Note: Below is a draft of a 2,000 word essay on Brexit, populism and civil society on which I’m currently working. I’m hoping that this could be published in a decent outlet (i.e. an academic blog/the essay section of a journal) and have some targets in mind, but writing/blogging is always in itself rewarding! Comments would be more than appreciated. The blog version omits academic references.
Populism, Brexit and the decline of civil society: two proposals for the rejuvenation of civil organizations
Abstract: Populist challenges to liberal democracy such as the British Leave vote are partly the result of the ebb of civil society in the West; this decline has both reduced socio-economic happiness and diminished the quality of electorates. In this essay I propose two strategies to revitalize civil organizations, involving (i) increases to their capacity and (ii) enhancement of their ability to mould the dispositions of citizens, which may be of interest to scholars and policymakers.
Ours is an age of populism. As a result of burgeoning inequality and the perception that citizens have lost control of political processes, a series of movements contemptuous of existing orders have made gains in the West. Left-populists such as Syriza and Podemos thrive in Europe’s south, anti-liberal Governments dismantle democracy in central and eastern Europe, and an assortment of anti-immigrant and anti-capitalist groups make progress in north-west Europe and the USA. The most spectacular recent populist victory, the June 23 rejection of EU membership by British voters, was indeed the result of discontent with both immigration and inequality.
Though populism is found on left and right and assumes a variety of national garbs, the phenomenon is distinguished by common characteristics. A core feature is discontent with establishments. Populists preach that existing orders are fundamentally corrupt, and perceive the genesis of all societal problems to lie at their door. Such movements therefore favour substitution of governance by existing elites for rule by the common man, and advocate direct democratic methods such as referendums as a way of claiming control over globalization. Populists are also quick to apportion blame. This is particularly true of right-wing populists, and such movements therefore stigmatize groups like immigrants and benefit claimants. These ingredients were present in the British referendum. Not only did the Leave campaign play on dislike of elites and opposition to immigration but their slogan, Take back control, resonated with citizens left behind by globalization.
Though causes of populism such as inequality, immigration and globalization have been discussed extensively, an influence that has attracted less attention and is particularly pertinent to the British case is the crisis of civil society in the West. Civil society has long been conceptualized by political scientists. Considered forms of organized associations which lie outside state and market, groups as diverse as charities, political parties, trade unions, NGOs and religious organizations have been deemed civil organizations. Civil society is considered a bedrock of liberal democracy. Because civil organizations improve civic participation and often school citizens in democratic politics, they reconcile individuals to the existing order and reinforce its processes. In recent decades civic institutions have nonetheless undergone a crisis. The tendency for globalization and liberalization to eat into the fabric of civil society has been long recognized, and for a number of years civil organizations of all hues have suffered drops in membership.
The ebb of civil society may be associated with two key problems. At the level of civic participation, the erosion of organizations like trade unions, churches and sports clubs is associated with declining quality of life. This phenomenon has particularly gripped post-industrial communities and, when combined with the stagnation of living and working standards undergone by such populations, has markedly contributed to unhappiness with the existing order. Conditions in certain communities are particularly bleak. This was impressed on the author when, on the Saturday before the British referendum, he found himself playing cricket in south Wales after a near twenty year break. Not only had levels of participation in the sport markedly declined, but Port Talbot, the town in which the match took place, was staring into the abyss following a well-publicized decision to sell a large local steel plant. Five days later Port Talbot voted to leave the European Union by 57-43%.
A second problem involves the declining capacity of civil organizations to influence the political dispositions of citizens. Though political outlooks remain influenced by civil organizations, the capacity of such bodies to mould the attitudes of citizens has been heavily compromised by declines in membership. This is potentially disastrous for liberal democracy. The functioning of such systems depends on politically educated electorates, and the erosion of civil society’s interceding function implies that states increasingly face the unmediated anger of voters. The British Leave campaign was thus successful because it directly mobilized discontented citizens, who ignored the counsel of pro-Remain civil organizations. Civil organizations are indeed often perceived as part of the problem. This trend is somewhat advanced in Britain, though a country like Spain, in which a union movement and church with tight links to the establishment are routinely dismissed as chorizos (slang for thieves), here leads the way.
Not only does civil society therefore find itself in crisis across the West, but the rise of populism and the victory of the British Leave campaign are palpable results of this crisis. In the remainder of this essay I therefore elaborate two proposals for the rehabilitation of civil society, namely strategies to (i) improve participation in civil society and (ii) increase the ability of civil organizations to mould the dispositions of citizens, which might be of interest to scholars of socio-economic institutions and policymakers. The organizations with which I am primarily concerned are those with socio-economic goals, amongst which I number trade unions, political parties and NGOs, though analysis is relevant to organizations like sports clubs, charities and religious institutions. Given the topicality of the Brexit vote and its illuminating nature, the case of the United Kingdom is a primary concern.
Improving participation in civil organizations is a matter of urgency. Even if it is difficult to hold these organizations culpable for declines in membership, as such trends are general and related to structural changes, the current crisis of populism nonetheless demands a conscious programme of civic renewal. Aside from rudimentary goals of numerical expansion, this agenda might primarily target citizens in disaffected areas of the country. Such a programme could be initiated and funded by Governments, yet organizations of all stripes might unite around it.
Clear historic precedents for such strategies exist. Confronted with the alienated lower urban classes of the mid-19th century, civil organizations made concerted attempts to engage such communities. The day’s political parties and trade unions initiated membership drives amongst these groups and, in many cases, constructed civic spaces that included social clubs and sports teams. These efforts were themselves a response to concerns of illiberal populism. The 1848 democratic victory of the authoritarian Napoleon III cast a shadow over European liberalism for many years, whilst in Britain extensions of the franchise were accompanied by concerns over the quality of the electorate. The 21st century is admittedly a different context. Contemporary weaknesses of civil organizations mean there are limitations in their capacity to organize, and such a programme would have to be backed by significant state support. A related strategy undertaken by the 2010-15 UK coalition Government, the Big Society agenda, was thus considered a failure because of its residual vision of the state.
Scholars of socio-economic institutions might respond to this endeavour. Though individual civil organizations and related topics like economic happiness have been studied for many years, there has been less attempt, at least in developed countries, to examine holistic strategies for the regeneration of civil society. Political scientists have tended to focus on innovative modes of civic governance and, whatever the achievements of such investigation, the extent to which this work speaks to concerns about civil decline is more limited. Research on civic regeneration could investigate the ways in which civil organizations might grow numerically, or consider the manner in which social engagement is most effectively augmented. Inspiration might be drawn from literature that examines renewal strategies for specific civil organizations. In the field of industrial relations, a number of studies have fruitfully examined strategies for the arrest of union decline.
Aside from strategies to increase capacity, a second endeavour might involve the political education of citizens. The recent turn towards populism is in great part the result of the inability of civil organizations to reconcile voters to the establishment, and conscious attempts to school citizens in political processes would therefore be invaluable. Institutions like political parties and trade unions might not only make special attempt to reach out to marginalized constituencies with efforts to explain the workings of politics, but also respond to specific outbreaks of discontent with guarded apologies for the system. Rather than fanning flames of popular antipathy with politics, as certain civil organizations did during an episode such as the British parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, the instinct of such organizations could be to offer qualified defences of the establishment against wilder attacks.
Such efforts might again be lead and funded by the state. Attempts in schools to explain how politics functions and underline the desirability of participation, long underdeveloped in state education systems like the British one, could also be made. Clear historical parallels are again evident. The expansion of civic organizations in the 19th century was characterized by strategies to educate citizens in democratic policies, and such endeavours were pursued in many European countries until well after the Second World War. These ideas may be more controversial. Paternalistic approaches have long been criticized, and many on the left emphasize the desirability of grassroots driven social movements. One might reply to such objections with the observation that, so deep-rooted is the current crisis, some degree of conscious education of citizenry is indispensable if liberal democracy is to remain in its current shape. Scholars of socio-economic institutions might also respond to this endeavour; there is ample scope for work which investigates ways in which the political dispositions of citizens might be constructively moulded.
The two proposals outlined in this essay may therefore appeal to scholars and policymakers interested in the regeneration of civic institutions. Though the difficulties faced by civil society are structural in nature, and therefore particularly onerous to reverse, so pressing are the challenges confronting liberal democracies that their resolution is urgent. The point is often made that Western political systems have faced populist insurgencies before, indeed it is undeniable that serious trials were endured in a decade like the 1970s, yet Brexit involves such a fundamental challenge to the post-war liberal order, as would Trump and/or Le Pen presidencies, that the character of the present crisis appears quite unique.
The charge that political establishments and civil organizations themselves are not perfect should also be anticipated. Certain of the ills exploited by populists are admittedly real ones, and any programme of reform should absorb common criticisms. Many of us are nonetheless convinced that existing institutions are reformable, and that their destruction would do a great deal more harm than good. In the British case it is deeply ironic that those institutions scorned by the country’s citizens are held in high regard in other corners of the world. Many British political institutions and civil organizations are considered beacons for countries developing their own civic infrastructures, and it is tragic that the average citizen of the UK is ill-informed on this matter. A programme of reform might indeed seek to better publicize this point.
 Though the involvement of political parties with the machinery of state mean they are often not regarded as part of civil society, accounts which emphasize their wider role in communities consider them in such terms. This essay uses this second, broader understanding.
Have been more concerned with Brexit in recent times but I’m afraid I can’t resist blogging on Jeremy Corbyn. Over the last year I’ve had many Facebook and real life conversations with people who (to put it mildly) differ in their assessment of Corbyn and I have found these exchanges very stimulating. I do at least respect that Corbynistas are passionate about improving things in this country and are willing to get off their backsides and do something. Anyway two main things have struck me about Corbyn and Corbynism recently:
1/ If Corbyn is willing to ‘no platform’ the Conservative Party then why can’t he do the same to Hamas/the IRA etc.?
One of my main problems with Corbyn, I have articulated it before on this blog, is the links he has with a series of terroristic/extremist movements. Corbynistas regard such allegations as smears, and point to the need to broaden the number of groups that participate in the political process. Often defenders of Corbyn ask how I would like the man to relate to groups who, it is true, have significant bases of support and therefore speak for many people. I can now reply to this question in very pithy terms.
I would like Jeremy Corbyn to engage with such groups just as he engages with the Conservative Party.
I confess that witnessing Jeremy Corbyn refuse to share a platform with David Cameron during the referendum shocked me. Not only did such actions critically undermine the Remain campaign, but they shone further light on the character and priorities of Jeremy Corbyn. For all his faults David Cameron is a democratic politician who leads a perfectly respectable political party, and the flat refusal of Corbyn to share any kind of platform with the British Prime Minister raises the question of why he can’t do this with other movements. Could it be that Corbyn is more sympathetic to the goals of the IRA/Hamas/Vladimir Putin etc. than his defenders care to admit?
2/ Corbynism does not represent a return to authentic Labour traditions, rather it is wholly alien to the party’s history
A core belief of Corbyn’s defenders is that the man’s programme represents a return to the authentic Labour tradition. John Harris made this equation very plainly in the Guardian recently, when he made reference to a fight between ‘1945’ and ‘1997’ within the Labour Party.
It was only when I read this that I fully realized the mistakenness of such assumptions. People forget that Clement Attlee’s programme was not an extremely radical one in 1945 (many of the measures passed were called for by Conservatives and similar programmes were being implemented across the West), and that the Attlee Government perpetuated the ban on striking, introduced nuclear deterrence and (via participation in Potsdam) cooperated in a programme of European ethnic cleansing. The wing of the Labour movement that Corbyn belongs to was wholly opposed to the Attlee Government at the time. If you take the position of the Morning Star as a proxy for the Corbyn position, and this is not unfair given that Corbyn has written for the paper for over three decades, you indeed see a contemporary determination to violently and undemocratically overthrow the tradition supposedly represented by Corbyn. Many on the far left would indeed enter the Labour Party in later decades in the espoused and self-conscious hope of hijacking it from within. Look up ‘entryism’ if you don’t believe me.
Jeremy Corbyn is a cuckoo in the Labour party nest and it is imperative that he is removed as soon as possible.