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 CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


  share     tweet  

‘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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself