Not flocks or herds

‘To inherit a government,’ wrote Tom Paine in Rights of Man, ‘is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds.’ Paine was referring to the evils of hereditary succession, but the remark seems apt with David Cameron expecting to be handed power by default. Our political system means that – whichever party […]

January 31, 2010
5 min read


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.

‘To inherit a government,’ wrote Tom Paine in Rights of Man, ‘is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds.’ Paine was referring to the evils of hereditary succession, but the remark seems apt with David Cameron expecting to be handed power by default. Our political system means that – whichever party ultimately triumphs – they will be inheriting an existing architecture of power that constitutes their room for manoeuvre.

This is not to say that the results of general elections are of no consequence: the Tories would surely have less compunction in attacking the most vulnerable. But elections are not in themselves sufficient vehicles for exercising popular sovereignty.

Every party is now promising serious cuts to public spending in order, they argue, to ‘fix the budget deficit’. It is clear that the room for political manoeuvre is strictly limited. But where is the public clamour for cuts? Our views apparently count for rather less in this ‘democracy’ than the non-negotiable demands of the international bond market and the credit rating authorities.

The power of the financial markets is a prime example of the arbitrary and unaccountable power that overrides our capacity to determine social and economic priorities democratically. But our political leaders might be discomfited to find that the public is in no mood for passive acquiescence. In a foretaste of what could be heading our way, Ireland has already been rocked by protests at a budget package that slashed the pay of public sector workers and cut back on welfare payments to vulnerable groups. Similarly, the public’s support for the action taken by striking refuse collectors in Leeds is indicative of the potential for a fightback in Britain against draconian cuts.

And yet, despite such evidence of popular resistance, the media continues to reinforce the view that cuts are ‘inevitable’. As Natalie Fenton and Jeremy Dear make clear in this issue, commercial pressures on staffing mean that journalists are increasingly constrained in their ability to canvass opinions beyond the elite, allowing this false picture to go unchallenged.

Meanwhile, the trade unions themselves often lack proper democratic accountability and their leaders can act as a barrier to the expression of opinion at the grassroots, as Irish Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins testifies in relation to role of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). Outside the labour movement, the ‘right’ to political protest is being curtailed as the state uses anti-terror legislation and covert surveillance to harass nonviolent protesters. The situation we are in seems a million miles from Paine’s revolutionary vision of a democratic society in which power ultimately rests in the hands of the people.

To evoke Paine is no mere romantic affectation. His ideas, forged in a historical context of tumultuous popular struggle, can still inform very practical efforts to empower communities and allow people collectively to influence the decisions that impact on their lives. In the wake of both the Soviet era’s bureaucratic distortions of ‘socialism’ and the rampant power of capital under neoliberalism, it should be no surprise that republican ideals are again being revisited by thinkers on the left. As Stuart White argues in this issue’s essay, republican thought offers a cogent model of popular sovereignty based on an active conception of citizenship, underpinned by a strong notion of liberty and economic equality.

This framework of themes can be a useful guide towards rethinking the basis of existing structures of power. For example, if we are to do more than patch up the financial system so that it can resume ‘business as usual’, it is incumbent on those striving for a world organised to meet social need rather than private greed to begin developing practical alternative models for banking and investment.

We are already witnessing campaigns demanding that banks wholly or largely owned by the taxpayer – such as Northern Rock and RBS – develop models of investment that are responsive to the needs of the community rather than the whims of the market.

And beyond calls for action around specific institutions, there is a growing need to think about how the financial sector as a whole should be transformed under democratic public ownership and control. To this end Molly Scott Cato considers how banks could operate on a model conducive to ecological sustainability, while Costas Lapavitsas explores the possibility of transparent and accountable public banks.

In developing an alternative political economy based on egalitarianism and accountability, ideas from the republican tradition, such as the right to a guaranteed basic income, could become important political demands. David Cameron and the Tories take note: the days when democratic engagement meant voting once every four or five years are long gone. We aren’t flocks or herds and will refuse to be treated by the political class as if we are.


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.


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