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The Manifesto Club: History is still young

The convenor of a new political project explains why now is the time for an enlightened alternative.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The Manifesto Club is being initiated by a group of friends based in London. Our aim is to develop an enlightened and free-spirited alternative, which can begin to move beyond the current political malaise.

One of the main problems society faces at present is the cramping of the human imagination. Politics ideally should be about self-government, deciding how to organise our affairs in order to live the fullest life possible. Today, too much of the energy of politicians and activists goes into thinking up new ways of regulating speech and action.

In parliaments, politicians say that the most important freedom is ‘freedom from fear’, and that rights should be sacrificed in safety’s name. On US and UK college campuses, speech codes instruct students about acceptable and unacceptable terms, and give guidance about the proper manner to go about dating and seduction. In UK cities, CCTV cameras film us as we go about our business. There is often little public resistance to these measures – most smokers have accepted restrictions on smoking in public places without a sound, for example.

Whatever the limits of our period in history, its potential is also huge. Now the old political parties and ideologies stand revealed as empty shells, there is an opening to create something new. Everywhere we see energy and aspiration that is searching for an adequate outlet. Young people throw themselves into extreme sports, or partying on Friday nights, or travelling, or shouting at the TV. Many others are frustrated by the low horizons of today’s society. The challenge is to develop a new political language and framework that can give voice to people’s aspirations.

The Manifesto Club is for all those who think that security is not the be all and end all of life; who believe that humanity’s problems are best dealt with in a spirit of curiosity and experimentation. Today’s climate of restraint implies that free human passions and thought are dangerous things. Unregulated speech will apparently result in hate speech; unregulated student dating will result in rape and harassment; unregulated science will breed monsters that we cannot control. This fear of freedom means that we shrink from life, unable to take on its challenges or taste its pleasures.

The Manifesto Club aims to become a global network of individuals: these individuals will have different backgrounds and different prime concerns, but together we can stand for freedom over security, passion over regulation, rationality over mysticism. We believe too that nothing should be beyond debate – no issue, be it race and immigration or human cloning, should be too uncomfortable to discuss.

Our first step is to write a manifesto, laying down the ideas that we think should be at the heart of a new politics. We have offered six principles to start:

  1. We are committed to the pursuit of freedom, free speech and genuine tolerance.

  2. We support experimentation in all its forms – scientific, social and personal.

  3. We support the development of the human potential and individual self-determination.

  4. We uphold a human-centred perspective, which recognises the ability of people to confront the challenges they face through reason and subjectivity.

  5. We uphold a universalist orientation to the problems facing the world.

  6. We seek to reclaim the Enlightenment and the legacy of the Enlightenment.

Over the past couple of months, we have been discussing a draft manifesto in an online discussion forum. The website has drawn individuals from all over the world, from Virginia to India to the Isle of Wight, many of whom are interested in setting up groups and campaigns in their areas. The final manifesto will be shaped by online and offline debates. Politics means something when it is the outcome of like-minded people trying to find a solution to their problems, rather than something drawn up by policy wonks in seminar rooms.

On 6 May we will have a conference in London, to identify the main challenges we face and to gain a measure of agreement about how we go forward as a club. After this, we will spend six months building support and developing our ideas, aiming at an eventual public launch in November 2006. Where we can go with this depends on who joins the initiative. We hope there will be many, and that eventually the Manifesto Club might make some impact on the way humanity conceives of its problems and tasks.

Over the next six months we will also be testing out campaigning ideas, to find the points of tension in everyday life where freedom is at stake. We have started to discuss the possibilities online. Campaign suggestions include: in support of animal experimentation, while supporting animal rights activists’ right to protest; against anti-social behaviour orders, and in support of adults dealing with minor misdemeanours for themselves; for artistic autonomy, and against government interference in the arts; against the Criminal Records Bureau checks on all adults who work with children.

We also want to proclaim solidarity with people who are struggling to improve their lives – for example the pro-democracy movement in Nepal, or the immigrants’ rights movement in America. And we want to take on ideas that lower people’s expectations about their quality of life, such as the idea of sustainable development in the Third World, or ‘ethical living’ in the West.

A couple of clarifications. We aren’t naive optimists. Human beings aren’t always angels, and the road to enlightenment isn’t a smooth one. People can do evil things; experiments can go wrong; false ideas can win an audience. But it is by learning from mistakes that we have a chance of doing better the next time around. Nor are we merely calling for individual nerve and positive thinking: society’s problems aren’t solvable by self-help books. The challenge is to create a climate that is more enthused about freedom and more willing to deal with its consequences, so that individuals find cultural support for their leaps of daring.

There is no golden age to hark back to. The ideals of freedom and self-determination have never been realised; we should see them as sirens calling us on, not as blueprints to be copied from the past. Many say that history has ended. We say that history is still young.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. If you would like to join the online debates, or are interested in attending the 6 May meeting, email info@manifestoclub.com.

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Topics Politics

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