States that Build Citizen Power and Joy

by | 21 Apr 2021

In her recent article for CLT, Davina Cooper calls for the urgent reimagination of the state. She calls upon critical theorists to move beyond critique of the current state form, and ask the deeper questions: what is the state for? What does it mean to be a state? And, crucially, what could it come to mean? Echoing her appeal for the Left to think about statecraft in terms of a proactive project of reimagination, here I offer the beginnings of a response to these questions.

For forty years, neoliberal governance practices, processes, and institutional forms have sculpted the ‘possible field of action’ of citizens, based on a notion of the forms of social interaction which should be encouraged, and those which must be limited. The notional justification for this is that people and organisations are at their best when encouraged to behave as atomised ‘utility maximising’ individual agents, in competition with one another.1This is not to suggest that the claims of neoliberal policymakers and theorists should always, nor even often, be taken in good faith. But this particular picture of human flourishing does explain how neoliberalism has been legitimated and is part of its persisting allure.The result, however, are societies without the social resources to overcome the (inherently collective) existential challenges we face.

A left project of statecraft should start by asking: what is the theory of human and societal flourishing to which we subscribe?  And, on this basis, what are the modes of social interaction and agency our institutional structures should be designed to facilitate and encourage?

To answer this question, I suggest we turn to the philosophical tradition which stems from Baruch Spinoza. Where neoliberal governance is based on a picture of people at their best when forced to compete, Spinoza recognised the inherently interconnected nature of people and their ability to act and affect change in the world. For Spinoza, our capacities – what he called our ‘potentia’ – are a product of our past experiences of productive collaboration with other people and other things, and our ongoing material conditions which make such positive collaborations more or less difficult. Through positive encounters with others, we increase our capacities to act – our agency – and it is this kind of empowerment which is behind all feelings of pleasure or joy.

A Spinozan state would be designed to facilitate and encourage such productive encounters between people and between people and things. State institutions and processes would be structured to encourage citizens to freely collaborate and take control, thereby building their capacities, agency and society’s potentia. This sounds far-fetched, even like science fiction. But in parts of Latin America, this is quite a lot like what governments have tried to do.

A new constitutional model

Between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, new governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, embarked upon three uniquely participatory, collaborative and inclusive processes of constitutional transformation. These processes and the constitutions they produced have been hailed as amounting to a new constitutional model – ‘the new Latin American constitutionalism’ – that is based on a fundamentally different understanding of the relationship between ordinary people and the state.

The Morales, Correa, and Chávez governments came to power by surfing a wave of movements for constitutional change. Election campaigns promising to ‘Re-found the state’ captured the popular sense that state institutions and structures were outdated, undemocratic and responsible for many of society’s ills.

Upon taking power, referenda were held on the creation of ‘national constituent assemblies’: extraordinary bodies that would have the power to completely restructure the state, creating and dissolving state institutions and foundational laws. The electorates of each country in turn voted in favour of this dramatic proposal, and lengthy participatory democratic processes followed. Elected delegates (from civil society and social movements, as well as political parties) solicited proposals for the new constitutions from the public, and parallel meetings and negotiations took place across civil society, where indigenous social movements, neighbourhood groups and other actors met to deliberate and develop proposals. The final constitutional texts were presented to the public for ratification via national referenda and were approved by substantial majorities (64% in Bolivia, 69% in Ecuador, and 72% in Venezuela).

Common features of the three constitutions include a commitment to transform the material conditions of society, increased state intervention in the economy, increased emphasis on social, economic, and cultural rights, and an arguably unprecedented assertion of indigenous rights and philosophies. Both Bolivia and Ecuador declared themselves ‘plurinational states’, recognising the indigenous nations which predate colonialism. Describing the inauguration of Bolivia’s constituent assembly in 2006, Nancy Postero captures something of the social and somatic significance of these changes: “[It was] attended by delegations from all the country’s indigenous groups and social movements. Many carried signs reading ‘¡Nunca Más Sin Nosotros!’ (Never Again Without Us!). . . . I was there and can attest to the incredible feeling of social revolution in the air.”

Constitutions which recognise and build ‘constituent power’

Most significant, however, from a constitutional perspective, is their emphasis on ‘constituent power’. The notion of ‘constituent power’ was made famous during the French Revolution by Emmanuel Sieyes, who distinguished between the constituted power (the state; its offices, institutions and procedures) and the constituent power (‘the people’; the force which originally created the state). Sieyes argued that it is ‘the people’ who have authority over the state; and the right to change it. The theory became the defining myth of the revolution and provided the theoretical basis for the 1789 national constituent assembly and the first written French constitution.

Constituent power remains an important concept within traditional (liberal) constitutional theory. The notion of an original ‘founding moment’ when ‘the people’ created the state serves as the ongoing source of legitimacy for the modern-day state. But practically speaking, the concept is without teeth. There are no instances in which a new constituent power might be recognised as a legitimate authority over the existing constitutional regime.

In fact, the main purpose of traditional constitutions is to limit opportunities in which a majority could change the fundamentals of the state or constitution.

New Latin American constitutionalism takes a completely different approach. Here, the aim is to deliberately support the emergence and expression of ‘constituent power’ within the structures of the state. A somewhat paradoxical arrangement, these constitutions deliberately create spaces in which the seeds of their own destruction might grow. Popular mobilisation is seen as a vital part of the constitutional order, hence Illan rua Wall’s evocative description of this as “the constitution of turbulence”.

In practice, this is done, firstly, through constitutional provisions for triggering a new constituent assembly process should a future citizenry deem this necessary, and for the recall of any elected official, including the president (via petitions and referenda). And secondly, through institutionalising a diverse range of participatory and direct democratic mechanisms and initiatives. Examples have ranged from municipal level constituent assemblies, to worker control of public industries, to participatory budgeting, to exponentially growing the cooperatives sector, to Communal Councils and Urban Land Committees, which supported and financed local residents to resolve community problems through forming democratic community-wide organisations. These diverse forms – trialled at different places and times – have experimented with how to facilitate collective, participatory self-governance and have opened up diverse and sometimes transformative experiences of collective agency for the people involved.

Does this kind of constitution change how people think, feel and act?

Researchers interested in how state structures and processes shape public consciousness have tended to focus on neoliberal states. What we understand far less is how the state might be experienced as liberatory, transformative and empowering. Of course, there is much less material to draw on. However, stories and anecdotes from those who have participated in these recent constitutional experiments in Latin America suggest that the state can sometimes be experienced in this way. In other words, that a positive form of governmentality with which to replace neoliberalism might at least be possible.

As a foreigner living in Bolivia in 2010/11, (several years after Morales came to power and the Plurinational state was founded) I remember being struck by a disorientating, unfamiliar atmosphere within civil society spaces. From a dusty public hall or old classroom, movement leaders and other civil society actors would deliberate the details of the major global transformations required to tackle the climate crisis and how these would be achieved. Discussed in earnest were ideas and questions unsayable in a UK context, at the time, (unless wrapped in reassuring irony to clarify: ‘Of course I’m not suggesting this could actually happen!’)  In Bolivia, there was a visceral sense of agency and possibility I was entirely unused to. People took themselves seriously, as agents within wider national and even global struggles.

Describing the Ecuadorian constituent assembly, Catherine Walsh highlights how these kinds of ‘bottom up’ constitution writing processes can – when done right – be vehicles to raise and transform public consciousness:

“In its organization and practice, the Ecuadorian Constitutional Assembly worked pedagogically to engender, enable, and push this ‘thinking with’ [the ‘historically subjugated, denied and negated’].  The popularly elected Assembly women and men did not represent political parties but social and political movements and varied social sectors and regions of the country. Most were new to the political arena, were of a younger generation, and were there to contribute to the learning, thinking, and debate entailed in the shaping and making of the Constitution. Organization was through thematic mesas that endeavoured to study the issues of concern with readings, discussions and debates, and invited presentations. Only with consensus and profound understanding did these mesas then propose to the plenary the articles for consideration. As one of the invitees and as an ongoing unofficial advisor to an Afro-Ecuadorian Assembly woman, I can attest to the sociopolitical, epistemic, and pedagogical significance of this practice and process.”

The state as a ‘potentially liberatory process of collective engagement’

The innovation here was not only in the process by which these constitutions were developed, but in the new constitutional orders that were produced. Naomi Schiller employs the notion of the ‘processual state’ to characterise Venezuelan community groups’ approach to the state as a “potentially liberatory process of collective engagement”. Drawing on ethnographic research with community media producers in Caracas she describes how they “experienced, created and depicted the state first and foremost as a work in progress, a collection of institutions in which they participate and a liberatory endeavour”. To be sure, this did not undo past experiences of the state as an apparatus of violent coercion, and at times it is still experienced as “an adversarial coherent force”. However, what is new is an explicit and self-conscious approach to the state as an “unfolding project”, an “ongoing and uneven process of deliberation”, and “something that can be used by ordinary citizens, to challenge inequalities”.

The achievements of these governments should not be romanticised. Linda Farthing describes the Morales government as presiding over an ‘opportunity squandered’. Incredible social gains notwithstanding, the government ultimately failed to move away from an extractivist development model, heavily dependent on multinational corporations. This led to the government’s violation of many of the new constitutional rights and the progressive alienation of sections of the indigenous and campesino movements which brought them to power in the first place. Correa’s government followed an even more disappointing course (after similarly impressive social gains). And following the collapse in global oil prices, Venezuela’s desperate economic situation is threatening the future existence of the Bolivarian project. 

However, none of failings were related to their experiments in being open, porous, participatory states. If we are interested in real world attempts to restructure the relationship between the state and ordinary people, creating a fundamentally different kind of state, explicitly intended to build the power and capacities of ordinary people and foster self-governance: then this is where we should start by looking.

Building ‘potentia’ through local, municipal, and civil society spaces

Appreciating how the form and orientation of the state is relevant to the fabric of our daily lives, delimiting our thoughts, desires, and behaviours, adds to the case for re-thinking the structures of the British state. However, beginning to transform the state does not require waiting for a national constituent assembly process. As Cooper reminds us, the state is not a single coherent thing, but a collection of many different, sometimes contradictory institutions, processes, officials, and representations, operating at national, municipal and local levels. As many have argued recently, the most important national policies and initiatives in the UK have often started at the local level. (The NHS, as the best example, was based on a Welsh village’s collective insurance programme).

Neoliberal governance practices could spread so quickly across the world because they shared a common DNA; an aim and orientation, based on a story of what it looks like to flourish. To be as effective, progressives must do the same. But instead of contriving the conditions for competition between individuals at every turn, the aim could be to foster positive potentia within the citizenry. Policies, processes, and institutions within local and municipal spaces, and across civil society, should be developed or transformed with this common orientation; creating spaces which enable and encourage diverse groups of citizens in diverse contexts to collaborate to take control, pooling their unique insights and creative potential to solve common problems. Innovative new institutional forms like the recently developed model for Public-Common Partnerships, and community initiatives like Margate’s Millions’ experiments in local deliberative democracy, show the beginnings of what this might look in practice.

Forty years of neoliberalism has created societies of tired people with limited emotional and psychological resources to solve the complex crises we are facing – or to resist the rise of the far right. Rational arguments and statistics – about the need to reduce emissions, the effects of Brexit on the economy, and so on – do not address this problem. Institutional structures which shift the affective dynamics within society, building citizens’ individual and collective psychic resources through different experiences of collective agency, can begin to do so.

Carys Hughes is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of East London

This article is published here with thanks to openDemocracy, where an earlier version appeared originally as part of their ‘Left Governmentality’ Mini-series.

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    This is not to suggest that the claims of neoliberal policymakers and theorists should always, nor even often, be taken in good faith. But this particular picture of human flourishing does explain how neoliberalism has been legitimated and is part of its persisting allure.

1 Comment

  1. Spinoza-namedropping. & untrue. In de ‘Staatkundige Verhandeling’ is only the last and short chapter eleven devoted to democracy (de Heerschappy die gantselijk volstrekt is en die wy Volkelijk noemen’. Excluded are : foreigners (not bound by the law of the country), and when ‘onder de macht van hun mannen en meesters’ (ruled by their men and masters): women, servants, children and orphans, and all criminals and dishonest people. This chapter includes the infamous phrase about women in general: ‘zo mag men gantschelijk verzekeren en bevestigen, dat de wijven uit de natuur geen gelijk recht met de mannen hebben, maar dat zy nootzakelijk voor de mannen moeten wijken’.

    But yes in the other chapters about the two other classical forms of state (ruled by king and ruled by elite) there are very interesting suggestions pointing to what might have been written by Spinoza about democracy hadn’t he died so young, for instance essemblies, meetings of 5000 people at the same time at the same physical place (based on a population of 10 to 15.000 total.., so one third of the total population of a state in one meeting.., not, by the way representing ‘elected representatives’, but representing themselves, one man, one vote. Spinoza was of course well read into the classics (see “Spinoza’s Books” by Jacob van Sluit & Tonnis Musschenga, 2009) with no Plato by the way, whose books he wasn’t interested in at all. From experience I can tell you that the only interesting Spinoza-studies are in the Dutch and French language anyway.


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