We find ourselves caught in an extended and ominous moment. Amongst the few remaining party activists, and anyone left of centre, there is now widespread scepticism about the possibilities for change--any kind of change. Over the last eight years, an increasingly dreary sort of space reigns where the prevailing culture is excessively conservative, and indeed hostile, to progressive projects. The acute fragmentation and isolation of those who need to be mobilised make collective plans appear impossible, and current political and institutional structures seem merely to reinforce and reify this disempowerment. The only response of leaders and government to such concerns is to become even more co-opted and detached from the people they claim to serve.
Meanwhile, an uneasy and baffling malaise besets those whom we count on: who appreciate that the structure of a political party is absolutely essential for the broad mobilisation necessary to overturn this set of circumstances, but who are equally aware that their party no longer represents its own declared values, nor even possesses the capacity to implement the vital changes needed. Confusion reigns about what to do, how to do it, and especially who should do it; and recriminations, nostalgia, and despair are pervasive in all political conversations. Representation in the body politic is in total disarray, both institutionally and throughout its civic spirit; pessimistic and increasingly demoralised by a public space that has become polluted by a painful array of mendacious characters, where debate is reduced to a set of narrow platitudes and petty ambitions.
One could be painting the unhappy portrait of the Labour Party and British national politics in the early autumn of 2008. But these are questions, concerns, and debates that are being raised in countries from Southern Africa to the Middle East. This depressing state of affairs is a common and perennial predicament that has afflicted progressive and democratic politics, not only across the world, but across different times and eras as well.
For the purposes of understanding how to move forward, it is essential to appreciate that the kinds of problems outlined above have the same source and same solutions. For each it is, at its simplest, a question of representation--and the mechanisms required to achieve that representation.
Coming to a recognition of what these distinct political worlds share provides those seeking to create progressive change with a new set of rhetorical, ideological, and practical tools and techniques to answer these dilemmas. For it locates the problem within a set of debates shared amongst them, and which form part of a political tradition that has universal aspects to its organisation: classical republicanism (Skinner, 1998).
Representation, liberty, and the republican tradition
The key issues of representation and liberty are the challenges that confront us all. And it is the republican tradition that offers a language that can define these problems in a distinctive framework that makes intellectual sense, and moreover one that offers concrete practices to overcome the precise list of obstacles and gridlock just described. However it needs a far different strategy, use of tactics, and especially type of engagement from members of the political classes in order to facilitate such a renewal.
Between the second half of the eighteenth century and the end of the twentieth, republicanism represented the most decisive challenge to the ordering of international system of states throughout the world. Its core principles of freedom defined as autonomy and popular sovereignty challenged all at once the overarching principle of legitimacy upon which the international order was founded; the practices of imperialism, expansion and conquest to which dominant powers had frequent recourse, both within and outside Europe; and the internal constitutional principles of states. Inspired by a rich corpus of Enlightenment thinking, republicans in Corsica, France, Poland and the Americas rebelled against their rulers and established new political systems which sought to promote greater political freedom and political and civic equality. Across Europe republicans waged an ardent battle against the imperial system, and spawned an insurrectionary tradition which illuminated the European skyline at regular intervals during the nineteenth century. Throughout the rest of the world, the fight for liberty in anti-colonial struggles used republican paradigms to create progressive change.
This rich, elaborate, and complex political tradition provides in its concrete practices the methods and tools to once again rejuvenate the public realm. Recent works on retrieving patterns of republican associational practices in order to create republics explore this tradition across the world, and illustrate the narrative from the bottom up, reflecting upon the important historical reality that it was republicans (i.e. citizens) who created republics, and not republics that created republicans (Dubois 2004; Hazareesingh 2003; Nord, 1995; South African Democracy Education Trust, 2006-08; White, 2002).
It is not democracy, participation, and citizenship that is the aim here: these common goods are merely the essential components and processes by which to achieve and maintain political liberty; that is, representation. Democracy as a goal, as defined by today's politics, is an empty and cruel objective that inspires no one, for it provides them with none of the things they seek. Indeed, as currently practised, it takes common goods away from its citizens. For the reason people become engaged in civic life is not to elect a leader to rule them, but rather to define and shape their own political present and future, so that their leaders can represent them, and know exactly to what purpose they have been elected. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the most luminescent and imaginative philosopher to sketch out the very basic and essential democratic and institutional mechanisms to obtain and then maintain freedom in the republican model, which is explained in a very straightforward manner in his Social Contract (Rousseau, 2003).
The language of republicanism addresses the types of obstacles currently facing us, and how to overcome them, by practising the virtues--civic renewal through engagement in coordinated and well organised popular movement: in sum, collective mobilisation. It provides, through its principles and its rich...