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Classic book: Reclaim the State

Heather Blakey looks back at Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy, by Hilary Wainwright

December 1, 2015
4 min read

reclaimtsReclaim the State was published in 2003, a year of deep disillusionment with UK politics. Six years into office, following on from 18 years of Tory government, New Labour seemed like a failed alternative, betraying its social democratic roots by ‘aiding and abetting’ private business, and treating democracy ‘with contempt’ in a rush to war. In that context, the book explored how we could build a real alternative from resistance and anger, and, importantly, how we might sustain it. Its declared ‘compass’ was Tom Paine’s idea of citizen capacity, the dormant ‘mass of sense’ called forth by the right conditions.

It is significant that the southern Brazilian state capital of Porto Alegre’s symbolic process of ‘participatory budgeting’ sets the scene for the book’s three UK case studies. In this way, Wainwright embedded the notion that popular control is possible but also that participation is and should be political. She draws out how a belief in citizen capacity underpins the democratic achievements of PB, how a democratic movement can challenge the power of capitalism, and the quality of political will needed, both to share power and to respect the autonomy of the participatory democratic arena.

This provides a strong framework for the UK cases, which draws our attention to the political dimensions of community participation. As Wainwright indicates, in the UK this is routinely depoliticised and confined to local issues, rather than the national and global dynamics that shape them. Placing the detail of UK democratic struggles on a larger stage is one of the great achievements of the book.

Through the state-led (and initially tokenistic) New Deal for Communities programme in east Manchester, we witness how citizen capacity and organising ability can generate demands for a more meaningful process – citizens ‘grasping some power’ over public services by taking the engagement rhetoric literally.

Next, the book looks at Luton’s Marsh Farm estate, where a coalition of residents with an anti-authoritarian agenda (in part drawn from the involvement of Exodus, a radical collective who practised horizontal democracy) led their local New Deal programme. The Marsh Farm site (which still inspires community activists today) consciously located itself in the global context, and was marked by a clear desire to facilitate the involvement of the whole estate, with street-level community outreach workers intended to connect every citizen to the local democratic process. Significantly, Wainwright illustrates how Marsh Farm experienced state opposition to a power that resisted control – while most New Deal sites were given the power to approve grants up to £250,000, Marsh Farm Trust’s expenditure was scrutinised by the Government Office.

Finally, Newcastle, where a coalition of citizens, trade unions and elected politicians resisted the outsourcing of public services. Wainwright draws out two key lessons: the importance of alliances between activists inside and outside the state, and the transformation made possible by moving beyond protest to build alternative forms of power.

Wainwright concludes that her case studies are not blueprints but examples – of structures and processes that need to have a ‘life of their own’ while connected to the existing location of power. She suggests that the left needs democratic organisation inside and outside the state, supported by a political party ‘that does not simply use participatory rhetoric but is committed – through its structure, its culture and its way of arriving at its policies – to allying with and nurturing the power and consciousness of independent movements and initiatives’.

This is why Reclaim the State is a book for today, where the left is in a moment of hope. There is immense potential in the groundswell of support to reclaim the Labour Party, and to build a social movement of activists and democrats inside and outside the party that can hold it to account.

Reclaim the State is a resource for this movement, but it also contains warnings. The book emphasises the effort needed to build and sustain participatory democracy, and the kind of response it calls down from the state and from the left itself – the tendency of leaders to constrain the movements that brought them to power, instead of encouraging them to act independently to create further sources of democratic power.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn does not represent an awakening from political apathy, as some commentators seem to believe, but the coming together of experienced activists and community organisers who, perhaps for the first time, see the formal political arena as a viable focus for social change. Reclaim the State calls for a ‘movement for democracy in everyday life’. We have an opportunity to build this movement – but it will need the creativity and capacity of everyone in it.