The idea of a ‘reconstructed social democracy’ is at the core of Australian economist Mike Berry’s most recent work, which highlights the principle of justice. Here justice is a pair of scales balancing — on the one side and the other — workers versus capitalist owners and managers, the public sector versus the private sector, and national versus international forces. Justice is the rudder of a reformist movement coursing its way in the unsettling waters and storms, indeed typhoons and cyclones, of capitalism. Justice is the principle to keep democracy afloat.
Just as Ursula Huws’s recent work Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies proposes a radical resuscitation of the welfare state, in Justice and Democracy: A Progressive Agenda for the Twenty-First Century Berry identifies a suite of approaches and policies to salve the ails of capitalism’s apparently strong suit ‘democracy’.
All this in a context where The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 Democracy Index classifies three-quarters of the world’s population as in either flawed democracies (41%) or authoritarian regimes (36%). Indeed, just 8.4 percent of us live in ‘full democracies’, such as in Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and several European and Asian countries.
While the problem is not so much the democratic ideal or processes — but rather the economic context of really-existing democracies within increasing inequalities and the marginalisation of nature resulting in global heating — Berry does identify key measures to ‘restump’ the political house. Universal suffrage, even mandatory voting, is required. Expanding on propositions made by Anthony Grayling in Democracy and Its Crisis, Berry suggests that elections must be solely publicly funded. This point is not lost on Australians whose media is dominated by the long arm of Rupert Murdoch. Indeed, Berry also recommends anti-monopoly regulations, rigorous protection of journalists’ freedom to report and appropriate public funding of public non-profit broadcasting organisations.
Given that chronic gerrymandering can lead to the electorate’s second most popular candidate winning a seat and so on, how about an independent electoral commission to create and recreate electoral boundaries with more-or-less equivalent populations of voters? Deliberative mechanisms would offer advisory purposes. A suite of measures would promote serious experts from being muzzled by internal government restraints and curtail public servants misusing their power outside and after leaving office.
Huws defines a ‘universal basic income’ to reduce inequalities through redistribution. Berry’s ‘guaranteed minimum income’ sits within an allocative approach as well, funded by a radically progressive tax system. This plinth develops as all pre-existing social welfare benefits and programs are withdrawn. From the age of 18 years old everyone is eligible for this safety net universal income of around 50–70 percent of the mean income of full-time workers, i.e. to the extent that current income falls short of this variable standard. Moreover, this scheme would be complemented by a universal one-off grant of, say $100,000, to every single person over the age of 18 year to spend however the grantee wanted.
A guaranteed minimum income would free people to care for others and to take time out to create new futures for themselves. While the state would act as employer of last resort, private entrepreneurs would need to share more power within their workplaces. ‘Wholesale institutional change’ is what Berry proposes, with the aim that ‘the material conditions of justice, reciprocity and social solidarity can develop’ (240).
There would be more-or-less free access to ‘merit goods’ such as universal basic health protection (while certain frills are left to a strongly regulated private sector) and universal access to education, as in training for work, along with state investment in primary infrastructure and necessary research and development. Berry argues such public investments not only stabilise society but also function to drive productivity and growth.
Berry’s Justice and Democracy is an eloquent exposition of an unapologetically reformist agenda. He engages with select authors to develop a clear through line, constructively criticising the curious arguments of epistocrat Jason Brennan (Against Democracy, 2016) with as much ease as he references Marx’s revolutionary thought and draws on Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) and Capital and Ideology, 2020).
This work is accessible to newcomers and will keep old hands enthralled.