The economic and political storm for which we have been waiting for decades is upon us, battering the causes for which the left historically cares. Inequality, precarious and insecure work, communities ripped apart, xenophobia, the continual despoliation of our environment – all are its consequences. The storm threatens to engulf not only the left but something bigger, something which the left, the centre and the right have all held dear since the Second World War. It threatens the proper functioning of our democracy itself.
The threat begins with political economy. The system that we have lived under since the late 1970s has created huge inequalities of income and wealth and also of power, and these inequalities have undermined the essence of our democracy. Back in another time of democratic crisis, in the 1930s, E M Forster summed up the fundamental advantage of a democratic system as its refusal to “divide its citizens into the bosses and the bossed”. But who thinks this is true of the world in which we live? Who believes that the giant corporations, the wealthy and the well connected don’t enjoy political power that is denied to those who live in forgotten communities or those just starting out in life?
This malaise has ripped away at the democratic faith of citizens – a faith without which no democracy can truly function. It is almost a cliché to describe falling trust in politicians, the sense of distance and detachment that ordinary citizens feel from their elected representatives. But however familiar a trope this becomes, we must keep reminding ourselves of it because the consequences otherwise are dire. Without the belief that representative politics can help us, we can never hope to find common answers to shared problems. Politicians of all sides pay lip-service to the Disraelian ideal of “one nation”. But almost nobody believes that Westminster speaks for the common values of our nation any longer. And without that, democratic politics is inert.
Furthermore, as this popular faith has ebbed away, those of us who still hold a flame for democracy have forgotten how to argue for it and, more importantly, how to live for it. Too many of us have learned to measure our democratic impact in retweets and Facebook Likes. Others mistake the immediate satisfaction of a march or a rally for the action required to sustain change. Still others profess to believe that the favoured device of dictators and demagogues over the centuries – the plebiscite – is somehow a sign of democratic health.
None of this is democracy. Democracy is a long, slow, hard business. It requires sacrifice and virtue. It requires listening to the views of others and it demands an acceptance of the necessity of difficult choices. It requires, above all, commitment to forging a common good out of the disparate and varied material of our social and economic lives, a good that recognises the worth of everyone whatever their differences. If we don’t do this, we don’t do democracy.
Not everyone wants to hear how hard things are right now. We are surrounded at all points on the political spectrum by a new generation of Mr Micawbers, all insisting that something will turn up. You hear them everywhere you go. They deny the dangers of Donald Trump, the depth of inequality and the consequences of Brexit.
But no good at all can come of this empty wishful thinking. As the German philosopher Max Weber wrote almost 100 years ago, reformers can never succeed if they shy away from the truth of the times in which they live. The precondition for change is to “look at the realities of life with an unsparing gaze” and “be a match for them inwardly”.
So truth-telling is where we must start. But we must also have a plan for the future: a plan that can recapture our faith that people of different beliefs, experiences and backgrounds can work together to find proximate solutions to the problems that beset us and, especially, begin the long task of transforming our economic system. What our democracy needs is new confidence that the wisdom to think afresh may be found not in crowds, but through people working slowly and deliberately together to help overcome the challenges that confront them.
That plan begins with inspiring, on-the-ground experiments in doing things differently, all of which place the democratic value of equal respect at their core. For even if there has been a national decline in democratic faith, far more exciting possibilities are seen locally. We see these in community economic initiatives that promise to regenerate our cities, in projects such as Switched On London, the campaign for a new, publicly responsive, democratically controlled public energy company. We see it, too, in the work of Hope Not Hate and Citizens UK, which bring people back together across the hostilities that divide them.
The plan continues with new technologies. There are more profound chances for co-operative business models now than ever before, and there are more opportunities, too, for engaged discussion of the challenges that confront us, as long as we can avoid the total capture of technology by the monopolies that dominate them.
The plan is complete when all of these become more than a scattered series of innovations and when people see what is possible, and mobilise around it to demand more together. That is when a new agenda will be set for the future. What we all need then – left, right and centre – is a movement for democracy, a movement which recognises that we face a moment of systemic choice, and that our efforts and our commitments will matter more than they have done for generations.
Marc Stears is the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation
This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times