Paul Hirst: Associative Democracy (1994)


Paul Hirst was a sociologist and professor of social theory at Birkbeck College, London. In the 1970s and 1980s he was a leading advocate of structural Marxism and, together with Barry Hindess, wrote Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production in 1975. He became a critic of Althusserian Marxism, referencing Wittgenstein, Foucault and the American logician Willard Quine. Changing the focus of his work to the issues of democratic governance, in 1990 he published Representative Democracy and its Limits. Moving towards a more pluralist approach, being attracted by the writings of British political pluralists Figgis, Cole and Laski, Hirst developed the concept of ‘associationism’ as a basis for reviving socialism, as an alternative to state socialism and free market liberalism, drawing on some of the concepts and governance structures of the guild socialists and seeking to set out a third way combining the theories of Marx and Proudhon – though without acknowledging the libertarian socialist tradition within the First International advocated by the Belgian Cesar de Paepe.

Associative Democracy in 1992, subtitled ‘New Forms of Economic and Social Governance’, was followed in 1997 by From Statism to Pluralism. His later work focused on globalisation and the built environment, publishing Space and Power: Politics, War and Architecture in 2005. Hirst was active in Charter 88 and contributed to the Open Democracy website. Hirst died in 2003.

“Associative democracy is not merely a doctrine of devolving power to voluntary associations, since it is accepted that not all social affairs can be administered in this way. Associations require a common framework of regulatory rules if they are to interact satisfactorily with one another and their members. Internal self-government needs to be answerable to minimum but non-optional standards to ensure that it is fair and does not infringe the freedom of individuals through unequal forms of authority or undue group pressure. Associations may need public funds to perform their functions, and must be answerable to the funding body for them. Further, there are certain affairs common to all members of society, and that cannot be devolved to the governance of associations chosen by their own members, such as the defence of the territory, certain police powers, certain environmental and public health provisions, and certain forms of compulsory control of individuals (such as mental health regulations)…

“The public power in any associationist system, even given federal decentralisation and the devolution of many functions to voluntary bodies, would not be a marginal entity. Whilst power should be as localised as possible, and where possible individuals should be able to choose the form of governance of most social activities they prefer, there must be a common public power. Such a power should be based on representative democratic principles, deriving its authority from a federal constitution that prescribes and limits its powers. It would consist in a legislature elected on a territorial basis by universal suffrage and an independent judiciary appointed on legal merit, with autonomy to enforce the laws. Such a public power would be, in effect, a liberal constitutional state, but with limited functions. Associationalism and liberalism are not inherently in conflict. Indeed, given the self-government of most activities by voluntary associations and a federal state, liberalism would become a reality. At present classical liberal ideas are in contradiction with centralised, bureaucratic public service states that substitute state for society and circumscribe the ‘private’ sphere of individual liberty.”

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