When Marx met Mill

People just don't want to be told. Personal political responsibility, like virtue, is notoriously di

May I suggest some summer reading? Consider it as a little extra homework, or an intellectual workout for the holiday season. The book is Democracy: Crisis and Renewal by Paul Ginsborg, professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence. Ginsborg is a public intellectual of international renown, but you probably won't have heard of him because he writes mainly for the Italian press. The book is only 124 pages long, if you don't count the notes and bibliography. It is written in a perfectly accessible, non-academic style. It would take you an afternoon by the pool to get through it and, as a result, you would be vastly better informed about the state of global democracy and well placed to engage with the political process when you return from your holiday.

How do you feel about that? Patronised? Even more turned off politics than you were before you started this article? Deeply determined to read the latest Robert Harris after all? Your perfectly understandable reaction proves one of the main points of Ginsborg's book: it really is very difficult to inform people about the importance of participating in the democratic process. Because people just don't want to be told. Personal political responsibility, like virtue, is notoriously difficult to teach.

Ginsborg argues that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democracy has entered into a period of crisis not of quantity (something like 120 of the 192 nation states of the United Nations can now be described as democracies), but of quality. As he writes: "While formal, electoral democracy expanded with great rapidity all over the world, disaffection grew in democracy's traditional heartlands. This is expressed in a consistent decline in voter turnout and membership of political parties and a loss of faith in democratic institutions and the political class."

This decline has also seeped into the new democracies of Europe, however. In the 2004 European parliamentary elections, turnout in the UK was under 40 per cent. But it was 38.5 per cent in Hungary, 28.3 per cent in the Czech Republic, 20.9 per cent in Poland and just 17 per cent in Slovakia. People may not have liked communism, but they do not seem greatly enthused by democracy, at least not at the level of the European Parliament.

Ginsborg's delightfully bonkers book begins with a meeting in London in March 1873 between two great political minds of the age, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. Over a generous dinner followed by port at Mill's home in Albert Mansions, Victoria Street, the two men discuss their competing visions of democracy. Marx argues for a "participatory" model based on the Paris Commune of 1871, in which the workers seize direct control in a process of radical decentralisation (otherwise known as proletarian revolution). Mill, on the other hand, argues for the "representative" model, in which an elected elite rules over the less-informed, poorly educated and hopelessly prejudiced majority. The party broke up just before midnight, and the two great men agreed to differ, although Marx conceded that in some countries, perhaps even Britain, progress towards true democracy might be possible without violence.

Did it really happen like that? You will have to read the book for yourself to find out. Mill's belief in "the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state" remains something on which all democrats would probably agree. By the late 19th century, the Marxist tradition and the liberal tradition diverged, with the latter ultimately triumphing in the revolutions of 1989. Ginsborg believes this discussion remains central to contemporary political debate: democracy should be essentially representative, or could people become more engaged with a country's political institutions if there were more direct involvement on the participatory model.

Like many on the left, Ginsborg is excited by the participatory politics of Porto Alegre, a city of four million in southern Brazil. In a system set up by the Workers' Party, the people of Porto Alegre take part in a series of meetings throughout the year to decide on priorities for the forthcoming budget. Delegates from local assemblies are then elected to a central budget council, where they thrash out a policy programme to be adopted by the mayor at the end of the year. In 2004, the Workers' Party was defeated in local elections, but such was the consensus around the participatory budget that the incoming coalition agreed to keep it.

Could such a model be adopted in Britain as a way of breathing life into local politics? Well, it has been tried, in the leafy outer London borough of Harrow, of all places. In spring 2005, in collaboration with Helena Kennedy's Power inquiry into political participation, the Harrow Open Budget Process brought together 300 residents to discuss priorities for the 2006/2007 budget and elect a panel to monitor how local politicians responded.

Ginsborg's book ends with an imagined conversation today between Marx and Mill about the merits of the Harrow experiment. Curious to know what had become of it, I called Harrow Council's press office. It has yet to get back to me. A report I found online showed that 94 per cent of those who took part thought it was a "good" or "very good" experience, and 74 per cent suggested it should be repeated. So what did happen? The Conservatives seized control of Harrow and the idea was scrapped. One thing you can rely on in Britain is that the dead hand of local politics will always throttle anything approaching genuine participation.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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"There's nowhere to turn": What it's like to be gay and homeless

Many LGBTQ homeless people cannot ask their families for help. 

Ascania is a 41 mother with a 24 year-old son, who came to the UK from Jamaica in 2002. “I was raped at gunpoint in the area I lived in Jamaica," she says. "They’d found out in the community that I’m a lesbian. They hit the back of my head with a gun- sometimes it is still painful. I had to move from that area, then I went to another part of the island. I lived there for 18 months. People in these communities start to watch you – to see if there are men coming to see you. They begin to be suspicious. Luckily I had a chance to come to the UK before something else happened."

A friend, who was also gay, paid for a ticket for her to reach the UK. She started a relationship, and moved in with her girlfriend, but the girlfriend turned abusive. "It was a nightmare," she remembers. "It ended then I started to sofa surf. Sometimes I would go into pubs meet different girls, go back with them, and sleep over just so I had somewhere to spend the night."

Eventually, Ascania received help from St Mungo's, a homelessness charity, after the LGBT charity Stonewall put her in touch. The charity helped her get food from a food bank, and find somewhere to stay. 

While all homeless people can struggle with physical and mental challenges, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face extra stigma, discrimination, and rejection by their families.

“That’s why I think LGBTQ projects are important," says Ascania. "From being on the gay scene, I meet all these people and they don’t know about the support available. They’re out there having a really rough time. They don’t know where to turn."

She feels that in shared accommodation, people like herself can be judged for their friends. 

Homeless charities point out that transgender people are particularly at physical risk due to a lack of acceptance and are sometimes turned away from shelters.

Melissa is a trans women in her early 40s. She is now living in transgender accommodation in London provided by the charity St Mungo’s and says she is successfully engaged with drug and alcohol services and rebuilding relationships with her family.

Before beginning her transition she was married with two teenage children and had been in trouble with the police. 

She says the stress of denying her true self led to self-destructive behaviour.

She said: “I was sleeping rough, in graveyards and stairwells. In 2012 I went to prison for nine months. My probation officer put me in touch with St Mungo’s and now I have a really nice place and I hope to become a project worker with the charity. I can see a path forward.”

According to Homeless Link, a national membership charity for organisations working with people who become homeless in England, the causes of homelessness include poor and unsuitable housing, insecurity in the private rented sector, transitioning/leaving accommodation or institutions such as prison, and loss of employment. These circumstances are often coupled with mental health issues, experience of trauma, relationship breakdown, and fleeing domestic violence or abuse.

Awareness of the specific needs of LGBT homeless people is starting to enter mainstream politics. Last month, LGBT Labour passed a motion at its AGM to affiliate to the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness (LCEH). The two organisations will hold a joint event at Labour's annual conference in the autumn.

Sam Stopp, a Labour councillor in Wembley, is chair of LCEH. He said party activists launched the campaign two years ago, because they wanted to do more than talk about the problem. He said: “LGBT homelessness has some specific aspects. If your parents do not support you and you are thrown out of your home that may require a different approach to help people rebuild their lives. There’s not just an economic reason but your sexuality has closed them off.”

Stopp hopes that by aligning Labour activists with homelessness charities, his organisation will be able to provide practical support to people who need it. 

Chris Wills from LGBT Labour’s National Committee, and chair of LGBT Labour North West, said: “The homelessness crisis is worsening. I live in Manchester, where every day I see more and more people sleeping rough – and that’s just the ones we know about, let alone the “hidden homeless”, who are reliant on hostels or going from one friend’s couch to another’s floor night after night.

“This year marks fifty years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and huge advances were made for LGBT equality under Labour between 1997 and 2010. Society as a whole has become more tolerant. Yet even now, coming out as LGBT to your family can still often result in you being kicked out onto the streets, or forced to flee the family home due to verbal and physical abuse.”