27 May 2014

Big Ideas on Democracy in an age of Individualism

When Big Ideas works well it gets me thinking and that can take time, which is why I am writing this almost a month after the event!

The person inspiring my thinking was is Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London and the talk he gave to spark our discussion was on themes covered in his recent book Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism.

I have taken a slightly different approach to my write-up this time as there was an structure to this discussions that we leapt around and I want to record the talk, comments and my conclusions within this structure rather than as a chronology, which is how I took my notes originally (I do not use things like mind-maps).

This means that none of what follows can be attributed to any source and if anything is horribly wrong then that is almost certainty my fault and not Jeremy's.

Individuals v Groups

We spent quite a bit of time talking about the nature of Homo Sapiens and to what extent we are naturally individuals or social animals and we even argued over the neuroscience.

I think it is fair to say that man can be both depending on circumstances and will move between these two states frequently, i.e. several times a day.

Some political systems are based on individuals (neo-liberalism) or groups (communism) and try to force people more into one of these two camps. For example, Conservatives in the UK have reduced the power of Trade Unions and introduced Personal Pensions.

The UK and USA have swung heavily towards individualism since Thatcher/Reagan and this needs to be rebalanced with active support for co-operatives (better for consumers) and trade unions (better for employees).


The strength of democracy is determined by how close we are to decision making and how frequently we are involved.

In the most direct form of democracy people make the decision. We are more used to representative democracy where we vote for a person who then makes all the decisions on our behalf. In more extreme cases, such as the President of the EU Commission, we vote for people who then vote for a person who will make the decisions and we are twice removed from the decision making.

We now have fixed-term parliaments in the UK with elections every 5 years. That means that an average person will get to vote for an MP about a dozen times only.

Local elections are better as there are more votes (usually 2 or 3 candidates are elected for each area) and the votes happen more often, usually every 4 years. That could be around 50 chances to mark a cross on a piece of paper in a lifetime.

Group democracy

Bringing the two themes above together asks the question of how democracy should work with individuals and groups.

At one extreme there is the X-Factor scenario where people vote as individuals based entirely on individual preferences and with almost no input from peers. At the other is the panel (or board) where a topic is discussed in detail and each person contributes to the debate and the joint decision.

Out side of the Labour Movement, e.g. Trade Unions, politics is mostly treated as an individual process and any debate happens in the media rather than the home or community.

Does democracy work?

Democracy is generally accepted as a good thing but we do nothing to measure or ensure its health. For example, one researcher recently classified the USA as an oligarchy rather than a democracy because of the way that campaign spending is now unrestricted and gerrymandering is an accepted fact of life.

We generally vote for one thing and get another yet political parties are not directly held to account for this. They have to stand by their record at the next election but there is no independent assessment of the promises kept and broken.


We need to have many more debates like this on the nature and purpose of democracy otherwise the powerful will continue to modify it to suit them rather than us.

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