Citizens

David Marquand

  • Citizenship and Community: Civic Republicanism and the Modern World by Adrian Oldfield
    Routledge, 196 pp, £30.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 415 04875 3
  • Community and the Economy: The Theory of Public Co-operation by Jonathan Boswell
    Routledge, 226 pp, £30.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 415 05556 3
  • Encouraging citizenship: Report of the Commission on Citizenship
    HMSO, 129 pp, £8.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 11 701464 8

As the enterprise culture crumbles, and a sadder and wiser society begins to count the cost, two connected themes – one novel and surprising, at least in its present form, the other a ghost from a half-forgotten past – have acquired an unexpected urgency. The first is the theme of citizenship, of civility, of membership of and participation in a community bound together by ties of mutual obligation. The second is the theme of the mixed economy or the developmental state, of a socially just and economically productive balance between market forces and public intervention.

The citizenship theme weaves in and out of the political debate, appearing and re-appearing in the most unlikely places, but in an extraordinarily confused and baffling way. On the right, Douglas Hurd and other ministers have extolled the ‘active citizen’ – by implication, at any rate, a comfortable suburbanite impelled to good works by his or her own public spirit. At the centre and on the centre-left, a disparate band including Paddy Ashdown, Ralf Dahrendorf, Raymond Plant and Julian le Grand have suggested that the state should be the guarantor of social-citizenship rights rather than the provider of services, in the old Beveridgean way. Charter 88 sees the root of our political ills in a culture of ‘subjecthood not citizenship’ and the cure in explicit guarantees of fundamental civil and political (but not social) rights. The Speaker’s Commission on Citizenship has warned that citizenship is ‘a cultural achievement, a gift of history, which can be lost or destroyed’, and set out an essentially Hurdian programme to save it, focused on voluntary service.

The mixed-economy theme is harder to detect. Citizenship is a hurrah-word, even among those who would hate the thing if they came across it. The mixed economy has become a boo-word, even among some of its supporters: that sad legacy of early Thatcherism is still in place. But although the term remains unfashionable, the thing is coming in from the cold. No one – least of all the Treasury – still believes that inflation can be controlled by monetary policy alone. No one – and certainly not the TUC – still thinks that wage levels should be determined solely by market power. As long as Mrs Thatcher was prime minister, the Cabinet had to pay lip service to the old free-market faith. At first the new Cabinet will probably do the same, but its deeds are unlikely to match its words. As a backbencher, Michael Heseltine was groping for a German-style developmental corporatism. Ministers like Chris Patten and Malcolm Rifkind were visibly at odds with New Right doctrine even before the change of government. John Major himself is, of course, an unknown quantity, but the opposition parties have succumbed to wishful thinking in assuming that he will be a carbon copy of his old boss. Thatcherism was always an aberration from the norm of advanced capitalism. Major may not know how to get back to the mainstream but I shall be astonished if he does not try.

On the left, Bennite siege socialism and even Bevanite Clause Four utopianism have disappeared without trace. Labour is now a social-democratic party, committed to a symbiosis between public and private power, in which the state guides, manipulates and, if necessary, supplements market forces, but does not dream of superseding them. In the early Eighties, only the Jenkins wing of the SDP and the Steel wing of the Liberal Party argued without inhibitions for the mixed economy. We are all – or nearly all – Jenkinsites and Steelites now.

Like the citizenship theme, however, the mixed-economy theme is as confused as it is insistent. A dwindling band of New Right zealots apart, everyone can see that the neo-liberal experiment of the last ten years has failed. Judged by most of the available indices, the British economy is less competitive now than it was ten years ago. But if few really want to persist with New Right neo-liberalism, few really know what to put in its place. The goal is clear enough – an alternative both to the enterprise-choking, change-stifling state socialism which has come to such spectacular grief in Eastern Europe and to the myopic and wasteful casino capitalism of Britain and the United States. But that goal flickered like a will-o-the-wisp before all the governments of the Sixties and Seventies, and none of them got anywhere near it. It is easy to see what the New Right’s enemies do not want. What they want is harder to discern. Their reasons for thinking they can achieve it when so many others have failed are swathed in obscurity and self-deception.

Adrian Oldfield’s eloquent evocation of the civic republican tradition and Jonathan Boswell’s path-breaking analysis of the links between the values of community and the imperatives of an advanced economy should be read against this background. They exemplify the same tentative but unmistakable new paradigm. Both are what Boswell calls ‘democratic communitarians’. Both reject the simple (and simple-minded) dichotomy between state and market, command and exchange, individual and collective, which has shaped the political agenda of the English-speaking world, to its enduring cultural and moral impoverishment, for nearly two centuries. Both share certain historically liberal values, but both recognise, at least by implication, that individualistic liberalism is as bankrupt as state socialism and, in present circumstances, more destructive. Both are for individuality, but not for individualism; for fraternity, not as a pale appendage to liberty or equality, but as the soil in which individuality grows. And for both, as Oldfield puts it, the communitarianism they profess

has less to do with formal organisation than with a sense of belonging and commitment. The commitment is to others who share interests, or positions or purposes, and it is also to those who, for whatever reason, are unable to look after their own interests or pursue their own purposes. It is to seek the good of others at the same time as, and sometimes in neglect of, one’s own good. It is to approach social relationships in an Aristotelian spirit of ‘concord’. It is this that creates the sense of community; and it is this that creates citizens.

The sting there is in the tail. Oldfield is a historian of political thought, but he is not only a historian of political thought. Half his book consists of a taut and lucid discussion of four leading exemplars of civic republicanism – Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hegel and de Tocqueville. In the other half he cuts elegantly through the confusions and special pleading in the contemporary citizenship debate, and brings new clarity to the issues.

There are, he argues, two different conceptions of citizenship, with different intellectual antecedents, different logics, and, above all, different visions of social and political man. One conception is liberal individualist and the other civic republican. For liberal individualists, citizenship is a status – a status that belongs unconditionally to all its possessors and that confers rights upon them, irrespective of how they employ them. There is no suggestion that rights have to be earned or that they will cease to belong to their owners if they are not used. The only obligation which citizens qua citizens owe to each other is the obligation to respect each others’ rights. They have no obligation to participate in the common affairs of the community: participation is a right, but it is certainly not a duty. Indeed, many – perhaps most – citizenship rights are rights against the community: rights to pursue private affairs without interference.

The civic republican conception is altogether more austere. In it, citizenship is a practice, not a status; active, not passive; public not private. In the civic republican tradition, the term ‘private citizen’, as Oldfield puts it, is an oxymoron: the practice of citizenship takes place, and can only take place, in the public realm. By the same token, citizenship is about duties, not about rights. To be a citizen is to perform the duties which the practice of citizenship entails. Civic republicanism is thus

a hard school of thought. There is no cosy warmth of life in such a community. Citizens are called to stern and important tasks which have to do with the very sustaining of their identity. There may be, indeed there ought to be, a sense of belonging, but that sense of belonging may not be associated with inner peace and, even if it is, it is not the kind of peace that permits a relaxed and private leisure, still less a disdain for civic concerns.

A further consequence follows, crucial to Oldfield’s whole argument and crucial also to the light he throws on the wider debate. This is that the practice of citizenship is ‘unnatural’. Like all practices, it has to be learned. Citizens are made, not born: in the last resort, they make themselves. Citizenship is growing, becoming, doing. It is a task: strenuous, stretching and at first forbidding. To ensure that free riders do not escape their obligations, putative citizens therefore have to be educated and motivated for the tasks from which growth comes; it is not enough simply to give them opportunities. Civic republicanism is optimistic in assuming that human beings can grow in this way, but pessimistic (or realistic) in recognising that it is hard for them to do so and that they can easily regress. For the danger of backsliding is omnipresent. The soil in which citizenship grows often becomes barren. And – a point to which Oldfield might have directed more attention – one of the most insidious threats to its fertility is the possessive hedonism which lies at the heart of the free-market model of man and society and perhaps of the liberal-individualist conception of citizenship as well.

Looked at in this light, the citizenship debate is full of paradoxes. The ‘active citizen’ of Douglas Hurd and the Speaker’s Commission comes straight from the civic republican tradition. But by the criteria of that tradition he is a sadly incomplete – not to say deformed – creature. The activities he is being urged to engage in may or may not be desirable, but they have little to do with the high and demanding civic virtues discussed by Adrian Oldfield. In civic republicanism, the supreme civic duty is to take part in the government of the city. The Hurdian volunteer could hardly be asked to do that: one of the main purposes of the Thatcher governments has been to narrow the scope of the civic sphere and to rob participation of meaning. It is an abuse of language to call Douglas Hurd’s ‘active citizen’ a citizen at all. He is a subaltern in the great British army of voluntary service. And service is a monarchical concept, not a civic one. ‘Citizens,’ Oldfield reminds us tartly, ‘govern themselves.’

Left and Centre-Left demands for an enabling state, guaranteeing social-citizenship rights, and for the explicit entrenchment of civil and political rights, survive the Oldfield searchlight slightly more successfully, but only slightly. Both sets of demands come from the liberal-individualist tradition. Both have to do with rights, springing unconditionally from status, not with duties, entailed by a practice. There is a faint echo of civic republicanism in Charter 88’s critique of the culture of subject-hood, but the Charter says nothing about duty or activity. As for the social citizenship rights advocated by Ashdown, Dahrendorf and the rest, these are even further removed from citizenship as practice. They are the badges of status. The whole point of treating them as rights is to sever any lingering connection between status and duty, to ensure that their bearers will enjoy them unconditionally.

For liberal individualists this is as it should be: rights are what matter, and rights are by definition unconditional. Indeed, even civic republicans can march in the same direction, albeit for different ends. As Oldfield points out, what liberal individualists see as rights, civic republicans see as necessary conditions for the performance of duties. You cannot practise citizenship if you are trapped in a despairing and alienated under-class. You cannot govern yourself if you live in an elective dictatorship. One of the reasons why the Hurdian active citizen is a wizened simulacrum of the real thing is that its author could not acknowledge this. If active citizenship on the civic republican model is to become a reality in contemporary Britain, the political changes advocated by Charter 88 and the resource redistribution implied by a programme of social rights are equally indispensable.

That said, however, the liberal-individualist projects which now compete for attention all manifest the same fatal contradiction. Liberal individualism cannot address the problems of a fragmented society. Decaying public goods and derelict public spaces, filthy streets and crime-haunted estates, yobbish youths and neglected old people, predatory take-overs and wasted human capital – these are symptoms of the withering of community. It is self-deception to imagine that they can be cured simply by extending individual rights: by pretending otherwise, the Left and Centre-Left risk giving further impetus to the possessive hedonism which fragmented our society in the first place. Douglas Hurd and the Speaker’s Commission may exemplify a narrow, stunted conception of active citizenship and civic duty, but they are ahead of the liberal individualists in seeing that the central question in present-day Britain is how to restore the bonds of community, and right in thinking that this can be done only by activity – undertaken out of a sense of obligation. The challenge is to oppose to their narrow, stunted conception a conception worthy of the tradition they have pillaged: to make civic republicanism resonate in a diverse, multi-cultural society which has to earn its living in an increasingly competitive world market.

This is where the mixed-economy theme intersects with the theme of citizenship, and where Jonathan Boswell enters the argument. His formation and emphases differ from Oldfield’s, but in essentials they are at one. For Boswell, civic republicanism is merely one strand in a more inclusive democratic communitarianism. Others are Durkheim’s libertarian solidarism and the personalist Christian democracy whose roots can be traced back to the Rerum Novarum encyclical of 1891. All three are inspired by a vision of ‘the unity in diversity of human beings’. All three ‘accord primacy to the interaction of distinct, infinitely valuable persons’; all three are ‘fundamentally opposed’ both to liberal individualism and to conventional collectivism. Unlike Oldfield, Boswell focuses mainly on the economic implications of their communitarian ethic. At the core of a subtle argument lies a notion of economic community:

a complex of connecting cells whose mutual sensitivities represent a vital force ... The economic organisations themselves are to be associates or social partners ...

   Neither intimacy nor a constant huddling together is envisaged, let alone unanimity. The social partners are to be strung together by elastic bands, not cords or chains. On the other hand, analogies from conventional political understandings, international relations or the sports field are too slack. Economic community involves a lot more than, say, common membership of a nation state, non-belligerent co-existence or joint involvement in a competitive game ...

   The whole network is to be interwoven by mutual responsibilities. No ‘invisible hand’ is expected to harmonise the different parts. Mere balance or competition among the separate interests contributes little to, may often detract from, the common good. Nor is obedience to the state and the law to be loaded with the inordinate burden of producing that common good ... Rather, public responsibilities as well as powers are to be widely diffused among economic agents.

This is plainly a world away from individualistic economic liberalism and collectivist state socialism. Less obviously, but more important, it is equally far removed from the British version of the post-war mixed economy: from the system anatomised by Andrew Shonfield, celebrated by Anthony Crosland and managed, with diminishing success, by the governments of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. For that system never got beyond ‘belligerent co-existence’. A jealous political class, imbued with the preconceptions of parliamentary absolutism, refused to diffuse public responsibilities and powers among economic agents, while an archaic economic culture, suffused with the assumptions of possessive individualism, failed to adapt to technological change. The great economic organisations never became social partners. There was no network of mutual responsibilities. Hence, the Hobbesian sauve qui peut which overwhelmed the governments of the Seventies – and hence the need for a better alternative to New Right economic liberalism than the quirky sub-Thatcherism now gaining ground among the Liberal Democrats or the demure neo-Croslandism of the Labour Front Bench.

Boswell has not had space to do more than sketch the broad outlines of such an alternative. For him, as for Oldfield, the central question is how to build safeguards against free riders. For him, as for Oldfield, the answer lies, not in spontaneous public spirit, but in motivation and education. To provide these, he believes, there must be reasonable continuity in the membership and direction of the organisations whose co-operation is the prerequisite of a co-operative economy. They must not be so small or so numerous that they have no concern for the public interest, or so big and so few that they dwarf the political authorities. Their activities must be sufficiently transparent to be monitored by those they affect, and – even more important – by the wider society. There must be forums in which they learn the norms of co-operation. Above all, the public philosophy of the society in which they act must give a high place to the values of fraternity, association and participation.

More important than any of these, however, is the central message. It can be summed up in four sentences. In an age in which human capital holds the key to competitive power, and in which the public goods of consensual adaptation and social peace therefore become ever more valuable, possessive individualism is self-stultifying. The successful economies are the ones which approximate most closely to the model of economic co-operation. But to join their ranks, it is not enough to want economic success. The changes of outlook, mentality and value which are the prerequisites of economic co-operation must be sought because they are right, because they are the concomitants of economic citizenship, not because they are profitable. Oldfield’s heroes of civic republicanism would nod their heads. The central question in present-day British politics is whether a culture from which civic republican values have all but vanished can change before it is too late.