The Constitutional Turn: Liberty and the Cooperative State

An ambitious policy agenda for change is taking shape on the left in both Britain and the United States. But so far the structure of the state has not featured prominently in proposals for reform.

This piece was commissioned by the Democracy Collaborative in Washington, DC as part of its Next System Project and is reproduced here with permission. The original is online here.

If you don’t like state socialism and you don’t like corporate capitalism, what do you want?
Gar Alperovitz


The English-speaking left has long tended to neglect questions of constitutional design. The dominant Labourist and Social Democratic currents (including American left-liberalism) have focused on securing material benefits for the working class through the institutions of the existing state. The junior, but still influential, revolutionary Marxist tradition treats the state as a fortification to be stormed. Big government alternates uneasily with the withering away of the state.1

But there is more to the left than fiscal redistribution or revolution. In what follows I argue for making the state a site for radical reform. The aim is to flesh out an account of a possible socialist commonwealth that takes full account of its political dimension—the extent to which national economies are produced and reproduced by the state.2 The left’s “institutional turn” extends from the economy to the state and becomes a “constitutional turn.”

I do not propose far-reaching constitutional change in Britain or the United States3 because the current arrangements are irrational or anachronistic.4 On the contrary, these arrangements are, for the most part, rational and frighteningly up-to-date. Monopoly, rent-seeking and debt expansion are made possible by the prevailing state form. Steep inequality and relations of manipulation in the state are reflected in the corporate sector. Attempts to establish a cooperative and egalitarian economy without far-reaching changes to the structure of the state are highly unlikely to succeed. This does not necessarily mean that America must redraft its written constitution, or that Britain must, finally, submit itself to one. But it does mean we need to develop a constitutional imagination.

Doing so means stripping away the obscurity and confusion about the state created by time, technological change and elite chicanery. For example, the current state architecture hands day-to-day control of money creation, and hence of the distribution of effective demand in much of the economy, to privileged institutions in the private sector. This arrangement contributes directly to steepening inequality and to patterns of development that generate human and environmental catastrophe. A core function of the state has been hived off and rendered almost entirely enigmatic. Bank lending flows into asset purchases and the public are left to wonder at the speculative bubbles that foam up impressively in an otherwise stagnant economy. Similarly, a minority of private individuals and public officials have captured the public mechanisms that convert geographical space into land. The funding of research and development by the state takes place out of sight and tracks the needs of favoured insiders. Public investments are routinely converted into private profit centres.

The majority takes on ever more debt to secure access to housing and a rising share of our income is taken by interest and payments for basic services.5 Demand for luxury goods becomes ever more ferocious while the majority experience stagnant or declining living standards.6 Much of what we call “the economy” is made up of pseudo-markets in which the state confers coercive powers on its favoured partners. Money and land are treated as simple commodities when they are anything but. We must pay those who have captured the process by which they are created, or face ruin.

Safeguarding the monstrous triplets of interest, land rent and monopoly is a system of communications that methodically excludes the public as a body capable of discovering and refining its opinions over time. As we shall see, this exclusion in the United States was deliberate and was intended to limit the power of popular constituencies relative to representatives and holders of wealth. In both countries, we depend on elected officials and the rich to organize public speech on our behalf. Not surprisingly, the temptation for politicians and billionaire media owners to collude is all but irresistible. Both sides tolerate the presumption and hypocrisy of the other as the price they pay for their own, unforgivable, eminence.

If we are to change all this we must take seriously the material consequences of state structures, and of the speech and silence that surround them and give them form. More than this, we need to design institutions that establish meaningful democratic oversight and control over the state’s conduct. And in this respect it is vital to grasp the significance of any given distribution of knowledge as it relates to credit, property and the communications system itself. How can a reforming administration counter the threat of a “capital strike” if we do not understand that financial capital can be replaced at will by a central bank? How can it house its people if we remain innocent of the wiles of the landowner-credit combine that drip-feeds the supply of housing and drives up prices?7

Arguing for a constitutional turn is not a matter of idealism. The simple expansion of an unreformed state to secure progressive ends is not straightforwardly appealing to those whose encounters with that state are often fraught and sometimes frightening. This is something the right has always understood and exploited, often to great effect, as in the Thatcher-Reagan era, when anti-government rhetoric resonated powerfully with at least some working-class and middle-class voters. A programme to democratise the state, to render it both more comprehensible and more responsive to popular constituencies, will make the left more electorally appealing, especially as the material consequences of such a programme become clear.

In the absence of a constitutional programme, social democrats can seem like well-meaning aristocrats, who seek to use the existing state form as an instrument of uplift for the masses. Either they propose universal benefits that, in the main circuits of communication, will be represented as a threat to the dynamism of the private sector, or they offer policies “targeted” at “the most vulnerable” that promise little in the way of immediate benefit to the mass of the population. Either way, their willingness to work within the terms of the prevailing order transforms them from representatives of the majority of the population into an estate of the realm, somewhat more important than the charities, but junior to the parties of property and the conservative common sense. They are content to submit polite requests for a slightly larger piece of the pie on behalf of those who have a good claim to all of it.

A focus on state reform along the lines set out here will allow the left to set aside its reputation for paternalistic condescension. Proposals to supplement the institutional array of the state tap into, and help articulate, a widespread longing for liberation from abusive employment, from oppressive debts, from insecurity and from the psychological warfare that presents itself as news and entertainment.

One of the most consequential fictions offered up in the circuits of widely disseminated speech is the idea that constitutional design is distinct from, and somehow less significant than, bread-and-butter issues of redistribution. The bailout of the banks in 2007-2008 should have alerted us to the state’s role in determining who gets bread and butter, and how much. State structures determine how property and money are brought into existence as social facts, how knowledge about these and related matters is distributed, and hence who wields power and amasses wealth. Only a new model state will enable the left to deliver fully on its promises to improve material conditions for the majority.8

The state now presides over a radically different regime of communications, credit and property than that envisaged at the Philadelphia Convention.9 These three elements must be brought back under the supervision and ultimate control of the public if we are to make good on our ambitions to live in a democracy. In what follows I discuss some of the principles and institutions of state design that were central to the pre-modern political imagination and to the lived experience of classical democracy.10 I then set out how these institutions and principles might contribute to the design of a more egalitarian, and more fully democratic state. It ends with some remarks on how the community wealth-building movement presents us with an opportunity to make the design of a democratic state a matter of general deliberation.

Domination and the Right to Liberty

I have already noted some of the practical advantages for the left of bringing the state into play as a site for radical transformation. Instead of a state that interferes in the productive economy in order to bankroll its pet schemes, as in the conservative caricature, the reformed state acts openly and frankly to create and replace markets in accordance with the decisions of a free people. As this implies, the constitutional turn requires the left to reclaim the language of freedom from its reactionary enemies. And so it is to freedom that we now turn.

We tend to use the word freedom in quite a specific sense. For the most part, we understand it as the absence of interference. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, “a free-man is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to doe what he has a will to do.’11 Hobbes himself tried to offer a purely materialist account of freedom, in which only the behaviour of matter in motion would be needed to account for the concept.12 His followers have pretty much given up on this ambition but they usually allow only the most immediate and apparently substantial psychological states into their account of what it means to be unfree. In Henry Sidgewick’s words, we are free if we act without “physical coercion or confinement” or menaces that threaten us with “painful consequences.’13 This runs counter to the account of freedom set out in Roman law. In this tradition, freedom is contrasted with slavery. Slaves are those who are “within the power” of someone else (in aliena potestate sunt, in the words of the Digest of Roman law).14 If we are in someone’s else power, they can interfere at will in our affairs, even if they choose not to. They relate to us as a dominus, a dominating master. They don’t have to exert psychological influence over us, or control us physically, as long as they have the power to do so. As we shall see, we do not even need to know that someone is able to interfere in our thoughts or actions for them to achieve mastery over us.

In this way of thinking about liberty the key issue is not the quantity of interference, but its quality. We can experience interference and remain free, so long as the interference is not arbitrary and we consent to it in some meaningful sense; lawful authority is not the same as aliena potestas.15 Similarly, if we experience no actual interference but are vulnerable to it at the whim of someone else, we are substantially unfree. From this point of view, it is not coherent to claim that the individual can be free even if they live in an authoritarian or even dictatorial regime. The form of the state is crucial since, as Quentin Skinner puts it, “if you live under any form of government that allows for the exercise of prerogative or discretionary powers, you will already be living as a slave.”16

The idea that a line extends from left to right, from equality to liberty, is disrupted by this notion of freedom. Highly regulated societies can enjoy something approaching a perfect liberty if everyone subject to the regulations consents to them, and they are applied in a non-arbitrary way. And as we shall see, low levels of physical violence and coercive intimidation can radically reduce our freedom if they are applied arbitrarily, especially if they supplemented by opportunities for interference that escape our conscious awareness. For while the legally acknowledged power of a Roman master over a slave was in principle absolute, this does not exhaust the possibilities for relations of domination.

The existing constitutional order does little to secure our freedom in the sense of undominated existence. As citizens we do not enjoy a right to productive land and resources, income, or housing. Most of us therefore depend on our employers for subsistence and often have little or no protection if they decide to treat us unjustly. Nor is there any rule-bound way to ensure that our social standing correlates with service to the community. If we seek public status we are at the mercy of intermediaries who can act capriciously to deny us the good reputation that our fellow citizens might otherwise be glad to grant us. Meanwhile, both public authorities and private magnates can meddle in our lives in quite arbitrary ways, whether they choose to do so or not.17

The republic is the state form that seeks to secure for its citizens the right to liberty as freedom from domination. It works on the understanding that only citizens of a free state can be free; the right to liberty is an individual right that entails a form of the state. In a democratic republic every adult is a citizen and formal political equality is given substance by our equal ownership of the state. Making good on this right requires powers to shape the consequential discussions that surround and make sense of the state, and to speak out against efforts at domination.18 Even if this individual right entails a set of unfamiliar collective institutions we should not forget that it is a right.19

As long as we depend on the arbitrary will of another for our subsistence then it is hard to claim that we are free. While some of us would be able to find alternative employment in the event of our being dismissed, or of leaving a job after being harassed or otherwise mistreated, some would struggle, and some would suffer substantial harm. We cannot know for sure in advance which category we fall into. This suggests that welfare payments or alternative forms of employment ought to be available as of right, not only for the benefit of those who find themselves without work but to protect all workers from the insults and injustices of their employers. It further suggests that workers have a right to organize to reduce their vulnerability to arbitrary power in the workplace. Indeed, a fully achieved democratic republic would want to establish workplace democracy in an economy where individuals could always secure independent access to the means of subsistence.20

This general right to be free from domination has implications for the extent and nature of state activity. Without a general right to healthcare we are not free to decide whether to take a job, or to leave it. The overwhelming need to cover existing conditions, or to secure treatment for dependents, or to hedge against future risks, will make us vulnerable to pressure from our employers that need not ever be stated to be real. Here we can see the limitations of the liberal tradition’s attempt to understand unfreedom in terms of physical interference and coercive threats. Given that we are all vulnerable to sickness and injury, if we know that effective treatments can be withheld from us if we lack material means, we are in a significant sense unfree since we are compelled to “freely” choose a condition of dependence.21

Drawing on the Roman account of liberty, Philip Pettit claims that the power to interfere arbitrarily in the life of another is usually recognised as such by both parties. The resources used, financial power, political office, social connections and so on, “tend to be prominent and detectable,” such that “where one person has any dominating power over another, in virtue of an inequality of such resources, it is a matter of common knowledge that that is so.’22 But he acknowledges that this is not always the case:

The exception is the case where one person or group is in a position to exercise backroom manipulation, whether manipulation of the options, manipulation of the expected payoffs, or manipulation of the actual payoffs. […] Where domination is achieved by such means, it will not be a matter of common knowledge, unlike most other cases, that in this respect some people fall under the power of others.23

It would be a mistake to treat manipulation as a marginal deviation from the ordinary explicitness of relations of arbitrary power. Manipulation is different in kind from arbitrary interference that is understood as such by those who experience it. In its pure form it is not a threat of hostilities or open aggression; it is a state of war in which one party does not know that hostilities have begun. The mere possibility that we are being dominated in this way ought to be a pressing, perhaps the overriding, concern for anyone who aspires to be free.24

Even when domination is experienced consciously by both author and object, neither necessarily understands it as such. Victims (and indeed perpetrators) can be manipulated into thinking that their condition is natural, inevitable, or a justifiable consequence of personal vices or virtues—and that therefore the interference is not arbitrary. Something like this can be seen in the dogma surrounding contract law, where an individual whose life would disintegrate without paid work is treated as the equal of a corporation commanding effectively limitless resources.

Manipulation is on hand to protect other forms of arbitrary power in a political system that, at least in theory, offers redress through civic action. People will not mobilise against more obvious forms of domination if they have been persuaded to view them as incorrigible facts of life. And there are immediate rewards from being manipulated, even if our being manipulated reduces the chance of a bigger reward later. It is a kind of comfort for the restive worker to believe that there is no alternative to the existing order. But this belief can make political agitation seem like a waste of time. Racism and sexism offer a taste of dominating power, even though they make building coalitions against a shared domination far more difficult. The persuasiveness of a manipulative approach is entangled in the pleasures it affords.

Manipulation does not only bear down on the powerless. Elected officials and civil servants are subject to enormous efforts at corrupt persuasion. Moreover, those who are not themselves manipulated directly can nevertheless become its victims. Once large numbers of citizens have been deceived into thinking that a given course of action is impossible or would be disastrous, their false beliefs will limit our political options, regardless of our beliefs and preferences. And of course, it is always possible that we have been manipulated into believing things that radically limit the options of others. For example, we don’t have to be misinformed about events in the world, if we are misinformed about what other people think about those events. I might grasp the significance of the threat of climate change but also be manipulated into thinking that most people are indifferent. This will tend to discourage me from seeking to build a consensus for the kinds of interventions in the productive process that become more urgent with every passing year.

Successful manipulation by its nature escapes detection, at least for a time. But despite its self-effacement, we have ample evidence that it takes place on a vast scale.25 If we draw the sensible inference, that the attempts we see constitute only a fraction of the total, manipulation is not just a particular and unusual kind of domination. It is an enabling context that prepares us for, and reconciles us to, a much more general unfreedom. Indeed, it seems likely that the current political and economic settlement, best described as a kind of impersonal feudalism, only survives thanks to an ongoing and pervasive process of manipulation. We cannot dismiss the possibility that we are in the grip of invisible powers, especially since most of us live in an arrangement of money-credit and land that we do not understand, and that delivers much of our lifetime income to people we will never meet.26

The general right to freedom from domination entails a range of subsidiary rights, some of which I have described above.27 It also entails a form of the state that protects the citizen from manipulation and other, more explicit, types of domination. In the next two sections I will set out some of the institutional features of this state. I begin with the systems of communications, since a citizen body that is not conversant with itself and lacks defined powers of oversight and censure will sooner or later be manipulated into a more general condition of dependence.

Reviving the Assembly

How then are we to address the problem of manipulation? Given how pervasive it is in modern systems of government, we should perhaps begin by considering it differs from its ancient prototypes. James Madison, the subtlest and most insightful of the framers of the federal constitution, was in no doubt. Writing in the spring of 1788 he explained that:

[…] the principle of representation was neither unknown to the ancients nor wholly overlooked in their political constitutions. The true distinction between these and the American governments lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter, and not in the total exclusion of the representatives of the people from the administration of the former.28

In Britain and the United States today the assembled citizenry has no formal powers. Each citizen enjoys the power to vote for representatives, but assembly, which had been both the sovereign political authority in Athens and its apex communicative form, does not exist as a state institution. Given the role that mediated communications play in successful manipulation, the significance of this “true distinction” cannot be overstated. The absence of the assembly from the constitutional repertoire means that we have tended not to think about it and its significance for programmes of modern reform. Central to our concerns is the excavation of a principle that was central to the operations of classical democracy and has been all but obliterated in contemporary political thought: isegoria.

The word isegoria literally means “equality in the assembly.” At the beginning of each session, an official would ask “who wants to speak?” and every citizen had the same right to do so. The principle that all citizens could take a turn in presenting information and arguments to the citizen body was central to what the Greeks meant when they talked about the Athenian system of government. Herodotus uses the word when trying to account for Athens’ victories over Persia’s universal monarchy.29 Later, Polybius invokes it when explaining the success of the Achaean League in the final years of Greek independence:

It seems to me that the reason is that one would be hard put to find equality in speech [isegoria] and the right to speak one’s mind in assembly [parrhesia]—in short, the system and principles of true democracy—in a purer form than among the Achaeans.30

As far as Madison was concerned, the exclusion of the people “in their collective capacity” was a good thing since direct democracy is structurally doomed to collapse into chaos: “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”31

We now know what a system characterised by representation unchecked by assembly looks like. In America, the pressure to rationalise and regiment public opinion for the purposes of national expansion has led to a substantial integration of the security state and the major media operations. Military technology bleeds into civilian use, along with the state-of-the-art in persuasion techniques. Economic development and planning, directed from the centre, have privileged large corporations over cooperatives, family farms and small businesses, and promoted the suburbs over the self-governing small towns and cities. All this tends to undermine the informal culture of political association that was so striking to Alexis de Tocqueville and that now struggles to survive outside the heartbreaking historical reenactments of the New Hampshire primaries.

Apart from occasional spasms of attention, as in post-Watergate America, this condominium of intelligence agencies and corporate interests in the economy and the media passes largely unremarked in the representative institutions of the state. Elected politicians mostly know to leave this zone of social silence well alone when they are not enthusiastically working to enhance their status within it. In Britain, if anything, the decay is even more pronounced. A lavishly funded public broadcaster takes its cues from hard-right newspapers. In both countries, the electorate could all be philosophers and would still struggle to understand, much less change, their circumstances. Political mobilisation against the elite consensus in Parliament and Congress and their auxiliaries in the media is still possible, but it is punishingly difficult.

Attempts to revive the assembly sooner or later run into a familiar objection. The assembly form is all very well in a city-state of a few tens of thousands of citizens supported by slave labour. But it cannot possibly operate at the national level in an ordinarily populous industrial state like the United Kingdom, let alone in a continental power like the United States.32 While plausible on its face, this conflates the administrative and communicative functions of the assembly. We do not need to preside over all the details of government. But we do need to be able to shape public speech in ways that are independent of those who possess office or wealth. Unless we can speak to one another as equals and develop ideas and bodies of knowledge without open or secret interference from political or economic superiors, we will not be able to coordinate successfully against oligarchic power.

The practical revival of the communicative assembly consists in this; the allocation of resources on an egalitarian basis to support the production of effectually public speech. This is the most direct way to revive isegoria, understood as equality in public speech. In concrete terms this would require that the constitution guarantee each citizen a sum of money to spend as they wish on journalism, research and analysis, as well as on the publications and communication platforms that organize and share information.

The sum available to each citizen ought to have an objective quality, so that it can be calculated annually in such a way as to maintain a proper balance between the democratic voice and the combined efforts of corporate public relations, lobbying, advertising and media production. If we say that a thousand citizens ought to be able to support the work of one communications worker at a median wage, then in the UK this would require the annual amount would to be set at around £26.5 per citizen in the first year, for a total of £1.325 billion. This would allow a town with 50,000 adult residents to support a local news cooperative as well as independent investigative reporters working the same beat and academics with research interests that are useful to local decision-making, while also contributing to national and transnational publications and projects.33

This money would flow to individual researchers and journalists, to companies and cooperatives in ways that can’t be predicted in advance. But it would be possible for citizens to support investigative journalism in areas where the existing editorial culture is hesitant or hostile—pre-eminently investigations into the corporate and political sectors and the links between them. Freed from structural vulnerability to advertisers and elected officials, the journalist would be, in quite a precise sense, a public servant. The money could also support a media production sector in which design, animation, videography and other disciplines would serve the communicative needs of the public.

At least as important as this discretionary spend by individuals and self-organizing groups is the maintenance of a shared platform where citizens can share journalism they fund with others, discuss its significance (or otherwise), and plan further courses of action. In the model outlined here, the same platforms used to allocate funds would be used as a central location for publishing the results. We would share stories and discoveries we found interesting as we currently do on Facebook and Twitter but we would do so in an environment that was transparent about its treatment of material. The technology would be subject to general oversight and any algorithms used would be open to discussion and revision.34 Each of us would have some defined power to raise the profile of particular pieces of work on this shared platform, and perhaps push it onto public broadcasting channels.35 This platform would protect people’s anonymity where appropriate, and so allow groups that are subject to disproportionate hostility an opportunity to develop collective forms of knowledge that can then be shared more widely. The number of people engaged on the platform would compel the attention of those who hold, or aspire to hold, public office. It becomes a space where democratic desires are discovered and refined in close proximity to the institutions of government.

The communicative assembly thus brought into being does not need to meet en masse. Modern technology means that the work of commissioning and assessing publicly significant speech can be undertaken by each of us in our own time. But the possession of this equally distributed power becomes an inducement to political sociability. Instead of being corralled into a separate demographics by and for expert manipulators, we can discover ourselves as citizens of the same, communicative republic. The virtual assembly generates countless online and face-to-face assemblies that range from a conversation with a friend to constitutionally sophisticated groups organized by geography, identity, class interest, and so on.36

While Madison thought that the people should prevail over their rulers when motivated by “justice and the general good,”37 he was terrified at the thought of national majorities possessed by “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”38 In a system that revives democratic assembly in modern conditions, no such protection for the propertied is possible. As Madison himself noted with something approaching panic, “a communication and concert results from the form of government itself.”39 Property itself again becomes an object of general deliberation, whether it take the form of simple possession, or the much more elaborate forms of ownership recognised by the modern state.

The alienation of the people from decision-making, their dependence on elected representatives and the wealthy for political information, their permanent exclusion from the production of public speech, and hence from the substance of the state, are challenged in important ways by the establishment of a communicative assembly along the lines proposed here. Manipulation remains possible, and must always remain possible, but the means to expose and defeat it are much closer at hand. And this power to challenge domination at its most subtle and potent can also be directed at its most visible and artless forms.

Articulating Democratic Power

The revival of isegoria as a central, indeed defining, feature of functioning democracy has important implications for the structure of communications. The aim is to restore the communicative functions of the classical assembly in large states where mediation is unavoidable. To be clear, this means making each citizen equally able to make themselves audible in such a way that their concerns, interests and claims become and remain matters of public business. This is not a simple question of giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak.40 It requires that we all have an equal power to shape the contents of public speech.

But if we want to democratise the constitution, more is required than equality in speech. In Athens most public offices were filled by random selection, from a pool that included all citizens. I want to explain now why I think that a state aspiring to be democratic should inscribe equality-for-office at every level of administration and in every category of its operations. The idea is not to do away with elections. Some offices require technical abilities or experience and election does not seem like a terrible way of filling them, even if at times it is hard to imagine a worse person for an elected office than the person holding it. But it does not follow that public office should be monopolised by those who, for whatever reason, manage to win an election. Indeed, if representation is to retain its authority, it will have to be supplemented by more properly democratic institutional forms.41

There are three related ways in which selection-by-lot (“sortition”) seems particularly promising. The first we might characterise as articulating the assembly; the second, the invigilation of elites; the third, instruction of the individual in government.

Modern advocates of sortition sometimes emphasise the role it can play in improving elite decision-making.42 It’s true that randomly selected panels can provide elected officials with important information about what “ordinary people” think. They can even provide novel forms of analysis and insight. Political thought from Aristotle onwards has noted that “the many” can make better judgments than “the few”:

For even where there are many people, each has some share of virtue and practical wisdom; and when they are brought together, just as in the mass they become as it were one man with many pairs of feet and hands and many senses, so also do they become one in regard to character and intelligence.43

But while the idea that juries can assist legislators and executive officers is attractive to elites, juries are much more important as devices for improving public understanding. By taking individuals from the citizen body in a way that is roughly proportional, the juries become an assembly-in-miniature, a space where deliberation is again characterised by isegoria. No one is there because of some special merit or eminence. They are there because they are citizens, and they happened to be called for service. The conclusions they draw provide other citizens with one account of what they would come to believe, given the time and resources, after detailed study of some matter. In the context of the mediated assembly, juries serve the citizen body first and elected officials second.

A democratic constitution would establish large, permanent juries to oversee departments of government and public bodies such as the police and the central bank. Each jury would be comprised of at least 30 citizens who would be chosen by lot to serve one-year terms. Their duties would take up a few hours a week at median pay and members could apply for more money if they wished to spend more time on their work.44 They would interview elected representatives and officials regularly. They would act as a venue for reports of dereliction of duty, bullying and criminal wrongdoing in the institutions of the state. Whistleblowers would be able to appeal to them when the chain of command had become corrupt. Their published statements would be protected by a form of legal privilege and they would have the power to initiate impeachment and recall procedures, and to commend those who had assisted the citizen body. Their work would be made publicly available and promoted through publicly owned digital and broadcast assets according to a defined protocol. Each jury would be served by a secretariat that would ensure that its work was accessible to researchers and interested citizens. Special provision would be made for them to communicate with other oversight juries, and with their replacements at the end of each year.

These standing juries would be able to investigate subjects in depth and make their findings generally available. Media institutions would be able to use this material to inform their investigative work, analysis and advocacy. And juries would also oversee the governance of the public media funding platform and the wider sector. Media organizations that misused public funds or behaved irresponsibly in other ways could be publicly censured by these juries. As citizens we would still be free to fund them, but we would do so knowing that a group of ordinarily disinterested citizens had more or less powerful objections to our doing so. This would not prevent unsavoury individuals or groups from getting their hands on public money, but it would make it more difficult, and would act as an important barrier to their achieving wider publicity for the material they produced. It is one thing for a panel of appointed regulators to raise concerns about a media organization. It is quite another if a body of citizens does so. This, combined with the fact that media institutions will be subject to investigation by journalists and researchers funded by the isegoria powers, will make the media far more accountable as well as free.45

Citizens could also use public money to commission temporary juries to investigate issues of concern. Government always tends to produce blind spots and much that matters happens in the gaps between forms of organized attentiveness. If a defined number of individuals wished to allocate funds to a temporary jury of inquiry, it would be duly convened. No constitution can predict all eventualities and the power to establish juries for limited periods through the powers associated with isegoria (and to create new standing juries through a simple, “ordinary” process of amendment) will go some way towards maintaining a proper flexibility in the channels of general communication.

These juries of inquiry would give flesh-and-blood expression to the assembly as a feature of the constitution. They would enable the citizenry to retain control of an agenda otherwise vulnerable to hijack in conditions of real or pretended emergency, or subversion by those who enjoy superior resources or an information edge. They would do this through their ability to “slow down time,” to step back from the press of events and return to the ongoing discussion of public business with information that deserves a hearing since it seems noteworthy to a group of people that can plausibly stand in for the rest of us. In matters such as money-finance, state-led research and development, taxation, corporate governance, and land and property, the pressure to distort public speech to maintain existing structures of power becomes all but overwhelming. Juries of inquiry could push back against this pressure in the interests of a more complete general understanding.

This leads us to the second point. As Oliver Dowlen notes in his vitally important work The Political Potential of Sortion, “the most significant and fundamental reason that lot is used in the selection of public officers, is to inhibit the power that any individual or group might seek over that process of selection.’ In Dowlen’s account, the lot introduces a blind, “arational” and disinterested break in the process of selection and “has the effect of breaking up concentrations of personal or sectional extra-constitutional power within the body politic and defending the polity’s status as a shared institution.”47

Elected officials and party bureaucrats always have considerable scope for manipulation. Even if reform meant that the victors of elections could not manage the media system in partnership with private magnates and state bureaucrats, as in the current constitutional order, their position creates plenty of opportunities to shape outcomes, through appeals to national security, claims to authority on the grounds of specialist knowledge, and so on. Private magnates also enjoy disproportionate power to shape general understanding. The use of mini-publics selected by lot cuts through efforts to shield legislators and executive officers from meaningful oversight by placing citizens at key points in the structures of the state, with an explicit brief to oversee their conduct. As well as bringing what is now jealously guarded knowledge into the circuits of general discussion, juries confront powerful functionaries with a “public point of view.” As a result it will be much more difficult for politicians to invent and maintain a version of public opinion that suits them.48

Dowlen himself has argued for the use of juries use at constituency level to hear complaints against elected officials and to initiate recall procedures where they consider them appropriate.49 And this invigilating role for citizens-qua-citizens becomes increasingly important as the state becomes more active in economic planning and extends its reach from basic research and development through to the design and application of new technologies. The communicative assembly has the potential to replace some, perhaps a great deal of, production for private consumption by way of the advertising mystique with the collective discovery and satisfaction of public desires. Instead of being manipulated into wanting what is on offer, we decide on, and co-design, a future.

But constant public surveillance will be needed if the assembled public and its elected representatives are to make decisions about public investment on the basis of the best information. As Mariana Mazzucato points out, transformative research and development is inherently risky. Some projects, no matter how well managed, will end in failure while some will deliver the expected returns, and some will deliver in ways never imagined at the outset.50 But it is vital that new avenues can be opened up, and old ones can be closed if they turn out to be dead ends. And system change can threaten powerful established interests. If we are to address global warming successfully, for example, the citizenry must have the power to ensure that research into new energy infrastructure is not captured by legacy sectors. Similarly, breakthroughs in the human sciences might well destroy the pharmaceutical sector in its current form. The constant intrusion of unapologetic citizens into the state’s investment decisions is the best way I can see to keep public business on the scale required tolerably honest.

The threat of corruption is particularly acute in the financial sector. In part this can be addressed by ending the fiction the credit-creating banks are somehow market institutions and bringing the task of money creation back under the control of the state.51 But if a network of public lenders overseen by a reformed central bank is to be successful in fostering a dynamic and competitive cooperative sector, it will need to be protected from collusion between banking officials and businesses, regulators, and politicians. In the next few years we will have to use the central bank to direct investment into world-changing technologies and applications if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But doing so creates important political challenges in the institutional chain that connects democratic direction of investment to the end applications. Therefore, each bank, including the central bank, ought to include one or more juries with the powers outlined above in its governance.

State oversight juries and juries of inquiry should be drawn from the whole population. Nothing of public concern is in principle above public comprehension. But technical and professional bodies might also want to convene panels of qualified individuals to oversee their activities. From accountancy to the life sciences, the presence of a broader, but still credentialed, population would improve internal regulation and also provide a way to bring specialist debates to the attention of the citizen body. At the moment science in particular mixes the legitimate authority of specialist understanding with gerontocracy and the subtle frauds of accommodation with a wider world of unjustified privilege. Groups that claim privileged status in exchange for their service to the public ought to be engaged in a conversation about the deal they are striking with the rest of us.

Similarly, cooperative institutions might want to bring workers and customers into their governance through the use of juries, as well as through measures that reproduce the principles of communicative equality. As I will argue in the next section, the cooperative is not immune to corruption. Both general surveillance and detailed participation are necessary to protect the majority from the minority. And this extension of appointment by lot helps reproduce the democratic ideals of the constitution in the wider society. The juries in government find an echo in the bodies outside it through which most of us experience collective life. Companies, clubs and associations that follow the public lead become laboratories for a certain kind of collective life, in which we learn for ourselves what self-government looks and feels like. In so doing they prepare us for citizenship.52

This brings us to third benefit. By bringing the citizenry into the workings of the state with defined powers and responsibilities, juries would provide us all with an opportunity to learn about the operations of government through direct and consequential participation. The distance between electors and elected representative is reduced, and citizens are better able to assess the conduct and character of those who govern them. Political knowledge permeates the population. Citizens becomes used to the idea that they possess politically relevant knowledge. Not everyone will serve on a state jury but those who do will be able to share their experiences with friends and family as well as with public media organizations.

Furthermore, if, as I propose, juries are integrated with the production and dissemination of public speech, they will help us citizens-qua-citizens speak audibly among ourselves about matters of common concern, while drawing on the best available knowledge. The “tribunician” researchers and publishers created by a revival of assembly will be supplemented and assisted in their work by juries embedded in the ordinary business of government and empowered to act as its invigilators.

Random selection serves to provide information and experience denied us in elective-judicial systems. As part of a wider institutional array it can play a crucial role in helping us to understand our circumstances and in developing an agenda for changing them. At the same time, juries will reduce the advantages of insider status by bringing the public physically and psychologically closer to the conduct of business. Citizens thus initiated can share their experiences, pursue their interests more effectively, attend to public matters with more discernment, and participate in electoral politics as candidates, party members, and voters with greater confidence.

The Cooperative State

Beginning from a republican definition of liberty, I have sketched some of the institutional features of a state that would, potentially, create the conditions where such a notion of liberty might be realised in the lives of its citizens. It is a mixed constitution, in that it seeks to combine the universal participation of the communicative assembly with the more focused participation of the juries and integrate both with the existing repertoire of legislature, judiciary and executive. Contrary to appearances, constitutions are much more like collections of ingredients, utensils and appliances than recipe books. I have no wish to pronounce on such details as the exact relationship between the state and the market, except to offer the general principle that only the free state can be trusted to deliver on the minimum conditions for liberty. In many cases it will be up to citizens to use this revised institutional repertoire to push for outcomes that can win majority support.

But the new institutions I propose will have a direct impact on three areas where the unreformed state currently presides without constitutional justification—money-credit, communications, and property. I have already argued that private control of the currency and of public speech is a recipe for pervasive domination. The establishment of a communicative assembly and the widespread use of random selection in public institutions including the central bank are intended to bring the communications and credit systems firmly back under democratic control. In this section I make some remarks on property and the implications of a new state form for property rights.

The framers of the federal constitution were more or less explicit that one of their key objectives was the protection of private property in North America, including the “human capital’ of chattel slavery. They have been wildly successful. Even though the simple ownership of other people is no longer permitted, America is one of the most unequal countries on the planet and property rights extend deep into human relationships. There is no way that property can remain a naturalised given in a fully democratic constitution. Current property claims still rest on crimes of force and fraud. An enormous effort of enchantment aims to obscure the fact, but Britain’s current distribution of power and wealth has its origins in conquest, civil war and Parliamentary enclosure. In America enclosure was extended on a continental scale and achieved by both chicanery and genocidal war.

A democratic republic is the common property of all its citizens. All these citizens enjoy an equal right to liberty. To the extent that private property rights clash with this cardinal right, they cannot be permitted precedence. The original of property in a republic is the public possession of the state and none of its derivatives can be permitted to threaten it. This is not to call for the abolition of private property. It is merely to register the obvious, that it is a creature of public authority and must be subordinated to it. Perhaps the point can be made most clearly by looking at a particularly successful species of property, the corporation.

Corporate property was once a closely invigilated exception to the general rule of simple private ownership. Now privately held institutions that enjoy the public privilege of limited liability have become the default form of financial, industrial and commercial organization. They have claimed for themselves rights once thought proper to natural persons and use them to entrench their power yet further. The state treats the corporate sector as its companion and favoured child. The centralised and largely unaccountable state sees itself reflected, even perfected, in this corporate sector. There is no plausible defence of the current arrangements. Even if we accept the doctrine of private property at its most unthinking and forgetful, limited liability makes the corporation like nothing so much as a Christmas tree, on which we are free to hang obligations to the public good as we see fit.

Indeed, while we might characterise the modern state as a corporate state, the intention of the reforms proposed here is to recast it as a cooperative state. The commonly held state will be reflected in a variety of commonly held properties that will serve as its partners and interlocutors. Commonly held property played an important role keeping people alive and independent in the eighteenth century. Since then it has often been slandered for being wasteful and inefficient. But the evidence shows that, for example, the explosion in agricultural productivity in Britain took place before enclosure, and that modern common pool resources can be managed sustainably by those who rely on them.53 A commonly held state will be better able to recognise and understand cooperatives and other forms of commonly held properties. Corporate property can survive in a cooperative state but it is no longer the default form of collectively held property.

A new state form also implies new relationships between the state and the individual and between the state and what we currently call the economy. The corporate state is deeply implicated as a driver of change in the realms of production and exchange. Defence procurement in particular has exercised a pervasive influence on both the universities and the manufacturing sector. The internet and many of other key technologies can be traced back to government investments. Indeed, the consumer space is in large part a byproduct of war planning. Similarly, the state provides funding for the basic science that underpins modern medicine and energy generation, and is responsible for many of the breakthroughs for which the corporate sector noisily takes credit. This contribution to economic development by taxpayers is usually obscured in the main channels of communication. Bedtime stories about entrepreneurial genius and market competition take the place of a reasoned account of the extent to which contemporary reality is the outcome of patterns of bureaucratic planning and neglect.54

The cooperative state need not use public resources to develop productive capacities to then hand over to privately held corporations. Instead, it could enable the public to discover for itself the future it wants and then direct investment to create it. Planning will wed socially brokered objectives with the capacities of the most talented and creative individuals available. Scientific reason will become the slave of democratic desire. The fruits of this collective effort of research and development—an effort in which everyone supports the pursuit of agreed goals through their ordinary endeavours and through their civic efforts to understand the present and describe the future they want—provide resources for free use by cooperative enterprises that commit to candour in their dealings with the tax authorities and proper checks and balances in their internal structures. The state can also take an ownership stake in these enterprises, and so over time establish a visible connection between the exertions of the democratically organized citizen body and an increasingly dynamic and ecologically sustainable productive sector.

This open-eyed collaboration between the citizen as decision-maker and end-user promises important breakthroughs in our efforts to combat climate change and environmental degradation. The state should be treating the energy system as a priority for intervention. If the restoration of equilibrium in the environment destroys the business models of the oil and gas sector, then this is the price of progress.

Similarly, a free people, possessed of a free state, will want to secure a general right to housing and public space. This is best achieved by state intervention in the land economy and in the technology of construction. A public communication platform could be used to allow individuals and groups to design and source the material conditions of life and to ensure that new housing is properly integrated with the public domains of healthcare, transport, education and political decision-making. If this destroys the business models of the banks and building companies, and strips landowners of windfall profits, then so be it.55

As already noted, a developmental state of this kind will be critically reliant on the techniques of general supervision and comprehension made possible by isegoria and random selection. But this does not only apply to state and parastatal bodies. The institutions of the private economy will themselves need to be extensively constitutionalised, that is, structured in ways that resemble the democratic state. A state that mixes general oversight and more detailed and involved forms of democratic participation will naturally privilege those organizations that resemble it, just as the current state privileges secretive and tyrannical corporations. Industrial policy can be used to ensure that the most dynamic and productive elements of the economy either remain in the public sector or are controlled by institutions with a substantially public character.

The cooperative sector in the US and the UK is currently weak and marginal. It operates in a legal environment that is hostile and it enjoys little or no state patronage. In a cooperative state, cooperatives and other commonly owned and managed institutions will enjoy more security, better access to resources and a chance to develop long-term strategies in partnership with public authorities. Much of the private economy is not subject to market competition in the ordinary meaning of the term. This will remain true when cooperatives replace corporations as the lead economic institutions. Resources that currently pass over to financiers, senior managers and shareholders will be available to support governance structures that equalise access to relevant information and break up elite collusion.

I have tried to show how the institutional mechanisms for securing common ownership of the state require the citizen to be more closely engaged in public affairs, at least some of the time. But I hope it is obvious that citizens do not have to conform to a preordained type to qualify. The constitution I propose will create spaces in which values and concerns that are currently ignored or marginalised can be elaborated and refined. The relationship between paid and unpaid labour, for example, can be explored and brought back into politics on new terms. The experience of minority groups can be given a public character by the exertions of those groups themselves. We do not have to catch the eye or attract the sympathy of our superiors in the communicative order. Instead we can work effectively with our peers across multiple dimensions to make ourselves and our needs part of the content of public business. Social status, too, will be transformed, since renown will track service to the public rather than to property.


This then is what a cooperative state and society might look like. The general possession of the state provides the original for reproductions throughout the social field. Local and regional government is shot through with opportunities for effective intervention by an informed public. Market institutions are accountable to workers, customers and the communities in which they operate. Banks combine deep knowledge of their sectors with effective curbs on corruption. Clubs and voluntary associations instruct citizens in the fundamentals of collective organization.56

There is no guarantee that this cooperative state will be created. The rich and the elected, who together enjoy all but exclusive possession of the existing state form, have little interest in reforms along the lines proposed here. Even politicians who want to increase the power of popular constituencies will tend to concentrate on changes that don’t so directly impinge on their own power to do good. To advocate the ends with no thought to the means is irresponsible. This last section describes a possible mechanism by which the cooperative state might be modeled in miniature and find its way onto a national and transnational political agenda.

An important exception to the left’s tendency to limit itself to fiscal redistribution and revolutionary idealism can be found in the community wealth-building movement. Working at the city level, community wealth-building seeks to create commonly held assets such as worker cooperatives and community land trusts, and to support them through public and quasi-public procurement strategies. It stresses the need for democratic control of both the enterprise and of the public institutions that create the conditions in which the enterprise must survive. As such it provides workers and other citizens with a practical education in political economy—in how the economy is a creature of the state that in turn reshapes its creator. Community wealth-building has been particularly influential in Cleveland, Ohio and Preston, Lancashire, and Britain’s Labour Party has created a Community Wealth Building Unit to help shape its development policy.57

Before wealth can be distributed it must first be created through action in the world. In this the state is, and must always be, decisive as coordinating agent, regulator, and developer. Its control of cash flows and its ability to determine how geographical space is reconfigured as property make it indispensable. At the same time, through community wealth-building, the citizenry as a whole finds itself confronted with the tasks of institutional design and economic planning.

If cooperatives are to succeed and grow they must pay close attention to their constitutional structures, to the distribution of knowledge and the relationship between the majority of workers and the minority in leadership positions, the many and the few. Nominally democratic institutions can all too easily become insular and vulnerable to seduction by corporate capitalist interests and their attendant ideas. A constant effort of surveillance is required to keep managers from betraying their colleagues. Constitutionalism insists on our political nature even at work and does not substitute wishful thinking for the properly Machiavellian insight that we are all evil, and will act in accordance with our natures given half a chance.58 The characteristic social spaces of community wealth-building provide a milieu where a reformed state can be discussed away from the presumptions and prior restraints of the existing system. As community wealth-building expands its communicative reach and material power, it can multiply and enlarge the spaces in which this discussion takes place, and so change its nature, from a theoretical conversation between a few wishful thinkers to the preliminary stages of a national convention. The notion that the values and norms, as well as the institutional structures, of the cooperative might one day be reflected in the central state and its auxiliaries adds transformative political idealism to economic self-interest. In the context of community wealth-building, constitutional design takes on a revolutionary character.

The hold on the general imagination of the current order, the extent to which it is made to seem natural and inevitable if not actually lovable, derives in large part from the ways in which the language and forms of the central state reproduce themselves throughout society in a kind of institutional cascade. The prestige of the federal presidency flows downwards and lends its authority to thousands of chief executive officers, vice-presidents, and class presidents. The British Cabinet sets the standard for a country in which the committee, not the public meeting, is the dominant institutional form. The characteristic relationships of community wealth-building need not take their place in this cascade. Indeed, the task of the movement is to ensure that the structure of the cooperative enterprise climbs upwards so that the workplace without domination acts as the prototype of the free state.59 For if dynamic local economies characterised by democratic planning and egalitarian manners are to become ordinary features of life in Britain and the United States, they will, sooner or later, need a national state form that supports them and confirms their dignity and justice.

This might sound like wishful thinking, were it not for the related matters of ecological collapse, endemic war, steepening material inequality, and the growing appeal of authoritarian and fascist politics. And while some of the details above are bound to seem arbitrary, the general principle is clear. The form of the state we have inherited denies the citizenry as a body politic both knowledge and power. An institutional array we do not understand and cannot control is taking us to disaster. It is time we remade it, from the ground up. This might seem unrealistic but it is necessary. And what is necessary is also possible.

  1. There are important exceptions, of course, one of which I discuss later, but I hope the caricature here is recognisably drawn from life. I owe the insight to Professor Roberto Unger. See Roberto Unger, ‘Progressive Alternatives: Institutional Reconstruction Today (Spring, 2017) available online at Unger himself is another exception. 

  2. The global economy is also a creature of state power, of course, pre-eminently of the United States. 

  3. I am acutely aware that the United States and Britain are very different in constitutional terms, as in much else. But despite Britain’s enormous idiosyncrasy, both countries share some fundamental assumptions about the nature of the state, which I intend to call into question in this essay. 

  4. Constitutional reform, to the extent that it features in the UK, is usually couched in terms of modernization and normalisation. The idea, not particularly palatable to most people, is the idea that progress means becoming like somewhere else. I am conscious that in the US the conversation is dominated by the plutocratic right. See Nancy MacClean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep Roots of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (London: Scribe, 2017). For the tenor of the debate in the UK, you’ll just have to take my word for it. 

  5. See Steve Keen, “The ten graphs that show how Britain became a wholly owned subsidiary of the City of London (and what we can do about it),” openDemocracy, 24th April, 2017. 

  6. See Drew Desilver, “For most workers, real wages have stagnated for decades,” Pew Research Center, 9th October, 2014. 

  7. In the UK Jeremy Corbyn has begun to outline some of the features of a media system that will be able to illuminate a political economy characterised by great pools of undisturbed darkness. See Jeremy Corbyn, ‘Empower those who create and consume media over those who want to control or own it’, August, 23rd, 2018, available online at 

  8. Even those with more modest ambitions must see that they will get further with a reform agenda and a plausible account of social transformation than with a reform agenda alone. 

  9. It also presides over a vastly expanded bureaucracy, which lies outside the scope of this piece. 

  10. Looking back to classical antiquity is useful for a number of reasons. Democracy was not born there; it has been an incorrigible feature of human organization for as long as there have been humans. But democracy is a scandal, and it is rarely written up, even by its enemies. Athens is highly unusual, since we know something of how it worked as a stable governing order. If we have lost track of the fundamentals of state design, as I believe we have, resources from older traditions allow us to understand our current arrangements as matters that might be reformed. Besides, it is sometimes useful to find venerable precedents for what might otherwise seem like dangerous innovations. In the end the proposals I make will recommend themselves because they work. 

  11. Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) p.7. 

  12. Hobbes’ materialism has been tremendously influential in liberal accounts of freedom, and lives on in them as the most important extant trace of an otherwise abandoned project of the early Enlightenment. In physics Newton vanquished Cartesian materialism entirely and we have been forced to live with the fact of occult forces ever since. 

  13. Sidgewick is quoted in Skinner, op. cit., p.98. 

  14. Quoted in Skinner, op. cit., p.41. 

  15. I am skimming over a vast literature on power and authority here. See Hannah Arendt, “Authority in the Twentieth Century,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 18, No. 4 (October, 1956), pp. 403-417 for an interesting attempt to ground authority in something other than sovereign power. For the most part we make do with a mixture of majoritarianism, precedent, rights discourse and claims about our pre-political nature to lend our institutions legitimacy. There is much more to say here than I can cover in this piece. 

  16. Skinner, op. cit., p.70. A prudent and well-connected citizen in a dictatorship might well live peacefully into old age but an unfortunate encounter with a bad-tempered police informant might well mean that they do not. 

  17. On interference at will by public officials, see, for example, Barton Gellman, “Edward Snowden, after months of NSA revelations, says his mission’s accomplished,” Washington Post, 23rd December, 2013. For interference at will by private magnates, see, for example, “What Price Privacy: The Unlawful Trade in Confidential Personal Information,” Information Commissioner’s Office, 10th May, 2006.  

  18. It is quite wrong to think that rights can be protected by the authority of the courts. All free states can slip into despotism. 

  19. “Every right implies a remedy” as Madison put it. The right to liberty implies an institutional array that eradicates domination. 

  20. Republicanism also has implications for how unions are structured, so that they are not captured by their bureaucratic apparatus. 

  21. We might also find our choices arbitrarily constrained in our private and intimate relations if making and maintaining a “good match” becomes a matter of life and death. 

  22. Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, 1997), p.272. 

  23. ibid, p.60. 

  24. There is, of course, an extensive sociological literature on covert, self-effacing and occult power. See, for example, Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction (Basingstoke, 2010), C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York, 2000), Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, Power and Poverty: Theory and Practice (New York, 1970), and Stephen Lukes, Power: A Radical View (Basingstoke, 2004). 

  25. Perhaps the well-documented correlation between inequality and mental distress is in part explained by the extent to which this inequality requires the cover of manipulative justifications which are widely believed even though they run contrary to lived experience

  26. This lends the desire for liberty in modern conditions a paranoid quality, since it must always extend beyond the best available evidence to more or less plausible suspicions. It is in this light that we ought to assess attacks on conspiracism. 

  27. As well as a right to healthcare and economic security, the right to liberty also entails a right to an education that fits the citizen for democratic self-government, a matter somewhat beyond the scope of this paper, except as regards the “ongoing education” currently provided by the media system. 

  28. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Oxford, 1987), Number 63, p.373. 

  29. Herodotus, Histories (London, 1972), p. 369. 

  30. Polybius, The Histories (Oxford, 2010), p. 106. 

  31. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Oxford, 1987), Number 55, p.336. Madison’s claim here is entirely baseless, of course. The Athenian assembly was nothing like a mob and even managed to survive the machinations of Socrates. 

  32. Some object to the idea of a legislative assembly because it would inevitably tangle itself up in inconsistencies, what Pettit calls the discursive dilemma in Philip Pettit, On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy (Cambridge, 2012). As we shall see, the revival of the citizens-in-assembly as an active element in the constitution does not require that they act as a legislature, so I will not address this concern here. 

  33. The exact institutional structure adopted is less important than the principle of egalitarian control of the production and dissemination of effectively public speech. 

  34. A public platform of this kind would also require democratic governance, based on both participation and random selection. I discuss this in more detail in the next section. 

  35. I am conscious that this “public platform” working with broadcast assets is easier to imagine in a country like Britain, which has a publicly funded media operation in the form of the BBC. But there is no law of nature or constitutional principle that prevents something like this being tried elsewhere. Opposition will come from corporate and elected officials, who see the role that the current arrangements play in protecting and promoting their interests, not from facts about the universe, much less from the contents of the federal constitution. 

  36. Freed from the demands of an advertising-surveillance business model, public platforms could be shaped to encourage conversation rather than data-generating confrontation. People will always disagree, sometimes intemperately, but this tendency need not be exacerbated or manipulated in the interests of the powerful. 

  37. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (Oxford, 1987), Number 51, p.322. 

  38. ibid, Number 10, p.128. 

  39. ibid, Number 10, p.126. 

  40. The qualities of this mediated assembly are discussed in more detail in Dan Hind, Restoring the Assembly: Equality in Speech and Democratic Power (IDEA Working Paper, 2017). It bears repeating that the model proposed does not require that currently marginalised individuals take their chances in the prejudicial spaces of public self-presentation. The possession of individuated power offers everyone an opportunity to collaborate to develop effective public interventions, and to do so in ways that seem right to them. 

  41. Aristotle in a famous passage in The Politics is quite clear that election is only to used to fill offices in exceptional circumstances. See Aristotle, The Politics (London, 1992), p.362-3. 

  42. Ed Miliband, the former leader of the Labour Party, has praised random selection on these grounds, for example. But see James S. Fishkin, Robert C. Luskin and Roger Jowell, “Deliberative Polling and Public Consultation,” Parliamentary Affairs (2000), 53, 657-666. The authors note the salutary effects of deliberation by large, randomly selected groups on both elite decision-making and public opinion. 

  43. Aristotle, The Politics (London: Penguin, 1962), p.202. 

  44. I don’t have the space to expand on the point, but a civic wage based on participation in the work of self-government seems to me to be rhetorically stronger than the idea of a universal basic income. Firstly, I cannot seek why a simple increase in cash income won’t be immediately reflected in the level of land rent. A truly self-governing citizenry, on the other hand, will be able to balance the demands of property against the needs of human beings. Secondly, an expanded public sector in the economy, managed by the people as a whole, and claimed by us as a shared resource because of our role as managers, strikes me as being better able to resist the inevitable backlash from the few than fiscal transfers. 

  45. This is not to suggest we should do without expertise in the regulation of the public sphere. But the model I propose is significantly less illiberal than regulation unmixed with participation. 

  46. Oliver Dowlen, The Political Potential of Sortition (Exeter, 2008), p.221. 

  47. ibid, p.222. 

  48. This has important implications for political parties. Both republicans and socialists have been historically sceptical of party competition but the reforms proposed will exert a different kind of pressure on parties. At the moment success depends on the ability to mobilise voters on the basis of a largely fictitious account of the social world. In a system characterised by elite collusion too much must be left unsaid to permit politicians to do much more than try to capture a mood. In the future, only those parties that can survive meaningful oversight by a public experienced in political activity will prosper. 

  49. Oliver Dowlen, Citizens’ Parliamentary Groups: A Proposal for Participation at Constituency Level (Paris, 2017). 

  50. Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State (London, 2017). Mazzucato shows persuasively that the state sector been the main driver of progress in the pharmaceutical, renewable energy, and electronics sectors. It is beyond the scope of this article, but it seems clear that the monetary-fiscal regime of the state, with its constellation of central bank financing, large scale public procurement, and pervasive subsidies to favoured sectors, has been key to the creation of capitalist modernity. 

  51. I don’t have the time (or expertise) to address financial sector reform in detail. But in the United States the constitution is quite explicit that Congress is responsible for issuing the currency, so there is no barrier to the creation of “Lincoln Banks,” which would channel state money into sectors chosen through a process of democratic deliberation that displaces market research and a narrow conception of raison d’état

  52. Charities, foundations and trade unions that enjoy state privileges of various kinds might also be encouraged to bring their supporters into their governance structures on an egalitarian basis. Schools would also be free to reflect the constitution in their governance. In Britain the state education sector would then be able to prepare students for public life much more effectively than the tyrannical and plutocratic ‘public schools’, whose alumni are massively over-represented in politics and the media, the professions, and the City of London. 

  53. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons (Cambridge: 1991). 

  54. Given that the state exercises a pervasive, and largely unimagined, influence over the progress of understanding in physics, it seems hasty to dismiss the much more modest idea that it can shape how it is described in the major media. 

  55. A developmental state of this kind will be critically reliant on the techniques of general supervision and comprehension made possible by isegoria and random selection. 

  56. The idea of an institutional cascade is derived from Robin Osborne’s suggestion, summarised by P. J. Rhodes, that Athens’ stability and solidarity were “due in part to the great variety of sub-units in the city which echoed the organization of the city itself, so that there were opportunities for all the citizens to involve themselves in democratic processes, in bodies which they found congenial.” See P. J. Rhodes, Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology (London, 2003). 

  57. For a general introduction to community wealth building, see Thomas M. Hanna, Joe Guinan and Joe Bilsborough, “The ‘Preston Model’ and the new politics of municipal socialism,” openDemocracy, June 12, 2018. Its material impact in Preston is explored here, 

  58. Machiavelli, Discourses (Oxford, 2008), p. 28: “… it is necessary for anyone who organizes a republic and establishes laws in it to take for granted that all men are evil and will act in accordance with their nature whenever they have the opportunity.” 

  59. Constitutionalising the co-op along assembly-and-sortition lines forms a prelude to cooperativising the constitution through common ownership of the state. 


Dan Hind (@danhind)

Dan Hind is an independent writer and editor. His books include The Return of the Public (Verso, 2011) and The Magic Kingdom (Zero, 2014).