had thought, like the architects of New Labour, that the regulation of the currency was a matter best left to experts. Baldwin knew that it was the supreme matter of politics. He also knew that the City would have to put up with the move, if the bankers didn’t want an as-yet untamed Labour Party back in Downing Street.

Similarly, perhaps the City of London will have no choice but to accept that the glory days when the offshore empire could operate with all the benefits of full EU membership are over for the time being. The party of the propertied can only remain the natural party of government if it pays close attention to the popular mood. And the people want change. The Brexit vote was the latest sign that something serious is stirring out there in Not-Westminster-Land. But the long howl of UKIP’s rise and the resurgence of the Labour Left made it obvious long before then.

Cameron conceded a referendum in the 2015 Conservative manifesto in order to head off the electoral threat from UKIP. It is now being reimagined as a moment of Neronian carelessness. But, absent his referendum pledge, it isn’t clear that he would have secured an outright majority, however slender. Yes, Cameron was willing to put Britain’s grand strategy of European membership and military-intelligence integration with the US at risk for the sake of narrow electoral calculation. Of course he was. And his successor seems to be working on the assumption that, if the Conservatives concede free movement, working class Toryism in England will defect to UKIP.

Meanwhile, the emergence of a left-wing economic programme under Corbyn-McDonnell spells trouble for the wealthy. Its implementation would spell disaster. For all their faults, those two aren’t kidding around and if they reach Downing Street a Hard Brexit will look like a walk in the park and an ice cream by comparison.

Hence May is combining One Nation rhetoric and talk of an activist, developmental state with opposition to free movement. If this means the City has to tweak its business model, then so be it. Even if it means the offshore empire is over, then that’s the cost of doing business in a country that is still run by and for a dazzlingly narrow set of interests. The Big End of Town sometimes has to take one for the team. And the Conservative Party’s job is to give them the news, keep the process obscure, and harvest the ensuing political capital.

Everyone knows that protectionism is bad, and that money is best looked after by neutral experts (who are also known as bankers), so the 1930s never happened, as far as the national memory is concerned. Similarly, we all know that the Labour Party’s is unelectable and that its ideas are moonshine. Its threat to the Conservative Party therefore doesn’t exist, even though, as a matter of boring old fact, it does. And so what if immigration isn’t really the cause of the problems that face the ordinary working class families of Mays’ political imaginary? They think it is, and the Conservative Party is not about to disenchant people of fantasies that incline them against voting Labour. Indeed, they cannot do so without disowning the evasions and untruths that have dragged public attention away from the collapse of a finance-led economic model.  The parade of welfare scroungers, conniving foreigners and effete left-wing spendthrifts cannot stop. Anthony Barnett is right in this regard, May has no choice but to adopt Dacreism wholesale.

Empire is always something of a confidence trick. It relies on an uneven distribution of knowledge even more than it relies on brute force. If even I can see that London is the world capital of money laundering and tax evasion perhaps this particular twist on the English way of making a killing has had its day. Besides, as any Conservative worth a damn knows, some things are more important than money.  Control of the state, for instance. Great fun in and of itself, and the only really sure way to keep the money you have, and to make even more in the future.