Progressive and left-wing movements are packed with reference books written by philosophers that continuously question and redesign the world from a revolutionary point of view. This represents an effort to try to empower those who most need protection from the state in our capitalist world. Though culturally nurturing, this vast amount of literature available has often led to the division of revolutionary forces into multiple factions, parties and streams of thought that focused on subtle differences, rather than ideological and strategic similarities. 

Many social and political groups have found themselves faced with a difficult choice between pragmatism and pure ideology in assemblies, rallies and strategic debates.  On the one hand, some argue that dogmatic agendas should be prioritised, focusing political action on trying to persuade people into believing one’s own ideas in order to reach a social majority. On the other hand, many others speak in favour of making concessions and introducing (part of) these ideas into institutional politics in an attempt to make impactful reforms that can better peoples’ lives in a more practical way. In other words, do we, as progressives, aspire to become top philosophers holding absolute theoretical truths, or do we dare ourselves to become more hands-on and compromise, in the hope of transforming the world in a real way?

Governments with ambitious transformative agendas have, historically, found important obstacles in their way. It is well-known how Latin American governments with brave ideas were ousted from power through dark manoeuvres, carefully planned by neo-liberal political leaders and economic powers. Clear references of this can be found in Naomi Klein’s brilliant essay “The Shock Doctrine” with regard to Pinochet’s coup d’etat and the role that the Chicago Boys played, or more recently, with the military uprising in Bolivia against Evo Morales’ government. In our European context, obscure moves against anti-austerity governments are much more subtle. The European Commission’s blackmailing moves against the left-wing Syriza-led government in Greece could also be considered fraudulent in democratic terms. Despite the fact that the Greek people voted against the austerity measures proposed by the European institutions in a referendum, these measures still passed. In fact, #ThisIsACoup was a  hashtag that became a trending topic at the time. These examples must serve to remind ourselves of the risks of playing revolutionary politics from within institutions. Such instances shed light on the fact that these governments do not hold a strong grip of power in a classical sense. Rather, we must be aware that powerful elites will still have control of the business world, using the mass media and many productive industries as lobbies to shift the balance of public opinion in favour of their own interests. This does not mean that progressives should give up on our ambitious aspirations, but we must simply be aware that governmental or institutional politics is a limited tool in pushing social changes for a fairer and more sustainable world.

In this article, I will attempt to address a few important aspects of institutional politics that are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for transformative measures to get passed and have an effective and long-lasting impact. Starting from a scenario where a political grouping is able to access government, I will touch on three factors which are, as I have discovered  through my previous political and activist experiences, key to the success of revolutionary ideas in government.

Promoting strong public structures

When new political leaders get into power and try to deliver an ambitious agenda of changes and reforms, they often share a generic vision of their overall aims and objectives. Whether it may be implementing a new basic income scheme to slash poverty, universalising schooling for children under the age of 3 or setting the bases for a carbon-neutral industry in your country, most will have a vague idea of their ultimate objective: the big picture of what they would like the future to look like. Nonetheless, transforming those big ideas into specific measures, breaking them into legislative proposals and implementing and monitoring these radical changes are all important aspects that are addressed behind the scenes and that must not be forgotten.

Governmental structures have numerous technical units with civil servants that are meant to advise ministers, secretaries and other non-elected high officials on how to materialise these ideas. This is often quite complicated for a number of different reasons. Firstly, numbers of public employees per capita vary significantly across Europe, ranging from high proportions of those employed by the public sector in Sweden (29%) or Denmark (28%), to those with the lowest share in Germany (11%) or Luxembourg (12%). It is also worth noting that since the year 2000, this proportion of public employees has in fact fallen in most EU Member States. This has a direct implication on the capacity of governments to carry out ambitious projects to improve peoples’ lives. Reducing the ratio of public employees means that as civil servants retire or move on to other sectors, they are not replaced and hence government capacity is progressively reduced. This means that remaining structures will only be able to manage “regular business” and not transformation processes that require additional human resources for their design and implementation. The alternatives with which governments are often left are to externalise or privatise more services, something which is often incompatible with the drive for a stronger public sector as a guarantee of equal rights for all citizens.

Introducing ideology into bureaucracy

Assuming that this initial barrier of staff shortages can be overcome, we must then look at the instruments that governments have at hand in order to push these changes through. This is a daily fight for many leaders with transformative agendas, trying to battle self-compliance and internal resistance to change. The rules that operate in government are often so rigid that it can become tempting to lower one’s expectations for change simply because the administrative inertia drags you toward pro-establishment positions. Operative aspects such as ever-lasting processing times for the approval of new rules, the incapacity of bureaucratic units to quickly adapt to changes in technology safely, or the restrictions imposed by procedural aspects often limit the capacity to implement these changes within a timescale that the public is able to accept.

This is precisely why government leaders and officials must strive to introduce ideology into bureaucracy. Such a shocking statement almost seems an oxymoron, as bureaucracy or administrative work is often associated with grey and unimportant tasks. This assumption, however, is inaccurate due to the complex relationship between politicians and civil servants in public administration. The “administrative machinery” works in an almost-automatic fashion, running more or less efficiently for ordinary business, with many of its components trying to justify themselves. Governments must make an important effort to avoid paperwork from becoming an end in itself, implementing a corporate culture of public service where all procedures must be run to benefit ordinary people. A ruling atmosphere of trust in the general public, as opposed to constant policing, would contribute in reducing the amount of forms people would have to fill in, making the administration more user-friendly.

In this regard, politicians must enforce the role of governments as the channel to reach political objectives in favour of change which will benefit those who need public intervention the most. This goes against the logic of most human systems that favour little to no changes, defending the status quo as the most comfortable seat to sit in. This does not mean promoting corruption or nepotism, characteristics which allow for a system in which decisions are made arbitrarily. Instead, the focus must be on setting the means to ensure that the proposals and promises, that people voted for, are delivered. In simple terms, putting citizens at the centre of paperwork and politicising bureaucratic tasks are extremely revolutionary ideas that can radically transform the world in which we live.

Warping the rules to benefit citizens

Many EU regulations and directives impose a set of rules which may seem neutral and innocent, when in fact, they have an important ideological bias embedded in them and have very practical implications that hinder the ability of transformative agendas to be successful. For instance, the common rules on single market integration and public procurement decided that price must have an important specific weighting. Immediately, this makes a powerful statement in favour of big transnational corporations (TNCs), that are often able to cut costs by reducing salaries, instead of promoting small enterprises with a much more positive social impact on the ground. Also, single market regulations in conjunction with international trade deals make it extremely challenging to offer food from local producers in schools, hospitals or nursing homes, promoting longer travelling distances and hence a larger carbon footprint on activities directly managed by the government. This amounts to nothing more than a complete contradiction from our EU that always wants to depict itself as being avant-garde in relation to policies that tackle climate change.

Reading the small print of these neo-liberal norms and analysing loopholes in these regulations is something that politicians with a transformative vision of society must work on more. As explained earlier, internal resistance to change leads to an absence of technical advice provided by public employees on how to introduce creative solutions to implement socially and environmentally responsible policies. It is therefore crucial for political leaders to understand all elements of public governance and its institutional framework, should they want to succeed in implementing their radical reforms. Anything ranging from the technical knowledge of the legal tools (as well as their flaws) all the way down to the organisational culture of the administration, including the attitude of civil servants with respect to change, must be well studied in order to frame priorities and strategies in an effective manner. 

In summary, I personally consider that efforts to devise ideal worlds are useful in that they picture a horizon of economic, social or environmental aspects towards which we should be walking collectively. These trajectories must then be broken down into a set of practical tools available for those who have the chance to rule in local or national governments. A failure to produce results in a timely manner will imply a rejection of these transformative ideas, generating disappointment in the wider public and pushing them towards pro-establishment policies, or even worse: irrational, authoritarian or fascist ideas, as an urgent solution to their desperate needs.

Virtual spaces of social and political gathering and sharing such as the Arbury Foundation must aim to cover that existing gap in that vision of transformative politics where we try to translate revolutionary ideas into practical measures. This will allow us to dream of a radical, yet possible, world that we will actually be able to experience beyond theoretical utopias and philosophical essays.