Russia: Putin’s Public Chamber

President Putin’s proposal for a ‘social’ parliament to ‘improve the links between government and society’, put forward after the attack on Beslan in September, has a chequered political lineage. The main historical idea is that a ‘social’, or ‘industrial’, or ‘functional’ parliament should be set up alongside the ‘political’ parliament, though in some schemes it would replace it. It has been advanced by both democrats and anti-democrats, but the only full-scale realisation was in Fascist Italy, where the social parliament was part of what was called ‘the corporate state’.

In its eventual Italian form, direct elections were abolished together with the political parliament. The head of government (the dictator) was appointed by the King; the social parliament (known as the National Council of Corporations) had functional representation (doctors representing doctors), based on a vocational franchise. (doctors voting for doctors) It had advisory and regulatory, not legislative, functions. Laws were made by Mussolini. A similar system was set up by Franco in Spain.

By contrast, democratic versions of the idea envisaged parallel parliaments. The Brritish socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb saw the political parliament as regulating the power ministries, and the social parliament as supervising the economic and social ministries. In 1930 WinstonChurchill proposed an ‘economic sub-parliament’, composed of people with high technical and business qualifications to advise the main parliament on economic matters.

The rationale for these suggestions was simple. The individualist form of capitalism, it was claimed, was giving way to a collective form. Parliament should represent people not just as individuals but as members of associations of businessmen, workers, engineers,etc. The social parliament would directly connect the state to these economic groups, so as (in Putin’s words) to secure ‘the concord of interests of social and government agencies’.

Corporatist projects of this kind have less appeal today, as the economic structure has changed so much. The theorists of corporatism believed that economic outcomes were determined by organised producer groups, and that some institutional way had to be found of coordinating their decisions.

Today we prefer to say that economic decisions should be, and are being, made by the market, with the individual consumer, not the producer group, driving the car. So the quest for a new form of economic democracy is redundant. Political democracy is needed to control the government, and economic democracy is secured through consumer choice in the market-place. There is no need for a ‘parallel’ parliament.

Nevertheless, Putin’s espousal of the idea comes at an interesting moment in his own fortunes and in the evolution of Russian society. He seems to be losing touch with the people and the regions, and perhaps he sees the new body as a useful feedback mechanism.But the problem is not confined to Russia. Throughout Europe there is a growing disjunction between politics and the people, signified by the declining numbers of people who bother to vote or join political parties. At the same time, civil society is growing the whole time, as the class of the articulate, well-informed, and opinionated expands with economic prosperity. The old gigantic producer organizations may be dead or dying; but they have been replaced by activist citizens’ and single-issue groups. These, rather than the political parties, have become the real mobilisers of public opinion, but they have no direct access to government. So the case for a parallel parliament is not quite dead, though the nature of the case has changed.

Russia’s experiment merits a cautious welcome. But the new parliament will have to be elected or selected much more independently than is proposed in the bill now before the State Duma if it is to become a genuine expression of civil society and not just President Putin’s poodle.