Editorial: Democracy in the Dock

Has liberal democracy failed us?

Has liberal democracy failed us? In recent years we’ve come to think of politics as the preserve of the technocrat – professional, pragmatic, devoid of big ideas or meaningful ideological framework. Perhaps that’s why turnout at UK elections continues to plummet. But our assumptions of the benevolence of democratic liberalism are under attack from all angles, and from some unlikely sources. This issue of IAI News sees a series of concerted attempts – by journalists, authors, politicians, even a biologist – to bring philosophy back into mainstream politics in order to rescue the democratic project.

One of today's most outspoken voices is Guardian columnist and author Owen Jones. Jones blames the failure of liberal democracy on today's political elites. “Our social order is totally bankrupt,” he says. What’s missing, he says, is hope. In The Burning Flame of Hope, Jones urges "conviction, determination and courage” in order to achieve tangible political change.

Because change, our contributors agree, is needed. The old oppositions have outlived their meaning. The answer lies in the return of philosophy. For Phillip Blond, a leading proponent of Red Toryism and the brains behind David Cameron’s Big Society project, this means beginning with Plato, and the critical question: “What is the good?” Blond argues that “the legacy of neoliberal economics is the crash". It’s time, he says, to move beyond the statism of the left and the individualism of the right. In The Real Problem with Liberalism, Blond outlines his radical vision for a new politics of “social conservation”.

Like Blond, Green party leader Natalie Bennett advocates the return of intrinsic values. For Bennett, today's global economic, social, environmental and political problems are all interlinked. But where Blond argues for the value of the family unit, Bennett emphasises nature.  “We need to start recognising more publically the innate value of the natural world, she says. “It is precious and valuable in and of itself.” Hand in hand comes radical constitutional change in order to give power back to the people. “Politics,” she writes in The Time for Change, “is something people can do; it’s not something that is done to you."

Elsewhere, Nancy Cartwright questions the current utility of social science. The last two UK governments, she points out, have invested heavily in such research. But we still do not know how to use the results. The question we really need to be asking, she says, is: “How do we put this knowledge to use to build better societies?”

For both biologist Colin Tudge and author-activist Trenton Oldfield the answer to Cartwright’s question is morality. For Tudge, the world needs re-thinking from first principles. Moral philosophy and metaphysics will provide us with the right tools for progress. Meanwhile, Oldfield, who has worked in urban regeneration for over a decade, blames liberalism for the growing inequalities in today’s cities. “The gap is so big,” he says, “between what people who have the greatest influence are talking about and what is actually happening in our cities.” We need to start seeing our cities through a moral lens of equality and justice.

Image credit: Dean Terry



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