Last week I was listening to two British leftists, Richard Seymour and James Butler, talking about the prospects for radical change in the context of ongoing economic and political crisis. The discussion was shrewd and enlightening. But it struck me at the time that someone was missing, a figure whose restoration in the English-speaking left is long overdue.
A century ago it looked as if the future was all mapped out. In the most advanced European economies, industrial workers were building political institutions that would bring the age of capital to an end. The factory, the foundry, the mine and the railway were schools where radical ideas could be tested and refined and where individuals could discover a common agenda. By the summer of 1914, egalitarian socialism seemed imminent.
It didn’t work out like that. World War I undermined faith in the idea of international solidarity and killed off many of the skilled working class. Autodidacts outnumbered university graduates in the trenches. The Russian Revolution, fascism and an even more terrible war left a reformed capitalism in control in most of the world. Industrial workers, who once seemed on the brink of creating a union of socialist commonwealths, looked less like the vanguard of history and more like the junior partners in a system that combined Fordist mass production and welfare spending at home with violent exploitation in the global south.
Those who still dreamt of radical transformation sought a replacement for the working class as an agent of change. Perhaps the peasants of Latin America, Africa and South East Asia would defeat US imperialism and bring about the final crisis of capitalism. Perhaps the young would sweep away the conniving fossils holding humanity back. Perhaps women would provide the energy and insight needed to create another, more just, social settlement. The light that once shone on Marx’s proletariat illuminated one group after another. For a breathless moment it even seemed that ethical consumers were the change we were waiting for.
The citizen as a driver of radical change will have to move far from the conventional account of the state and the private economy and embrace new constitutional forms. The division of powers, first conceived as a device by which to insulate property from popular power, must be reconceived as a way of understanding and unravelling the connections between different kinds of power, including those that seek to obscure their nature.
The crisis that began in 2007 might have been a moment when organised workers rediscovered their radical roots. After all, governments were using a crisis created in the financial sector as an excuse for “fiscal consolidation” and measures to increase the “flexibility” of labour markets.
But outsourcing, technological change and casualisation or hiring employees on a casual basis, left workers much less able to organise. Share options and asset price appreciation incentivised a lucky few while the rest worried about their debts and the threat of arbitrary dismissal. Matters were complicated by the fact that, while fewer people were needed in the realms of pure production, more and more of us were employed to defend the current distribution of property and power. Despite some successful campaigns, workers still didn’t seem like the engineers of a new society.
Besides, the response to the crisis seemed too various to fit into the old narrative of working class militancy. Certainly there were strikes and workplace occupations. But there were also occupations and assemblies that owed more to anarchism and environmentalism. These ran alongside a new wave of feminist activism and agitation. Disabled people fought for recognition and respect on their own terms. To date there has been no overarching frame in which these various movements could find a common agenda and point of coordination.
But there is a historical category that can provide a shared identity and point of reference for those seeking to address the politics of intimate life, the public and private sectors of the economy and the networks that integrate all aspects of the social. Rather than the worker, it is the citizen that has the best chance of uniting the majority against the swindle of secret oligarchy. Civic equality is the achievement of long struggle and the basis for further gains.
The citizen identity is particularly relevant now that the crisis has revealed the integration of the state apparatus and the private sector in both the central bank-dominated monetary system and the media. The state is not external to the economy or to the institutions that provide us with the widely held descriptions of reality. It lies at the point of intersection of credit and belief. And once the interdependence of the political and the economic is acknowledged, the citizen body can no longer be kept away from finance or the structure of the enterprise by the invocation of “market forces”.
The citizen as a driver of radical change will have to move far from the conventional account of the state and the private economy and embrace new constitutional forms. The division of powers must be reconceived as a way of understanding and unravelling the connections between different kinds of power, including those that seek to obscure their nature.
The condominium of state and private actors in the financial-monetary sector is a proper object of civic curiosity. The power to describe must also be disentangled from the formal powers of office and the prerogatives of wealth. At the moment, we fail to comprehend the mechanisms by which power and knowledge interact to reproduce the status quo. Only the citizen as agent of radical change can be expected to make up this deficit.
Democratic citizenship, then, provides a framework in which individual campaigns find a place relative to one another and make themselves mutually comprehensible. Moves to introduce democracy in the workplace can find common cause with efforts to drive sexism and racism out of the public sphere. A campaign to put a woman on a banknote can join forces with those seeking radical reform of the monetary system. Each effort to secure justice and equality resonates with the rest.
So why does the citizen feature so little in the radical imagination? In part we can trace its eclipse, in Europe at any rate, to the conflict between Marxism and radical republicanism in the 19th century. In part, the actually existing republics, the United States above all, have successfully used democratic forms to preserve the substance of rule by the propertied. Above all, the dominant institutions in the state and the private sector – the political party and the large corporation – are both committed to radical and deepening inequality.
The politician and the corporate executive alike aspire to power without responsibility, to a world in which both the customer and the voter are reduced to a condition of perfect predictability. Individuals and groups can be noticed separately and set against one another in the service of this predictability. But citizenship as the shared exercise of public power terrifies and disgusts our rulers. Those that successfully achieve citizenship in any substantial sense must have their achievements denied or explained away.
There are plenty of problems with radical republicanism in practice as well as theory. There is more to being human than mere citizenship. But the principles of civic equality and popular sovereignty together provide irreplaceable resources to movements seeking radical change in the structure of society. They are also deeply incompatible with the exclusivity and secrecy that characterise our current arrangements.
Ask what a sovereign public needs and, whether you are an anarchist, a socialist or a social democrat, you have the beginnings of a shared programme. And then, before you know it, you’ll have the charisma that comes from knowing what you want.
Daniel Hind is the author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His third book, The Magic Kingdom, will be published in September.