Skip navigation
The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Thinking relationally: Reflections on the new democratic politics

Jeremy Gilbert critiques the emergent idea of a 'relational' politics as a corrective to the prevailing, neoliberal 'transactional' conception of the role of the state. Far from being merely a reasonable aspiration for decent human life, 'relationality' is a more radical demand than its proponents care to admit – one that can only be realised by forcefully breaking the global power of finance capital.

IPPR's recent work on 'relational' politics, particularly the essay collection The relational state, constitutes a highly distinctive contribution to debates on the left and centre-left about governmental alternatives to neoliberalism. It is particularly admirable for its deliberate and explicit attempt to break with the doctrines of public choice theory and the new public management which have informed so much of government policy since the end of the 1970s. The key term deployed to critique the legacy of new public management is 'relational' which, it is proposed, should become a sort of normative concept against which the adequacy of various institutional arrangements can be judged.

This term, 'relational', is both suggestive and slippery, and I will be exploring some of its productive and problematic aspects here. In general the writers who use it do so to denote a humanistic concern with the value of relationships between people –particularly people acting in and through public and civic institutions – which cannot be understood in terms of the utilitarian and economistic assumptions that have informed much public policy in recent decades. More specifically, 'relational' is taken to designate a tendency to value egalitarian relationships of a kind which are assumed to be at once inherently creative and by nature too complex to be mapped or controlled according to narrow formulae or criteria. Although, as I will argue at some risk of pedantry, semantic problems are clearly raised by the use of the term 'relational' to valorise merely one type of relationship (the egalitarian, democratic, complex, creative type), it can also be argued that this itself is a clever rhetorical move on the part of partisans of 'relational' politics. Ultimately, my motive for wanting to explore these issues is a deep sympathy with the analysis and objectives of 'relational' writers such as Marc Stears, Graeme Cooke and Rick Muir. What I want to do here is not to expose weaknesses in their arguments, but rather to concentrate some attention on the strategic issues at stake in the pursuit of their objectives, and to offer some potentially useful reflections on certain philosophical issues raised by their terminology.

Stears and some of his fellow writers on this topic deploy the term 'relational' as a positive predicate meaning something like 'concerned with and valuing relationships', in order to advocate a kind of radical democratic communitarianism which recognises the productive value of social relationships to civic and social life. Stears in particular differentiates the 'relational' approach from what he terms the 'transactional mindset', which reduces all types of social relation to some kind of quasi-commercial transaction (a way of thinking which is strongly associated with extreme forms of neoliberalism, but which has roots going back into early social contract theory). It might be pointed out that this is pretty much exactly how the earliest advocates of something called 'socialism' understood their values and the ways in which they differed from those of advocates of liberal individualism. It is also exactly how Marx and Engels differentiated communism, as they conceived it, from capitalism's tendency to transform all social relationships into a cash nexus.[1] However, these observations need not detain us here. For our purposes, there are two key issues to be raised concerning the precise usage of 'relational': the first is rather abstract, and the second more mundane but nonetheless politically significant.

Read also: 'The relational is growing radical', a response by Rick Muir, author and editor of IPPR's previous works on the relational state.

The philosophy of relationality

The first point is to observe that a concern with the 'relational' and 'relationality' in recent thought is by no means confined to centre-left discussions of the state in the UK. 'Relationality' has been a key concept for certain scholars working in geography, sociology, continental philosophy, anthropology and cultural theory for some years now.[2] This is a term which has subtly different implications in different intellectual contexts, and there is only space here to very briefly sketch out some of those implications, with some reference to my own recent work. The most important difference between the way in which the term 'relationality' is used by the contributors to The relational state and Many to many and how it is used in all of these other contexts is that, in the latter case, it normally designates a general fact of existence rather than a particular type of state, organisation, politics or attitude. Words, other types of sign, social identities, physical objects – even time and space themselves – are understood to exist 'relationally' to the extent that they have no substantive existence outside of the sets of relationships (with other words, other signs, other social identities and so on) by which they are always defined and produced.

This is a philosophical position which probably reached its highest point of developed abstraction in the work of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, whose work has until recently been somewhat neglected in both the French- and English-speaking worlds. Simondon argued that both physical objects and human beings are always in the process of separating themselves from the sets of physical, social and emotional relations from which they emerge ('individuating' as he puts it), but that such processes are never actually complete. From this perspective, we are never fully and simply ourselves, but are always defined by sets of social relations which exist before we are born, which define every aspect of our lives, and which extend much further than we can ever truly know. This way of thinking about the world is clearly not unique to Simondon or those influenced by him. It can arguably be traced back at least as far as Hegel, and can also be understood as consonant with the tendency of modern physics to show us a world in which objects – and even sub-molecular particles – which were once assumed to be solid objects are in fact better understood as dynamic clusters of mobile points defined more by their speeds of movement and positions relative to each other than by any stable form of existence.

Whether this observation is one from which any further philosophical or political conclusions can be drawn is a reasonable question. As hard as I and others have tried to draw some,[3] I am often reminded of a remark once made to me by the geographer Ben Anderson as we shared a conference sandwich at Durham University. 'The thing is,' he said, 'everything's relational. That tomato's relational. Oxygen's relational. So does it really matter that anything's relational?' The excellent point being made here was that if everything is relational, then merely stating as much may amount to little more than a philosophical banality. Under such circumstances, it only becomes politically important to say that things are relational if someone is trying to claim that they are not.

This is where a thinker like myself clearly shares some common ground with the more radical of the 'relational' thinkers, such as Marc Stears, both in The relational state and in his 2011 essay Everyday democracy: Taking centre-left politics beyond state and market, and Tess Lanning, whose brief contribution to The relational state makes a case which this essay seeks to wholly endorse. Whether or not we would agree on questions of fundamental ontology, we could certainly agree that the political forces and ideologies that we oppose are characterised by a tendency to deny the fully relational nature of human social existence. My own approach to this question is to insist upon what I call the 'infinite relationality' of that existence – the point being that the extent to which my own life is affected by and affects the actions and experiences of other human beings, and indeed non-human agencies and forces (from microchips to the Sun) is so vast and so varied that it is impossible to ever fully grasp its extent or to understand it is as limited at all, and that only a radical, pluralistic and participatory form of democracy can fully take account of this social fact. By contrast, as we have seen, the contributors to The relational state – including Lawton, Cooke and Pearce, who more recently collaborated on IPPR's major report The Condition of Britain – use the term 'relational' in effect to designate only a specific type of relationship or set of relationships, while distinguishing 'relational' thought and practice from the 'transactional mindset' which they reject. However, this brings us to the second problem with their idiosyncratic usage of the term 'relational'.

The 'transactional mindset' and its sources

Put simply, the pro-relational thinkers sometimes write as though a simple distinction could be drawn between the 'transactional' and the 'relational'. However, to approach these issues – or at least this terminology – with any degree of precision, it is important to note that a transaction, as limited and calculated as it may be, is still a relation of sorts, and implies a particular type of relationship between those taking part. In particular, it implies some kind of buyer–seller relationship. This is a transaction, and it is not the kind of relationship which social democrats, socialists, communitarians or radical democrats traditionally consider to be the most important to promoting human flourishing. However, strictly speaking, it is clearly inaccurate to imply that it is not a relationship of sorts.

This is a politically important observation because it draws attention to the ways in which neoliberal techniques of government do not merely ignore the importance of human relationships, but rather actively work to prescribe particular types of relationship at the expense of others. Most notably, in the area of public services, neoliberal reforms consistently work to impose the retail transaction as the ideal form of relationship on every available social context – obliging, as far as possible, service 'users' and 'providers' to relate to each other as participants in such a transaction and, as far as possible, in no other way.

It is crucial to grasp this latter point. For example, the attempt to disseminate and normalise the 'transactional mindset' in the NHS has not only involved the remodelling of relationships between health workers and patients as relationships between buyers and sellers of a commodified service, by promoting consumer choice as the key mode for the empowerment of service users. It has also involved the dismantling of existing institutions of collective, democratic deliberation between multiple stakeholders (most notably the community health councils, abolished by the Blair government for purely ideological reasons[4]).

The consequence of such a situation is that it becomes almost impossible for participants in such a social context to relate to each other in any way other than the prescribed way, whether or not their 'mindset' has been consciously changed. Behaving transactionally becomes the only available option, or at least the only means of exercising any degree of power and agency. Neoliberal governance thereby imposes what I have called a particular 'mode of relationality' upon such contexts, compelling particular forms of relational behaviour, and particular types of relationship, while actively inhibiting others. The issue is, therefore, one of particular forms of relationship being promoted at the expense of others, rather than one of ignoring the importance of relationships altogether.

Now, clearly most of the writers to who I am responding here already know this – they're not stupid. To a large extent, 'relational' and 'transactional' are for them effectively a kind of rhetorical shorthand for good types of relationship and bad types of relationship. However, in doing so, the key risk that they run is that of overlooking the extent to which the neoliberal programme actively works to maintain a state of affairs in which the relationships that they wish to encourage become difficult, if not impossible, to build and maintain. Neoliberalism hasn't simply forgotten about the possibility, potency and value of the types of egalitarian, democratic and experimental relationships which these writers value: rather, it fears them and actively works to inhibit their development.[5] Neoliberalism goes out of its way to present market transactions as the basis for the only legitimate and effective form of relationships imaginable. More importantly, it does this not merely because of the shortcomings inherent in its 'mindset', but because to do so ultimately furthers a particular set of social interests of which that mindset is merely the cognitive expression. To put this very crudely: we are encouraged, and often obliged, to adopt a purely 'transactional' mindset – and, more importantly, to behave in accordance with transactional norms even if we don't consciously subscribe to them – not merely because a narrowly utilitarian view of human nature happens to have taken hold among large sections of the political class. It is also because having as many of us as possible behaving in accordance with transactional norms makes it far easier for a narrow social elite to continue enriching themselves at everyone else's expense, and because historically the advance of 'relational' norms has tended to be associated with projects (be they radical or moderate, moral or political) associated with limiting that capacity of such elites to carry on doing so. This is something that powerful elites would prefer to avoid happening again if at all possible.

Of course what I am proposing here is not a narrowly economistic or deterministic understanding of the situation – there is no central committee of the ruling class dictating how we should live and think. The processes by which a phenomenon such as the transactional mindset and the interests which it serves are connected are extremely complex and subject to multiple contingencies. However, to deny the fact that it serves those interests, and derives some of its social force from doing so, would be to stretch credibility past breaking point.

Again, it would be condescending to assume that any intelligent political commentator does not already know much of this, but it is nonetheless worth emphasising for the sake of drawing attention to the scale and intensity of the likely opposition to any attempt to challenge the transactional mindset. In a world governed by the interests of finance capital and its agents, pursuing democratic and egalitarian social relationships is not moderate or reasonable: to do so is not merely to propose a slightly nicer way of doing things but to effectively oppose the most powerful social and economic forces in the world. Of course, it may be a tactically sensible move to present such objectives – as the 'relational' writers routinely do – as merely reasonable aspirations for decent human life, rather than implicitly radical demands whose realisation could only be achieved by forcefully breaking the global power of finance capital. However, unless there is some realisation that the latter is, in effect, what any project for a relational politics must amount to, then such a project is likely to find itself as marginal to the agenda of any future Labour government as communitarianism, stakeholder capitalism and Christian socialism (the favoured reference points for Blairites in the years running up to the 1997 general election) became to New Labour in power.[6]

Building democratic power

What would this mean in practice? I think it would mean putting much more emphasis on the need to build new types of institution which might be capable of constituting new loci of social power at which, or from which, egalitarian social relations might be promoted. The problem with the practical proposals put forward by most of the 'relational' writers is that they implicitly assume either that existing institutions can be relatively easily transformed into ones which actively promote egalitarian and productive social relationships, or that existing community and civic relationships can become the basis for whatever new types of institution are required to further their objectives.[7] In many cases both of these assumptions may be justifiable. However, rather like some contemporary forms of 'community organising', this approach ignores the more fundamental question of how to mobilise groups, networks and aggregations of interest among populations who clearly do have many shared interests, and who are related to each other through the abstract mechanisms of the market, through their shared participation in the global economy, but whose everyday experience tends to promote a purely 'transactional' attitude towards each other. A logical response to this problem by any 'relational' government would surely have to involve a programme of democratic institution-building on a scale not seen since the 1940s. Nothing less than a locally appropriate equivalent of the experiments in decentralised, participatory and non-hierarchical forms of democracy being undertaken by radical socialist governments in Latin America in recent years is likely to have the desired effect.[8] Simply tweaking a system which has been captured by transactional neoliberalism for several decades obviously is not going to cut it.

Ultimately, I would be surprised if Stears et al were to disagree with much of what I have said here. What to me is most striking about their ideas is how close they are in substance, if not in tone, to the far more self-consciously radical thought of continental neo-Marxists such as Negri and Lazzaratto, who also stress the historical importance and political potency of everyday relations of communication, interaction, creativity and exchange. Mainstream political thought in the UK tends to regard such bodies of work as exotic distractions at best, and at worst dangerous deviations: the recent popularity of Karl Polyani's work with both 'Blue Labour' and 'One Nation Labour' thinkers is a case in point, despite the fact that very little of what they take from Polanyi is not itself actually derived from Marx. The problem is that under conditions of advanced neoliberal hegemony, it may be those who hope that ethical humanism and well-intentioned reformism will be enough to advance the cause of more productive human relationships who are really the na??ve utopians. A somewhat clearer sense of the social and economic interests invested in the preservation of the 'transactional mindset', as well as a willingness actively to build up institutions powerful enough to contest them, may be required if there is to be any hope of challenging that mindset.[9]

Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London, and editor of the journal New Formations.


1. Marx K and Engels F (1848) The Communist Manifesto: 'The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment".' ^back

2. See for example Wachtel PL (2008) Relational Theory and the Practice of Psychotherapy, Guildford Press; Spencer D and Davies J (eds) (2010) Anthropological Fieldwork: A Relational Process, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing; and Jones M (2009) 'Phase Space: geography, relational thinking, and beyond', Progress in Human Geography, 33(4): 487–506. ^back

3. See Gilbert J (2013) Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism, Pluto Press. ^back

4. See Pollock A (2005) NHS plc: The Privatisation of Our NHS, Verso. ^back

5. See Gilbert J (2013) 'What Kind of Thing is Neoliberalism', New Formations, 80/81, Lawrence and Wishart; and Gilbert J (2014) 'Collectivity in an Age of Individualism', Compass website, 2 April 2014. ^back

6. See Gilbert J (2010) 'Democratise or Die: Why the status quo is not an option for Labour', OurKingdom website, 31 May 2010. ^back

7. For example, IPPR's 2014 publication The Condition of Britain – which is in effect a catalogue of laudable technocratic suggestions rather than any kind of strategic analysis of the underlying causes of Britain's social and political dysfunction – makes quite extensive use of the rhetoric of relationality, but ultimately proposes almost nothing in the way of genuine long-term institutional innovation. ^back

8. See Wainwright H (2003) Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy, London: Verso Books. ^back

9. See Angel J (2014) Moving beyond the market: a new agenda for public services, New Economics Foundation; and Fisher M and Gilbert J (2014) Reclaim Modernity: Beyond Markets and Machines, Compass. ^back