From rights to functions: third wave Corbynism & the Habermasian spirit of guild socialism (part 1 of 2)


Starting from a sympathetic critique of the current left-liberal response to the increasingly vehement assault on minority and women’s rights by the populists now wielding power in and around government, this essay provides a Marxian perspective on the diachronic, structural causes of this assault. This perspective contrasts with the current synchronic analysis provided by liberals, which sees the current predicament as little more than a “culture war” to be won by those with the most effective cultural and discursive tactics.

From there, the attention shifts to the underestimated contribution to socialist thought, as it relates to rights, of the English guild socialist of the first part of the twentieth century, especially RH Tawney, and their renewed relevance in today’s circumstances.

The key contention is that socialists should build on guild (and pluralist insights) into the 19th century liberal corruption of Enlightenment ideals for universal rights, and intertwine these with more recent political philosophical advances by Habermas, Honig, Sen and others, to create a new socialist project for a “meta-right” to political inclusion.

The recapturing of the Enlightenment spirit that enthused Marx provides, the essay claims, a more robust and dynamic intellectual framework for action than the current corrupted Gramsicm espoused by much of the liberal left, which has been unable to respond to the changes in the way capitalism has mutated for its own continuity.

The essay concludes with the ‘starting points’ for a political project built upon these renewed socialist foundations, and suggests that such a project might make the basis for ‘third wave’ Corbynism in Britain.

Those starting points revolve around the ‘pluralist’ aspects of English pluralism, which stress that the state is just one of constellation of actual and potential associative forms, and as such has limited legitimacy. A renewed focus, within Labour and beyond, on the ‘politics of production’ and the ethically-based autonomy of (widely defined) professionals is the key to socialist renewal at a time when the minority and women’s rights won through by socialist and feminist agency but also because of the post-war Jessopian ‘spatio-temporal fix’ to capitalism — are at dire risk from the populism that constitutes the next ‘fix’.

Part 2 provides deeper institutional and political detail, and thoughts on the fit with more immediate political messaging and electoral campaigning in a country deeply divided by current populist successes

  1. The populist attack on rights and the meaning of rights

If 2016 stood out for the shocking arrival via the popular vote of 21st century populist authoritarianism, 2017 was the year when that authoritarianism consolidated its attack on liberal norms.

By liberal norms, I mean the widespread acceptance of the (negative) rights of individuals to self-identify and to act as they wish, as long as those actions do not infringe others’ rights.

2017 saw two closely related forms of assault on these rights.

First, the right to minority difference has been challenged by the assertion that “your view isn’t valid because the majority disagree” This is, as cultural commentator Anthony Painter has said, the very essence of the authoritarian mode, and the very antithesis of the democratic principle.

For obvious examples, see the rise in elite support for overt white nationalism in the United States. See the ratcheting up of the UK press attacks on ‘Remoaners’ as traitors for wanting to retain rights as European citizens, and their own and others’ freedom of movement. See also the co-ordinated and well-funded attacks on the right women retain control of their own bodies.

Second, the right of the majority to degrade others’ intrinsic dignity has increasingly been justified on the basis of the absolute right to ‘free speech’, irrespective of the negative impacts on the right of others.

That is, the ‘negative liberty’ notion of what constitutes legitimate free speech — a cornerstone of liberal thought — has been seemingly effortlessly eroded and replaced by a conception of so-called ‘positive liberty’ that is to be enjoyed only by those who command the power to exercise and impose it. In turn, this has opened up the populist discursive tactics of portraying “snowflake” liberals as the real authoritarians, for wanting to reaffirm the liberal constraints on free speech/positive liberties first postulated by Kant in his moral law for universal application.

For examples, see the deliberate creation of a ‘free speech problem’ in universities and a regulator charged with stamping it out, and the subsequent deliberate controversy of the appointment to that regulator of someone clearly unsuited to any public office.

See, also, the UK media pushing the idea that ‘curing gays’ is legitimate free speech, regardless of the harm this causes to gay people. Under the populist conception of the right to free speech, those who are harmed, or potentially harmed, our snowflakes, and those who stand up for the snowflakes, are an elite which knows nothing of real life.

2. The liberal response

Broadly, there have been two kinds of liberal response to this attack on rights, and on the conception of negative rights espoused by liberals..

First, and much more quickly than I imagined might happen, has been the apologist response.

Exemplified by academics like Eric Kaufman, David Goodhart and Rob Ford, this is little more than an acknowledgment that the populists have won, and the argument that we need to treat that victory with humility and respect because, if we continue to cause trouble, things could get an awful lot messier.

Thus Ford, arguing against people standing against attacks on diversity, says that resistance simply fuels “ethnic nationalism amongst insecure white voters” who have been persuaded of their “declining influence”, while Goodhart argues that:

The liberal reflex to tar legitimate majority grievances with the brush of racism risks deepening western societies’ cultural divides.

Kaufman does a very slightly better job of apologizing for his apologism when he tells us further research is needed:

A better understanding of the relationships between view on immigration, race and racism could draw the toxic sting from the immigration issue, defusing a key source of white grievance and fuel for right-wing populism.

The second liberal response fuses valid synchronic (see below) analysis of why liberals are losing with the “something must be done” invocation.

Here’s one example.

Back in September, the production team of ITV’s Good Morning Britain’s decided to air an interview with a ‘gay cure doctor’. The day after an interview, Good Morning Britain tweeted knowingly:

Our item with a doctor who claims to ‘cure’ gay people caused controversy yesterday. Should offensive views not be aired even if challenged?

There it is, the populist freedom of speech argument, in a tweet from a mainstream TV company, no doubt staffed by people who do not consider themselves right-wing, but just doing their job.

It’s a question, but it seeks to admit of only one answer: of course people should have the right to attack the right to be gay, irrespective of the damage that may cause to those rights.

Commentator Owen Jones duly obliged:

The left is waging war on free speech, screeches the populist right on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet its interpretation of free speech is: “The right to say whatever I like about minorities without facing any challenge.” Any criticism of their expressed prejudices is treated somehow as an attack on their free speech.

Owen is absolutely correct in his analysis of what the populists are up to but, that’s as far as it goes; there is nothing beyond the broad “we must fight for our rights” virtue signalling, and no sense of what liberals might have to do differently in the face of the populist onslaught.

I sympathize with Owen’s howl of despair. It is heartfelt, and of a type that I, a white middle-aged heterosexual male, am morally bound to take seriously.

Not to take it seriously — to pretend that a ‘a gay cure doctor’ on prime time television is just a bit more provocative telly that we shouldn’t get too exercised about — would be to indulge in the kind of Goodhart/Ford accommodation to populism I have criticized above [1]; and a logical next step from the acknowledgment that the right to be gay is not that important is the acknowledgment that the right not to be sexually assaulted at work infringes on “people copping off with each other”, and that black lives don’t matter that much either and that, after all, the Klu Klux Clan are basically a bunch of good people who enjoy a good march to celebrate their identity. It’s a slippery slope, alright.

But sympathizing with Owen’s hurt is not enough, and nor is his impassioned response, or the thousands of re-tweets and likes that it will have brought.

Another example. In the recent Daily Mail response to the furor over the letter from a Tory whip seeking information on academic teaching European studies, we find shoehorned into page one the most important detail.

One pro-Leave student yesterday said the extent of the bias had left him feeling ‘intimidated and unable to speak his mind.

Ensuring that the front page carries the key message of lefties as the real ‘fascists’ is no accident, especially when we consider the follow up coverage of ‘Corbynite’ academics in Oxford.

Then there’s Tony Abbott’s opposition to the ongoing same-sex marriage Australia’s postal plebiscite, articulating a demand for rights (new ones in this case) to the concept of “political correctness”, a term long ago shorn of the concept of being correct politically:

And I say to you if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom and freedom of speech, vote no, and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.

Here, Abbott goes beyond the logically defensible, though morally repugnant, claim that freedom of speech is a fundamental right irrespective of how much such speech might reduce the (presumptive) rights of others. Instead, he simply allows the reader to take the now well-trod path between ‘political correctness ’ and the removal of free speech.

All three cases reflect how adept the populist right has become at winning the free speech argument; it has become second nature for populists to reformulate minorities claims’ to rights as impositions on the majority, and to defend attacks on minority rights as a positive right in itself.

This effect is enhanced where a link can be forged between this rights denial and a place in the ‘establishment’. In the area of gay rights, a common tactic here is to throw up the image of the left-wing luvvie’ as a privileged animal. When it comes to universities, the handy image is the ‘ivory tower’.

It is easy enough to see how, in this vortex of Daily Mail discourse, an already damaged individual could come to believe that murdering an MP who spoke for the right to the conviviality of diversity might be the act of a freedom fighter.

Liberals are losing the argument because they just don’t have the right comebacks against the populists. By contrast, for the populists and their journalist lackeys twisting long-held but rarely explicit concepts of freedom, describing liberal positions in defence of negative rights as ‘PC gone mad/ivory tower, cultural Marxist’ authoritarianism, has become second nature. They’re winning these fights for fun now.

There is one very obvious response to this populist manipulation of discourse, and it is one that liberals do have recourse to, while feeling uncomfortable about having to do so because they are losing the discourse battle. This is that the right-wing media is biased has too much power.

This is, of course, true. Plenty of empirical data, from readership figures to analyses of BBC Question Time tells us so. But this doesn’t make it any more effective as an argument because, even more than protestations that the populists are twisting concepts of freedom, calls for more responsible media, or any democratic oversight, is easily portrayed as yet another example of wanabee leftie fascism.

Under the new populism, the Select Committee hearing into Murdoch’s practices seem a lifetime ago.

Nevertheless, the understanding that the media is biased and does exert inordinate power, in favour of the populists, in the argument over what constitutes legitimate rights, does provide a glimpse of how a socialist response to the assault on rights that we have long taken for granted might be developed.

It is to this, I suggest more mature, socialist response that I now turn. It is a response founded on a deeper analysis of the current predicament than liberals can manage — precisely because they are liberals (or left-liberals, as they might call themselves) rather than socialists.

3. A Marxian response

Like most liberals and indeed like most self-professed socialists, I’ve so far assessed the current liberal predicament in terms of the (effective) tactics of the populists, versus the ineffective liberal response.

But, as I’ve suggested, there’s a more coherent socialist rseponse to be had.

One obvious place to start formulating a socialist response to the assault on rights is with Marx’s comment in Capital Vol 1: “Between equal rights, force decides”.

In line with this, David Harvey has set out clearly enough how, under the conditions of neoliberalism that have emerged since the 1970s, the rights of capital always come first:

We live, therefore, in a society in which the inalienable rights of individuals….to private property and the profit rate trump any other conception of inalienable rights you can think of. (p.181)

I would argue, in line with Bob Jessop, that under any form of capitalism the right to private property always comes before any other right, but that under the conditions of the Keynesian Welfare State that developed in the West after 1945, both identity and welfare rights emerged as a key element of the ‘spatio-temporal fix’ which allowed for the continuation of the capitalist system despite its contradictions.

Essentially, the working class and those who might ally with the working class (students etc.) remain subservient to capitalist logic because of a set of compromises based around consumerism and around the right to self-expression (see also Marcusian repressive desublimation), but on the implicit caveat that these ‘rights’ might be removed at any point.

As we pass well beyond the Keynesian Welfare State as capitalism#s ‘fix’, that caveat is now being exercised.

Austerity was the first part of the game plan to protect the proceeds of capitalism for capitalists, and now identity and other social rights are coming under assault as part of a new spatio-temporal fix for a capitalist system which can no longer hold under the old compromises, and needs the ‘othering’ processes to ensure obedience. As Jessop says:

While contradictions, dilemmas and conflicts of ideal and material interest cannot be reconciled permanently in abstracto, they can be moderated provisionally and partially through mechanism and projects that prioritize one aspect of a contradiction, one horn of a dilemma, or just some interest. This can be achieved ‘ideally’, at least in the shot term, through successful presentation of specific, necessarily selective solution as the embodiment of an (always illusory) general interest. In other cases the ‘resolution’ will involve more forcible strategies and tactics (p146).

Recognizing that the populist assault on rights is a structural feature of the social ‘fixes’ that capitalism needs for its survival as an economic mode, and not evidence of a stand-alone culture war which those with the most valid cultural attributes and Facebook likes will win, is an important step towards a socialist response. Without that recognition, we will simply be back where we started, with an ineffectual liberal response based on cultural and discursive tactics.

But it is only the first step step.

4. A (guild) socialist response

You don’t need to be a Marxist to recognize that the populist assault on rights has had a long germination; it is in a non-Marxian re-conception of what rights are and should be, that I suggest an effective response to populism lies.

Writing nearly a century ago, the English guild socialist RH Tawney was crystal clear about what had gone wrong with rights, in the 150 years or so since they had originally been conceived as such in the first flush of the Enlightenment.

In the seminal ‘The Acquisitive Society’, Tawney argued that for the “Liberal Movement of the eighteenth century” a focus on individual rights was a “supremely necessary thing” as the world moved beyond feudalism and hereditary power and into the modern world.

However, he argued, while it is “absurd to criticize [the founders of the Enlightenment] as indifferent to the evils of a social order which they could not anticipate”, the coming of the industrial revolution and the capitalist economic model had led the right to “private property and unfettered economic freedom” were soon, under the gaze of 19th century liberalism, “taken for granted as the fundamentals on which social organisation was to based, and about which no further argument was possible” (pp.18-20)

From this insight on the unjust advancement under capitalism, of private ownership and the right to profit in preference to other rights, Tawney builds an eloquent case, down to the fine detail, for an industrial society managed not in the interests of the rights unjustly seized from the spirit of the Enlightenment under the new conditions of mass production, but in the interests of a clearly determined social function.

The key consequence of such a societal development is the removal of the “functionless” part of the economy, namely the rentier class.

Needless to say, Tawney’s vision was unrealized. The social and welfare rights won during the twentieth century by socialists, feminists and people of colour through a combination of (often brave) agency) and the appearance of structural opportunities offered up by the welfare state “spatio-temporal fix” I have referred to above, mean that for many years Tawney and his fellow pluralists & guild socialists came to be seen as a an interesting quirk of socialist intellectual history.

Paul Hirst’s far-sighted efforts in the 1980s (pdf) to highlight their new relevance, as Thatcherism heralded the first stage of the disintegration of the post-war temporal fix, met with little success — largely because of his untimely passing but also, as I have contended elsewhere, because a corrupted and corrupting addiction to Gramsci had taken over the intellectual faculties of much of the British left (and still damages its responses to populism by focusing to the exclusion of much else on issues of ‘narrative’, ‘framing’, in the belief that understanding hegemony equates to defeating it [2]).

Now, albeit thirty years too late, it is time for British socialists to re-acquaint themselves with the home-grown intellectual talent, and draw on it to formulate a project of response to the new populism — a response which focuses less on seeking to defend rights, and more on defining and then organizing what Tawney calls “function” (set in contrast to the “functionless” rentier class).

5. A 21st century pluralism

This is, of course, not to say that we can simply copy and paste for modern times the prescription for a properly functioning economy, in which social objectives gain priority over an already devalued set of rights. Just as Tawney makes allowance for the fact that the Enlightenment figures he praises could not anticipate the way their progressive thinking would be corrupted by 19th century capitalism, so we need to allow for a very different societal context. Both material circumstance and political philosophy/economy have seen advances over the last century that pluralist would gaze at with a mix awe and horror, and out challenge as modern socialists is to set their thinking in this new context.

Tawney’s project, and GDH Cole’s analysis [2] for a national economy based on optimum function (and the removal of its functionless components) made a then valid enough assumption about what that optimum function, or what we might now call the “common good”, might be: it was the maximization of economic productivity in an industrial age such that all might benefit from the proceeds in increased national wealth.

Such an assumption is no longer valid. Not least on environmental grounds, the idea that increased production is a good of itself, even if the rentier class no longer seizes the proceeds, is contestable.

The shift from industrial economy to service and knowledge economy, a better technical understanding of how money works, the potential for a universal basic income to drive the economy rather than as simple means of exchange, and perhaps most of all the acknowledgment that paid and unpaid labour forms are still forms of labour, all creates wholly different potentials for what might be defined as a common good, and therefore how we might define optimum function.

This is not the place to argue out a new definition of a common good. Indeed, the key point, building on the political philosophy advances that have taken places since the English pluralists, is that what constitutes the common good is and should be always contestable through deliberative, and ethically inclusive democratic processes.

This is, of course, the Habermasian project in a nutshell, and anyone who has read much of my stuff over the last few years will know that, when it comes to the remedy for modernity’s ills, pretty well all my roads lead to Habermas’s gargantuan life project — a project for nothing short of the renewal of the Enlightenment.

It is in this direction I now turn, as I seek to show — to the level of detail which Tawney and Cole gave us— how the left in Britain can tap the associative, pluralist spirit of the Guild Socialists to create a new democratic surge which outflanks populism by appealing to renewed networks of solidarity-through-function.

6. A Habermasian pluralism

In necessarily very over-simplified terms, Habermas contends that the energies of those interested in the renewal of the Enlightenment (and here it’s important to remember Marx’s intellectual influence) should be focused on creating a public sphere in which, as far as possible, all citizens have a right to express, and have heard their views, through formal democratic structures and civil society mechanisms.

This, Habermas says, will be both the condition for and cause of a society which we can legitimately regard as democratic AND socialist. That is, socialists can and should take confidence that developing inclusive and ethical democratic processes leads to greater social equality.

This brings us back to the question of rights. For if our objective as socialists is now, following Habermas, to facilitate a common good as formulated through inclusive participation in democratic processes (and thus a common good where equality is writ large) then it becomes straightforward to reformulate this as a demand we make of capitalism.

It becomes, a demand for a central, universal right, or a “meta-right” uncompromised by capitalism.

Such a reformulation of the socialist project has several implications.

First, it allows for a clear development of a coalition of those forces which are happy with the idea of a democracy in which all voices count.

In so doing, it creates a new centre ground, but a centre ground radically different from the one chosen by today’s ‘centrists’.

The old centre ground is one where the material interests of capitalism continue to be safeguarded for the sake of an ultimately pointless (from socialism’s point of view) unity, while yhe new centre ground is around an ethicality and inclusiveness that is necessarily detrimental to the material interest of capitalism.

Second, it undercuts the argument of a now more clearly delineated opposing (populist/capitalist) force that it is the side which cherishes freedom; for our reformulated demand is simply for the right to involvement in democracy, and to seek to deny the legitimacy of this universal claim remains, at least for now, harder than the piece-meal picking off welfare and identity rights.

Nor is this just a matter of tactics. If we are to believe social psychologist Joanthan Haidt, the concept of “sanctity” outweighs that of fairness” when it comes to political support (p.158). Creating a political movement which moves the left away from a dependence on rights — and the idea that it’s fair for other to enjoy what we enjoy — towards the idea that we’re simply seeking what comes naturally but which has been denied, may be a real vote winner.

Third, it creates a political space for what was the non-political (or in Habermasian terms, the influence of system on lifeworld is exposed). If the right to engage and be heard is to be truly universal, then so must be the capacity for that engagement.

Automatically, then, not only does decent ‘leveling up’ education become a universal right (and in this there is a something of a crossover with the achievements of the first Enlightenment), but so does the ensuring of other ‘capabilities’ which facilitate involvement [4]. This goes beyond representation for workers, though this is of course important, to create a refreshed political — and given the Kantian underpinnings — more case for universal basic income and services.

At its most ‘enlightened’, this demand for the meta-right of inclusion in the democratic process involves life itself; if, because of systematic injustice, people are not alive to participate in the democratic process, then there is a sine quo non to remedy this. This is not an abstract question. As I set out here, a principal reason for the victory of the Conservatives in the general election in 2017 is that those who would have voted Labour in sufficient numbers to give Labour the win, were dead before their time, relative to the still-alive Conservative voters.

This re-engagement with the politics of health inequalities — a project which has withered since the Black report — re-politicizes for a modern age the logic Universal Declaration on Human Rights, in which the right to life is not, as human rights essentialists might wish, article 1, but article 3, following in logical consequence the first two articles which cover mankind’s universal disposition to inter-subjective “reason and conscience”.

Fourth, the demand for a meta-right of inclusion, extrapolated here from Habermasian thought but not explicit within it, opens up a political space, beyond rights, for what might be called emergent freedoms.

I use the term ‘emergent’ advisedly, in reference to Bonnie Honig’s Emergency Politics (2011), in which the word emergency is intended to evoke both urgency/uncertainty of outcome and the concept of political beginnings.

A key argument in Honig’s book, in line with Tawney but arguably moving beyond Habermas’ vision of a legalistic choreography between the “mutual presuppositions” of popular sovereignty and human rights [note to quote] is that:

[N[ew worlds are built not just by way of rights-claims and new identities but also by way of new visions of political goods and goals. Seeing movements for political change in terms of rights claims, or centering such movements on the politics of rights or identity politics threatens to limit our apprehension of new political events and narrow our political aspirations (p.48)

7. A politics of production

Talk of a Habermasian-Honigian project for ethical democratic inclusion may seem a little abstract. Projects need more than objectives. They need actions and they need beginnings.

So what might a beginning be? And how might such a beginning fit with the current layout of political forces within Britajn?

Well, just as Habermasian thinking adds value to the insights of the English pluralists by re-orienting “function” towards the capture of a universal “meta-right”, so the pluralist and associative thinking of Tawney, Cole and Laski (and their modern interpreters Hirst and Mark E Warren) can ground the Habermasian project.

Through Tawney’s work there is a thread of coherence, from his analysis of the corruption of rights by a“functionless” rentier class through to his vision of an industrial society in which each person offers optimum value to society by providing their expertise, whatever that expertise may be.

For Tawney, the key to a well-ordered society is professionalism, and a respect for expertise.

For GDH Cole, the key to a well ordered society is respect for the legitimacy of associations to act as they see fit.

And, as we have seen, for Habermas, the key to a well-ordered society is the right to inclusion in decisions about what is to be seen as fit.

Drawing these threads together, we have the bones of 21st century socialism: a socialism based on pride in production and expertise; a socialism which does not seek permission for rights but takes them for granted; a socialism which challenges the primacy of the state where the state fails in its function; a socialism which is clear about its Enlightenment roots, and is returning to them.

Conclusion to part 1

In part 2, I will cover each of these aspects (in other places I already have), and set it in the context of what I think could and should be a ‘third wave’ Corbynism which moves beyond the relative safety of quasi-Bennite positions developed when capitalism was still in its post-war settlement phase, and in so doing creates a new and powerful electoral coalition.

The early 21st century is different. So must we be.

Principal references

Habermas J (2000) Facts and Norms

Harvey D (2016) A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Hirst P (1989) The Pluralist Theory of the State: Selected Writings of GDH Cole, JN Figgis & HJ Laski

Honig B (2011) Emergency Politics

Jessop B (2016) The State: Past, Preset Future

Sen, A (2009) An Idea of Justice

Tawney RH (1920) The Acquisitive Society


[1] Indeed, that is the kind of unthinking accommodation in which Labour MP Wes Streeting seems to indulge when he says there are more important things to worry about than the pro-active introduction of hate speech into universities.

For Wes, the whole student university free speech controversy is just a bit of a dead cat issue, thrown on the table to deflect attention. But What Wes (and others) doesn’t recognize is that, when dead cats keep getting thrown on the table at an ever increasing rate of dead cats, pretty soon it’s difficult to know if the table is made of wood, or of dead cats.

And, as Roger points out, liberals have been here before, accommodating themselves to populism because it’s really not worth the fuss, and because there’s an economy to run.

[2] In seeking to structure this essay, however clumsily, first as critique of the liberal response to the populism that has developed of late, I have had in mind as model this section from Hirst’s 1989 anthology of the English pluralists (pdf), with its dry comment on the ineffective analysis of the (then) liberal failure to come to grips what Thatcherism was, before his main claim — as mine nearly 30 years on — that the effective response may lie in a reclaiming earlier socialist thought:

Mrs Thatcher’s government has shown both the dangers of antagonistic pluralism and the defects of the British ‘constitution’. Silly people are wont to compare Mrs Thatcher’s actions and attitudes with Fascism and even exceedingly intelligent people have claimed her aim is a ‘postdemocratic bourgeois society’. On the contrary, Mrs Thatcher constantly insists that hers is a democratically elected government and that it has a ‘mandate’ for change derived from three successive general election victories. Mrs Thatcher needs democracy’ in its unreformed and increasingly unsatisfactory British form.
The object of her most draconian measures has been the trade unions rather than the Catholic church, but both are associations freely formed of citizens, with a life and loyalty of their own. Mrs Thatcher has set out to use her majority, a form of minority rule with 43 per cent of the popular vote, to dictate by constitutionally unchallengeable state authority and unlimited legislative sovereignty how others shall live.
She has further centralized an already highly centralist governmental system and she has treated civil servants as if they are indeed ‘servants’ of the state, that is, no more than agents of sovereign power who enjoy the duties of unlimited loyalty and obedience but no political rights specific to their position. Each of these features of modern Conservative government was identified by the English pluralists as obnoxious long before either big government or prime ministerial primacy in the modern sense existed…..
The pluralists sought a state that was a partnership between authority and associations freely formed of citizens. They sought a system of representation that would be complex and complete enough, paying due regard to function, so that no mere mathematical majority could prevail over the complex web of interests in society.
Modern critics identify well enough the political dangers and deficiencies of the Conservative government’s utilization of the despotic tendencies built into the British constitution. They are, however, either less than radical in the remedies that they propose (‘radical’ in the sense of going to the root of the problem — which is centralized and hierarchical sovereign state power) or, while seeking extensive social and political changes leading to the radical pluralization and decentralization of authority, lack a coherent theoretical rationale to tie such changes together. (pp5–7)

[3] In fact, one of the GDH Cole pieces that Paul Hirst selects for this volume (see 1] of re-introduction the pluralists concerns itself precisely with “the principle of function” , and Cole recognizes the difficulty, in a pluralist society, of coming to broad agreement on social function:

Social purposes are..the raw material of social functions, and social functions are social purpose selected and place in coherent relationship. The selection cannot have a purely scientific basis; for it is a matter of ends as well as means, and depends upon individual standards of value and the kind of social life which the individual desires….Our conceptions of he functions of particular associations are inevitably formed in the light of our ultimate conception of social value (from The Social Theory, 1920).

This is 60 years before Habermas’s thinking opens a coherent route to a basis for a universal ‘common good’ based around universal inclusion in democracy, of the type I propose in this essay should form our modern social purpose. Instead, Cole turns back to the matter of the co-ordination of functions between associations with their own chosen functions, and while the paradox of how a pluralist society pulling together in one broad direction is not resolved, this turn to what is doable is of course, valuable in itself.

[4] I use the term ‘capabilities’ here because, while space does not allow a full exposition, I believe there is a large but unrecognized overlap between Habermas’ thinking on democracy and that of Amartya Sen, most noticeably in the latter’s An Idea of Justice, in which he sets out his Social Choice Theory to the fullest extent to date. Social Choice Theory, in its turn, is rooted in Sen’s earlier work on the Capabilities Framework, which (though cynically misunderstood by New Labour’s figures like James Purnell) still offers great insights into how political practices can be developed to enhance freedoms.

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