Here’s a theory. There are two different ways of thinking about politics and policy which are insufficiently distinguished; we can call them politics as imposition versus politics as discovery.
Most people think of politics as the former: how can I impose my will upon others? We can, however, think of it differently – as a discovery process.
This, I think, is what Paul Evans is doing when he calls upon us to rethink democracy. He’s asking: what institutions and practices do we need to discover what people really want? Simple referendums, conducted against the background of an inadequate media, are not the answer.
But it’s not just the political process that is or should be a discovery process. So too are some particular policies.
We lefties are sometimes accused of wanting to impose a system upon the economy. For me at least, this is the exact opposite of the truth. For me, socialism consists in part of creating means of discovering what works best.
Democratising public services, for example, is a way of discovering from workers and users how best to improve them. And encouraging various forms of coops – via public procurement, a national investment bank or tax breaks – is a way of discovering what forms of post-capitalist firms work best – a form of what Erik Olin Wright calls interstitial transformation (pdf). It’s not at all obvious to me that actually-existing capitalism does an unimprovable job of discovering better forms of ownership and control, given credit constraints, path-dependency and capture by a managerialist elite*.
I’d put a citizen’s basic income into this category: the question of the appropriate level, and any add-ons it needs, is one that could be discovered as we go along. It need not, and maybe cannot, be imposed in perfect form from the start.
This isn’t to say that the politics of discovery is purely a leftist exercise. It’s not. Michael Gove’s free schools policy was in this vein – a way of experimenting to see what sorts of school work best.
And one under-rated argument for devolution and stronger local authorities is that they would facilitate discovery: if they follow different policies, we can see what works best.
We think of markets as discovery and selection mechanisms (pdf) – albeit ones that often don’t work as well as they might. But a healthy political process would have such mechanisms too.
Which brings me to Brexit. Everybody is discussing the Brexit deal with the mindset of the politics of imposition – as if the deal will permanently settle in stone our relationship with the EU for ever more.
This of course is to misrepresent human life. Relationships change. The “transitional period” won’t end in 2020. It’ll carry on for as long as the UK and EU exist.
This is no mere pedantry. One of the key aspects of good negotiations is to see that agreements can be provisional, not final. Theresa May should be saying to all sides in the Tory party: “This isn’t the final word. Let’s give this a go. And if it proves to be as bad as you claim, we can change it.” (Maybe she is saying this in private.) I’ll grant, however, that this is more feasible for hardline Leavers than Remainers, as the EU might not want to renegotiate closer ties with so fractious and febrile a counterparty**.
If there is anything in what I say, it poses the question: why do we hear so much about the politics of imposition and so little about the politics of discovery?
One answer is that political discourse is dominated by those who believe they know the answers, and so don’t need to discover them – which is of course a symptom of overconfidence. We do not sufficient self-police and self-criticize our views. And perhaps we lack the mechanisms and institutions to incentivize us to do so.
* It’s odd how some rightists are so keen to point out that state functions are prone to bureaucratic capture and so silent on the possibility that private companies can be too.
** Yes, I know that we Brits tend to under-estimate the extent to which the EU is a rules-based organization (which I think is an argument for the Leave side). But rules can and do change.