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Daily RC Article 123

Levellers and Leviathans: Shaping Societal Ideals


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The Levellers are a hidden gem from British history. They were a mid-17th century group in England, who participated in debates about democracy that took place in a part of London called Putney. Their achievement was crafting “An Agreement of the People,” which were a series of manifestos that marked the first popular conceptions of what a constitutional democracy might look like.

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The Levellers are interesting for two reasons. First, in the context of the time, their approach was constructive and practical. The “Agreement” spells out what people want from those who govern them in a clear and tangible way. For example, they proposed term limits on political office and that laws regarding indebtedness are applied equally to the rich and poor. Second, they are interesting for the way the movement was countermanded and then snuffed out by the military leader Oliver Cromwell and the Grandees (the elites of their day). Like so many idealistic political start-ups, the Levellers failed. This should encourage the growing number of new political parties, like Change UK and new candidates to be worldly-wise in how they approach the process of political reform and change.

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A lot is made of the Cold War rivalry between communist Russia and America, and now some want to see a clash of civilizations between America and China. The “Levelling” characterises a future where there are at least two approaches to public life. The most distinctive approach to nations doing things in their own way will be for what the Levellers might call the “rights of freeborn men,” or the idea of the open society. The code of the Levellers presents a very clear political formula that Europeans and Americans will recognise for its values, though decreasingly in its practice.

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The challenge to this code will come from the rising acceptance of less democratic ways of ordering society, in both developed and developing countries. A related clash will be the desire of a growing proportion of electorates to have a more open society as economies also open up. As the world evolves along the lines of Leveller-type and Leviathan-type societies, it is possible that in some countries, such as Russia, a Leviathan-like approach—that is, order in exchange for reduced democracy and rights—will be the accepted way of life. In other countries, most interestingly China, as its economy loses momentum and evolves, there may be a growing tension between groups holding the Leviathan view (supported inevitably by Grandees) and opposing Leveller-like groups (who favor equality of opportunity and a multiparty system). The role and views of women, especially in China, and of minority groups like the gay community will be pivotal.

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The emergence of a new world order, based on large regions and coloured by Leveller and Leviathan modes of governance, echoes several periods in history. The challenge in the next few years will be for Leviathan-oriented nations like China to maintain economic stability so that rising unemployment, for instance, does not break the “Leviathan contract”. Equally, the challenge in Leveller countries will be to maintain open, fraternal societies in the face of political and potentially economic volatility.

The Levellers, a group from England's mid-17th century, shaped early democratic ideals through the "Agreement of the People." Their practical approach faced suppression, mirroring the struggle for political reform. The clash of ideologies, akin to Leveller and Leviathan societies, hints at a global shift between open, democratic principles and more restrictive governance models. This evolving landscape underscores the challenges for nations, notably in China, balancing economic stability with societal openness amid changing political dynamics.
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