Conceptions of Democracy
Platonic vs. Aristotelian traditions
- Platonic: seeks systemic order on basis of universal principles (“the Good”)
- Aristotelian: seeks organic balance which embraces pluralism and dissent within limits
For Plato, democracy (demos = many, cracy = power) was the rule of the mob and the ignorant over the educated and enlightened
Rousseau, the French Revolution and the general will (volonté générale): idea of general agreement of the community over the common good (Republicanism) but potential to authoritarianism and ‘tyranny of the majority’ (or even minority)
Aristotle: qualified defence of democracy, the polis is about the plurality of voices: “It is true that unity is to some extent necessary … but total unity is not. There is a point at which a polis, by advancing in unity, will cease to be a polis: there is another point, short of that, at which it may still remain a polis, but will none the less come near to losing its essence, and will thus be a worse polis. It is as if you were to turn harmony into mere unison, or to reduce a theme to a single beat. The truth us that the polis is an aggregate of many members.”
Liberal Pluralism and the Quest for Consensus
Premised on the lack of a final truth concerning the ‘good’ of the polity, liberal conception of democracy is that of pre-social individuals with their own personal interests and wants whose wishes are democratically aggregated. Thus civil society and state to provide a neutral sphere for expression of interests and find a consensus
Striving for more than compromise of aggregate private interests but still fundamentally consensual, Rawls and Habermas argue for “deliberative democracy” whereby political decisions are to be reached through a process of deliberation among free and equal citizens leading to a rational and moral outcome, producing a sense of justice (Rawls) or legitimacy (Habermas).
With liberal rights & protections of minorities, pluralism is impossible under republicanism. But for John Kekes: liberal societies are not as pluralistic as their defenders claim.
Liberalism recognises a private sphere to individuals deemed as autonomous entities that precede society but nonetheless elevate some procedural or substantive values as overriding values which cannot be violated or subject to democratic decision --> a necessity for pluralism or an obstacle to it?
For Marx, the liberal conception of the individual (and with it the presumed inalienable rights advocated by liberalism) is a product of the material base of society – contra liberalism, Marx affirms the primacy of the social over the individual.
“The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject, which sees the individuals as prior to society, as bearers of natural rights, and either as utility maximizing agents or as rational subjects. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible. What is precluded in these rationalistic approaches is the very question of what are the conditions of existence of the democratic subject.” (Mouffe)
Marxist critique of liberal democracy: political equality without economic equality is a sham (liberal individualism alienates humans from their social nature) but how to avoid the slide into authoritarianism?
Dissent and Agonistic Pluralism
Rescher advocates a pluralism that recognises the limits of rational argumentation and inevitability of dissent, thereby exchanging “the yearning for an unattainable consensus for the institution of pragmatic arrangements in which he community will acquiesce – not through agreeing on its optimability, but through a shared recognition among the dissonant parties that the available options are even worse.”
Laclau and Mouffe & “agonistic pluralism”: the ineradicable antagonism that the pluralism of values entails (see also Nietzsche/Weber & “warring gods”, Carl Schmitt & friend/enemy distinction)
“If we accept that relations of power are constitutive of the social, then the main question for democratic politics is not how to eliminate power but how to constitute forms of power more compatible with democratic values.” (Mouffe)
“The constitution of democratic individuals can only be made possible by multiplying the institutions, the discourses, the forms of life that foster identification with democratic values.” (Mouffe)
Hirst and Associative Democracy
Third way between collectivist state socialism and laissez-faire capitalism:
- shift away from state towards voluntary and democratically self-governing associations
- decentralisation of political authority
- economic mutualism (non-profit + cooperative firms)
“Associative democracy aims neither to abolish representative government not to replace market exchange with some other allocative mechanism, rather to free the former from the encumbrance of an over-extended and centralised public-service state and to anchor the latter in a complex of social institutions that enables it to attain socially desirable outcomes […] The conversion of public and private corporate hierarchies into self-governing bodies answerable to those they serve and who participate in them would thus answer to the greatest democratic deficits of our time – organisational government without consent and corporate control without representation.” (Hirst)