Call yourself a ‘Republican’ today and people will either think you are a member of the US political party or want to guillotine the Queen. Yet a resurgence of interest in republicanism within academic circles is reclaiming the tradition, while the post-crash political landscape has brought to the fore demands for citizen participation and an interest in sharing control of the economy that can be read as republican in spirit. An emerging contemporary republicanism within academic circles could provide a framework for building a citizen-led economy. But is there the political will to begin developing this kind of agenda? In ‘A Discourse on Political Economy’, Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave his take on how a government should tackle inequality: ‘prevent extreme inequalities of fortunes; not by taking wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor’. This is a pretty good definition of today’s buzzword ‘pre-distribution’. Rousseau was a republican who applied these principles to his thinking on the economy, and it is this tradition of economic republicanism that is now being re-examined within academia. Since the first colloquium on the subject was held in Paris in 2007, thinkers across Europe and the US have been furthering the application of republican thinking to the market-driven developed world. Spain, where republican theory was explicitly used as a guide by the Zapatero government in 2004-2011, has provided practical insight in this field, while in the Republic of Ireland, Fintan O’Toole has argued for radical reform to implement genuine republicanism. We might expect American academics such as Michael Sandel, Alex Gourevitch and Thad Williamson, but the renewed interest in academic circles is not limited to republics. In Britain, the work of Phillip Pettit and Quentin Skinner is being read in a new light, towards developing a republicanism that can provide an alternative to market domination.
What is the future for trade unions in Britain? Last Friday, forty or fifty of us jammed into an Oxford college seminar room to hear that question answered. It was the annual Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture, at University College where the Prime Minister of the post-war settlement spent his student years. Less to remember the great man, we were there to hear Frances O’Grady, the new TUC General Secretary and the first woman to occupy this most pivotal office for the British labour movement.