Friday
May062011

We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.

Walt Whitman, ‘Democratic Vistas’ 


Democracy lies dormant, yet
even in slumber the term ‘citizen’ retains a sense of wonder. To act as a citizen is to give expression to an egalitarian ideal; to be civic-minded is to be conscious of the influence of individual action. This manifesto sets out to sketch the central tenets of citizenship, and outline some of the barriers to greater civic participation. The approach taken is suggestive rather than prescriptive, in the belief that behaviour is not codified in law but cultivated by those ‘habits of the heart’ that are formed by our environment and our ethics.

The citizens of a modern nation state inhabit a domain of instant connection, and yet we feel disconnected, as if bypassed by the central networks of power. Ours is a life once removed, with a diminished sense of civic space; of a realm in which individuals declare a public interest, and recognise each other as citizens. The concept of democracy as a shared project has been supplanted by an outlook that roots human motivation in the drive for competition, and speaks of ‘the individual and society’ as if they are in opposition. This vision nurtures an attitude of mutual suspicion, and explains how a society of such achievement can have become so sceptical about its potential. The ‘cynical chic’ of recent fashion is a cloying syrup that seeps into every pore of the body politic, weakening the sinews and sapping the spirit. As we attempt to revive the social ethic, it is worth heeding the advice of an anonymous citizen: “Let’s leave pessimism for better times”.

Citizenship is a common script that unifies the dialects of distinct identity. Its ability to cohere society is dependent on a universal standard of civic literacy, one that is impaired by persistent disparities in education, health and wealth. In many parliamentary democracies, divisions are exacerbated by a political class that – contrary to its rhetoric – remains deeply suspicious of the electorate. An environment conducive to civic association would require a radical redistribution of power, away from the present model of market-based centralisation, which stems, paradoxically, from a mistrust of both the state and the individual. By deferring decision making to the market, and implementation of policy to remote managers, ‘liberal’ capitalism has hollowed out the public sphere, dismantling the infrastructure of social democracy and stripping away the sites of civic communion. This settlement has devalued the bonds of trust that are the currency of civic exchange – a deficit that creates and perpetuates incivility, and casts doubt over the possibility of reciprocal relations. If we are to forge a civic identity, it is necessary first to raise our estimation of the capacity of individuals to become critical and creative citizens. Only by doing this can the conditions be laid for a ‘civic awakening’ to transform the life of democracy.

The rise of authoritarian capitalism in former Communist states brings into sharp focus the choice facing our faltering democracy: between an approach that facilitates agency – and demands that citizens engage actively – and one that restricts it, and requires it to be negated. In the repressive model, individuals cash in their rights as citizens for their freedoms as consumers, becoming subjects to ‘easy’ servitude, having been denied a more fulfilling form of civic liberty. The values of our current culture may point in this direction, but such a focus on material enrichment cannot meet the social and spiritual needs of an increasingly atomised society. Instead of nurturing the citizen’s capacity for empathy, consumer culture infantilises him, keeping him ‘in perpetual childhood’. This form of paternalism weans the individual to his own desire: muted as a citizen, he seeks to express himself as a consumer, only to become trapped in a downward spiral driven by dissatisfaction and the desire for instant gratification. As consumerism inflates the ego, it stunts the imagination: its ideology of individualism has been more effective at stifling individuality than any culture of conformity, in part because it has appropriated almost every mode of rebellion. Indeed, so much of our creative energies are channelled into consumption that it has become difficult even to imagine other ways of being. (Herein lies the paradox of egalitarianism: that equality of condition leads to greater diversity of expression). To refuse participation in the unending race for acquisition is not a turning away from the world, but an unveiling of it, to see it and its inhabitants in harmony.

The evolution of a civic consciousness calls for a transition from consumer democracy to civic democracy, from an approach that mimics the market to one that places choice in an ethical framework. At present, individuals are consumers of public policy, not participants in shaping it; they are polled on their opinions but have no involvement in setting the questions or shaping the terms of debate. Subsequently, their role is two dimensional – they can choose whether to ‘buy’ or not – and ultimately passive, particularly in an environment so heavily mediated by a commercial fourth estate. In contrast, civic democracy is deliberative and active – it asks of, rather than just asks – informed by the knowledge that citizens themselves are transformed through political engagement. Whereas consumer democracy is rooted in the inherent inequality of the market, civic democracy works from the premise that citizens are equal partners; and that as we differ in consumer tastes, we share civic aspirations – for clean, green public spaces, good quality local services, a rich and diverse cultural life. At the heart of this transformation is the creation of a civic culture, one that is elevating, experimental and born of high expectations. Above all, a civic culture is a culture of recognition, in that its core ethic is interdependence. It places civic contribution ahead of private accumulation, a matter not simply of remuneration – teachers, for example, receive a reward that cannot be quantified solely in material terms – but of how we value work and give meaning to it. Crucially, this culture recognises that a chasm in fortunes compromises every citizen; and that the hidden face of suffering could well have been, and could well be, our own.

A manifesto must be made manifest if it is to justify its ambition, and this one requires completion and revision through the practice of civic action. The latest struggle for citizenship may be the most challenging to date, as the obstacles are embedded into our everyday lives, the products of habit and uncritical inheritance. Sceptics argue that the destiny of democracy has been scripted already, that its star is in eclipse and that it is the fate of this generation to play out its final acts. Yet this underestimates the appeal of the civic ideal – to marry the ‘good life’ with the ‘common good’ – and our willingness to undertake, and even to have an appetite for, difficult tasks. Economic Man, with his narrow calculation and rugged self-preservation, is incapable of mapping the breadth of human ambition. Emerging from his shadow is a nobler form of being: Civic Man, a social animal who sees a world beyond the self. This recognition of our common-wealth can awaken the civic imagination; born of the realisation that the ‘art of living’ is achieved not in isolation but with and for others – in a society that dares to be true to the word ‘Democracy’, and whose citizens enact it every day.

Benjamin Ramm
London
Spring 2011