WHAT a spectacle! During the Queen’s funeral hundreds of thousands of devoted subjects queued for hour after hour to see the catafalque for several days. Broadcasters cleared the decks, with the BBC showing a 24/7 feed of deferential subjects paying their respects, often bowing or curtseying. The Establishment closed ranks and claimed that this was the nation coming together to cement the status quo as the best of all possible worlds. The dissident voice was drowned out of censored itself. But this is only one part of the Establishment in its pomp, turning citizens into loyal subjects.
One might have hoped in the 21st century that the various aspects of the ruling clique would have encouraged people to be more critically engaged citizens. In fact, you hardly ever hear the general public referred to as citizens. As we have seen we are subjects of the Monarch. In the courts we are defendants – often it seems the least important actors in the theatre of the absurd that is our judiciary system; in our form of representative government we are the ‘electorate’ or the ‘voters’ or ‘constituents’ – rarely citizens; in Christianity we are the children of God or Christ; in the economy we are ‘consumers’ or ‘customers’ encouraged to buy NOW rather than wait to save up; in the NHS we are ‘patients’ or ‘users’. The idea of the critically engaged citizen is drowned out by a wave of euphemisms, as we are reduced to witless spectators – infantilized. We are actively encouraged not to worry our little heads about the constitutional monarchy, criminal justice, government at any level from parish to national, religion, the economy or health.
It is a far cry from the polis of ancient Athens when free men (and it has to be conceded that it was only freemen, rather than women and slaves, but it is the principle we are talking about here, not the specific practice) were expected to take part in public life. As Aristotle said humans (men of course) are political animals and the private life was thought to be inferior – indeed that is where the word privation comes from.
The politician and military commander Pericles said: “We alone regard the man who takes no part in public affairs, not one who minds his own business, but as a good for nothing.” Those who preferred their own counsel were idiotes, the origin of the word ‘idiot’. Athenian assemblies in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE were largely chosen by lot, and they were the nerve centre of power. Indeed, right up until end of the 18th century representative government and democracy, in the Athenian sense, were regarded as being incompatible. As the second US president John Adams wrote: “Is not representation an essential and fundamental departure from democracy? …Representation and democracy are a contradiction is terms.”
At some point, however, the word ‘democracy’ was tagged on to the word ‘representative’ and the focus of campaigners switched to extending the franchise. But as universal suffrage became a reality in parts of the world, so interest in any participation in the polis was drastically reduced as citizens became ‘voters’ or the ‘electorate’ and ‘constituents’ – mere spectators.
In The Next Revolution Murray Bookchin reflects this conflation of two incompatible concepts when he draws a distinction between ‘state craft’ and ‘politics’. The first, he argues, is the situation we have now in which the influence of the citizen is steadily diminished because of the limitation of representative government – although even this is infinitely better, of course, than the dictatorship of people like Putin because at least one get rid of representatives through the ballot box. The second – politics proper – involves citizens having direct participatory control over their government and communities. It should be said that statecraft encompasses all representative institutions from Parliament in the UK to the smallest parish council. The nearest citizens get to direct democracy is being invited to comment on proposed policies with the final decision still resting with their representatives.
Bookchin writes: “As I have written elsewhere, historically, politics did not emerge from the state – an apparatus whose professional machinery is designed to dominate and facilitate the exploitation of citizenry in the interests of a privileged class. Rather, politics, almost by definition, is the active engagement of free citizens in the handling of their municipal affairs and in their defence of freedom.” On this account, politics has been almost entirely extinguished from modern society, in which we are, rather, infantilized by the state.
Bookchin advocates a form of Confederalism, which is a network of ‘administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies in the various villages, towns and even neighbourhoods of large cities’. He adds: “The members of these confederated councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that choose them for the purpose of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves.” He does not refer to them specifically, but Citizens’ Assemblies should be a form a part of the confederation. Either way, it is a system that completely over-turns the status quo, with power residing in citizens, not a ruling clique.
The idea that what we have now is democracy is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it is almost impossible to imagine an alternative worthy of the name ‘democracy’. But, as Bookchin points out, blind acceptance of the status quo as though there is no alternative is, arguably, the greatest barrier to social change – as we saw in the previous blog.