FULL REPUBLICANISM

by Dan Hind, Jamie Stern-Weiner

Is republicanism really just about wanting to be like France and Germany and dissing the Queen?

First published: 28 November, 2012 | Category: Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

Is republicanism really just about wanting to be like France and Germany and dissing the Queen? In a new pamphlet Dan Hind, author of The Return of the Public and Common Sense (co-published by NLP), argues no. Maximum Republic (Myriad, 2012) argues for a republicanism that is far more demanding, and far more radical, than mere anti-monarchism.

In your new pamphlet, you declare that 'it is OK to like the monarchy'. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't guillotine you right now.

It isn't a statement that will endear me to Jacobins, I know. But there is a serious point here. Anarchists, socialists, communists all have to decide whether they want to make abolition of the monarchy a condition of radicalism. If they do then they are setting themselves against the stated preferences of 80% of the population, who are more or less happy with a crowned head of state. Is it really a good idea to say, 'Here's a radical programme. By the way you can't sign up to it unless you agree with me about the urgent need to get rid of the monarchy'?

Which would you prefer - a substantially post-capitalist society with a crowned head of state, or a good, bourgeois republic with an elected head of state? Liking the monarchy is not the same as being happy with its constitutional status. But capitalism is less popular than the monarchy right now. Why pick a fight with the Queen?

Why do you think it is that self-proclaimed republicans have focused on anti-monarchism, when everyone knows the pageantry of the monarchy is now, as you put it, 'light from a long dead star'?

Well, not all of them have, by any means. But the republicans that reach an audience tend to conflate republicanism and anti-monarchism. They are usually brought on at moments of national celebration to complain that we aren't a proper country, like France or Germany. All will be well when we replace the House of Windsor with a retired politician.

It is how the game is played in this country. There is a strand of liberal opinion that despairs of Britain not being like somewhere else, or an idealised version of somewhere else. It sees abolition of the monarchy as part of our becoming a normal, modern country.

What is 'maximal republicanism'? How would we know we were in a maximally republican state?

A maximally republican state is one in which the people have the institutional and material resources necessary to make good on their formal sovereignty, to cash the cheque of a republican constitution. In Maximum Republic I argue that this requires reform of the systems of communication, subsidy and credit, among other things. We'll know we are in a maximally republican state when we know what's going on, can talk about it openly, and make changes we agree are necessary.

That's one answer. We'd be having more fun, that's another.

Montesquieu characterised the English constitution as a 'republic [hiding]... under the form of monarchy'. If Britain is a de facto republic, why does it take 'the form of monarchy' at all?

Well, I agree with Montesquieu, and with Bagehot who made a similar point. I call it an illicit republic because I wanted to stress the extent to which rule is out of sight.

The monarchy is still useful. For one thing it confounds the reforming imagination. It is kind of indefensible in logic, but it is emotionally appealing to lots of people. So the blundering rationalist calls for its abolition and everyone laughs at the silliness of those who don't enjoy our rich traditions, and so on. Like I say it is part of how the game of public speech is played.

More seriously, the current constitution, where the Crown-in-Parliament rules, gives enormous discretionary power to a tiny handful of people. Many people think that they live in a constitutional monarchy that also is a democracy. They are wrong on both counts. They live in an absolute monarchy whose sovereign power has been captured by a Parliament. This Parliament has conceded some democratic elements but the people are not sovereign. The country is not even formally, let alone maximally, republican. But this has nothing to do with the fact of a crowned head of state. The issue is the constitutional status of the general population. Britain isn't, as a matter of boring old fact, a democracy. This matters a great deal; it is a large part of how Britain's particular version of capitalism organises itself.

The monarchy shields all this from consideration and the people who run things will want to keep it as long as it continues to help in the necessary work of mystification.

The ancient democratic republics comprised a minority of citizens and a majority of non-citizens (for instance, slaves). You argue that our society, too, is divided into the mass of the population, on the one hand, and a much smaller 'effectually ruling public' on the other. Who is this effectually ruling public, and what are the mechanisms by which it reproduces itself?

The exact composition varies and it escapes easy classification. The point of calling it an illicit republic is precisely that the ruling public don't act openly. They don't tell people what they have in mind at election time, for example. They work through obscure working groups, committees, networks of various kinds. Very few people who aren't in it can talk about it authoritatively.

Still, the ruling public are best understood as those who can make the state serve their interests, who can treat the state as their property. The core of the effectually ruling public is, roughly, the senior figures in the financial sector, some people from some of the scarier bits of the global economy - oil, arms, pharmaceuticals, that kind of thing - and the political class. They have partners in the media, in academia and in other key institutions who are also influential in their own right. There are more who need to be kept onside, consulted, and so on. But the core is in the South East and it is organized around finance and politics in the broad sense.

The historian Quentin Skinner and the philosopher Philip Pettit have in recent years revived a distinctively republican tradition of thought about liberty. Republican liberty, in their accounts, is infringed not by active interference but by the condition of dependence. Mere vulnerability to domination by others is, for republicans, an infringement on one's liberty. Do you work with a similar understanding of liberty in this book? What political implications does it have?

I have been very much influenced by Skinner's work in particular on this, having come to Pettit quite late. The idea of vulnerability is very useful, I think. It is important when we are thinking about the media, for example. Pierre Bourdieu once said that 'journalism is a very powerful profession made up of very vulnerable individuals'. Why do you think you can trust journalists who are vulnerable to forces they can't adequately acknowledge?

Newspapers are courts, broadcasters are courts, to use a good old republican term of abuse. They are closed to outside scrutiny and they reward faithful service to the institution, punish disruption. Now, that's not to say that the people working in the media are all villains, far from it. But villainy is the best policy, in a lot of instances.

More generally, without effective public oversight and control of the state the social world becomes an overlapping mass of unacknowledged domination. We are vulnerable economically and as James Harrington has it, 'he who wants bread is his servant that will feed him'. The same applies if I want a Lexus, or a country house. Every need and desire can become a threat to our freedom.

Maximal republicanism is quite a radical doctrine. You argue that, 'fully realised', it means 'the end of capitalism'. What's the conflict between capitalism and maximum republicanism? Is republicanism opposed to all market-based economies, or merely certain varieties?

Republicanism, fully realised, insists on the public direction of society. In a capitalist society an unstable coalition of capitalists along with their partners in the state decide the course of events, as far as possible, and do their best to stop everyone else from having any say at all. In fact they spend a fortune creating the impression that stuff just happens. The two systems are not compatible. Either the people or the money power has the final say.

I am agnostic as to what post-capitalist society looks like. It is kind of above my pay grade. What the people in a fully achieved republic decide to do is up to them. They could leave power in the hands of the weirdos who currently run the show, I suppose. But they would do so as a conscious decision that they could revoke at any time. This wouldn't be capitalism as I understand it.

Personally, I don't think private property or market exchange are great evils. I can see how they could easily be part of a democratic-republican (interesting what those words currently call to mind) system. Republican rule has to be wary of markets, for reasons I discuss in Maximum Republic. It has to be wary of everything, in fact. But it doesn't have to do without them.

Is maximum republicanism economically viable?

See my answer above! It depends what a sovereign public decides to do. If you think that people are politically viable, then what they come up with will be economically viable. I can see how republican rule would be much more dynamic, much more productive of common wealth, than what we have here.

Your political proposals, both here and in other works like The Return of the Public, advocate maximising the scope and substance of popular rule. Would it be fair to characterise your championing of the public as a faith position? Does maximum republicanism, for instance, rely on an implausibly rosy view of human nature and capabilities?

Fear and hatred of the people is much more of a faith position, if you think about it. The tyranny of the majority, the tragedy of the commons. The privileged have a whole set of revealed truths about how most people are dangerous brutes. There's no evidence for it. It is self-serving nonsense, and has been demonstrated to be, over and again. I can sound a bit starry-eyed about what a free people can achieve, but it's only because we hear so much libellous rubbish about our own species.

Given the necessary resources and powers, people are the best judges of what to do in their own lives. But, the necessary resources and powers are quite extensive: 'allow all the governed an equal voice in the government and that, and that alone is self-government'. I agree with that, even though it was first said by that dubious legal type from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. 

I don't think that we are all itching to become civic heroes. I don't think a substantive democracy would be a utopia. But it would be better than what we have now. It is also our best shot at survival.

David Runciman argues that 'political parties are founded on the assumption that most people don't care enough about politics to do the things that would make a difference: they have to be corralled into the political arena and then bribed to stay there long enough to effect change'. Do you think people want to be spending a lot of their time involved in politics directly?

I don't agree with Runciman on this, at all. Historically, political parties had their origins in gambling dens—they were a ruse put together by adventurers.

Ronald Syme wrote about Caesar's enjoyment of 'the conscious mastery of men and events'. This is what party politics delivers to a few, the thrill of executive command. Political parties are founded on the assumption that politics is tremendously rewarding and a brilliant laugh. The important thing is to keep the majority from realising it.

Not everyone wants to spend lots of time involved in politics, all the time, of course. But once more people begin understand what politics is, by doing it, they will see the point of Andreotti's warning that 'power is exhausting—to those who do not have it'.

For many eighteenth century thinkers it was axiomatic that a republic could only work on a small scale. First, because only then could citizens acquire the knowledge required to participate directly in politics. Second, because only in small, culturally homogeneous populations could the affective basis for republican citizenship—i.e. the strong sense of civic virtue required to re-orient private to public interest—be sustained. Does this not render republicanism an anachronistic model for a society like contemporary Britain?

Very briefly, they were right about the problem of knowledge, wrong about need for homogeneity.

The idea that we all need to have the same religion, the same skin colour, the same gender, the same income bracket—they've all been treated seriously as reasons for limiting republican ambitions for inclusion. I don't buy any of them. We have in common a wish and capacity for liberty and we recognise that in one another when we meet as equals, to discuss matters of shared concern.

I talk about the problem of knowledge in the pamphlet, so I won't go on about it here.

What advantages do you think maximal republicanism has as a liberating ideal or slogan as against, for instance, socialism or anarchism? Is your aim with this pamphlet to radicalise republicans, or do you also want to republicanise radicals?

I wanted to write something for people who live in Britain in particular, to try to explain why the place is so weird. As for people who call themselves republicans here, maybe some of them are a little too keen on anti-monarchism to trouble themselves with anti-capitalism, but you never know. I'd love to see one of them on Newsnight saying, 'Oh, no, Jeremy, you misunderstand, we want a republic, a fully realised republic. The head of state thing, we're pretty relaxed about that. Have you heard the one about the Eupatrids in democratic Athens?'

As for the radicals, I don't want to present republicanism at full stretch as an alternative to socialism or anarchism. In writing the piece, I was interested in seeing what we could all learn from the republican tradition. I also wanted to think about what kinds of innovations would be necessary to make good on the idea of a sovereign public. That's the point of Maximum Republic—it's to ask what we need, if we want to be free, actually free. And to ask in a way that is practical and concrete, and that gives at least the outline of a political programme now. I hope that socialists, anarchists, everyone who is thinking seriously about our current predicament, will find something useful in Maximum Republic.

Like I say, I am kind of wishy-washy about ends. But as far as means are concerned, I am a fanatic. Whatever you have in mind, it must secure the approval of an informed and sovereign public.

The introduction to Maximum Republic can be read here.

Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project.

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