Towards Civic Capitalism: The Social Quality of Participatory Democracy

The Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) recently launched an initiative for developing a new capitalism to replace the failed Anglo-American neo-liberal model, which the Coalition Government clings to despite the model’s fiscal and moral bankruptcy. This new civic capitalism would emphasise people as citizens within a democratic polity, seeking sustainable and socially just economic growth, rather than the unsustainable consumerism of selfish individualism, socially destructive levels of inequality, and increasing precarity for the majority of people created by the neo-liberal model of capitalism.

This is an ambitious, but timely, proposal. One aspect that Anglo-American capitalism has neglected, but which a civic capitalism requires is a coherent theory of social well-being that goes beyond vulgar utilitarianism (Phillips, 2006). Social quality is a philosophical and evaluative framework that is suitable for a civic model of capitalism (Van der Maesen & Walker, 2012).

Social quality views humans not simply as self-interested individuals competing against one another, but as constituted by the social relationships, institutions and organisations in which they live, work, establish friendships, raise families, grow old, and develop a multitude of collective and individual identities, along with associated freedoms and dependencies. By paying attention to how the social environment in which people live provides the conditions in which individuals can (or can’t) achieve well-being and develop their abilities and capabilities (or don’t develop them), social quality moves the concern with well-being from simplistic economic measures (such as GDP) to a holistic and philosophically more robust understanding of humans as social beings.

A central aspect of social quality theory is social empowerment, which refers to the extent to which participation in social relations can enhance personal capabilities and ability for people to act in society (Herrmann, 2012). My PhD research has explored the relationship between participatory democracy and social empowerment. It suggests that participation in specifically democratic relations in the workplace and in the local community can enhance social quality and may be a practical aspect of whatever form a new civic capitalism takes.

Two case studies provide evidence of this; a democratic co-operative (a business owned and run democratically by its workers) and a local government participatory budgeting initiative (a process in which citizens assume direct democratic power to vote on public spending priorities). Both case studies took place in Northern England and evidence a link between participatory democracy and social empowerment.

Power is decentralised in the worker co-operative by ensuring that an elected management committee acts on the democratic decisions of the 130-strong workforce. The co-op also evidences a strong culture of egalitarianism in the form of equal wages, equal votes and equal opportunities for all workers to develop their skills and experience different job roles. Multiple dimensions of social empowerment can be associated with the democratic structure of the co-op. Open access to financial information and collective control over financial decisions provides security and stability for the co-op members, which also helps to ferment a strong sense of collective identity. In an age of flexible labour markets and precarious jobs, this is a different basis from which workers can develop their abilities and be productive.

By virtue of membership of a democratic workplace, the workers have significant levels of autonomy (as there are no bosses or official hierarchies, this is premised on the principle of self-management), empowered flexibility in work (the opportunity to develop competencies in different areas of the business) and in-work welfare (decent holiday entitlements, the ability to personally shape their own working lives). While the existence of informal hierarchies and wider issues of class roles, education and skills were identified as problems, these are reduced by a democratic structure that decentralises power and increases opportunities for self-development through developing skills and democratic competencies.

A second case study of a local government participatory budgeting initiative also explores social empowerment. This process requires citizens to vote democratically for allocating public money to projects proposed by community groups to enhance well-being in the local area. Although social empowerment is less present here due to the once yearly engagement with participatory democracy, in comparison with the everyday engagement with it in the worker co-op.

Social empowerment in this case study is evidenced in the democratic vote, which encourages people to engage critically with social problems in the local community and proposals to alleviate them, along with encouraging participation in local voluntary and community groups. This has the potential also to increase social cohesion and social inclusion. In addition, empowerment in the form of self-development (increasing the confidence and assertiveness of citizens to formulate and articulate their demands and proposals to directly improve the local area) was present, along with increased awareness of the local community, and the chance for community groups to establish closer working practices.

This research suggests that participatory democracy may be important for social well-being, especially through increasing freedom, equality and solidarity and the capabilities and abilities of people to act. SPERI’s call for work on various fronts towards a new civic capitalism is of fundamental importance for the future of democracy and social well-being in Britain. I would argue that social quality and social empowerment must be at the heart of these proposals, including the deepening of genuinely participatory democratic and egalitarian social relationships in the workplace and local community. This would renew RH Tawney’s (1952, p.38) social democratic desire not for simple equality of incomes, but for equality of life chances and equality of ‘circumstances, institutions and manner of life’ for post-industrial Britain.

References
Herrmann, P. (2012) ‘Social Empowerment’, in Van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Walker, A. (eds.) Social Quality: From Theory to Indicators, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.198-223.

Phillips, D. (2006) Quality of Life: Concept, Policy and Practice, Abingdon: Routledge.

Tawney, R.H. (1952) Equality, London: George Allen & Unwin Limited.

Van der Maesen, L.J.G. & Walker, A. (eds.) (2012) Social Quality from Theory to Indicators, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

By Steven Corbett.
You can find out more about Steve on our contributors page.

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