Neoliberal Democracy and Alternative Democracies

Neoliberal Democracy and Alternative Democracies

Nick Stevenson (University of Nottingham)

The current election has shaped up to be a fairly depressing spectacle. After the discussion about the television debates, whether or not David Cameron would like a third term or, indeed, the mostly negative posters seeking to cover one another in dirt you could not really blame the public for lacking interest. Following the debates thus far I began to think that there was a conspiracy amongst the parties to make sure that the election was as bland as possible.

On the BBC’s ‘The Daily Politics’ a member of UKIP challenged a ‘protestor’ that if he had better ideas then he should put himself up for election. Within this exchange what we can hear is a desperate narrowing of political debate. Most of the public are well aware that when they vote for political parties they are voting for packages of policies (a fair number of which they may not agree with) and that many of the votes cast are simply strategies to stop other people being elected.

Further when it comes to the election the public have (despite the protests to the contrary) very few opportunities to question the political parties. Indeed any members of the electorate ‘accidentally’ find themselves questioning a prospective member of parliament this then becomes a potential point of embarrassment. We can all remember the hapless Gordon Brown in the last election being confronted by Gillian Duffy on questions to do with immigration. These situations are mostly avoided through the publication of glossy campaign material, well-scripted television exchanges with ‘professional’ journalists and of course images of prospective candidates enjoying photo opportunities with their supporters, all designed to hold the public at a distance.

I used to think that we should try and think of creative ways to open spaces where the parties had to face members of the public. The arrival of local television, for example, offers the prospective of more disorderly exchanges or even more face-to-face encounters at hustings that might revive the political process. However, my experience of these events over the years has been fairly disappointing. Few members of the public tend to turn up, and when they do they are mostly met again with the well scripted response. There are of course a few brave souls who try and stand as independent candidates but their voices are often drowned out by the workings of official party machines. As someone who first joined a political party when I was sixteen and campaigned enthusiastically in the 1983 election the most notable difference between now and then is the power of the media of mass communication. The spectacle of the election not only leaves many people feeling cynical and powerless, but also bored and frustrated.

In the context of neoliberalism and our market-orientated democracy political parties have become increasingly centrally organised and controlled. This often leaves ordinary party members feeling like foot soldiers with little voice inside the top-down party bureaucracy. The current accepted wisdom is that the media punish political parties who fail to offer strong leadership (this means we like authoritarian control) and are harsh on campaigns that seem to be ‘plagued by in-fighting’ (we are not that keen on argument and disagreement either).

The question which these reflections inevitably open up is where does all this leave democracy? If one definition of democracy is that we each have an equal vote in an election where we choose a leader there are other, alternative definitions. Democracy should also mean an opportunity to have your voice heard, the possibility of listening to critical debate and unruly forms of exchange or at very least the opportunity for dissent. We might argue that these features are perhaps better met by more grass roots campaigns. Here we also need to tread carefully. Many organisations within the charitable sector or wider civil society are equally hierarchically organised. Just like political parties they need to make sure activists are ‘on message’ and often act like an extended form of public relations. Here it is probably important not to be too pessimistic, but sometimes there is not as clear a distinction between the so called alternative and the mainstream as many people think.

The real problem was probably best summarised by the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (2011) through what he refers to as the privatisation of politics. As a society we often dismiss those who turn their backs on politics as apathetic. However, Castoriadis argues this converts lack of engagement into a personal failing when there are actually few opportunities to genuinely govern ourselves. The top-down organisation of work places, schools, political parties and yes even some so-called social movements are in fact designed to produce a sense of powerlessness. This produces a vicious circle in that the more that citizens withdraw their interest the more that the state, centralised bureaucracies and markets take over.

Partly, this situation has been amplified by the collapse of the New Left after the 1960s and the closing of more revolutionary options after the ending of ‘actually existed socialism’. Historically popular uprisings like Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968 or, indeed, more recently, anti-roads protests, feminist campaigns on the body, or the Occupy movement, offer a sense that struggles for popular control have a long history, but these have been mostly air brushed out of view by a Left that rarely questions beyond the hegemony of parliamentary democracy. The retreat of these ideas from the horizons of the vast majority of the population Castoriadis (2011: 10) describes as evidence of ‘the ideological exhaustion of our age’.

Neoliberalism, within this vacuum, offers consumerism, precarious forms of employment for increasing numbers of people and of course unemployment. In the era of privatisation the political is vacated by citizens and becomes largely controlled from above by ‘professional’ groups like politicians, spin doctors, strategists and think tanks. Freedom under the guise of neoliberalism requires very little sense of commitment, but is something that the system offers without any effort involved. However as Castoriadis (2011:18) reminds us, within more radical traditions of self-management ‘freedom is an activity’ that needs to be able to set its own limits. If it is literally impossible to subject everything to more popular forms of control – and in any case would require ‘too many meetings’ as Oscar Wilde once quipped – then this is a tradition that needs to be revived.

Before the conversation becomes too pessimistic I have however noticed a new turn in the debate. The arrival of the environmental movement and the anti-globalisation protests have revived questions related to self-management. These movements have sought to ask why our town squares, libraries, universities, schools, work places and natural landscape are places that are literally becoming enclosed by capital. If, as E.P.Thompson’s (1968) historical masterpiece long recognised, the first wave of enclosure acts not only separated people from the land by converting it into private property it also created the wage labour for factories in the city. This is significant as we are currently being assaulted by a second wave of enclosure this time focused upon public resources and the environment.

Today as activist David Bollier’s popular web site makes plain, there is a growing world-wide movement to resist the enclosure of the commons by an alliance of capitalism and the neoliberal state. This means groups seeking to promote the cause of co-operatives, public resources not yet privatised, the rights of indigenous peoples and a sustainable planet. The commons movement in its multiple forms of expression resists a system where more productivity, commodification and environmental exploitation is never enough to meet its needs. The attempt to resist the new waves of enclosure that links up demands for fresh water, food and other more cultural resources the world over cuts across a number of issues and questions. The movement for the commons will require commoners willing to give up their time and energy to resist the current ideological consensus that argues that the best way for us to manage our society is through hierarchical forms of control.

What is beginning to emerge here is a progressive critique of representative democracy, but this time without the need for violent revolution. If the history of revolutionary movements in the past became deformed through the attempt to replace capitalism with the state, the idea of the commons is more of a permanent war against the enclosing logic of the market. Whoever wins (or has won) the current election, we will be faced by a state that has progressively drained civil society of any sense of control. This has not just meant a war on the power of local authorities, but on a range of other institutions as well. Schools are controlled by Ofsted, fuel by energy companies, food by supermarkets, our streets by privately owned cars, our bodies by the advertising industry, our towns and cities by car parks and shopping centres, and our work places increasingly by the needs of capital for endless forms of growth.

These forms of enclosure which have emerged over the course of the historical development by capitalism are unlikely to be confronted by one large movement but by a multitude of agencies from below. The struggle for the commons may yet turn into one of the big sociological and political stories of the 21st century, but you are not likely to hear this during the election campaign. The need for democratic control did not disappear at the end of the twentieth century, but is silenced within a debate dominated by the fight over the privatised needs of ‘hard working families’.

Castoriadis, C. (2011) ‘No God, No Caesar, No Tribune!: Cornelius Castoriadis Interviewed by David Mermet’, in Rockhill, G. (ed) Postscript on Insignificance, London, Continuum.
Thompson, E.P (1968) The Making of the English Working Class, London, Penguin.


Nick Stevenson is reader in Cultural Sociology at the University of Nottingham.