by D.J. Webb
Libertarians have traditionally stressed the need for freedom, rather than democracy. There is a good reason for this: democracy is a way of selecting legislators, but contains no guarantee that legislators will not seek to become ever more intrusive in the lives of citizens. Furthermore, democracy, if interpreted as indicating widespread popular support for the political élite, may be used to justify state interventionism. A democracy can be a manipulated democracy and not a free society. Consequently, freedom and democracy are not equivalents, and are not necessarily even mutually supporting concepts.
Freedom from overbearing state control can coexist with a non-democratic polity. One good example is Hong Kong under British rule. Very low levels of taxation and state regulation were combined with freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association and a common-law judicial system. The fact that the people of Hong Kong did not choose their political élite did not matter that much, given that that élite chose not to interfere with the right of residents to go about their business relatively unhindered. Consequently, it can be seen that the real aim of libertarianism is not the creation of a democratic state, but the reduction of the state to a size small enough for it not to impinge on the lives of citizens, no matter how its leading personnel be selected. This aim was well put in the US Constitution, which aimed, not for “democracy”, but to facilitate “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Britain today is a rather repugnant example of an unfree state that still has democratic elections. With the state spending around 50% of GDP; with the authorities (not just the police) being awarded many new powers to forcibly invade homes; with the authorities now seizing children left, right and centre on flimsy pretexts; and with political campaigns against the “wrong thoughts” on race, sex and sexuality now conducted in every workplace, it can be seen that the electoral mechanism is no guarantee of social freedom. It might have been so were the population determined to elect only those who stood for freedom, but the deliberate policy of encouraging welfarism has helped to bring round millions to the state’s way of seeing things.
Civil society and democracy
I say these things, not in an attempt to decry popular sovereignty and democracy, for in the recent past (say, before the Second World War), Britain managed to combine democracy with limited government. Just as democracy is no guarantee, in itself, of freedom, an undemocratic polity is, of course, a threat to freedom too. Hong Kong was rather unusual in the scope of the freedoms an undemocratic state structure permitted to local residents; many other undemocratic states (China, North Korea, etc) have sought to control the lives of their people in a much more detailed and abusive way.
So the interesting question is what sort of political culture needs to exist to enable a free and democratic order to flourish. Given the right cultural background, democracy could allow the population to defend its rights and freedoms. Part of that required cultural background is English common law, or at the very least, something largely equivalent to it, with its assumptions of limited government. Without English common law, Hong Kong would no doubt have been a very different place. Continental European jurisdictions do not have the Common Law and tend towards technocracy, but have still generally provided for sufficient social freedoms to allow a considerable degree of democracy to develop. Clearly we are dealing with a continuum of realities here, with few societies today living up to the small state ideals of English common law.
It is in this regard that many apparently democratic non-Western states come in for criticism from Western observers. Countries such as Russia and most other post-Communist East European states have an electoral mechanism, but, it is argued, they are not liberal polities. Many other examples can be found in the developing world: countries like Egypt have for decades had presidential elections, and following political change there they may even develop fuller democratic structures, but there is little evidence at present that those countries will become liberal polities.
One conclusion that has been reached by Western sociologists is that these countries do not have civil society. Civil society is a poorly defined term, which seems to refer to a public sphere in society, beyond the parameters of the state at one end and the family on the other. You could look on it as a buffer zone, and where the buffer zone did not exist, there would only be the state and families, or, in the context of increasing state intervention in the family and policies that appear to encourage dysfunctional family formation (divorce, welfarism, etc), just the state and individuals.
The civil society concept is therefore analogous to the “little platoons”, spoken of by the eighteenth-century conservative, Edmund Burke, who wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.
The subdivisions, the little platoons, have been interpreted as referring to some degree of social organisation outside the purview of the state. Voluntary organisations, churches, societies—such things make a society a society, and create wider social interests that are not identical to those of the state or lone individuals. It is argued that many countries do not possess a genuine equivalent of this third realm (as opposed to the realm of the state and the realm of individuals), producing polities, that while democratic, in that elections take place, are easily manipulated by a camarilla of the politically well-connected.
In Russia, for example, Putin’s circle appears, at least to Western observers, to dominate the entire state. Business leaders who fall foul of Putin find their economic interests under attack, or their businesses expropriated. Television channels support the ruling élite during election campaigns. The largest political party exists mainly as a vehicle for Putin’s aspirations. Journalists subsist in a narrower space than is the case in the West. Even the Orthodox Church has re-emerged from its Soviet-era suppression as an arm of the Putin state. While tax rates are relatively low in Russia—we must bear in mind that Western reports on Russia are informed by considerable vitriol and Russia has been a successful country in the post-Soviet era—basic freedoms, including the freedom from expropriation of private property, remain subject to state actions.
The problem here, of course, is that democracy, or at least a truly liberal democratic polity, is not just an electoral mechanism, which is the least important aspect of the whole. Democracy developed in countries like England with a considerable non-state society. Churches, charities, and credit unions represented some of the little platoons that existed in society. Political parties had grass-roots memberships, with rallies, demonstrations, youth wings, and weekends away for activists. A wider cultural life had been established in all communities in England, with brass bands, athletic clubs, people raising money for various causes and various infrastructural improvements. A large section of the population were “joiners”, people who had joined in associations unconnected with the state and spent their money and free time on them.
The decline of civil society
The problem with the decline in social commitments today is that free associations of the citizenry create a public sphere not dominated by the state, one that can enunciate social interests and hold government to account. Individuals who oppose “gay marriage” are powerless; the Roman Catholic Church has a wider voice that cannot be so easily dismissed, even if it eventually loses the political argument. Political parties with strong grass-roots chapters are held to account by their members; political parties that get state funding have finally “liberated” themselves from any connection to real people. Districts with strong neighbourhood watch committees are much safer than those without, which can only plead for the state to occasionally take violent crime seriously. Self-organisation of the citizenry rounds out the culture required for a genuine democratic polity to exist.
Interestingly, the Harvard academic, Robert D. Putnam, in his Bowling Alone, found that “civil engagement” in the US was highly dependent on an area’s ethnic diversity. Where people are unlikely to share any cultural allegiances, including a home language, with their neighbours, it is highly unlikely that any civil-society institutions will function in that area. The state’s policy of fostering multi-culturalism could therefore be seen to cynically promote the disaggregation of the population, dissolving a people into a mere population, leaving the relationship between the state and the individual the key social bond.
Clearly, ethnic homogeneity is not the sole ingredient in civil solidarity, as, otherwise, countries like Egypt and Russia would be seen to have a higher degree of civil solidarity than Britain and America today. Whether people can trust their neighbours and can trust strangers not related to them is a deeper cultural question; in many countries, only close relatives would be truly trusted, partly explaining in-marriage in Arab countries. Social capital—bonds of trust between unrelated citizens—has traditionally been strong in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and we might surmise this has something to do with our common-law traditions, as well as being reinforced by our traditional ethnic and cultural homogeneity.
Declining ethnic homogeneity is clearly not the only reason why social organisation is in decline. Faltering belief in religion and state policies to encourage innovative lifestyles have undermined churches. Political parties have become dominated by identikit individuals, espousing very similar policies and depending on large donors, rather than grass-roots campaigners. Charities are now largely dependent on state funding. David Cameron’s espousal of the “Big Society” also amounts to an attempt to impose state-run bodies where proper, independently organised civil-society organs might once have held sway.
The result has been to accentuate the feeling of individuation in society. Most people don’t belong to anything, and many do not really have families to back them up either. The state is all they have. Consequently, state intervention is the only way they have of resolving their problems. An increasingly paramilitary police, the ubiquitous nature of closed-circuit cameras, and steps to allow the government to monitor private communications reflect the way in which all social problems require an interventionist state response. Most desperate individuals would appreciate greater state spending—and a more muscular response to crime and other disorderly phenomena.
State-run quangos and NGOs
We need to ask ourselves how different is the situation we are in to that in Russia. We only have the bare bones of civil society nowadays, and controls on free speech and the freedom of association restrict any attempt by the citizenry to organise in ways not favoured by the political élite. Associations opposed to immigration would, for example, fall foul of legal requirements that such organisations admit members from all ethnic communities.
A public sphere does exist in the UK, although recent attempts to clamp down on free comment on social-media sites, such as Twitter, indicate that the state is reluctant to allow social media to become a forum for uncontrolled social organisation. Most of the prominent media are controlled by or linked to the state. The BBC, for example, is funded by a hypothecated tax (the “licence fee”), and is given a strong remit to attempt to control and manipulate public opinion in the UK in favour of the European Union, multi-culturalism, immigration and state spending more generally. Many newspapers, most notoriously The Guardian, depend on what is effectively a government subsidy in the form of public-sector appointment advertisements. Nearly all charitable and campaigning bodies are registered with the Charities Commission, and required to adhere closely to government propaganda. Most of these charitable bodies are dependent on state funding in some form. Scientific researchers, if they wish to gain any funding for their research at all, need to focus on areas of interest to the political élite, including so-called “global warming”; researchers who do not go along with the prescribed line will simply sink without trace. The wider phenomenon of “managerialism” means that there is little perceptible difference between the public and private sectors nowadays: even managers in the private sector spout political ideologies, often as a result of saturation coverage of such issues in the media and education systems.
It’s astonishing that most of what might, at first glance, appear to be civil-society organs, are arms of the state. And these arms of the state play a key role in policing the political arena. Where any politician makes any comment remotely straying “off-message”, the hue and cry is raised. But who raises the hue and cry? There is no grass-roots hue and cry in modern Britain. For example, where a Conservative MP criticised the Olympic opening ceremony, the BBC and newspapers, as if on cue, condemned him: opinions that might have a wider purchase on society were simply ruled “unacceptable”. But this is not an instance of “civil society” holding politicians to account; it is the political élite policing members of the political élite.
Similarly, where an MP recently claimed that the rape charges against Julian Assange were dubious—he is accused of failing to obtain a restatement of consent to sexual activity from a woman sleeping in bed with him, which, whatever it is, is quite different from a violent rapist jumping out of a bush to force a stranger to have sex with him—“charities” such as Rape Crisis popped up to restate the established line on rape. Apparently it is unacceptable to view “date rape” as less serious than other forms of rape, and it is also unacceptable to believe that rape is a largely sexual thing; campaigners insist it is mainly done to demonstrate male power over women and launch vitriolic attacks on anyone in the public eye who expresses an alternative view. But such a state-funded “charity” is nothing other than an arm of the state. Similarly, professional campaigners on race and homosexuality are employed, partly using public money, to generate “outcries” whenever views are expressed that contradict their agenda.
We don’t have real civil society nowadays. Most of these bodies are exercising political power by lobbying politicians, but doing so using state funding. No one elected or appointed the charities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other supposedly voluntary bodies that now seem more politically influential than political parties themselves. We have reached the state where genuine democracy is being frustrated by the fake nature of the civil-society organs that police it. And as the media and political élites tend to cross over into each other, even non-state-funded newspapers promote state ideologies, making it difficult to see how the current views of the political élite can ever be dislodged.
Combating fraudulent “civil society”
It is clear that libertarians need to oppose the quango nature of all charities and media organs today. Interestingly, the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, saw civil society as the key component of the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, allowing it to survive revolutionary turmoil in the early twentieth century. Yet we have reached the unhappy point where the lack of independently organised civil society is the key support of the managerial élite, reflecting the decline of the real private-sector bourgeoisie, and the rise of the public-private managerial class.
I would advocate the following steps to take on the quangos and the fraudulent civil-society bodies in the UK today:
Abolition of the television licence fee and the closing down of the BBC. Any outstanding pensions and wages should be cancelled without notice.
Closure of all quangos, including those campaigning on race, sex and sexuality, but including all others too. Government functions, which ought to be few in number, should be performed by accountable government departments, not semi-detached organisations.
The criminalisation of political campaigning, including campaigning for state funding, by charitable bodies. All charities should be dependent for every single penny they raise on donations by the public.
The most politicised quangos should see all their assets expropriated.
Local governments should be forbidden to donate to campaigning or charitable bodies.
Salaries for all publicly funded positions should be capped at twice the national average wage, with the average in any public body capped at the national average, with no expenses or pension contributions allowable. It is essential that public sinecures not be seen as career paths for the ambitious, who ought to be in the private sector.
The entire compensation game should be severely restricted: race, sex and sexuality should never give rise to compensation claims, thus taking the incentive out of politically motivated “hustling” or victim-mongering.
Media organisations should be held accountable for their jaundiced output. Television stations and newspapers that insist on producing twisted output encouraging the victim culture, grievances over bogus instances of “discrimination” and the like are not behaving in a fashion that has arisen organically in a free society, but are rather the product of the statist system. I would close down newspapers that encourage the continuation of the culture war.
Sociology departments and university courses that appear to be promoting the culture war using public money should be closed down and the academics involved financially destroyed.
There would no doubt be many libertarians who would look askance at proposals to close down media organs. But we need to see that the managerial culture, which has seen a close collusion between the political, media and educational élites, has allowed for a considerable crossover between the public and private sectors. Newspapers that have repeatedly and ad nauseam discussed the Stephen Lawrence case have deliberately suppressed news of the much more numerous cases of black-on-white hate crimes. They clearly have an agenda, and that agenda is to encourage the development of a society where views on race, sex and sexuality are monitored and punished by the authorities. In my view, there would be a considerable argument for the closing down of all media organisations, with new media companies starting up on a new basis.
In a nutshell, I do not see that any of what passes for civil society in the UK is the product of the free association of the citizenry, and this means that any government determined to re-establish a free Britain would need to act quickly against, not just the state itself, but against charities, campaign groups, and the media and education systems too. When charities, newspapers and universities re-establish themselves in a libertarian Britain, they would do so without state funding, and hopefully without statist ideologies too. Only then can we set about building a liberal polity in this country.