Blogs >> Brexit……..and the Democratic Deficit

Brexit……..and the Democratic Deficit

By: Jonathan Dawson
Senior Lecturer, Economics For Transition
Schumacher College

My reading of the Brexit vote is that it has less to do with the specific rights and wrongs of our membership of the European Union than a manifestation of the democratic deficit that has been gnawing away at the heart of our society over the last several decades. 

There has been a mistaken belief that politics and economics operate in two distinct, unconnected spheres.  So, while we have seen some limited decentralisation of power under the last government’s Localism bill, this has explicitly not extended into increased popular participation in how we manage our economic lives.  Localism, in short, has not translated into localisation. 

Democratic engagement in economic policy-making has shrunk as the state has ceded ever greater decision-making to the market, with London retaining a tight hold of those powers that remain.  No surprise then, that in the absence of interventionist regional economic policy-making that invites popular participation, the ‘no’ vote is strongest among those sections of the population that find themselves at the bottom of the economic heap.  The referendum vote is best interpreted as a howl of anger and despair, of alienation from those who find themselves voiceless.  (Compare the strength of the no vote in the post-industrial wasteland of the north-east of England with the emphatic yes from a Scotland that has experienced a surge in creative civic engagement over the last decade.)

Democracy has shrunk down to the lonely, individualistic act of casting votes in periodic elections.  Meanwhile, the only participation the market demands of us is the no less lonely and individualistic ritual of buying stuff.  The other potential forms of participation – in the workplace, in neighbourhood councils, in local and regional assemblies, in self-managing cooperatives – have stagnated and we find ourselves lonely and isolated from our peers.

As a species, we have a deep need for sociability and for meaningful participation in human-scale institutions, where we can see and understand the value of our contributions.  I received the gift of this insight early, from living in rural Ghana, experiencing a sense of thriving wellbeing in a society that was poor in material means but rich in participation.  I would suggest that the vibrant success and rapid spread of the Transition movement lies precisely in the opportunities it offers for such participation.

The urgent need, the above analysis suggests, is to revive our democratic structures and rituals.  Critically, however, this needs to include how we design and manage our economies.  Let the value of our policy and practice be measured by the degree to which they invite participation.

Blog Category: