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The problems with democracy – continuing the conversation into a new year

An invitation from the British Library to give the first in a new public lecture series called “Enduring Ideas” was never a request I was going to decline. But what “enduring idea” might I focus on and what exactly would I want to say that had not already been said about an important idea that warranted such reflection? The selected concept was “democracy” and the argument sought to set out and unravel a set of problems that could – either collectively or individually – be taken to explain the apparent rise in democratic disaffection.

Such is the world we live in that a lecture is no longer a lecture but rapidly becomes a multi-media “artefact” and the beginning of a global discussion. I suppose this is probably not quite true of all lectures, I’ve been to quite a few that really do need to be forgotten, but I’m pleased to say that the intellectual ecosystem seems to have exploded in all sorts of ways that I could never have imagined. Within hours the lecture was available to a global audience via a British Library podcast. Within weeks the lecture was published on-line by the Oxford University Press journal Parliamentary Affairs and within a month or so the same journal had published a number of response pieces by an array of leading scholars.

I had not given a public lecture at the British Library, I had started a conversation.

It was therefore a source of some delight and contentment when the latest instalment of this conversation appeared on-line in the form of a University of Manchester blog by a former student of mine, Dr. Kevin Gillan. Now some scholars might snort and snuffle at the idea of a former student seeking to challenge his former professor in such an open and accessible arena but I say ‘well done, that chap!’ Kevin was always a bit of a livewire but the way he tries to turn my arguments and ideas upside-down and inside-out, to get to the basic core of my logic in both an empirical and normative sense, is really a joy to read.

To my relief, Gillan’s approach is less concerned with sharpening the knife with which he seeks to butcher my argument but, to the contrary, is concerned with sharpening my argument by bringing in inter-disciplinary insights from the sphere of critical social movement studies.

The problem with my “problems with democracy” from Gillan’s perspective is that my analytical lens is too narrow. I stand-up and decry the loss of “what we might call our democratic or political imagination…our capacity to re-imagine a different way of living; to re-connect with those around us; to re-interpret challenges as opportunities or to re-define how we understand and make democracy work” [italics in the original] but for Gillan this argument reflects my own failure to look beyond the standard framework. “The political imagination is already being exercised outside of the mainstream,” he argues, “developments in the alter-globalisation and social forum movements and, latterly, among the indignadas of Spain and the occupiers of the public squares across Europe and the US.”

With this basic argument in place Gillan proceeds to highlight three issues – representation, institutional change and the internet – that add extra tone and texture to the problems I identify in my original lecture, podcast, article, T-shirt, etc.

It is true that the concept of representation is hardly mentioned in my original lecture but it is, as Gillan suggests, “squarely in the sights of those for whom some form of direct democracy…is part of their activism.” The interesting reflection here, however, lies not in simply focusing attention on the concept of representation itself but in relating this to my original critique of market-driven individualisation and its corrosive impact of collective social values. And yet Gillan reveals the existence of a parallel paradox in the sense that many of the contemporary critical social movements have their ideological roots in anarchism, although for many protestors this may be a less relevant grounding for the fact that, for them, it fits with a deeply held respect for the individual as sovereign bearer of rights. This is a line of argument that chimes with William Gairdner’s position in The Trouble with Democracy (2001) but if anarchist-inspired values and practices have really ‘overtaken revolutionary socialist ones in influence in most of today’s critical social movements’, then The Trouble with Representation qua. Gillan is that a large proportion of the ‘new’ politics beyond the mainstream is imbued with its own form of individualism that grates against the logic of democratic collective action.

The issue of institutional change posits and equally thorny problem as Gillan paints a picture of an increasingly labyrinthine institutional architecture in which functions and responsibilities are spread across many governing levels and within many types of organisation. The topography of this terrain is undeniably dense. In Walking Without Order (Oxford University Press, 2008) I attempted to map this territory but the structures are so fuzzy and fluid that I achieved little more than a rough sketch of the terrain. In light of this the public’s shift away from mainstream politics and political parties to a form of issue-based activism can be seen as completely rational. The problem, if one exists, lies not with the public in Gillan’s analysis but in the failure of the dominant institutional structure of representative democracy to keep pace with social and economic shifts. “So the dominant institutional structure of representative democracy, with its blend of representation-via-geography with representation-via-political-tribe is inherently unappealing for the denizen of the liquid modern: for many it is not education that is required [my main prescription for the democratic malaise] but institutional change.”

I cannot help but think of Michel Maffesoli’s wonderful The Time of the Tribes (1996) and especially his systematic theorisation of “everyday politics” by interpreting emergent forms of participation as what he terms “neo-tribes.” The tribal metaphor of “new-tribes” or “post-tribal politics” resonates with much of what Gillan seems to be arguing and Maffesoli’s focus on forms of political power (what he terms “puissance” or “intrinsic” power) and political legitimacy (what he terms “underground centrality” or “bottom-up” legitimacy) provides a fresh and innovative way of interpreting both “alternative” and “mainstream” forms of engagement. But then the shadow of individualism emerges once more in Gillan’s reflection:

But outside of mainstream political channels the activist autodidacts have already recognised that the ‘young and poor’ are hardly a homogenous group, even if they share the objective conditions of precarity. Perhaps they also recognise that even if there were an effective party of the precarious, the very one-dimensionality that would make it appealing to the young and the poor, would be the feature that made it problematic in relation to a whole gamut of other policy domains.

Which brings us to Gillan’s focus on the internet as a way not of overcoming individualism or issue-based politics but of embracing them and turning the deliberation they encourage to the service of the (inherently collective) polity. And he is certainly correct that in Defending Politics (Oxford University Press, 2010) I did dismiss ‘digital democracy’ with great polemical force. While I rage against ‘echo chambers’ and ‘cyber-citizens’ Gillan draws upon Jeffrey Juris and Manuel Castells to paint a quite different account of the internet revealing shared interests and common bonds. On-line movements have from this position ‘begun to re-imagine different ways of living, to re-connect with those around them and to re-define how they make democracy work’. In essence, Gillan believes that critical social movements are forging new forms of on-line mass mobilisation with the capacity to transform democratic politics.

So where does the conversation go from here? How would I respond to former student’s elegant essay? Where are the points of overlap and contestation and why might they matter?

Put very simply, I think a large intellectual and normative gap exists between me and Kevin Gillan that might in some ways reflect the gap that seems to have emerged between the governors and the governed. This is a gap I am happy to try and close or bridge through further conversations and possibly collaborations but there is something of “the politics of pessimism” that lurks beneath the words and between the sentences of his reflections. My thoughts on this topic remain embryonic but they seem to revolve around the themes of individuality, pace and people. Individuality in the sense that Gillan’s analysis appears to accept individualism as, irrespective of its intellectual roots, inevitable whereas my sense is that there is a shared collective sense of being human, a natural desire for social bonds beyond the immediate family and an innate amount of empathy that cuts across social classes, countries and religions. The inevitability of fragmentation within Gillan’s proposition is underlined by his comments on the ‘activist autodidactics’ who recognise that the young and the poor are by no means a homogenous group. Their shared objective conditions of precarity – the lack of permanent employment, low wages, constant re-skilling, frequent relocation, etc. – might form the basis of a new political party – “The Precarious Party” – but for some reason “the one-dimensionality that made it appealing to the young and the poor” would also be the feature that made it “problematic in relation to a whole gamut of other policy domains.” But why? Gillan defends the individualised issue-based activist on the basis that this does not mean they fail to take account of the way that focus overlaps with a range of broader issues so why would the Precarious Party not achieve a similar balance of breadth and depth?

In relation to pace Gillan agrees with my original statement that “our institutions and processes of democracy seem to evolve and change at a glacial pace while the world around it seems to move at an ever increasing pace” but then makes an argument that promotes the hyper-fast low-cost capacities of networked communications: “It is precisely the networked nature of movements that have sprung up across the world since 2011 that mean individuals can recognise…the commonality of their bonds.” But then this “politics of optimism” is dashed upon the Procrustean reality of life as he notes, “These movements remain relatively marginal in liberal democracies and have had limited impact on mainstream political thinking.” Pace…, pace…, pace… democratic politics may well be “the strong and slow boring of hard boards” but surely something has to pick-up the pace when it comes to democratic change which brings me to “the people,” social interaction and the internet. Gillan suggests that “for a very large number of (especially young) people in the advanced liberal democracies the online and the offline are now so thoroughly inter-twined that pretty much the whole human experience is reflected in, and partially lived through, online networks.” That may well be true (I am not so sure) but that does not make it a “good thing.” Or, more precisely, it appears that the blurring Gillan refers to manifests itself in the adoption of a set of expectations that are derived from on-line behaviour but are increasingly projected into off-line relationships. News in 140 characters, immediate location-based dating, real-time live gambling, virtual reality and lives lived through avatars. Technology-mediated-citizenship does little to fire my political imagination.

Featured image: “Parliament” by David Martyn Hunt, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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