Nothing to lose but our free time

Setting the People Free - The Politics of Everyday Life
September 23, 2005

Vernon Bogdanor admires democracy in principle, agrees with two books that argue for its revitalisation, but also quite fancies the odd night off

In June 1685, Colonel Richard Rumbold, a leader of the Levellers, was about to be hung, drawn and quartered for his role in the Rye House Plot against Charles II. In his last moments, he said: "I am sure there was no Man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the World with a Saddle on his Back, neither any Booted and Spurred to ride him." That vision lies at the heart of the democratic ideal, but it has never been realised. Perhaps it is incapable of realisation. It poses, nonetheless, a challenge, forcing us to evaluate the adequacy of our existing democratic institutions. Both John Dunn, a professor of political theory at Cambridge, and Paul Ginsborg, who left Cambridge for Florence, where he has proved a thorn in the side of Silvio Berlusconi, seek to chart paths by which the machinery of democracy can be made to approach Rumbold's ideal.

The end of the 20th century witnessed the global triumph of democracy.

Ginsborg notes that in 1926 there were just 26 democracies among the nations of the world. Then a reverse wave, under the impact of Fascism and National Socialism, pushed the frontiers of democracy back, so that by 1942 only 12 democracies were left. By the millennium, however, 120 out of the 192 members of the United Nations were democracies. Thus democracy has come, as Dunn reminds us, "to dominate the world's political imagination".

Indeed, "to reject democracy today may just be, sooner or later, to write yourself out of politics. It is definitely to write yourself more or less at once out of polite philosophical conversation".

Yet the success of democracy has aroused not rejoicing, but disenchantment.

The reality, Dunn and Ginsborg agree, is quite different from the ideal.

The word democracy derives, after all, from two Greek words, demos and kratos, meaning rule by the people. Democracy began, Dunn tells us, "as an improvised remedy for a very local Greek difficulty two and a half thousand years ago". Yet today the role of the people is everywhere negative. If we are lucky enough to live long lives, we will vote about 12 times at national level and perhaps the same number of times in local elections - activities taking up, as Ginsborg says, "some 72 minutes in all". Even in Switzerland, where instruments of direct democracy, such as the referendum and the popular initiative, are widely used, they serve not to replace representative institutions but to supplement them. The people, so we now believe, cannot rule. Thus, according to Dunn, "when any modern state claims to be a democracy, it necessarily misdescribes itself". Setting the People Free seeks to show how this disjunction between ideal and reality has come about.

The bulk of the book, however, comprises a fluent if fairly routine history of the development of democracy in terms of waves - the Greeks, the French and American revolutions, and then the modern revolution, which stems from the collapse of communism in 1989. Dunn sympathises with Gracchus Babeuf, leader of the Conspiracy of Equals, who in 1794 tried to overthrow the rulers of France, and to unleash a second, egalitarian revolution. Babeuf declared that democracy, the order of equality, had been subverted by the order of egoism, or "the English doctrine of the economists". It is, Dunn contends, the search for economic wellbeing that tempts us to surrender our powers to those whom we believe can deliver it. "Democracy", Georges Sorel believed, "is the paradise of which unscrupulous financiers dream."

Citizens in modern democracies seek to have their interests managed by others in order that they can be left undisturbed in their pursuit of material aims.

There is, Benjamin Constant believed, "nothing humiliating or necessarily alarming" in this. The rich, after all, "were never in serious doubt that they could find more rewarding things to do with their time". The fallacy of this argument, as Dunn points out, is that the rich are not ruled by their stewards, but we are ruled by those to whom we surrender the management of our interests.

Dunn does not, however, really get to grips with the questions posed by the idea of an order of equality. This is partly because he has not thought enough about the questions raised by empirical political scientists. He cites Aristotle's belief that one cannot judge forms of government in the abstract but must look at their actual working, yet he does not seem to have heeded Aristotle's advice. Indeed, as Dunn acknowledges, the idea of an order of equality has its utopian aspect, requiring as it does "the systematic elimination of power... from human relations"; and in the end Dunn's actual policy prescriptions are somewhat tame - greater control over capitalist institutions and more freedom of information. Because there is so little empirical material in Setting the People Free , it has too much of the character of a sermon rather than a call to action grounded in analysis.

Paul Ginsborg, by contrast, an authority on the politics of modern Italy, has not been afraid to get his hands dirty. The Politics of Everyday Life had its origins in his own experiences of civic activism in Florence. In January 2002, he led a group of professors, students and trade unionists in a march of protest against the Berlusconi government, which, despite pouring rain, attracted over 12,000 supporters. The committee that organised the march then transformed itself into a Laboratory for Democracy, and helped to create a network of civil society organisations to defend the rights of Italians. Ginsborg himself was invited to become an Italian senator - an unusual mark of confidence for a non-Italian. Ginsborg generalises from the Italian experience, drawing attention to the sense of powerlessness felt by so many and the distorted relationship between politics and the media.

Democratic politics has increasingly come to be the domain of the rich, especially in the US. Michael Bloomberg, for example, spent no less than $60 million in his campaign to be elected mayor of New York. "Without reform of campaign finance," Will Hutton has argued, "the US might as well concede that its democracy is a hollow shell in which public conversation and public discourse are auctioned to the rich." In most advanced democracies, politics has come to be dominated by career professionals, and political parties, once seen as vehicles for participation, find their membership in drastic decline. Ironically, party membership in Italy is, at just over 4 per cent of the population, among the highest of the major democracies. The German Greens tried to alter things by rotating leaders, binding parliamentarians to party resolutions through the "imperative mandate" and providing for greater openness to non-members. But most of these measures were abandoned once the party became a serious competitor for government, and the Greens are now little different from the mainstream German parties.

New forms of democracy, therefore, are needed in which the people can take an active part "and through their participation foster a culture of citizenship". Ginsborg rests his hopes upon a renewal of democracy from the grass roots, and concludes his book with a fascinating account of an experiment in deliberative democracy in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil.

This shows, so Ginsborg believes, that participatory democracy can stimulate a renewal of representative institutions. Indeed, it is the activity of participation that helps to improve government, by creating an "expanding group of experienced, educated and active citizens, who have an ethic of public service in their very bones".

It is not clear, however, whether this experiment has much relevance to advanced industrial societies. Twenty-eight per cent of the population of Porto Alegre live in shanty towns, and so there is an urgent need for active government. That need is not felt so strongly in more affluent societies. Moreover, direct democracy should not be equated with participative democracy. In Switzerland, participation in referendums is generally less than 50 per cent, and those who vote tend to be drawn disproportionately from the educated classes. The emphasis on direct democracy, therefore, works to harm the disadvantaged, not to benefit them.

Pericles famously said of ancient Athens, "For we alone regard the man who takes no part in public affairs, not as one who minds his own business, but as good for nothing." In modern times, however, in the absence of mass unemployment or runaway inflation, the desire to take part in public affairs is bound to be severely limited. Most people will prefer to cultivate their own gardens. Today, in Britain, the prime stimulus for political participation comes from tribalism in Northern Ireland, where participation rates have always been among the highest in the country.

Participation rates are lowest in London boroughs; yet few would regard Northern Ireland as being in better democratic health than London.

Ultimately, both Dunn and Ginsborg expect too much of politics. Dunn believes that many will find the triumph of democracy "disappointing", since "it carries none of the glamour which Pericles invoked for its Athenian namesake". Ginsborg argues that "the natural starting point" for his deliberative politics "is the home and then civil society and the city, but its natural ambit is the world". Dunn and Ginsborg hold a view of the ideal society in which politics comes to be nearly all-embracing. That, no doubt, would suit academics and others seeking excitement. The rest of us prefer, in the absence of challenges to the democratic state or to our economic wellbeing, to be left alone by politicians, even when they turn up in the genial guise of Paul Ginsborg. "Elections," Louis Napoleon said, "are like baptism - absolutely essential, but one does not want to spend one's life in the font." Most of us look on democracy in practical rather than idealistic terms as a sensible, if imperfect, method of settling disputes.

The trouble with any more exalted version, as Oscar Wilde said of socialism, is that it would take up too many evenings.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University.

Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy

Author - John Dunn
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 246
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 84354 211 0

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