Common Sense: a brief review

I’ve finally got around to reading Dan Hind’s Common Sense, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages on the grounds that I usually agree with his articles and The Return of the Public was at least interesting. Common Sense is a pamphlet in the tradition of the more famous Common Sense by Tom Paine.

Here’s a video of Dan talking:

Common Sense briefly analyses the causes of the financial crisis, pinning most of the blame on the existence of a ruling elite and the unaccountable nature of that ruling elite. I’m much more persuaded by this argument myself than an argument about certain technical or regulatory failures, partly because I can see that the existence of the elite causes a lot of other problems too.

Dan Hind’s proposed solution I’m also 90% on board with. He thinks we, the people, all ought to meet and discuss as political equals and learn to run our political institutions that way. He sees the town square occupations of the last few years as prefiguring a deeper democratic politics that would be part of breaking from the neo-liberal consensus.

Where I differ from him slightly is that he eulogises assemblies in quite a general way, with some quite dismissive words for those who are critical of assemblies such as happened in the Occupy occupations. He wants to see institutions of all kinds – trade unions, churches, NGOs – adopting or being made to adopt the assembly form, where all can meet as equals.

“The form of the assembly can teach us a great deal and its limits have yet to be established,” he says.

Personally I, and I know many other people, came out of the Occupy camps thinking the limits of assemblies had already been quite firmly established. For instance many people who wanted to get things done at the camps didn’t go through the assemblies. They just did them. They knew it wasn’t ideal to take executive power like that but it was better than the stultifying effects of the general assembly on ideas and action.

While I am in favour of radical democratisation, the assemblies simply didn’t have sufficient structure to decide things meaningfully, to get things done, or indeed to provide the equal platform many were looking for. I agree that organisations throughout society need to democratise. I think the forms of democratisation will need to be carefully structured to avoid the forums being places to merely vent spleen or act out personal conflicts.

Having said that, I was very happy to see the NGO sector getting the critical attention it deserves in this pamphlet. The lack of accountability within our big civil society organisations says a lot about how much we really believe in democracy (not very much at the moment) and I do think they are ripe to be infiltrated and reformed by people with actual belief in democracy.

And Dan Hind is not so committed to the assembly form that he thinks it the solution to the world’s problems: “It is the beginning, not the end, of a reformed politics,” he says. And with that I do not disagree – I would only suggest we move on from it a little faster than Dan proposes.

I’m looking forward to reading his more recent pamphlet: Maximum Republic.

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