Associative Democracy

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= concept and book: " revives Guild Socialist good practice to seek a new economic democracy framework beyond the level of the firm, namely horizontally and bioregionally."


Book: Associative Democracy. New Forms of Economic and Social Governance. By: Paul Hirst. Polity Press, 1993.


"In this book Paul Hirst makes a major contribution to democratic thinking, advocating "associative democracy"; the belief that human welfare and liberty are best served when as many of the affairs of society as possible are managed by voluntary and democratically self-governing associations."


Paul Hirst:

"Associative democracy is a normative political theory. Its core propositions are as follows:

1.That as many social activities as possible should be devolved to self-governing voluntary associations.

2.That by doing so the complexity of the state will be reduced and the classical mechanisms of democratic representative government will be able to work better.

3.That self-governing voluntary associations should, wherever possible, replace forms of hierarchical corporate power. This would give the affected interests voice and thus promote government by consent throughout society and not merely formally in the state.

4.That for many essential public functions, such as health provision, education and welfare, voluntary associations should provide the service and receive public funds for doing so.

Associationalists contend that there are in any complex and free society different versions of what the good life should be and the task of the state is to help realize as many of these as possible not to impose one of them. The state can and must perform the core functions of assuring public peace, adjudicating in clashes of norms and mobilizing resources for public purposes. Unlike economic liberal doctrines that seek to limit the functions of the state and expand the scope of the market, associationalism seeks to expand the scope of democratic governance in civil society. It also like free market doctrines seeks to promote choice through competition, but it does so by giving individuals the option to move between non-profit making associations. Individuals have voice within associations and the option of periodic exit to move between them. This combination constrains associations to attend to the needs of their members, if voice fails or is too arduous then exit is an effective challenge to entrenched oligarchy.

Associationalism is thus a political theory that combines a normative appeal with an account of the working of institutions. It is relatively unusual in that modern political theory has tended to become purely normative, concerned with exploring concepts like equality or rights, and in consequence concern for the effects of institutions has fallen to political science. In this sense its combination of advocacy and reference to institutions is much more like traditional political theory, such as Aristotle or Rousseau. This does not mean that it is old fashioned. The present division between normative and supposedly value-free discourses is not helpful in promoting political debate about institutions.

Associationalist doctrines have a long pedigree stretching back to the early nineteenth century. Associationalism is the original ‘Third Way’ between free-market capitalism and centralized state socialism. It declined from the 1920s onwards with the success of political movements advocating state socialism and the increasing concentration of state power inevitable in a century of social and international conflict. Associationalism returned in the late twentieth century as a doctrine of social reform and democratic renewal. It attempts to address a double crisis of the declining effectiveness of representative democracy and the increasing dissatisfaction with centralized and standardized state welfare. It attempts to address the issue of democratic accountability in extensive public service states by separating funding and provision, making the state responsible for core decisions about the scope and cost of services but not attempting to perform the conflicting roles of provider and source of accountability for provision. Associationalism argues that far from being one welfare state, there would be as many as citizens chose to organize, catering for the different values of individuals, but based on common basic public entitlements. Individuals could then top up the basic public provision distributed according to membership and thus craft or enhance services to meet their own needs. In this way they would control their own collective consumption and be willing to contribute to common public services (associations would only receive public funds if they were open to all and willing to provide a service on the basis of public entitlements). Associationlism has returned as a doctrine of renewal in several contexts: as a means of promoting decentralized but public governance as a counter to economic liberal dominance of public debate in the USA; as a means of countering excessive centralization in the UK and also addressing the crippling effects of tax aversion on welfare; and in Italy as a means of coping with the problems of the failure of the central state by relying on civil society and the third sector to provide governance and services. Other societies like Denmark or the Netherlands have long put associative principles into practice, and it can be seen that their democratic institutions have benefited from such decentralization and pluralism.

Associationalism has the merit, as we shall see below, that unlike most political doctrines, it confronts the fact that we live in a society where goods and services, public and private, are mostly provided by large hierarchically directed organizations. These are organizations over which consumers have little control through voice and frequently have no real option of exit. The widespread processes of privatization of public services and the conversion of government bodies into quasi-autonomous agencies reinforces this character of modern societies as organizational societies and blurs the division between public and private spheres. Of all the reform doctrines now current, only associationalism gives due recognition to the reality of an organizational society and seeks to address the problem by democratizing institutions in civil society and by decentralizing the state. It thus responds to the blurring of the public-private divide by attempting to install mechanisms of democratic governance in the institutions on both sides." (

Discussion by Paul Hirst


"Democracy can be renewed but on two conditions. First, that the burden placed on representative institutions by complex public service states is reduced but without reducing public services. Associationalism provides for governance that is public but non-state. Second that the role of non-state institutions in promoting the habits of association and participation is promoted. Renewing modern democracy is not easy, nor are associational solutions easy to implement or without risks, the alternative is the sclerosis of representative institutions and the erosion of democratic manners." (

Source: Paul Hirst, Renewing Democracy through Associations − a summary paper for Essex University and the European Consortium for Political Research, 2002:

URL = .

Institution-building through associations

Paul Hirst:

"Political theorists from Tocqueville to Dahl have stressed the central role of secondary associations in providing the institutional foundations of political pluralism and thus of viable multi-party political contestation. Robert Putnam has questioned how healthy American democracy can remain if its roots in voluntary association outside formal politics atrophy. The danger is the development of a demotic but post-political society. That is, a society that is culturally if not economically egalitarian, and that lacks cultural elites and genuine political leadership. In such a system elites are political and business managers who owe their power to their office, but lack any broader legitimacy based on ideas or a personal following. In such a system low levels of political participation mean that, on the one hand, the political agenda is prey to the actions of determined and untypical minorities, as the success of the religious right in local and state politics in the USA shows, and, on the other hand, to periodic outbursts of majority opinion orchestrated by the media. In such a demotic system with a depoliticised mass culture and a dissociated public the dangers both of narrow minority rule and the tyranny of the majority are magnified. This is reinforced by the disappearance of political doctrine that provides a public language for politics (this is different from “ideology”) and thus a medium in which political leadership can be expressed.

Tocqueville and J.S. Mill feared just such an outcome from social leveling and mass democracy. So far they have been proved wrong. The reasons are the antidotes Tocqueville saw in the United States, political decentralization and a strong culture of associations. Yet both of those antidotes seem threatened by the centralization of power in organizations and the decline in voluntary activism.

It may seem quixotic in this context to propose enhancing the role of associations in governance as a strategy for democratic renewal. Associative democracy appears to rely on the very resources of participation and voluntarism that the available evidence suggests are declining in many countries across the developed world. As we shall see, associationalist solutions do not inherently require high levels of activism and they are able to cope with large organizations. Associative democracy is the one doctrine that explicitly focuses on the role of organizations and proposes a way to make representative government work by reducing the burden on its institutions. I shall argue that there are urgent reform issues to which associative solutions are the most viable options and that there are forms of political agency that can work toward implementing those solutions. Such solutions would provide new forms of association and governance, localizing democracy in simple decisions that people make in everyday life.

The point to make here is that associative democracy does not have strong competitors in the field of institution building. The other alternative doctrines that attempt to address the crisis of democracy shy away from the task of rebuilding institutions and of promoting the inclusion of the mass of the people. Deliberative democracy appears to offer a solution to low levels of formal participation, yet for that very reason it is weakly inclusive. In practice it accepts the fact of non-participation and creates substitute forums in which the voices of some of the people come to stand for the whole. It is no answer to the problem of inclusion and it largely ignores the problem of political alienation. Peoples’ voices do not matter in everyday life; they are managed and excluded. The only way to change this is to give them simple forms of power that they can use without undue effort as a matter of everyday practice, not to convert a sub-set of the people into a deliberative elite to advise managers on how to make policies for the rest. Equally problematic are fashionable “Third Way” doctrines that aim to substitute network governance and ‘soft power’ for rigid institutions and the ‘hard power’ of states. This idea may appear to consult and to link people, but it only enhances democracy if networks can be made open and inclusive. This requires institutionalization and the existence of rules that outsiders can understand, weakening the flexible nature of ‘soft power’. Otherwise networks become new forms of exclusive power of benefit to insiders, opaque to outsiders, and over which those affected by the actions of network members have no redress." (

Associative Democracy vs. Network Governance

Paul Hirst:

"In a similar vein social theorists like Manuel Castells have emphasized the growing salience of network power and the declining role of formal institutions. Such networks are built up by interaction and can be regarded as a form of association. Networks within and between nations, public and private, legitimate and criminal are the emerging forms of governance. Whilst it is helpful to see other arguments for the continued relevance of association, I am not going to rely on such claims here because I think they are deeply flawed. There are good reasons to be skeptical about the claims of the advocates of a new network politics and of theorists like Castells.

The main problem with network governance, as I have claimed above, is that networks tend to be exclusive, and thus of differential benefit to insiders, and also evanescent, because they are weakly institutionalized they are difficult to sustain. States remain far more central than either the advocates of global democratic associations or of network governance believe. The kind of associations that are necessary to renew national level democracies are institutions and primarily nationally focused ones concerned with the provision of services. Such institutions are voluntary but they have rules, they persist through time, and they are inclusive in the sense that anyone who subscribes to their objectives can join them. Relatively stable institutions are needed to address the problems of uncertainty and risk. Networks are either, too fluid to do this alone, or, they are themselves institutionalized to a considerable degree, using forms of monitoring to ensure the commitments of their members. Networks that can ensure compliance and thus routinize contributions from members are more robust than those which need constantly to renew cooperation and which rely on voluntary compliance. Thus the Danish cooperative dairies would have failed had they not developed means to monitor milk quality and thus prevent free riding on other’s efforts.

Networks made up by links between associations, with robust mechanisms for ensuring compliance, are a valuable supplementary means of extending the scale and scope of associational governance. It is also the case that new communications media, like the Internet, simplify coordination, making it easier and less costly. Thus they help to overcome problems of collective action created by social dispersal, but only if there are real associative foci around which such virtual networks can constellate. Virtual networks cannot replace real associations, not least because they create new problems of monitoring and compliance. They can, however, help the formation of associations by finding new members at low cost." (

Associational Governance and Pluralism

Paul Hirst:

"There is the necessity of accommodating plural communities with differing values and standards, including ethic, religious, and lifestyle groups. People have very different ideas of how life should be regulated, how risks should be contained, and the type public goods they deem necessary. The obvious solution is to embrace such pluralism fully and to accept parallel governance by community associations, different communities applying different standards side by side. This idea terrifies traditional social democrats and republicans, who believe in universal provision and a common political culture. Yet we are closer to a common political culture than we have been for a century, all significant political forces accept representative democracy and the primacy of the market. Rightist and Volkisch parties want to exclude refugees and migrants, but they cannot impose cultural homogeneity and they know it.

There are two ways of accommodating self-regulating communities, geographical exception and parallel rules. In the former different rules apply or the principal rules are not enforced in certain special zones, for example, Manchester’s gay village or the localized tolerance of prostitution and cannabis smoking in the Netherlands. In the latter communities apply their own customary laws to their consenting members, to some extent this already applies, for example, in the case of Jewish family law. Such practices can be extended to remove most conflicts over social standards, with the proviso that citizens must be free not to consent and to exit communities, and that such rights be upheld by the state. The state remains the arbiter of which rules have primacy and it is still a representative democracy in which the majority has the option of insisting that certain rules apply to all.

There is significant support for such community governance from many minority communities, including strongly the various Muslim communities. This frightens those who fear Islamic extremism, yet most Muslims wish quietly to govern themselves alone, are not fanatics and not wish to impose their will on others. Empowering minority communities is more likely to promote their adaptation to a pluralistic host society than more or less open policies of assimilation. Facilitating community services through public funds available to associations proportional to membership, for schools, welfare centres and so on, is one way to allow local control and prevent alienation. This does not just apply to ethnic and religious minorities. Many interests are ill served by the existing system. Gays often find existing medical treatment condescending, and many parents of dyslexic children in London would like public funds to establish a secondary school, to pick two examples at random. One does not have to be an Amish to want to live a different life according to one’s own rules and to have public services that meet ones’s specific needs. A society of strong communities is more likely to sustain democracy, albeit a conflictual and contestational one, than a society of isolated and passive individuals." (

As an alternative to corporate governance

Paul Hirst:

"there is the necessity of renewing the governance of organizations. We live in an organizational society, yet the forms of control over large organizations both public and private have atrophied. This is most evident in the case of companies. Shareholders in Anglo-Saxon systems seldom exercise the political rights they do have, they exit if they are not satisfied and the secondary market in shares lets them do so easily. They also rely on the market to sanction company management. The notion of the republic of shareholders under the 1862 Companies Act in the UK, which made corporate status readily available for the first time, was intended as the primary means of protecting investor rights, but it has long been a fiction. Other stakeholders have no political rights and often no easy exit option through the market. Modern companies exhibit a clear divorce of ownership and control, where dispersed and indifferent shareholders leave policy to managers. It would hardly be possible to claim that corporate governance performs its political functions well, almost no aspect of the current system is satisfactory from passive shareholders, to weak non-executive directors, to compliant auditors. Yet corporations organized the major part of formal social life.

It is thus essential to consider the role of alternatives to corporate structures. Corporate careers do not breed democratic habits, but compliant and conformist personalities. Low institutional accountability within companies is coupled with the absence of an external challenge from alternative institutions. It is difficult to live outside the structures of hierarchical management or to find the equivalent of the nineteenth century “frontier”, beyond which one can escape. The presence of such alternatives is an essential check on the power of hierarchical organizations over people. They give people the option of exit and to the extent they are readily available temper the power of managerial hierarchies and the conformist norms they impose. Unions did this to some extent, but in the private sector in the UK and USA union density is low, and the current tendency of unions is to promote the further bureaucratization of work. Checking the power of management was once seen as part of “industrial democracy”, extending control collectively to workers, now it should be seen as part of the preservation of democracy in general, promoting the independence of citizens and giving them the experience of exercising authority themselves.

It is unlikely that any generalized reform of corporate governance is possible in the foreseeable future. The managerial class has too much influence and people will identify it with socialism. Promoting alternatives is by no means impossible, however. Thus promoting a strong small business and artisan sector gives individuals an alternative to big corporations and it encourages competition. Likewise defending and extending the mutual sector has the same effect, if mutuals are recognized a distinct institutions that need to be run on the basis of different goals to conventional corporations. This can only happen if public policy makes such alternative options attractive and ring fences them by protective laws. The scope for mutual initiative is considerable, but it depends on the revival of cooperative and mutual political movements. There is some sign that this is happening on a local level, but so far it has been met by indifference from the major political parties." (

=Further Discussions

Paul Hirst and the Pluralist State

Rosemary Bechler:

"How could such a competition for community standards be contained and the conflict of competing lifestyle groups, mitigated? The only way to contain the conflicts arising from cultural heterogeneity, he thought, is to extend the principle of pluralism from belief to conduct.

The state should become only one governing body among many, strictly neutral between the sects, a limited rather than an omnicompetent body. It would be the primary source of such essential, binding rules as those governing non-violence and rights of associational exit and entry. But it would only have primacy in its specific function of securing ‘the freedom of individuals in respect of associations and the rights of associations with respect to each other.’

A pluralist state that had devolved governance through the forms of cooperation and competition available to associations in this way, publicly funded according to a common formula, could maximise opposition to extremists who use the freedom of political association to promote their own cause, while minimising the stake of competing for political power. Groups would have to give up trying to shape the laws that apply to all, to suit their beliefs alone. They would exchange the ultimately futile struggle for dominance of the political agenda for the practise of governing themselves and competing to realise their beliefs about conduct. The monocultural echoing chamber of the national media would disappear as the plethora of constituencies, large and small, moderate and extremist, were cut down to whatever size they are. As he put it, adding cheerfully that this formulation should at least appeal to Christians, who believe in Original Sin, “Power divided and limited reduces the damage that evil people can do if they acquire it, and also their incentive to do so… “

The alternative is stark. The liberal state, which claims to respect the rights of the individuals, must be increasingly engaged in undermining those rights by acting against the institutions where individuals pursue their common life. This was the second, equally important gain, that it could stem the turn towards totalitarianism of a state ever-more engaged in enforcing legal and cultural homogeneity.

For Hirst instead, a “truly plural society” can only flourish where it is recognised, “that democratic governance does not consist just in the powers of citizen election or majority decision, but in the continuous flow of information between the governors and the governed, whereby the former seek the consent and cooperation of the latter.” His associations are not isolated Burkean little platoons designed for keeping people quiet and bound into the hierarchy, where a well-ordered family is a good dress rehearsal for revering one’s monarch. The hugely various forms of horizontal cooperation and competition that he pursues in Associative Democracy across local and regional levels, buttressed by an activist, interventionist but pluralist state, have one thing in common – they educate through the voluntary encounter with others, thereby increasing the capacity for self-governance of the people involved. Citizens learn, through negotiation, how to live side by side. Even the least active have far more sway than citizens living in liberal democracies today, both in terms of voice and – more crucially – in terms of exit. This negotiation is what democratic citizenship is, and its skills emerge from the promotion of choice through competition.

For Hirst, self-governance is grounded in voluntary, and cooperative initiatives: and it is part of an attempt to build something, not to prevent others from building something different. It is only this liberty, exercised in our own interest, which teaches us that, “We cannot claim liberty for ourselves while at the same time denying it to others.” Hirst knew that it was essential to find new sources of social solidarity: “Solidarity” he said,” cannot be taken as a given, it has to be built up from active cooperation in more complexly-divided and more individuated populations.” Because he took these sophisticated and individuated populations seriously for who they were, he put empowerment, “rather than the illusory hope of equality of outcomes as the means to the goal of social justice” at the core of his vision.

The left who tend to make an exception of themselves when it comes to Hirst’s opening premise that there cannot be one overarching judge imposing his or her view of the good life on any complex and free society, balk at this decision. But for his part, Hirst was convinced that the gains of such a move were considerable (even for the left). Associationalism might have a chance precisely because this “vital supplement to existing institutions” could give “a real stake in society” to “a constituency that goes way beyond the left”. In his discussion of religious pluralism he listed, for example, “radical advocates of multicultural policies, religious conservatives and many secular liberals” i.e. nearly all of those most actively concerned with the relationship between religion and the state, as all expressing “strong dissatisfactions with the existing state of affairs.” All of these, he reasoned, not to mention the many as yet relatively untouched by such concerns, could only benefit from the opportunity given them by associative democracy to practise what one preaches.

Hirst was quite scathing about “social democratic conservatives wedded to the nation state” for whom associationalism was “too radical”. But we have to remember, as Graham Smith reminds us in his cogent contribution to Revisiting Associative Democracy, that Hirst also gave the state a particularly significant role in this gradualist project of reform, which would not become widespread, “unless it has a state at least not actively hostile.” It is this balancing act or calculation regarding the state that he left us to consider, a consideration I believe germane to the future of democracy." (