In death Dahl can continue to teach

The recent death of Professor Robert A. Dahl was reason for pause[1]. Prof. Dahl wrote extensively on democracy in theory and practice. For many, this writer included, he provided the basis for understanding the operation of power in a democratic system. His gift came in stating with great clarity an original idea that seems totally obvious the moment that you read it[2]. His legacy is a more critical approach to the workings of the democratic form of government.

I had been thinking about Dahl quite a bit recently. The context for those thoughts was the interesting and stimulating debate which has begun over the new policy direction for the ALP. Jim Chalmers defined the challenge accurately as, “finding a new program to reunite our constituencies, without the luxury of the institutional advantages of a bygone era.”[3] Responses to that challenge vary in all the usual sorts of ways but organise themselves around the best ways to achieve social mobility and economic empowerment for disempowered members of our increasingly disaggregated society. This debate, it seems to me, is on the right track. Like Labor debates of the past, it has the potential to benefit the economy and the nation as a whole.

Dahl tells us that electoral coalitions are insufficient; that power in democracies is mediated through institutions, factions[4] and privilege. We saw in the last parliament how effective conservative institutions and factions could be in opposing and delegitimising great Labor programs. Even having achieved Government, good ideas are not enough. In the future, where will the institutional and other support necessary for our refreshed policy program come from?

Unfortunately, in this regard the ALP is a victim of its own success. Many of the institutions of working people’s power in Australia have been weakened by the economic success our policies have wrought. As unions continue to adapt to our changing economy and demands of their members (something they do a better job of than is generally acknowledged), they will continue to be a source of institutional power for working people. But as many in the labour movement acknowledge, its power is not what it once was it will need to be supplemented. Already, we see different responses to this challenge emerging.

Groups like the Sydney Alliance, and the Queensland Community Alliance are examples of that response. As partnerships between unions, churches, charities, ethnic associations and other community organisations[5], these groups principally aim to find solutions to mutual challenges identified within their community. However, I hope that the type of organising capacity they are building will coalesce into an effective source of institutional power for members of the communities they are working with.

Other organisations, like the The Parenthood, reflect an interesting new strain of community activism in Australia[6]. A non-partisan group, The Parenthood’s agenda of empowering and supporting parents of all types to be heard in the political process fits comfortably with what the ALP will be aiming to achieve when next in government. Working with groups like this, and understanding how to be allied with them without seeking to co-opt their agenda will be a key part of entrenching the policy agenda the next ALP Government settles on.

The truth is as worthy and exciting as these groups are they will never have sufficient power for our needs. Any future planning for our movement must include identifying which existing institutions and other sources of political power are available for us to partner and alliance with. By definition these will not always be comfortable or natural partners. This will be difficult and complicated work, as it will require compromise and deal making. This is consistent with the ALP’s tradition of pragmatism in pursuit of progress and the application of power in defence of working people.

Like many I am stimulated and energised by the debate our party is beginning. We have the opportunity to reflect on how far the nation has come under our leadership and plan a future that does a better job of including those that remain left out and disempowered. As we plot that path forward, we would do well not only to consider how we shall accumulate the electoral coalition required to achieve Government but also the institutional power required to deliver and entrench our agenda.

[1] A good biographical summary can be found in his New York Times Obituary:

[2] His formulation, “A has power over B o the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do” being the most often cited example.

[4] “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.‎” A Preface to Democractic Theory pg 32 University of Chicago Press, 1956

About David Nelson

David Nelson

In 2012 David founded Nelson Advisory. As part of his work David provides progressive organisations strategic direction as well as campaign planning and delivery. In the past David has been a Director at Hawker Britton and a campaign organiser at the Queensland ALP. You can follow him on twitter @dwnelson.

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