The Precariat: why it needs deliberative democracy

Published on openDemocracy, by Guy Standing, January 27, 2012.

To arrest the drift to social engineering, the voice of those subject to the steering should be inside the institutions responsible for social policy. This means more than putting token ‘community leaders’ on boards. It must be a collective democratic voice. At present, we see the opposite … //    

… The commodification of politics and thinning of democracy:

  • A second legacy is more familiar. Democrats must confront the commodification of politics (and politicians) and the thinning of democracy. The thinning refers to declining involvement in political activity, shown by drastic falls in membership of political parties, declining turnouts at elections and the low percentage of young people bothering to vote, thereby shifting the median voter to the elderly, which induces politicians to favour them.
  • Thinning also refers to the shrinking spheres of democratic governance, including the transfer of many issues from political control to control by experts or interests favouring powerful groups. For example, in 1997 the British government transferred responsibility for monetary policy from Parliament to the Bank of England, reducing democratic accountability in a major sphere of policy, while privileging financial capital by enabling it to look after its own interests. Other governments have followed suit.
  • Equally worrying, regulation of occupations – our working lives – has been transferred from inside occupations to finance ministries or externally-dominated committees. They are complemented by a policing role for the undemocratic World Trade Organisation and the European Court of Justice, which is required to apply market principles, not democratic or solidarity principles.[4] One could give numerous other examples of the thinning of the social architecture of democracy.
  • Meanwhile, the commodification of politics arises from the demise of the class politics of industrial capitalism, the growth of inequality in which the elite have shaped politics, and the emergence of the professional ‘politician’, whose goal is to be elected as a means of launching a money-making career. The modern politician must sell himself or herself, often after a period in a think-tank as a rite de passage. The ability to raise money and to employ public relations specialists, who can repackage a voice and an appearance, and produce sound bites and body language, is not just part of the commodification of politics; it thrives on political infantilisation of the populace.
  • Many people understand what is happening. This itself contributes to the thinning of democracy as they witness a game of marketing unworthy of their attention. The millions around the precariat do not feel allegiance to old-style social democratic parties and are suspicious of patrician conservative parties that represent elite and salariat interests. This makes those in the precariat nomadic politically just as they are in everyday life. Just as they are denizens economically, so they are politically, denied effective rights because they have nobody to represent them in the political mainstream.
  • There are three directions in which factions in the precariat could turn — atavistic-populist, anarchic detachment and idealistic-progressive (or utopian-progressive). Each is gaining ground.
  • The atavistic-populist trend is displayed in support for neo-fascist parties and populist demagogues, in which populists have played on fears among the national precariat in order to depict government as alien and to see ‘strangers’ (migrants, Roma, Muslims, etc.) as the cause of their insecurity.
  • The anarchic detachment mode is displayed in anomic, anti-social behaviour, in the fires burning England’s cities, in social illnesses and loss of faith in politics in general.
  • The idealistic-progressive direction is displayed in EuroMayDay parades that have exploded in at least 25 European cities. So far, the mainstream media, international bodies, social scientists and political leaders have not been listening, or have given the impression they have not heard.

Democracy and Schole: … //

… Building democratic responses:

  • From this nightmarish imagery, one should surely look for ways of strengthening schole and deliberative democracy. This leads to three proposals.
  • First, we need democratic governance of occupations, work in its richest sense. Historically, work and social relations were long shaped by the guilds. Although flawed, being hierarchical and prone to rent seeking, they supported communities in which codes of ethics and solidarity were embedded. While weakened in industrial society, replaced by unions, they continued to play a role in setting standards. But in the globalisation era, occupational regulation was displaced by state licensing and governance in favour of employers and consumers, in the process splintering occupations and contributing to a decline of occupational social mobility. Occupations lost the capacity to reproduce themselves.[6]
  • A result is that the precariat has been denied entry to many occupations. For instance, qualifications gained in one place are not recognised for entry to a profession elsewhere. State regulation also blocks mobility for those entering the lower rungs of occupations. In response, we need to establish democratic principles of regulation based on values of social mobility, solidarity and equity, with the voice of the precariat involved in every aspect of the governance of work. In brief, this means combining associational freedom and deliberative democracy.
  • The second proposal addresses social policy, which has become directive and moralistic. Instead of being guided by a desire to compensate for temporary “interruption of earnings power”, in Beveridge’s phrase, it is driven by libertarian paternalism, or behavioural economics. This is a threat to freedom.
  • Behind the trends is utilitarianism, giving precedence to the happiness of a perceived majority, with scant regard for the rest. The drift to behavioural nudging gives discretionary and arbitrary power to bureaucrats, commercial surrogates and ‘experts’ lurking behind politicians. Social policy is becoming part panopticon, with dataveillance supplementing surveillance, and part therapy, manipulating people’s minds, with cognitive behavioural therapy a favoured tool of utilitarians.
  • To arrest this drift to social engineering, the Voice of those subject to the steering should be inside the institutions responsible for social policy. This means more than putting token ‘community leaders’ on boards. It must be a collective democratic voice. At present, we see the opposite, with privatisation and commercialisation of social policy. We need social policy democracy, before it is too late.
  • The third proposal aims to strengthen both economic security and deliberative democracy. Chronically insecure people make bad democrats. Psychologists have shown they lose a sense of altruism and social solidarity; they become intolerant, supporting discriminatory and punitive measures against “strangers”, or people not-like-me.
  • To combat this, we should work towards giving everybody basic income security. This is the only way to achieve security in an open market economy; social insurance cannot reach the precariat; means testing leads to coercive workfare. What is needed is basic income as a right. Modest monthly stabilisation grants, with tax clawed back from the rich, would also pump money into the economy in recessions and withdraw it during booms.
  • While the grants should be unconditional and universal, there should be one moral condition. On registering for entitlement to the grant, a person should sign a moral commitment to vote in national and local elections and to participate in at least one local meeting each year, at which all recognised political parties could be represented and be quizzed by the public.
  • The justification for these proposals is that we are suffering from a deliberative democracy deficit. We must find the means of shifting time from labour, consumption and play to political, civic and cultural participation. Unless the precariat is incorporated into a new politics of paradise, last year’s stirrings in the streets and squares of Greece, Spain, England and elsewhere will only be the harbinger of more upheaval. Deliberative democracy would help in defusing the tensions that are building up.

(full long text and Notes 1 – 6).


At the corner of food & politics, on openDemocracy, by Jim Gabour, Januasry 29, 2012.

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