Big Thinkers: Roberto Mangabeira Unger on Empowered Democracy in the UK

Date: 
Friday, November 15, 2013 - 08:45


Robert Mangabeira Unger, one of the world’s leading social and political thinkers, explores the concept of empowered democracy and what it means for government and political leadership in the UK in challenging economic times. He discusses the concept with Philip Coggan of The Economist.

Our Big Thinkers Series is aimed at expanding the Institute’s debate platform beyond its practical focus on improving government effectiveness to broader questions about the nature of government and democracy.   

As part of the series Roberto Unger, Roscoe Pound Professor of Law at Harvard University put forward his concept of empowered democracy and what it means for government and politics in the UK. It was followed with a discussion led by Philip Coggan of The Economist.

Empowered Democracy

Empowered Democracy, or High-Energy Democracy, can be understood as a solution to two distinct but interrelated shortcomings of democracy in its current form. The first is that all democracies are incapable of changing established structures unless it is in response to crisis. The second is how to accord structural ambition to political activity. These shortcomings, however, may be overcome through a shift to a system of ‘High Energy Democracy’ underpinned by five institutional innovations:

  1. Raising the temperature of politics. This means increasing the level of popular engagement in political life that is both institutionalised and mobilised. We should not have a political life that forces us to choose between low-energy institutionalised politics and high-energy, anti-institutional politics.
  1. Hastening the pace of politics. For example, the fragmented balance of power and system of checks and balances inherent in the American parliamentary system slows down politics, and, in turn, inhibits the political transformation of society.
  1. Combining central power with local initiative. Empowered democracy should have the ability to exploit the potential of federalist regimes by combining central power with local initiative with the ability for particular segments of society to opt out of the political process and propose alternative governance solutions.
  1. Establishing a distinct authority to rescue excluded and disadvantaged groups. This authority should be established within the state and focus on those in society who suffer from particular forms of exclusion and disadvantage from which they are unable to escape by the forms of collective action available to them.
  1. Gradually enhancing representative democracy through participative democracy. This means a form of engagement were people are directly involved in national and local decision-making without jeopardising individual liberties.

Professor Unger then elaborated upon these institutional features to provide three examples of structural changes that should be on the agenda of all advanced democracies. The first was what he referred to as ‘economic vanguardism outside of the economic vanguard’. This means that broader parts of the economy should be able to access the tools and resources of economic innovation (such as technology) that is currently limited to advanced economic sectors.

The second was an insistence that finance be a good servant rather than a bad master.

The third concerned alternative forms of public service delivery that move away from the current bureaucratic systems that provide lower quality services to a model of provision that encourages greater participation and experimentation from civil society.

Translation into the British context

What would this alternative model of democracy look like in the British Context? Translating these ideas into practice in the UK would require a convergent movement to energise democracy from both the bottom up and the top down—the requirement for innovation at both the centre of government as well as in localities. The bottom up would be characterised by greater engagement of civil society in the experimental delivery of public services and a reinforcement of the tendency towards devolution and more experimental forms of localised governance. High energy democracy from the top down would mean a radical reorganization of politics at the centre in an effort to abolish the drivers of ‘slow-time’ politics (slim party majorities, factionalised parties, vetoes of powerful interests) so that only ‘fast-time’ politics exists. One example of this in practice could be increased use of plebiscites. Importantly these changes must be introduced in tandem—high energy at the centre would descend into ‘Caesarism’ if not countered by a parallel movement from the bottom up.

Professor Unger concluded by asserting there to be no major interests in British society irreconcilable to the concept of High Energy Democracy and that the chief difficulty lies in the weakness of the imagination.

Discussion with Philip Coggan

The discussion that followed delved deeper into the specifics of how a high energy democratic system would work in the UK. The discussion focused heavily on the inherent tensions that would emerge in more localised forms of governance and the barriers that this presents for practically implementing empowered democracy. This included the seeming lack of enthusiasm at current attempts to expand local forms of democracy in the UK; the practicalities of resolving inherent conflicts that would emerge as a result of both increased referenda on particular issues and the power of vested interests in shaping these conflicts; and the emergence of malign forms of devolution.

Questions from the floor

These covered a number of themes including:

  • How would high energy democracy deal with long-term decision making?
  • How can decision-makers foresee the consequences of their actions in this more experimental form of democracy?
  • How would you choose the leaders who would make decisions in a high-energy democracy?
  • Could the current economic crisis lead to change in the direction of empowered democracy?
  • How would a new system of high energy democracy divorce itself from the current system?
  • Is there scope for application for high-energy democracy within organizations?
  • How does opting out of politics completely have a place in high-energy democracy?
  • Are demonstrations a part of empowered democracy even if they represent a distinct minority?
  • Can the Arab Spring be seen as a manifestation, or at least a form of, high-energy democracy?

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