Anarchy 103/Thoughts on 'participation'

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Thoughts on ‘participation’


A few months ago I heard a Cabinet Minister, Mrs. Judith Hart, address an audience of student-teachers on the subject of “participation”, and what struck me most about her lecture, was that it exemplified the fact that democracy—as an ideal—has now largely been forgotten by politicians. The type of democracy the Minister had in mind was not “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, but rather the existing electoral procedure rejuvenated. For what is obviously worrying contemporary politicians is not the undemocratic nature of the present system, but the fact that decisions from above are now being questioned by the populace, by students, by workers, even by the ordinary housewife when, to her surprise, she finds that the council is about to push a road through her back garden. What the rulers are anxiously seeking is not so much improved democratic procedures, but increased means of legitimizing their present powers and modes of decision.   The British process of government has long been seen (with some contentment) as a complex web of conflicting pressures—involving interest groups, politicians and bureaucrats—from which there emerges (God knows how) a social and economic programme reflecting the interests and wishes of the majority. Some, displaying what C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination” view the contemporary political scene with more exacting scrutiny, and have noted the tendency of this process to crystallise around an elite—a faceless, anonymous power grouping about whom the public knows little and controls even less. The picture of British society as one in which power is held and wielded by a select few and centralised into a system of “organised irresponsibility” may be regarded as overdrawn, but no one can fail to have been struck by its undemocratic nature, if by “democratic” we mean the process whereby every individual participates in the formulation of values
and procedures regulating the community in which he lives.
(The sentiments, significantly, are those of John Dewey.) For most citizens there is no such participation, even at the most mundane level. Moreover, the widespread belief, perpetuated by most people in authority, that administrators go through a lengthy procedure of consultation before any social plan or policy is put into effect, is largely a myth. This myth is now being exploded daily by ordinary people, and it was salutary to hear Mrs. Hart admit as much, although she dodged the question as to whether administrators should take an active role in making known their plans before decisions are made. One was tempted to ask whether the ordinary citizen should, in fact, join administrators in MAKING the actual decisions, but perhaps this notion would have sounded too revolutionary!

  An incisive query by a member of the audience, questioning whether the Labour Party itself could be considered “democratic”, went largely unanswered. But then we could hardly expect a Minister of the Crown to admit that her party was a concrete example of the “iron law of oligarchy” whereby an organisation comes to be controlled by an elite power grouping that has largely freed itself from the dictates of rank and file members. The significance of her lecture for me lay, not so much in what was said, but in what was implied or evaded by the lecturer. It was implied, for instance, that informed opinion was given by the mass media, and that open discussion was encouraged by the government. But this just isn’t true, and on issues of crucial imporance to the lives of every one of us, the government policy is one of obfuscation. The entire sequence of decisions concerning nuclear power and the researches into germ and chemical warfare has been made without any public debate, and even the facts themselves—needed for such a debate—have been deliberately hidden from the people, or distorted or lied about by the government. Perhaps the most lucid comment on Nixon’s visit to Britain was contatined in a letter to the Guardian which mentioned the “undemocratic inanities of the ritual” and the fact that “these two dull grey men, with their determined smiles on the steps of Number 10, were about to discuss our destiny without any reference at all to us—the people. …”

  Again, it was implied that decisions in our society are made by parliament. Yet surely one of the most significant facts of our time is that the House of Commons has become, in terms of decision-making, of secondary importance. As Ralf Dahrendorf writes, “The governments of Western societies are often mere switchboards of authority; decisions are made not by them but through them.”

  A final point overlooked by Mrs. Hart was the fact that even representative government (the minimal definition of democracy) has been jettisoned, for, in order to keep abreast with technological and social change, a large sector of “government” has fallen into the hands of bureaucrats, quasi-administrators and semi-autonomous agencies, who represent no one but themselves (or their class) and who are not, except through a long chain of political command, answerable to the people in any way.

  The recent attacks on the trade union movement—by the press and the government, the notion advanced that a planned economy leads automatically to more individual freedom, and the fact that concepts like the “corporate state” are nowadays bandied about quite freely by politicians, should be warning lights not that we are on the move towards more “participation” but rather the reverse.