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Reclaiming 'common sense': new pamphlet is a rallying cry to the 99%

Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty, Dan Hind, openDemocracy, £2.56

Today marks the launch of OurKingdom’s version of ‘Common Sense’, a new ebook by Dan Hind about the Occupy movement and deliberative politics. We are publishing the pamphlet in partnership with Myriad Editions and the New Left Project, who have brought out their own editions. Below, Guy Aitchison talks to Dan Hind about direct democracy and new modes of resistance.  

The title of your new work, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty, evokes Thomas Paine’s pamphlet of the same name written in support of the American Revolution, and it’s clearly been written with a political purpose in mind. Can you say a little about what motivated you to write it?

It was the growing feeling I had last year that we are in very strange and uncharted waters. We are in revolutionary times in the specific sense that the governing orthodoxy that bounded what we understood to be practical and sensible turned out to be complete delirium. The analogies with the situation in revolutionary America seem very strong and unforced. You had a perhaps more gradual process of disenchantment there amongst an English-speaking population that realised over time that they didn’t need to be ruled by distant kings and aristocrats. The assumptions, about what’s normal and natural, came under terminal pressure over a period of time and interventions, like Paine’s, made a difference.In our day, the governing orthodoxy has crashed around the ears of the people who were benefiting from it and building their careers within it. Yet they’re carrying on regardless. You will still have, for example, three neoliberals for every one critic on a TV panel debate, whereas a discussion that vaguely reflected the current state of knowledge would have three serious critics of neoliberalism and one neoliberal holdout.

The broad generality of people, however, should savour the sense that the kinds of formal and informal prohibitions and inhibitions that we once felt about political and economic discussion are out the window. There’s a piece by Roland Barthes where he talks about Voltaire as the “last happy writer” in that he had a worthy enemy in the ancien regime, but one that was finished, and his genius could find full expression in opposition to a monster that was on its last legs. In a way, we’re the first happy people in that we’ve seen where unbridled capitalism leads. We know that the delight and excitement and intellectual challenge is in opposition to it and not within it. The sense that we can be intellectually lucky and happy in a way that wasn’t possible for centuries is very exciting.

You talk about the disjuncture between our recent historical experience and the continuing hold neoliberalism has over our public institutions. How did neoliberalism gain this position of ascendancy in the first place?

The way neoliberalism establishes itself in Anglo-America can only be explained with reference to the really serious challenge to social-democratic capitalism you see in the sixties and seventies. The US establishment in the 1970s was terrified of losing control, and they found in neoliberalism a set of ideas that could be made operative and seemed congruent with very powerful social forces. There was a great deal of resistance and hostility to the authority of the Keynesian administrator amongst a lot of working- and middle-class people in Britain and the US, and so the ruling class fight back structured itself around individual liberation through market activity and the removal of infuriating forms of bureaucratic regulation and constraint. Neoliberalism was very useful and fitted in with other current ideas, such as the re-emergence of racist discourse and intense hostility to the poor. The temptation is to think of it in terms of an intellectual movement, but I see it much more in terms of people who have a strong interest in going on the attack shaping the intellectual environment.

Part of what I found in appealing in Common Sense is the attempt to propose a set of political ideas, in a very direct and accessible clear way, to a wide readership. Do you think the left has a problem generally in the way it communicates?

I set out to write as simply as I could as I felt there were people out there who would like to engage with what had been seen until very recently as highly technical matters that were beyond reasonable consideration by normal people. If you’re trying to engage with people, where they are, then adding a layer of obfuscation is pointless. I wanted to help readers to engage with these issues in natural language.

Freedom, for example, is a very familiar notion. And I wanted to talk about it simply, in a way that wasn’t complicated. But at the same time, I wanted to get at something important. We have a thin notion of what it means to be free. And the essay sets out to change that. Any sensible definition of what it means to be free must include having effective control of our own circumstances. We’re not free. We’re free range, maybe, if we’re lucky, but we’re not free.

A central part of the pamphlet is concerned with the role of the occupations movement that emerged last year, drawing on the powerful examples of Tahrir Square, the Spanish Indignados movement and Occupy Wall Street. What potential do you see in this movement?

What was striking to me about the occupations was the sense that the people involved really were approximating the condition of citizenship in a much fuller sense. They were exercising effective control over their immediate circumstances and what was said in their name. I think that the people involved were enlivened by that experience, because they had some sense that they were no longer beholden to other people for their freedoms; that they’d taken them and were exercising them as they saw fit.

Did you go down and take part?

I did, though not as much as I would have liked to, as I was unwell. Like many people, I was delighted it was happening. The people I’m writing for in Common Sense are not necessarily the people directly involved in the occupations – as I don’t presume to tell people what they’ve made of their experiences – but enthusiastic bystanders like myself.  I wanted to highlight something of what I saw there and share it with people who weren’t there, and who are maybe wondering, ‘well what difference did it make?’

There were forms of public communication taking place there that were short-circuiting and challenging the mass communication we’re used to. It wasn’t a case of certain classes of speech washing over passive audiences, who are expected to get with the programme or go away. It was much more meaningfully egalitarian.  There’s an incredible energy and élan that comes from talking about things as equals, and we need to harness that in order to reform our public life.

There’s no rush to say that in the established institutions of communication and decision. You have to be the sort of character who writes political pamphlets to have an interest in articulating some of the achievements and outlining the potential of deliberation between equals.

One of the criticisms of the occupations movement is that participation is a demanding, full-time commitment and that as a result they were in no way as representative as their slogans implied. Do you see that as a problem?

Of course, we need to bear in mind that people are very busy. Trying to hold down a job, look after young children, and so on, leaves limited time for political deliberation. I was also conscious that the occupations are physically gruelling and that means younger, vigorous people are more likely to be able to commit to them, perhaps. On the other hand, no group of people is truly representative. If you look at the composition of Parliament, and compare it with the composition of the St Paul’s assembly, the occupiers looked much more like Britain in terms of ethnic mix, ratio of men to women, and variety of income.

I’m always astonished by the insularity of MPs who don’t realise that their making more than £60k a year changes their perceptions of what’s normal. There were an awful lot of people in the occupations who know full well what it’s like not to have much money. So, as a public body, they were much more representative than allegedly representative institutions. On the wider point, the only meaningful response to seeing unrepresentative groups talking about what you think is to form your own, talk to other people, build a consensus that you understand and take that consensus into dialogue with others.

Participation doesn’t have to be full time. That’s a myth put about by professional politicians. I am not saying it’s easy, of course it isn’t. But the generation that created the welfare state spent a lot of time thinking, arguing, reading. They didn’t leave it to full-timers. They weren’t daft.  

In terms of where next, then, you’d like to see people take up the model of the popular assembly and the democratic forms of participation it strives to achieve and apply these in other settings?

What I argue for in the pamphlet is the notion we should seek to occupy institutional spaces. I’ve made a case for occupation and assembly mutating and being tried out in different contexts with different personnel.  Not necessarily seizing space and challenging authorities, but rather creating political spaces that we have meaningful control over, with people we know, with people in the same area, with members of organizations to which we belong.

We should think about the constituencies in which we live, and the MPs who are supposed to represent us, and start making assemblies that could network with others, and build, until the point where politicians become conscious they have to deal with a much better informed and more assertive electorate – an electorate that might end their career. Frankly, that’s the only way you’ll make these people do what you want.

So you see the occupations having a dual role: demystifying the governing orthodoxy and discussing alternatives through a process of self-education, but also having a directly instrumental political influence through the electoral process?

Indeed. There are mass membership organisations, such as trade unions, charities, environmental groups, to which we belong, with which we often have a quite passive relationship. Those institutions would be improved by a more energetic membership that looks to itself rather than to its leaders for direction. We also have a territorial political system and we can exert pressure through that to the extent that politicians become conscious of our voting intentions. My hope is that there will be enough people in constituencies who can credibly say to their MPs, “There are 2000 of us now, we’ve been talking for two months, we’d like you to come and explain yourself”. That would have a salutary effect on MPs. Those who sought to bluster their way through would find themselves on difficult ground, whilst the talented ones would see things are changing and get with the democratic programme. I’ve never had any illusions that we’ll do away with the division of labour in public life. But we can exert a much tighter surveillance on what politicians are up to.

What about the preponderance of conspiracy theorists within the occupy movement?

Well, we could talk all night about what counts as a conspiracy theory. One of the things I talk about in the pamphlet is how weird a straightforward description of social reality now sounds. We have been marinading in nonsense for so long that, if someone tells you how the monetary system works, they will sound like a crank, even if what they are telling you is true. Any open debate at this point will be a mixture of stuff that sounds wrong and stuff that really is wrong.

But, leaving that to one side, people’s ideas improve when they’re confronted with reasoned opposition. If you have a properly paranoid perspective and someone points out that “x, y and z” couldn’t have happened for whatever reason, that brings you round to a different point of view.

There’s nothing inevitably great about assembly and occupation. They achieve what they achieve because of the people that turn up. They can go wrong in any number of ways. But it’s striking to me that they didn’t seem to go wrong in many of the ways you might imagine they would. It’s up to everyone involved to make of them what they can. And if it’s not working, go and do something else.

What do you say to people who’ve criticised the ideas coming out of the occupations for their timidity? I’m thinking, for example, of the proposals by Occupy London to bring transparency and accountability to the City, rather than the much more fundamental change many think is needed.

Any group that tries to come up with consensual decisions on things quickly is going to reach conclusions that displease at least some people. The only remedy for the shortcomings of direct democracy is more direct democracy. If you’re a radical and you believe that it’s reformist backsliding to want to reform the corporation of the City of London, that’s fine, but take seriously the idea that people who are assembling and talking amongst themselves as equals are worthy of serious engagement.

And, by the way, if you are a radical, and you want to rattle the ruling class, then reform of the Corporation is a pretty good transitional demand.  

It might be thought, however, that there is something about the process of consensus decision-making, where everyone has to agree - or at least consent to - the final conclusions of the assembly, that reinforces the politics of the lowest common denominator by papering over the irreducible conflicts of interests and values in political life in the name of an illusory consensus. We may reach a temporary consensus amongst friends, in the environment of an occupation, but as a more generally applicable model of doing politics, is it not slightly naive?

You have to take these ideas as far as they can go. Deliberation and assembly are fantastic ways to find things out, but it is only the beginning of politics, not the end. There are indeed irreducible differences of interests, values and perspective and in the end they will have to be resolved in some way more like the process we’re familiar with, perhaps through more straightforwardly majoritarian forms of politics. But I’m definitely of the view that a lot of what we think of as barriers to cooperation and the creation of common sense are essentially illusory. We no longer accept, for example, that there are irreducible differences between men and women, black people and white people.

There are hard choices that need to be made. The question is who makes those choices and on what basis. Once people get a taste for democracy, they’ll want to extend it into far more spheres of their lives. The financial system needs reform, for example, but it can only be reformed on the basis of much higher levels of public understanding and engagement. The public as a body need to control the system of credit. The moment they do, the financial sector ceases to be very profitable. That’s very bad news for a very big slice of the ruling class, as currently understood. They don’t want that to happen, but they’re less than 1%. If you have a meaningfully democratic situation, the people who directly benefit from the way the financial sector operates will be outvoted. That’s why they’re desperate to avoid democracy.

Now, assembly, free deliberation, they allow us to formulate a democratic politics that takes into account the relevant facts. But I am not pretending that we will talk the financial sector out of its privileged position in the economy.

Your arguments in Common Sense continue an interest you explored with your last book The Return of the Public, in which you talked about how to democratise the media, moving power away from private concentrations of wealth, through a system of publicly-controlled editorial commissioning. Few people would deny that better quality deliberation and more democratic forms of communication are a good thing, but is there not a danger of placing too much faith in the power of ideas; the notion that if we show that the Emperor has no clothes, then somehow that’s enough? Don’t we need something more?

There’s an enormous difference between piecing together a critique on your own, and experiencing a group of people coming towards a shared understanding. At that point, it is much more difficult to maintain any clear distinction between the ideal and the material. If you have a room of 1000 people, who grasp what they want and understand the ideas underlying it, it’s very different from me chatting away on a blog post, or whatever. The sharing of space and the achievement of understanding helps us understand the materiality of ideas; it makes them a matter of pheromones, bodies in space, and this has its own potential.

For me it has never been about knowing that the Emperor has no clothes. It’s about getting to a point where we all know, and we all know that we all know, and can talk about what to do about the naked person who insists that he is the Emperor. The point of the reforms outlined in The Return of the Public is that they help us discover ourselves as publics.

Our ideas always improve by meeting people with different kinds of knowledge and experience and engaging with them as equals. The ideas that come out of that process, over time, are better than the kinds of ideas that would come out of a more traditional model of transmission, where you have experts on high who tell a follower group what they should or shouldn’t think. We need new knowledge, sure, but we need to make that knowledge politically significant.

Change doesn’t come from heroic leaders, it comes from people figuring out what they want, and how to get it. Deliberation between equals is part of how that happens. That’s common sense, right there.

There are other things in the pamphlet though. I mean, people should buy it, it’s good.

This interview was originally published by the New Left Project

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