Renewing democracy through associations

Linked on our blogs with Time to revisit Associative Democracy? – Published on openDemocracy, by Paul Hirst, 4 January 2011.

Participants in the Revisiting Associative Democracy seminar organized last October by Andrea Westall and Stuart White in London’s Coin Street Community Centre were invited to read this usefully condensed account of Paul Hirst’s normative political theory, published in 2002.

Associative democracy is a normative political theory. Its core propositions are as follows: 

  • 1.That as many social activities as possible should be devolved to self-governing voluntary associations.
  • 2.That by doing so the complexity of the state will be reduced and the classical mechanisms of democratic representative government will be able to work better.
  • 3.That self-governing voluntary associations should, wherever possible, replace forms of hierarchical corporate power. This would give the affected interests voice and thus promote government by consent throughout society and not merely formally in the state.
  • 4.That for many essential public functions, such as health provision, education and welfare, voluntary associations should provide the service and receive public funds for doing so.

Associationalists contend that there are in any complex and free society different versions of what the good life should be and the task of the state is to help realize as many of these as possible not to impose one of them. The state can and must perform the core functions of assuring public peace, adjudicating in clashes of norms and mobilizing resources for public purposes. Unlike economic liberal doctrines that seek to limit the functions of the state and expand the scope of the market, associationalism seeks to expand the scope of democratic governance in civil society. It also like free market doctrines seeks to promote choice through competition, but it does so by giving individuals the option to move between non-profit making associations. Individuals have voice within associations and the option of periodic exit to move between them. This combination constrains associations to attend to the needs of their members, if voice fails or is too arduous then exit is an effective challenge to entrenched oligarchy … //

… Conclusion:

This paper has attempted to examine the current crisis of modern representative democracy and how associationalism might contribute to its resolution. Democracy can be renewed but on two conditions. First, that the burden placed on representative institutions by complex public service states is reduced but without reducing public services. Associationalism provides for governance that is public but non-state. Second that the role of non-state institutions in promoting the habits of association and participation is promoted. Renewing modern democracy is not easy, nor are associational solutions easy to implement or without risks, the alternative is the sclerosis of representative institutions and the erosion of democratic manners. I make no apology for the central role of advocacy in this paper; I see little point in thinking about politics without it. (full long text).

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