The Policy and Politics Annual Conference 2015 kicked off with a fascinating challenge to our thinking about democracy and the state. Mark Purcell, from the University of Washington, took us on a philosophical journey of discovery about the true meaning of the word democracy, concluding with the notion that the state and democracy are the antithesis of one another.
Mark offered us what he termed a minor current of thought to haunt our discussions and to stimulate new and better currents of thought throughout the conference. He premised his presentation on the idea that the state and democracy need to be seen as antithesis and that we do indeed need democracy.
The debate about power, according to Mark, is about more than we think it is and we need to think about it differently; we need to think of it as power to rather than over. That is, all people retain power to act into and change the world and they need to use that power to manage their affairs for themselves rather than rely on an abstract body such as the state. The counter view to this is that only the state can save us from ourselves. In this scenario, people having power is seen as a problem, so we need to surrender power to the state and separate people from power. Mark explained that the role of the state is to stop democracy from happening, as people surrender power to that state. The state is not and never can be the same thing as democracy, as we cede our own democratic power to a few to rule over us, with the activity of elections merely succeeding in reinforcing that process.
Using inequality as an example, Mark explained that In a Keynesian welfare state we create redistributive solutions to address inequalities, which moves us away from the active management of affairs by ourselves and gives power to the state to do it for us. Inequality is a vital issue to address but the important point is how we address it. If we were to retain and learn to use our own power rather than cede to the state we could decide what equality means for us and how best to address it. The key question to ask here is whether we really need the state to do it for us and how might it work without the state.
Mark took us through a history of struggles, popular protests and movements to illustrate where people have sought self management and resolved to do things differently, but of course these are only partial solutions. They do however, in Mark’s scenario, provide clear evidence that we desire to become democratic; to discover new capacities, both individually and collectively, to use our own power to decide how best to do things. This requires commitment and effort, and means we have to learn to use our power more effectively. It is this point that we need to hold onto and think about when we are discussing democracy – democracy needs to be seen as a joyous and difficult project involving an open-ended struggle to become democratic.
The presentation raised some interesting questions about our perception of the state and its role in modern society; about how conditioned we may have become to state involvement and intervention and whether or not we need the state for now? I’ll leave you with a couple of questions raised in the debate after the presentation, which I think are pertinent to the overall theme of the conference – power and inequality. Does it matter that we have become alienated from our own power and do we need the state to address issues of inequality? Mark’s presentation provided food for thought about our own perceptions and how we might answer these questions differently if we were to look at democracy as the ability to retain power.