Modest Reasons for Hope

Progress is not inevitable. Elites can maintain their grip on power for centuries.

Citizenship is a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed. There is no universal principle that determines what those rights and duties shall be, but societies in which citizenship is a developing institution create an image of an ideal citizenship against which achievement can be measured and towards which aspiration can be directed. The urge forward along the path thus plotted is an urge towards a fuller measure of equality, an enrichment of the stuff of which the status is made and an increase in the number of those on whom the status is bestowed.

T H Marshall in Citizenship and Social Class

T H Marshall was one of the most important social theorists of the twentieth century. He argued powerfully that the development of the welfare state should be seen as the next logical step in the advancement of citizenship for all. After people had claimed their political rights, in the form of universal suffrage and other civil rights, it was right and inevitable that social rights would be extended to a greater number of people. Ultimately this would drive forward, develop and broaden the extent of citizenship.

Today all of this may seem a pipe dream.

Citizenship is not a resonant idea in modern politics - when it is used it is for ulterior motives - not out of any respect for the idea itself. In 1950 Marshall could look forward to further progress as “democratic socialism” demonstrated its virtues by meeting needs and extending social rights. Today “democratic socialism” seems tarnished and is unlikely to return, at least in that form.

Instead theory is dominated by various of liberalism and by practice is dominated by competing elites and powerful commercial interests. Social rights, especially in the UK, are being radically reduced and being redefined as privileges in the process. For example social care for people with disabilities will have been cut by 33% between 2010 and 2015.

So is there hope?

Progress is not inevitable. Elites can maintain their grip on power for centuries. It is foolish to simply expect a process of positive evolution to bring about a greater commitment to citizenship. In fact, if history teaches us anything both social rights and citizenship require people to demand and, if necessary, fight for them.

Citizenship cannot be gifted by the powerful to the weak.

Nevertheless there are a number of factors that might give us some encouragement.

First, it is noticeable that people don’t tend to stay passive. As the state centralises or commodifies more of its functions then it inevitably will leavs people exploring what it can do within the space that this process creates. This is not, what is called "Big Society". Peer or community groups arise primarily out of a sense of injustice and dissatisfaction (not because they want to please the Prime Minister). They may thereby seek to create practical community-based solutions to problems; they may federate and organise and they may also put pressure on government.

For example, it is interesting to note that in the UK, while the established non-government organisations and big charities have been largely silent on the severe impact of government policy (perhaps because they themselves are so dependent on public funding or desire closer relationships with political elites) new disability groups are emerging and seeking to find new ways of working together. It is far too early to call this a success, but when leaders don’t lead, new leaders tend to emerge.

Second, there is a fundamental and growing social and economic problem which will continue to dog the political system - its inability to generate the kind of deeper solutions that foster citizenship, sustainability and broader forms of enriching productivity. Elites can promote ‘bread and circuses’ but they cannot build civilisations. Moreover, if our basic technical competence continues to grow (it takes fewer and fewer people simply to do the basic things necessary for us to live) then more and more people will become hungry for something better than consumerism and debt.

Third, there continue to be important points of moral leadership in civil society which offer a different vision of things. In the past religious leaders have often played a critical role in pushing society forward. Moreover the increasingly international nature of modern society may be helpful. It is fascinating to see what a powerful document the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is. If its principles were taken seriously then much of the current welfare settlement would look very different.

Finally there is perhaps the hope that some of our leaders themselves will begin to sense the vanity of ruling without citizenship. As Hannah Arendt often observes, to rule over others is inhuman, it puts you outside the equalising space in which you can be recognised as an equal yourself and where you can act without force. Perhaps there will arise some sense that the job of the leader is to enable citizenship, that this would not only be more productive for the whole of society, it would also be so more personally fulfilling for leaders themselves.

In the famous funeral oratory of Pericles we get the sense that leaders don’t have to apsire to tyranny or elitism. They can take pride in equality, citizenship and a community that makes that possible:

Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people's feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deepest respect.

Pericles, cited by Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian Wars

Whatever our leaders do we must become the kind of citizens who do not need the best kind of leaders in order to thrive. But may, just may be, some of our leaders will wake up to discover that deceit, manipulation and control - in the service of nothing but power and money - is hardly worth waking up for. May be some of our leaders may begin to recognise the deeper hunger - in all of us - for lives of meaning and equal respect.