Can we make democracy work?

Can we make democracy work?

13 June 2020

In a period of sustained social, economic and environmental turbulence, we desperately need a political system that delivers fairer and more effective policies and decisions


Trevor Cherrett


In the UK we, along with much of the rest of the world, are in the middle of the biggest economic muddle in generations. Global capitalism, which roundly triumphed over the collective models of communism in the 20th Century, is itself now facing an existential crisis. Sovereign nations struggle to cope with massive debt and the EU is in disarray. International financial markets plunge wildly in a perfect storm of uncertainty about the future.

I wrote this paragraph in November 2011, following the economic crash of 2008. Now in 2020 we have an even bigger crisis to face with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The perfect storm has got stormier.

But we are still here. The political and economic arguments about the balance between austerity and growth after 2008 ended up with governments shoring up the banks and assuaging the markets, while `ordinary` people looked on, often feeling disgusted but helpless. Fierce public protests around the world such as the Occupy movement gradually fizzled out, as they were bound to. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn`s Labour Party attracted huge support for a growth agenda which sank into the sands of Brexit. But this tension between the political and economic arguments never really went away, and in the pending aftermath of the pandemic, it will be even greater, and not just because the economic fall-out is likely to be even larger than a decade ago.

Since the 2008 crash something else happened. Liberal democracies came under attack from populist parties – mainly on the right but also on the left –  who tapped into the anger of those who lost out from the banking bust-ups, often dubbed the so-called ‘left behind’. In sum, nationalism is on the rise, and globalism is in retreat.

So far, so familiar. But leaving aside the substantive arguments about what policies should be delivered to address urgent  economic, social and indeed environmental issues for a moment – such as whether we should once again attempt to reduce debt, or invest in a green economy, and so on – there is an existential question about how we should be governed, how policies and decisions should be made, and how our whole political system works.

Many questions abound about how we can now move forward. Does the rise of populist politics threaten the very notion of representative democracy?  Do we need to defend democracy, and if so what exactly needs to be done to strengthen it, or should we begin to acknowledge that it`s day is done and that we need to look for a different model of government?

Churchill`s often quoted (and misquoted) maxim that ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ has a lot to answer for. I believe it has contributed to a complacent view that things might be bad in Europe and the UK, but that we cannot do much about it, and that things still aren’t as bad as they are in other places. But the rise of authoritarianism in China and populism in the USA and Europe are surely warnings for us too. [1] Given how bad things are at this juncture, should we not at least take a hard look at our democratic processes, to see how we can improve and strengthen them?

Five ways to rehabilitate representative democracy

My starting point is that Churchill was fundamentally right: democracy is the foundation for the fairest and least damaging form of politics, but that it can and should be radically improved – even rehabilitated –  to properly address the challenges it faces. So I am not arguing for revolution, but for a radical reform of representative democracy in the tradition of the Hobbesian state.

It has also evolved partly from my own experience of working within national and local government in different capacities. Thus, like all commentators, I am viewing the political scene through a particular prism. Through this prism I have witnessed many chronic deficiencies in the operation of the UK state across both the national and local levels. These problems deserve more detailed explanation[2] but for the purposes of this brief discussion I would summarise them as follows:

  • Political decisions are rarely based on the best evidence or science – that is, the best surveys, analysis, and lessons learnt from previous experiences.[3]
  • The UK government is far too centralised when it comes to making and delivering policy designed to meet the needs of very different geographical, social and economic conditions within the country.
  • The ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP) electoral system is unfair and inefficient at electing political representatives
  • The House of Lords is something of an anachronism, but provides a valuable `second opinion` which deserves to be strengthened.
  • Political parties tend to reduce debate to a `football match` between parties, resulting in decisions that are less likely to be based on an informed debate on the substantive issues.

Most if not all of these criticisms have been rehearsed many times. Not everybody will agree with them, but they are not new arguments. Each of them are substantial in themselves, and together they create a massive dysfunction in the fair and effective running of a representative democracy.

Yet very little headway has been made on them over recent decades. Inertia and the threat they pose to vested interests appear to block the way.

In this paper I propose five major reforms that I think would make representative democracy work properly for our country, and that would help to resolve some of the damaging political tensions that have grown at all levels since the 2008 economic crash and amid the turmoil of the Brexit process,  and which will threaten us again in the aftermath of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Justifying policies and decisions on the basis of firm evidence

I believe we need to strengthen the evidence–based advisory role of the current civil service and local government officials through more coherent and transparent channels of information and analysis. An `Advisory Commission` (working title) would operate on the basis of the `scientific` approach[4], drawing upon the best peer-reviewed evidence from all sources including academia, independent think tanks, NGOs, and professions. Rather than Government drawing upon its favourite, often idiosyncratic, sources, decisions would rather be informed by the best available scientific evidence from a wide range of sources. This evidence would be peer-reviewed, and open to all and would provide the necessary foundation for a fully informed debate by elected representatives. Crucially, policy and decision-makers would be required by law to demonstrate how their decisions were taken in response to the available evidence. [5]

Devolving more power and resources from the centre

The UK is one of the most highly centralised countries in the world.  If we are serious about `levelling up` then we must devolve more power to regions, local authorities and local communities[6] The recently published UK 2070 Commission Inquiry into Regional Inequalities has called for new devolved , decentralised and inclusive administrative structures and resources which are sensitive to national and regional differences and local circumstances, and which  should also engage more people in the political and policy processes.

Make elections fairer

FPTP is manifestly not truly representative. There is nothing new here – the case for a more proportional representational (PR) voting system goes back for more than half a century, and for good reason. FPTP often sees national elections decided by battles in a small number of marginal constituencies. Alongside the US, the UK is one of only a handful of countries that do not have some kind of PR system. There is a body of evidence showing that countries with proportional electoral systems have considerably lower income inequalities, higher spending on social welfare, stronger environmental policies, have a better record on effective government and policy making, and significantly less involvement in armed conflict. [7]

But when it comes to electoral reform, party interests and public inertia – a lack of interest induced by what appears to be abstract, complicated and boring rules of engagement –  conspire to block change. Even when the greatest exponents of PR, the Lib Dems, finally secured a referendum of the subject as part of the 2010 coalition programme for government, it was squandered on the unattractive option of the alternative vote – which is arguably not a truly PR system in the first place. Now in the aftermath of Brexit the two-party state has returned with depressing familiarity, and there is no incentive for either party to change it, with the Conservatives opting for the status quo, for obvious reasons following their massive gains in the 2019 general election, and with Labour seemingly committed to `one more heave` under the estimable Keir Starmer, despite a lively campaign for electoral reform within the party.  So, it will be difficult to dislodge the tribal ambitions of political parties striving for absolute power.

Abolish and replace the House of Lords

Another reform that has been on the table for decades, and still only partially enacted, relates to the role of the House of Lords. The hereditary principle has of course no place in a representative democracy, but there is a case for replacing it with both a House made up of people with outstanding experience and skills which could function as the House of Lords partly does now, that is responsible for scrutinising legislation, and with a Citizens` Forum,  drawn by lot from the electoral register and charged with debating and advising on policies and decisions, informed again by the best information and analysis from the aforementioned Advisory Commission[8]. Both these houses would have significant responsibilities and powers to influence and modify government decisions, with terms of reference that would need to be carefully worked out to reflect their importance, and with responsibilities ranging from making amendments to outright veto power.

Limit the powers of political Parties

This is the most difficult and contentious area for change, but I believe strongly that the motivations and behaviour of political parties themselves lie at the heart of the malaise in our system of governance. While in previous centuries such behaviours grew out of a desire to represent particular interests – classically capital and labour – they now compete to run a complex state divided by many interests that are impossible to encapsulate in any one party. So, politics has become a football match between (and within) different teams competing for power – essentially a game in which victory often goes to the team that appears least worst to a public that are often already cynical about politics. And many take it as normal that the business of government is organised to keep the party of government in power, rather than necessarily to make the best decisions for the country. [9]

But isn’t there a better way? We cannot abolish political parties, but it should be possible to limit them by giving greater opportunities and support for alternative and independent candidates for election;  by giving elected representatives the responsibility for electing the executive – the prime minister and the senior ministers of state – via some kind of electoral college, and by limiting the power of party whips to force elected members to vote in a particular way. In this way, electors could elect the local representatives who best represent their interests.

What could possibly go wrong ?

Apart perhaps from the final proposal above – an electoral college of representatives who choose the prime minister and senior cabinet members –  none of these recommendations are unfamiliar. In fact most of them have been put forward at one time or another over recent decades. So, I am calling for comprehensive reform rather than revolution.

The fact that these reforms have not happened points to the inertia of our political system and the entrenched positions of those who benefit from it.

But leaving aside the barriers to implementing these reforms, what are the downsides? One argument would be that an executive elected by parliamentary representatives would not necessarily make a coherent team. But although the `team` chosen by a prime minister or a party may best represent a particular political `movement`, is it really in the best interests of the country? Is it not more likely to respond to the evidence presented by their selected advisors, rather than a broader base of evidence collated by a peer-reviewed advisory commission?  Even more pertinently, our history shows that executive government is characterised by rivalry, division and conflict, as much as unity or coherence.

A more general criticism is that this system would be too bureaucratic, bogged down in policy reviews and scrutiny, mired in the machinations of advisors and the debates of scientific experts. This was Max Weber`s argument in 1919, when he looked to the charismatic leaders of Western democracy for the way forward in the chaotic aftermath of World War 1, while being unable to foresee the events that followed in Nazi Germany.

And would today`s society accept the abolition of the presidential style election system in the UK, and the ‘X-factor style’ contest between competing politicians? The media would of course also resist this, as much of the `personality` would be taken out of politics. But the record of the last few decades in the UK – and the USA – suggests that the choice of strong, charismatic leaders such as Thatcher, Trump  and Johnson has created or exacerbated divisions in  society, divisions which highlight inequality and conflict.  It may be old-fashioned, but my argument here is that this kind of popular voting  may be fine for sport, entertainment, and celebrity culture, but  not for the political leadership of a complex  Western democracy.

Towards a better democratic model

In this paper I am arguing for a model of democracy that makes far better use of the knowledge, skills and understanding we have over vast areas of economic, social and environmental issues. This evidence is ignored too frequently in our political culture, for the tribal reasons I have outlined. By strengthening the link between policy and evidence, and strengthening the link between voter and politicians, I believe that we could make much better decisions for the good of our society. Those decisions will not always be` right` and will inevitably change as new evidence is gathered, and they will be interpreted differently by different value systems and cultures.  That is part of the scientific learning approach that has served us well in medicine, technology and many other fields of endeavour.

These are radical proposals, and in the UK we do not have a strong tradition of radical reform. Organic change, disjointed incrementalism – muddling through – is more the order of the day. But my argument is that muddling through is no longer adequate. Deep divisions in our society by ethnicity, generation and wealth, recently coming to the fore with public  protests against police behaviour and the toppling of emblems of imperialism, disaffection with existing politicians, and above all the apparent susceptibility of many in the population to populist rhetoric,  all seriously threaten the effective running of elected democracy. The coronavirus  pandemic potentially provides a `moment` that threatens to break up the current order, but also an opportunity for reform.

Essentially my thesis is that representative democracy in the UK and across the West is still stronger and fairer than the alternatives – but only if it is radically strengthened and improved by the kinds of measures I have set out. Otherwise I fear that it could be overtaken by its alternative models, with  demagogues attaining power through charismatic populist appeals to the people, or even with the emergence of totalitarian regimes like in China, that embrace capitalism to deliver the goods to the people but that stamp out personal freedoms.  I believe that by radically reforming representative democracy we can deliver outcomes that would be much fairer and more effective than many of the tribal, prejudiced, and populist decisions made today under cover of a complacent and cynical acceptance of the current distorted conditions of democracy.

And in a period of sustained social, economic and environmental turbulence, we desperately need a political system that delivers fairer and more effective policies and decisions, and that brings people together rather than dividing them.

[1] See The new battle for democracy, by Steve Bloomfield in Prospect, July 2020

[2] I have written about these problems in some detail in town and country planning, the journal of the Town and Country Planning Association

[3] A very recent example is the failure to learn from the results of the pandemic trials run in 2018 which demonstrated the need for stockpiling personal protective equipment in huge volumes.

[4] Paradoxically, the government has made a great show of `following the science` in its policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic. But it has not been transparent in explaining exactly how it has done so.

[5] This does not imply that politicians must `obey` the word of the advisors. Advisors advise and politicians decide. This is not an attempt to create an `epistocracy` – that is, rule by the experts. In any case the `science` works by trial and error, not by ready-made solutions. Nor can experts be purely `objective`. But politicians must show how or why they have interpreted advice in the way that they have.

[6] Make No Little Plans : UK 2070 Inquiry into Regional Inequalities – Towards a Framework for Action;  chaired by Lord Kerslake;  Feb 2020

[7] For example, Birchfield and Crepaz (1998) : The Impact of Constitutional Structures on Income Inequality in Industrialised Democracies; European Journal of Political Research 34: 175-200; Carey and Hix ( 2009). The electoral Sweet Spot: Low -magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems; PSPE Working Paper 01-2009,. LSE London, UK; Lijphart, Arend (2012). Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and performance in thirty six countries. New Haven, CT: Yale Press; Economist Intelligence Unit (2017): Democracy Index 2017.

[8] Citizens` Juries already have a strong track record of performance, especially at the local level.

[9] For example, over the last decade Ministers for Housing and Planning (and no doubt many other Departments) have on average lasted less than 12 months in office. Such appointments are arguably best understood as rewards or as stepping stones for members of the political family.


Trevor Cherrett


Trevor Cherrett is a professional planner with over 40 years` experience in rural policy and implementation at strategic, local and community levels. His career spans work in local and central government, academia, and the independent sector in the UK and abroad. He is currently a member of the Town and Country Planning Association`s Policy Council and actively involved in national and local rural policy issues. Trevor is Chair of the Wiltshire Community Land Trust and a former Board Member of White Horse Housing. He is author of many articles and publications on rural housing, community development and planning.


November’s Bemerton Heath Democracy Café

CLIMATE change and deliberative democracy were on the menu at November’s meeting of Bemerton Heath Democracy Café.

The question revolved around whether a Citizen’s Jury in Salisbury would enhance democratic engagement in combatting climate change.

It was explained that Citizen’s Juries consist of a randomly selected cross-section of the community that then becomes part of the democratic decision-making process – as is happening in Test Valley Borough Council.

There was some scepticism at first about the idea but after rehearsing some of the challenges posed by climate change, it was suggested that Citizen’s Juries may be part of the answer.

The deliberation moved on to the recent demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion. Opinion was divided between whether its actions were counter-productive because they often antagonised ordinary people going about their business, or vital because they high-lighted the threat to the future of the planet in a way that lower profile action did not.

The café is held on the first Saturday in the month at St Michael’s community café in St Michael’s Road between 10am and noon. For more information call Dickie Bellringer on 01722 323453 or



Democracy Café on 12 October

THE resumption of the democracy café after a short break attracted 18 people to deliberate on two weighty subjects.

The first topic chosen by the participants firstly asked whether the pressure on personal choice in relation to climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the petrochemical industry designed to deflect attention from the fact that the real problem lay with it. The second part of the question asked how we were complicit in the unsustainability of our way of life.

At the heart of this topic was the claim that the industries were claiming the moral high ground by making us feel guilty for our actions while at the same time claiming that they were part of the solution, not the problem as such. The point was made that those who campaign for action on climate change are often accused of being hypocrites because they drive a car or fly from time-to-time. A classic example was Piers Morgan who repeatedly asked a members of Extinction Rebellion if she had a television. This, it was suggested, was part of a wider tactic often used by populists in a range of scenarios that seeks to show if you can’t prove that you are not a hypocrite then you must be one.

Not everyone was convinced by the central claim, however, arguing that incremental changes could make a difference. An example was given of a recent story about an ordinary chess player taking on a grandmaster. While the ordinary player could only think two or three moves ahead, the grandmaster could think 10 or more moves ahead, so had an obvious advantage. When asked how he could improve his game, the grandmaster said that instead of thinking tactically or strategically, think positionally. In other words a move that improved ones current position would help your overall play.

Another suggestion was that incremental changes made by individuals could help to change the momentum of change over the years. An interesting argument revolved around the idea that you needed to create the right economic, political and regulatory framework to enable individuals and the petrochemical industries to make the right choices – and as part of this thread the ideas behind nudge-theory were mentioned. There was some scepticism about creating the right political environment because, it was suggested, MPs wouldn’t be selected to stand for election in the first place unless they already held certain entrenched views, including those on climate change.

Another thread in the deliberation revolved around whether or not it was right for the UK to take unilateral action on climate change when the rest of the world didn’t, although this was countered by the examples of Germany and Scandinavian countries which were, it was claimed, already far ahead of the UK in developing sustainable energy.

After the break the café changed the subject to transhumanism, the process by which humanity can be, or maybe in the future, augmented physically and mentally by technology and genetic engineering. The question arose following two BBC Four documentaries about eugenics, which pointed out that eugenic ideology – the idea that you should ‘improve’ the gene pool by encouraging the breeding of people considered to have desirable traits and discourage breeding of those considered to have undesirable traits – actually started in Victorian Britain.

There are, or course, many problems with transhumanism, particularly with instrumental arguments relating to the undesirability of eugenics and, as far as mental improvement is concerned, the problem of defining intelligence. However, the question was couched in terms of a thought experiment in which the participants were asked to imagine that transhumanism would not be used to further eugenic ideology and that we were able to define intelligence. The aim was to find out whether transhumanism in itself and without any side issues, was a development that we should welcome. However, there was widespread scepticism about the validity of the thought experiment and whether you could indeed separate transhumanism from questions about eugenics and intelligence. It was argued that you could not separate these ideas from a sense of subjective superiority inherent Western liberal culture. And the thought experiment itself was symptomatic of that very subjective superiority.

Another argument was that even if, as suggested in the question, the technology for transhumanism was freely available to everyone, there would still be pressures on people that would impact on their personal choice. And although it was suggested that that genetic engineering could be beneficial in curing congenital diseases, it was impossible not to be concerned about the possible misuse of the technology for eugenic ends.

It was suggested that once the technology was out of the bag you couldn’t put it back in, but it was pointed out that there was a national bioethics committee that did make judgements on these sorts of questions.

Yet another strand in this deliberation related to disability, which was one of the central issues raised during the BBC documentaries with the chilling implication that physical and mental disability was in some way undesirable. No-one in the café thought this was a good idea and, indeed, it was pointed out that in many cases disabled people claimed a uniqueness and a valuable view of life that was unavailable to able-bodied people. A classic example of this is the Deaf Community, which has a distinctive and valuable culture of its own that, it argues, should be valued in its own right. Underlying this question was the more fundamental one of who decides what is good or bad, which brought us back to the point earlier about the pressures that individuals might be under to choose a particular ‘improvement’ which might in some future society no longer be seen as an improvement.

At the end of the session we decided to have a vote on who would choose to be immortal. In all 12 voted no, two yes and two don’t know. After the vote it was asked whether people might change their vote if they knew they were going to die tomorrow!

Bemerton Heath Democracy Cafe


OCTOBER’S Bemerton Heath Democracy Café tackled two topics – assisted suicide and the future of physical books.

Discussion of assisted suicide arose following the acquittal of a pensioner charged with a ‘mercy-killing’ murder of her husband who was suffering from a terminal illness.

The deliberation revolved around the conflict between faith and compassions. It was considered that life was in God’s hands, but it was difficult not to feel sympathy for someone who had helped her husband to commit suicide for entirely compassionate reasons.

There was, however, resistance to legalising assisted suicide because of the fear of abuse.

How we value life was also discussed and whether anyone had the right to judge what made a life worth living.

On books it was feared by some that electronic devices were taking over from physical books. It was pointed out that the latter were making a comeback, but the conversation also took in the freedom afforded by digital and online creativity.

Bemerton Heath Democracy Café takes place on the first Saturday of the month between 10am and 12noon in St Michael’s community café in St Michael’s Road.


Participants in the democracy café 

A dialogue on Buddha


AT a recent Salisbury Democracy Café Trevor Wells talked passionately about a book by T R V Murti looking at the central philosophy of Buddhism. I was so fascinated that I bought a copy.  I wrote the following critique and Trevor has kindly responded.  I have included that response below.  Our dialogue continues…

MANY people in the West are interested in the non-religious Buddhism exemplified by Stephen Batchelor in his book Buddhism Without Belief.  More recently writers have been exploring the ways that Buddhist thinking on how the brain forms a model of the world – rather than perceiving it unmediated – chimes with the discoveries of neuroscience.

So, it was with some trepidation that I bought a copy of T R V Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamika System after it was mentioned during a recent Democracy Café. This a complex book, and trying to boil it down to its essence is not easy. But, basically, Madhyamika claims that critical analysis reveals the inherent flaws and contradictions in every theory that ‘cannot be remedied by attention and adjustment’.  According to Murti, however, the rejection of every view or theory by using the logical tool reductio ad absurdum does not mean the ‘acceptance of any other view’. Indeed, the rejection of all ‘thought categories and views is the rejection of Reason to apprehend reality.  The Real is transcendent to thought’.

The essence of the Madhyamika attitude, according to Murti, is to ‘observe the nature of things without standpoints’.  Hypotheses are useful in the field of science where they can be verified (or falsified) by sense-experience but, argues Murti, the ‘procedure…carries a necessary limit with it’ and the problem with philosophical systems is that they ‘adopt this procedure, but discard the limitations’.  Philosophy is distinguished from scientific procedures because it ‘claims to give absolute certain knowledge’.

The Madhyamika method is to ‘deconstruct the mind’ which leads to the ‘purification of the intellect’ and, ultimately, Intellectual Intuition devoid of the two extremes of the Excluded Middle ‘Is’ and ‘Is not’. Criticism in Madhyamika is not a means to an end, ‘criticism itself is philosophy’. Murti lays great store by the confusion and mystery of causation, space and time, particularly the first.  He points to western philosophers, particularly David Hume, whose scepticism led to Kant being aroused from his metaphysical slumber to come up Transcendental Idealism.  Indeed, Kant receives special treatment as being quite close to Madhyamika, even though he was not ‘genuinely convinced of the possibility of Intellectual Intuition, pure knowledge without the mediation of categories’.

But what is Intellectual Intuition?  Well, according to Murti, it is ‘unfathomable, immeasurable, too deep for words, too universal for distinctions to apply’.  And: “Intuition is the Absolute.”  Then we discover that the Absolute is equated with the Perfect Being or God, and Buddha is deified as such – although there is no restriction on the number and form of Perfect Beings, and every ‘being is Buddha in the making’.

What to make of all this?  Well, one could point out a number of apparent inconsistencies.  For example, much is made of demolishing all existing rational theories, but to do so Madhyamika uses a highly rational tool – reductio ad absurdum.  Again, the avowed aim is to create the concept less mind, and yet the notion of Intellectual Intuition sounds very much like, well, a concept.  And why should Intellectual Intuition fill the void?  Why not Schopenhauer’s undifferentiated and amoral force, which he calls the Will?  Achieving a state of Intellectual Intuition seems to be impossible for most of us but Murti argues that the Perfect Being is able to have one foot in the nouminal and one in the phenomenal to enlighten the rest of us – but how can he do that if, as we have seen, Intellectual Intuition is, literally, ineffable?

One might also challenge some of Murti’s claims about Western philosophy, in particular that it is all in search of the universal. That certainly isn’t true of Hume or Nietzsche, indeed the latter’s philosophy is based on criticism from which emerges the ubermensch, like the Perfect Being, beyond Good and Evil.  And his categorisation of agnosticism is, arguably, another Straw Man when he describes it as an ‘attitude of doubt and despair’.  In fact, the man who coined the word, T H Huxley, expressed it positively as ‘follow your reason as far as it will take you’ and negatively as ‘do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable’.

This brings us to the heart of the matter.  There is no doubt that Murti would be able to counter all of the criticisms made in this article but perhaps this isn’t the point.  According to Batchelor Buddhism is first and foremost a method – ‘not something to believe in but something to do’.  And we might adopt another logical tool called Biting he Bullet in which one accepts the rather unpalatable consequences of principles which one is unwilling to jettison.  This is exactly what Hume does.  He argued that even if one could not establish a firm foundation of empiricism by using empirical methods without vicious circularity, we nevertheless have a strong intuition (in the everyday sense of the word) that we do live in a world bounded by causation, space and time, even though these categories seem to disappear at the sub-atomic level.  So, given this strong intuition, rather than going down the a priori route, Hume asks how we can be rescued from scepticism.  He should be seen, therefore, not as a sceptical philosopher but as a post-sceptical philosopher.

For myself, I am conflicted by something similar to the duck-rabbit illusion.  One minute I see materialism, the next transcendentalism. For most of the time, however, I try to live my life according to Huxley’s agnosticism and Bite the Bullet with regard to the limitations of reason, seeking an uncomfortable position between the two.

Dickie Bellringer

The essence of the teachings of the Buddha as they present themselves to me are intended to be understood in a non-religious sense. It is important to recognise that the Buddha considered it the height of foolishness and futility to attempt to make either a positive or negative statement with regard to reality.  He therefore disregarded all views as merely views (drsti).

The Buddha makes clear:

To hold that the world is eternal or to hold that it is not, or to agree with any other of the propositions you adduce is the jungle of theorising, the wilderness of theorising, the tangle of theorising, the bondage and shackles of theorising, attended by ill, distress, perturbation and fever; it conduces not to detachment, passionlessness, tranquillity, peace, to knowledge and wisdom of Nirvana.  This is the danger I perceive in these views which makes me discard them all.

The ultimate anti dogmatism.  Views are to be understood as like a raft used to cross the ocean of existence but to be cast away as the useless things they are once having reached the other side.  They have a purpose but are not an end in themselves.  The Buddhist rejects all views as perfunctory. 

This contention also necessarily implies that the criticism of views is not itself a view.  The criticism of all views is the heart of the Madhyamika approach and the basis of its philosophy.  It is recognised and understood that philosophical debate is inescapably circular by its very nature but nevertheless remains purposeful.  As TS Elliot commented:

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began but to know the place for the first time.

Reason and its dialectical mode is functional for everyday subject/object analysis but reality is a priori not subject to anything because it is not objective, it simply is.  Subject and object are one. Whatever reality is it is not subject to analysis by any means reliant on reason to reveal it.  The Buddhist masters were fully aware that language soon fails to provide a meaningful means of exploration. The purpose is to lead the pupil to discover and manifest direct intuitive understanding.  Intuition of the absolute is the absolute.

The master would enter the room of initiates take his position at the head of the class. Hours would pass without a word spoken. The master would finally exit the room turning to the class and uttering ’’Now do you understand’’.

The Excluded Middle is not the result of synthesis as an expression of the resolution of the dialectical approach.  It is not a resolution it is a transcendence of the level of the dilemma and contradiction inherent within reasons function.  The recognition of the inherent conflict in reason itself is the first step to its transcendence.

I like your description of one minute seeing materialism and the next transcendentalism.  Perhaps the momentary glimpse of the transcendent is what is required to give meaning to the material.

Trevor Wells









The plight of the partisan


 Prof Lea Ypi



Prof Jonathan White







POLITICAL partisans have come in for some stick in recent years. Not only do we have to bear insults like being accused of being part of a dying breed or part of a crumbling political system, we often, despite ourselves, end up defending every cock-up committed by our party of choice out of a sense of loyalty to that party and our fellow members. We are told that parties are a menace, people are fed-up with party politics and should be replaced by a non-party system centred on the individual.

But here, at last, is a book that lends succour to the beleaguered party animal. And it does so in a thoroughly academic way and without trying to eliminate reason from the political landscape – as so many tiresome books have of late. As Jonathan White and Lea Ypi write in their 2016 book The Meaning of Partisanship: “One has learnt to be attentive to the travail of parties, and unlearnt how to see the inspiration behind the partisan stance.” The authors quote civil rights activist Angela Davis as saying: “I needed an anchor, a base, a mooring. I needed comrades with whom I could share a common ideology. I was tired of ephemeral ad-hoc groups that fell apart when faced with the slightest difficulty.”

The authors argue that the ‘collaborative effort to turn individual beliefs and interests into generalizable principles and aims that are defined, proclaimed, and pursued in association with others is valuable from a democratic perspective, we have suggested, as it contributes to the processes of political justification without which the exercise of political power is arbitrary’. Of course, we know that there can be problems and none of what the authors argue is a defence of a particular political configuration. In addition, much of the argument against political parties is that they encourage tribalism. All this is true, but the authors add that if the ‘price of their association is a measure of intransigence, the sacrifice of some independence of thought and action, it is a price worth paying in view of the merits of political commitment’.

Those of us who try to ensure that their party remains true to its overall aims also gains some traction in this book. The authors argue, for example, that party structure should not mask its ‘principled position irreducible to sectoral interest alone’ even though ‘there is a real possibility that the organizing process distorts the terms of the association, putting its basis in question’. The authors are at pains to point out that, while it might be necessary from time-to-time to obscure the normative basis of the party, this should be seen as a pathology and should not become the main driver of the party.

Another important aspect of the party is that its structure should give voice to its partisans ‘proportionate to their position in the ethical life of the association’. And given the time and commitment required to effect lasting change, the ‘party structure should preserve the constancy of the partisan project’. The authors also point to the profound scepticism of ‘those who see fundamental transformations in the social and economic structure of contemporary societies as ruling out the possibility of marshalling  large numbers of people to a cause, or of achieving meaningful political change’. But they add that these are ‘challenges of course to democracy and democratic theory tout court‘. And I would add that part of the aim of the partisanship to which I ascribe is to restore the sense of the individual flourishing as part of the collective, as opposed to a lone wolf whose relationship with others is purely transactional.

The Meaning of Partisanship is an important corrective to the common view that party politics is almost entirely destructive. That does not mean that the current duopoly is good in itself or that there might be welcome changes in the fortunes of smaller parties with, say, the introduction of some form proportional representation. But it makes a powerful case for the benefits of action in association with others. The Meaning of Partisanship is published by Oxford University Press.

Dickie Bellringer


Democracy Café

Brief report of the Café which took place on 13 April 2019

Salisbury Democracy Café on Saturday 13 April was packed with new participants as well as many who come every month.

The first question posed was: Are human rights absolute or relative? That generated a fascinating deliberation that touched on the wider question of the nature of ethics in general.

Arguments ranged from those who believed that human rights had to be absolute and unchanging to participants who claimed that because ethical mores shifted over the centuries human rights had to be relative as well.

The idea that moral laws are out there waiting for us to be discovered has a long and distinguished philosophical history, but questions were raised about how they got there in the first place. Divine action was one possible answer but if that failed then one has to ask why a non-divine, materialistic world would begin with immaterial ethical codes waiting for us to discover them. Nevertheless, proponents of absolute human rights were concerned that if they were not absolute, how could they be protected from arbitrary alteration by the rich and powerful?

However, the dialogue took an interesting turn when it was suggested that the use of the words ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ did not accurately reflect the nature of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not necessarily make claim to the absolute but nor are they quite openly relative. Universal simply means that they apply to everyone and the declaration crystalizes them in a way that prevents easy manipulation while allowing justified changes. A point was made about a phenomenon known as Conquest by Declaration in the same way that Google declared, without challenge, that it had the right to plunder our experiences for its own enrichment. It was also pointed out that it was possible to define certain moral positions, like altruism, in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, making them objective but neither absolute nor universal.

It was an intriguing dialogue, which got us all thinking about things and asking ourselves more questions in a way the democracy café has unique ability to do.

The second question was: Should Julian Assange by extradited to the USA following his forcible removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy? This was a much more confined deliberation, although it did raise questions about the fairness of the justice systems in the UK and the USA. Nobody challenged the justification of extradition in general but concerns were raised about whether or not Assange would get a fair trial in the USA.

Once again the participants in the democracy café proved their ability and willingness to tackle difficult questions in what has become an ‘oasis of reasonableness in a desert of rising intolerance and polarization’.

Dickie Bellringer

We want to have pop-up cafés in other part of the city in order to give as many people as possible the chance to experience deliberative democracy – so if you know of an organisation that would be open to this please let us know.

The aim of the new Salisbury Democracy Alliance – which is advised by Prof Graham Smith and backed by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Wessex Community Action, deliberative democracy experts Talk Shop and Salisbury Democracy Café – is to create Salisbury’s first Citizens’ Assembly. ocked0


WHAT is altruism and what conditions would need to be in place for it to be possible? These are the central questions that the American philosopher Thomas Nagel attempts to answer in The Possibility of Altruism.

I have to concede that this is a book that and I have read and re-read many times since I bought it in the 1970s.  It’s 145 pages of densely packed arguments are difficult and there are some passages that are so opaque that I still don’t fully understand them.  Nevertheless, it has had a major impact on the way that I view the world, so, having tussled with again recently, I thought I would share it with you.

It should be said that Nagel does not rely on the argument of some evolutionists – Richard Dawkins included – that altruism forms part of our genetic make-up.  Rather, he uses pure reasoning.

So, what is altruism?  Well, I take it to mean that an act is altruistic if, and only if, it is a disinterested act intended to benefit another or others.  Note that this a weak form of altruism in that it doesn’t require one to help others at the expense of oneself, only that one does not expect to benefit from the act. But even if this is a weak form, it is still significant because it is distinct from altruism’s arch nemesis – egoism.  Nagel argues that we have a ‘direct reason to promote the interests of others – a reason which does not depend on intermediate factors such as one’s own interests or one’s antecedent sentiments of sympathy and benevolence’.

Nagel relies heavily on his two viewpoints, the personal and impersonal – the ability to see oneself as merely one among many. Put simply, he argues that if from a personal – or subjective – viewpoint one has a reason to do something, like relieve a pain in one’s neck or reduce one’s poverty, then from the impersonal – or objective – viewpoint one has a prima facie reason to relieve a pain in someone else’s neck or reduce their poverty.  “At least sometimes objectification will demand that everyone pursues an uncomplicated end which we acknowledge a subjective reason to pursue… If this is the case, then we have a prima facie reason to secure those ends for others as well as for ourselves.”

It’s important to note that Nagel is not saying that everyone will act altruistically if they have a reason to do so, or that that there are not various situations that ‘may complicate the result when there is a conflict between reasons to help others and reasons to help oneself’.  But he adds ‘even if we allow for these possibilities, the acknowledgement of prima facie reasons to help others is a significant result’. Indeed it is!  For it destroys the egoistic position that everything one does is in one’s own interests.  And this is just as well because earlier in this remarkable little book  Nagel demonstrates how ‘peculiar egoism would be in practice; it would have to show itself not only in the lack of a direct concern for others but also an inability to regard one’s own concerns as being of interest to anyone else, except instrumentally or contingently upon the operation of some sentiment’. He provides a lively example the absurdity of the egoist’s position: “The pain which gives him a reason to remove his gouty toes from another person’s heel does not in itself give the other any reason to remove the heel, since it is not his pain.”

If Nagel’s arguments carry any weight – as I believe they do – then they are an important antidote to the self-interested individualism that runs through the neoliberal project.  As such the neglected The Possibility of Altruism and its equally neglected companion book The View from Nowhere, also by Nagel (published by Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press respectively) deserve to be revived.

Dickie Bellringer

Surveillance Capitalism – a waking nightmare

In her new book Shoshona Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as a ‘new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales’.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a must-read for anyone interested in the roll that the giant internet companies play in our society – and surely that must mean all of us. It reveals much more than the slick advertising of ‘smart’ machines over ‘dumb’ humans and the way that these companies prey on our psychological vulnerabilities.

This, according to Zuboff, is a ‘parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behaviour modification’. And she argues that it is as ‘significant threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world’.

Under this new economic hegemony instead of, as Marx put it, capital being the vampire that feeds on labour, surveillance capitalism ‘feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience’. It is no longer nature that is the raw material of capitalism – we humans are!

It all began almost by mistake when Google realised that the ‘behavioural surplus’ that was clogging up its servers as ‘data exhaust’ could be bundled together to create powerful and accurate predictions of human behaviour. That in turn could be deployed to modify human behaviour. Google simply declared, without any apparent challenge, that it claimed ‘human experience as raw material free for the taking’ in what Zuboff describes as being ‘conquest by declaration’.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism also provides us with the philosophical underpinning of what Zuboff calls ‘instrumentarian power’. One of its high priests is Alex Pentland, the director of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT’s Media Lab, whose ‘God’s eye view’ of animals is transposed to humans and declares that he doesn’t much like the ‘despotism of democracy’. Democracy, it turns out, is unwelcome friction in the otherwise smooth transition to perfect prediction of human behaviour through behavioural modification. In his thinking the sheer speed of the digital world outpaces the slow machinations of human deliberation and negotiation that characterises traditional politics. So, ‘computation replaces the political life of the community as the basis of governance’. And this process speeds up even more as the internet becomes decoupled from computers and smart ‘phones as it enters the real world with the Internet of Things.

Zuboff wtites: “This shift from society to swarm and from individuals to organisms is the cornerstone upon which the structure of an instrumentarian society rests.”

In his 2015 book Postcapitalism Paul Mason takes a rather more benign view of the internet because it allows the possibility of zero-priced goods in the webbed network as the spread of free information undermines the hierarchical interests of the corporations. He mentions in passing that part of the latter’s fightback is the ‘creation of monopolies on information’. According to Zuboff, however, this monopoly is the new capitalism. The question then arises as to how the creators of goods and services maintain their prices as ‘things’ become a part of the flow and the real value lies in the cheap information it contains.

Well, it has been known for some time that there is no such thing as a free market, except in the sense that the corporations demand freedom from regulations and interference. The masters of advertising have always played on our human frailties and in particular over the last 30 years or so have been working to infantilise us by encouraging us to want some ‘thing’ NOW instead of waiting until we have enough money to pay for it and by urging us to ditch cash in favour of plastic because it’s easier to part with our money. Nevertheless, the Internet of Things does present new problems for the ‘makers’ and they are having to think of new ways of pricing through mechanisms like subscriptions, pay-per-use and value sharing. At the same time surveillance capitalism does appear to create a tectonic shift away from the ‘makers’ to the information gleaners and Marx’s old adage in the Communist Manifesto that ‘all that is solid melts into air’ springs to mind.

In the meantime, Zuboff urges us to be the friction that Pentland so despises and she is as one with Mason as she attacks the inevitability that the tech giants exploit to make it seems as though there is no alternative. She writes: “Friction, courage, and bearings are the resources that claim the digital future as a human place, demand that digital capitalism operates as an inclusive force bound to the people it must serve, and defend the division of learning in society as a source of genuine democratic renewal.” Indeed, although in my darkest moments I wonder whether we have already become resigned to our fate through this sense of inevitability and helplessness, and that we will eventually collaborate in our own demise as Joseph K finally does in Kafka’s The Trial – heads bowed staring into the abyss of the black mirror that reflects our empty selves.

Dickie Bellringer