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‘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.
Connor Devine writes that whilst Brexit might be a car crash, we can't just side with an institution responsible for enforcing austerity.
Michael Coates reviews a new film revealing the shocking state of housing inequality in the UK.
The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney
Jon Trickett MP reports on 'Dickensian' levels of poverty and hardship felt across the UK.
Natasha King busts some myths around the No Borders debate
He was once a radical icon, but now he's a mouthpiece for racism and nationalism. Time to get off stage, writes Michael Calderbank
Consensus seems to have shifted, but austerity is far from over. The chancellor has committed us to yet more years of misery while the rich get richer, writes Richard Seymour.
Frustrated at the idea of another royal wedding? You're not alone. Joana Ramiro argues we should stop idealising a fundamentally undemocratic institution.
Liberal elites are using Russian interference to minimise their own political failures, writes Matt Turner
Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now argues that after years of colonial domination and dodgy trade deals, the UK must make amends and support Zimbabwe in this uncertain time.
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny