liberalism, citizenship and democracy

by Mark Ellingsen

A lot has been written recently about the corruption of politicians, the crisis of democracy and the legitimacy of Parliament. This is particularly apt as this year marks 200 years since the death of Tom Paine, the radical liberal who was an inspiration to movements fighting for the vote. On the Left the analysis of this crisis has revolved around the interconnected reasons of the failure of the Labour Party to deliver job security and prosperity to its ‘natural’ constituency of working class voters on the one hand, and on the other, the class nature of the capitalist state which ensures that the policies enacted by governments will ensure the profits of the capitalist class even to the detriment of the majority of voters. Quite rightly these arguments take centre place in any discussion of the problems now confronting both voters and the mainstream parties. However, there is a complementary argument that even on its own terms the ideas associated with liberal democracy are never going to provide a sufficient long-term basis on which the majority of people were going to be motivated to be engaged with what currently passes as the political process. But in order to understand the perceived crisis of liberal democracy we need first to understand the crisis of liberalism.


Liberalism is associated with the freedom of speech and the toleration of different views; the protection of the individual’s privacy, particularly from the intrusions of the state; and the protection of private property. A political philosophy which originated in the 17th and 18th centuries with the rise of a capitalist class and its challenge to the aristocracy, liberalism has always championed the freedom of the individual. It is this respect for the individual that gives it a popularity with those who are faced with state repression. It was often used as a stick by the Western media to beat the regimes of the former Soviet bloc for their suppression of free speech and individual expression, whether in terms of artistic freedom or consumer choice. While much of what passes in the West as free speech and individual expression is constrained by the control of the newspapers and television networks by capitalist corporations, nonetheless the importance of liberalism for a humanist communism is its respect for the individual and the choices he or she makes.

However, the freedoms that liberals advocate are always under pressure from the consequences of the dynamism which characterises capitalist development. The disruption to people’s lives from the dislocating effects of economic upheaval and war often leads to the partial breakdown in social order or a political challenge to the state. Even before the current economic recession, the West was faced with continuing structural unemployment, the exclusion of sections of the population from the gains of the economic bubble and a reaction to racism and imperial adventures, which all added up to the fear amongst mainstream commentators and politicians of the partial breakdown of social order. The abandonment of working class estates where social order is under threat from crime and anti-social behaviour and the emphasis on the protection of private property and crime-free zones around the shopping malls and nightspots so that others can continue to consume unimpeded has led to a massive increase in surveillance cameras. The more the political elite abdicate responsibility for the impact of economic upheaval and looming environmental devastation the more they become obsessed with crime and social order to the detriment of our civil liberties, to the extent that our electronic communications are collected and our biometric data stored in police databases. This is a totalitarian state in the making and the dwindling numbers of liberals are finding it difficult to hold the line.

Citizenship and Democracy

Contemporary liberal theory places a great emphasis on citizenship. However, one of the earliest understandings of citizenship is to be found in ancient Greece. For those who were citizens of Athens, citizenship was synonymous with participation in democratic decision making which affected the people of the city. Although it excluded women and slaves it is interesting to compare this with the ideas of citizenship which are prevalent today. Unlike modern liberal democracies in which people are given the right to vote for representatives every few years, Athenian democracy expected its citizens to be involved in the making of decisions and direct rather than representational democracy was seen as the ideal. Where representative democracy was unavoidable due to the scale or organisational complexity representatives were most often chosen by lot rather than by election because it was understood that all citizens should be equally competent at making decisions. The election of officers with technical expertise such as military or financial was an exception to the rule of democratic participation. The contrast with the current idea that there ought to be a group of professional politicians who can take decisions on our behalf, because they are somehow more competent than the rest of the population couldn’t be sharper.

Of course, today we often equate citizenship in liberal capitalist societies with a modicum of democracy, meaning the right to vote once every few years, rather than democratic participation. Yet even that has not been a cornerstone of liberalism for very long. In the 18th century, those who adhered to the classical liberal ideas which emphasised the freedoms we now associate with democratic countries did this on the basis of a very restricted franchise. It was only men of substantial property who could participate in parliamentary politics. Not until the Reform Act of 1832 was this extended somewhat, but even that still left most of the adult British population without a vote. In this sense, liberalism was not inconsistent with a restricted citizenship, although the repression of Chartist newspapers calling for the vote for working class men didn’t sit comfortably with the liberal ideal of free speech. It was only in 1928 that property restrictions were lifted for both men and women. That it took so long in coming only highlight liberalism’s fetish of private property, a key element of its philosophy. For early liberalism, only the propertied man was capable of making decisions which affect the political and more importantly the economic life of the country. Only the propertied can safeguard property.

That liberals no longer adhere to such views is in good measure a response to the rise of labour and socialist movements from the mid-19th century. Indeed, under pressure from socialists, some liberals went further and argued that the working class could not fully participate in the political process without the eradication of poverty, ill health and the lack of education. This social liberalism, as it came to be known, supported the introduction of a welfare state and became the cornerstone of social democratic and labour politics. Citizenship then became more than just the formal political equality of all adult men and women but also the recognition that being active and engaged citizen required a minimum standard of living. However, this social liberalism is now under threat from the crisis of profitability within the capitalist economy. The welfare state is being undermined in order to cut the social wage which makes up for the lack of the means for most people to afford private education, health care and social insurance against unemployment. That social liberalism has never been accepted by the ruling class in the United States underlines the tenuous hold that substantive citizenship has for liberalism.

Listening to the rhetoric of the Labour Party, one could be forgiven for believing that here was one party which was trying to stop the undermining of citizenship. The irony is that not only is this party intent on undermining a welfare state based on need and replacing it with one based on private profit but its notion of citizenship is one in which the population, especially immigrants, are obliged to show allegiance to the state and the values of the ruling class, rather than being part of a community of citizens underpinned by a decent standard of living for all. The discussion around citizenship has been about the balance between rights and obligations and with the increase in social disorder it is unsurprising that the political elite have stressed the latter. At no point had there been any discussion about democracy, until the expenses scandal so exposed the cynicism and careerism of the majority of politicians that afraid of losing personal position, they mouthed platitudes about connecting people with politics. But democracy is not about connecting people with politicians, it is about people being able to influence decisions which affect their lives either directly or through delegates who represent the decision of their constituents. We don’t need professional politicians.

As the percentage of people voting falls at each election it is often argued that democracy is under threat from apathy, that there is a crisis of liberal democracy. There is undoubtedly a crisis for liberalism and for the Left as rights and freedoms are undermined by emergency legislation introduced to curtail dissent and social disorder. But to argue that liberal democracy is under threat is an exaggeration. Liberal democracy thrives on apathy. It depends on a passive electorate which is content only to vote every few years for parties which are similar in outlook. This is not to say that the political elite are completely unconcerned about voter apathy but the concern is more about legitimising the political decisions that are made and the role of political elite rather than a concern about engaging the electorate in the process of government. The problem for the political elite is that the potential voter is not stupid. People are apathetic because elections make little difference as the parties provide little choice.

For all its rhetoric, rather than providing the epitome of citizenship, the ideology of liberalism has devalued it. Unlike in ancient Athens, in modern capitalist societies, being a citizen does not give people the facility to participate in a democratic process of decision making. Rather it gives people a set of individual rights profoundly constrained by the power of large corporations and the state. The modern notion of citizenship is ironically much narrower than the idea of citizenship of ancient Greece despite the latter’s restriction to males who were not slaves.

Civil Society and the State

However, there is another way in which citizenship is constrained within capitalism and in a way which is much more profound than the constraints in the political sphere. This is the lack of democracy and freedom within the workplace. Our relationship to our employer is as workers not as citizens. Citizenship is limited in scope; it does not include our rights to participate in decisions within the workplace, across the company or institution, with regard to how it relates to rest of the economy, or the locality in which the workplace is situated. The separation of the economy from the polity in capitalism is precisely why there is some form of political democracy, albeit limited. By confining democracy to the political sphere, liberalism leaves untouched the arbitrary power wielded by the employer in the workplace. What little democratic accountability that exists in our society does not extend to the workplace, where the majority of us spend most of our adult lives.

Since the eighteenth century, the state has been seen as separate from ‘civil society’, namely the economy and other social institutions. Civil society was seen as a bulwark against the excesses of state power and this idea was given a new lease of life in response to the repression and arbitrariness of state power in the state socialist societies of Eastern Europe and the USSR. This concern to protect the individual citizen from state power is admirable and it is something that libertarian communism shares with the liberal. However, liberalism retains a blind spot with respect to the power wielded by those who run the economic institutions and this is because liberalism is committed to the privatisation of the economy. At the same time as seeing private property as a bulwark against state power, it fails to see the despotism within the private corporation. This is a consequence of liberalism’s fetish of private property. The freedom and democracy won in the political sphere have been tolerated because it leaves untouched the root of capitalist power which has its foundations in the economy.

The democratisation of the economy is an anathema to liberalism because it would challenge that very despotism which liberals defend, the largely arbitrary power of managerial authority within the workplace and the economy as a whole. Not only does liberalism leave that power untouched, but what little democracy it allows in the political sphere comes with the proviso that capitalist property remains sacrosanct and that the state remains subordinate to the economy. For all its rhetoric, liberalism merely provides us with a pale imitation of democracy. If it was democratic, as it professes, then it would not hesitate to champion substantive democracy in the economy and the workplace. This it leaves to the communists and anarchists while disparaging both.

Introducing democracy to the workplace and the economy is the key to empowering people in their daily lives. People will not be engaged with a democratic process if it leaves large parts of their lives subject to the arbitrary power of an employer and an economy which is subservient to profit maximisation rather than the needs of working people. It is for this reason that workers’ self-management must be at the centre piece of any politics which aims to empower people to make their own choices in life. However, the political sphere cannot remain untouched. If the economy is run along democratic lines then what is the need for a separate state? In a democratic communist society, it is not the state that manages the economy, but the democratic economy managing the economic functions of the state, to the extent that the two are no longer separate. Both are subject to the principles of democratic self-management. Libertarian communism takes the principles of freedom and democracy which liberalism professes to champion and extends these into both the political and economic sphere abolishing the division between the worker and the citizen.