It would seem that the travails of contemporary capitalism offer the left a huge opportunity to present a comprehensive alternative analysis and programme of action to neo-liberalism. Yet this has not proved to be the case. There has been protest a plenty and a deluge of moral and economic critiques but no comprehensive theoretical analysis integrated with an alternative political programme. When asked what is their alternative to capitalism, radical activists and intellectuals tend to offer specific suggestions rather than a blueprint for change. To be fair many social movement activists have taken an informed decision to seek change from the grass roots upwards rather risk a preconceived top downwards approach that ends up merely replacing one elite with another – and sometimes not even that. This blog argues that it is possible to combine a ‘bottom upwards’ approach to radical change with party politics. However, for this to be successful the flow of influence would have to be predominantly from the social movement activists to a political party rather than the other way round. The key lies in clarifying what the central principle of the new radicalism is and how it can be effectively implemented. The argument here is that the social activist left and ultimately a major political party of the left should put the idea of a second phase of democracy at the centre of a worked out political programme leading to a national institutional revolution. Currently the social movement activists provide the dynamism for change but they lack the power of implementation.

While this blog goes beyond piecemeal suggestions it does not pretend fully to solve the problem indicated above. The argument put forward is that the most convincing and effective route to a genuinely different society is through a radical implementation and extension of institutional democracy linked to an increase in material and cultural equality. The two goals of democracy and equality are conceived of as complementary but it is argued that a substantial shift towards equality is highly unlikely to occur unless the main beneficiaries of such a shift are in a position to implement it. I expand on this central point to the blog later.

Perversely the widespread consensus that capitalism is seriously malfunctioning has hindered the left from achieving a distinctive alternative position clearly perceived as such by the public. David Cameron has referred to ‘a crisis of capitalism’ and David Miliband distinguishes between predatory and productive capitalism stressing that there is far too much of the former. While there is considerable agreement that capitalism is unstable, erratic and opaque there is much less so about what to do about it. For all their criticisms of capitalism, centrist politicians are fundamentally pro capitalist and their limited suggestions for reform would leave the elites well in control. Essentially their motivation is to save capitalism rather than make the socio-economic system more radically democratic and fairer. They come up with various suggestions as to how this can be done: Cameron wants shareholders to get a grip on executive pay and bonuses; Miliband pushes for employee representation on company boards; Clegg weighs in praising the John Lewis model, particularly in respect to employee shareholding. It is likely that if all or most of these reforms were implemented, especially in a robust form, capitalism would become somewhat fairer and less out of control. However, for the left this is not remotely enough.

The problem though is that the extra parliamentary left is unclear about its own programme. While many radicals reject or are deeply sceptical about a capitalist driven model of society there is uncertainty about what might challenge or replace it. Social movement activists and radical intellectuals want to go further than the piecemeal reform of capitalism but often struggle to articulate even the basic framework of a radical alternative let alone the detail. This is not the case for unreconstructed state socialists but few contemporary radicals are much attracted to that ‘solution’, although many envisage a greater socio-economic role for the state than is currently the case. For those radicals committed as much to democracy as to equality a genuinely alternative society to liberal capitalism remains illusive. Most want to see more mutuals and cooperatives established but when a critic as rightwing as Simon Heffer states that he has no problem with this and Cameron himself is in favour, a more comprehensive and thought through programme seems necssary. No doubt the left regards the mutualist and cooperative movements as much more fundamentally significant than the likes of Heffer and Cameron for whom they are of marginal importance. However, the strategy and scale of implementation has not been adequately addressed.

The left will continue to lack conviction until it revisits its basic values and extrapolates from them the kind of society it wants – always granted that reality, including the process of democratic negotiation itself, imposes limits on the achievement of ideals. Specifically the left needs to redefine or, at least, rearticulate the relationship between democracy and equality, giving far more emphasis to the former. A new democratic revolution is needed that goes beyond both the democracy of direct action and parliamentary democracy. Historically the socialist and communist lefts have identified primarily with the achievement of greater equality – materially and also substantially, culturally – ‘bread and roses’ (even though the majority have barely had a sniff of the ‘roses’). Democracy has often run a poor second to equality in theory and certainly in practise. Even so, given the appalling industrial conditions of poverty that gave rise to socialism, the emphasis on equality was understandable. This is less so now although even in the developed world it remains a priority for those in acute need. However, I propose that what will most empower the majority is a democratic institutional revolution on a massive scale. Such a revolution would almost certainly stem the trend to greater inequality and lead to greater social equality and equality of cultural access.

Democracy is, of course, itself a form of equality in the minimal sense that (nearly) all citizens have an equal right to vote and to that extent express an opinion. However the practical point about democracy relates to power. Democracy empowers individuals and groups either to maintain or change things. Political democracy is important for many reasons but it is not the only form of democracy. Nor should it be. While supporting political democracy, Wright Mills argued that in the United States and by implication in other Western democracies decisive power was in the hands of the military, economic and political elites. Whether or not Mills overstates the case it is worth considering how the majority of citizens might be more substantially empowered. The American New Left in the early sixties focused on this issue as central to the development of a new radical politics. The term they used to express this was ‘participatory democracy’ by which they meant that people should have the right to be involved in those decisions that affect their lives. Today radicals might take the view that the concept of participation is too weak a term to describe the kind and extent of social democracy they support. ‘Democratic control’ might be preferred. Here I intend to defer consideration of this admittedly crucial issue by simply using the term ‘institutional democracy’ by which I mean a substantial and ultimately a decisive shift in organisational power to the majority of people at the national and local levels. This can only be achieved if ‘ordinary’ people acquire institutional power. Much of the work to achieve this can be and to some extent is being done by social movement activists and some NGOs. However the scale of change suggested here is such that at some point it would require a major programme of national legislation. Such legislation would codify what has already been achieved in this direction but would also expand on it.

Economic democracy would be central to any plan to put democracy at the centre of a revived ideology and programme of the left. Large firms should have not just one but two or three or more employee delegates on the board, proportionate to the size of the organisation. These should not be merely consultative but have a major share in decision-making power. The principle that members of an organisation should also be involved in running it should be widely extended. Thus parents and students should have the right to be involved in the running of educational institutions. The particular importance of democracy within education is that it would provide a learning ground for democratic practice in the wider society. Given that employees, parents and students have other major commitments they should have time made available for their organisational work and be allocated an appropriate level of payment. By definition, delegatory positions would be elected rather than appointed and also be subject to recall and rotation – in the later case periods of office holding would need to be of a practical length.

The relationship between democracy and equality that the above suggestions reflect is that democratic empowerment is almost certain to lead to a demand for greater equality but that it is otherwise unlikely to occur. The political power of the working class preceded the welfare state and was instrumental in its development. The current level of power of the less well off and progressive middle class is probably just about enough to ensure the survival of at least a minimal welfare state. However currently these groups lack the power to achieve significant further progress towards social justice and equality. A second surge of democracy is likely to facilitate further equality. If the poorly or moderately paid acquire a significant or decisive say in the distribution of pay and rewards they are surely likely to reduce the staggering inequalities that have developed in recent years. Further, the experience gained by ‘ordinary’ people through organisational democracy should over time erode the gap in skill and confidence between them and professional management enabling some to take on more demanding roles.

The left, including the Labour party once it is persuaded, needs to put a second phase in the extension of democracy at the centre of its ideology and policy. On the scale argued for here this becomes a change not merely of degree but of kind and quality. Protest is not enough although the right do so is fundamental. What is needed is a democratic institutional revolution. But first it has to be imagined and then spelt out in some detail. There is no shortage of ideas about how democracy might be extended but they tend to be seen in isolation rather than integrated into a theoretical and programmatic whole. The left needs to adopt the perspective of Weber and Wright Mills that bureaucracies, including industrial and financial corporations, tend to develop hierarchically and undemocratically. If the socialist and communist parties of the early and mid-twentieth century had done this they might come much closer to creating the kind of societies aspired to. However as Milovan Dilas pointed out over half a century ago many of these parties themselves became blighted by the curse of bureaucracy. These insights do not undermine Marx’s vision of greater social equality and equality of cultural opportunity. Properly understood and implemented they make its achievement more likely. It is not a question of Marx or Weber. We need them both.


Dilas, M. (1957) The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Mills, C.W. (1951) White Collar: The American Middle Classes. Oxford University Press.

Mills, C.W. (1956). The Power Elite. Oxford University Press.

Various Authors (1969 (1962). The Port Huron Statement. In Jacobs, P. and Landau, S. (eds.), The New Radicals. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 154-167.


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