Theories of Democracy Part 1: Liberal Democracy

Working my way through Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002), i’d like to quickly compare his various kinds of democratic options to what i am calling a pollyty. The first option he describes, Liberal Democracy, is essentially the status quo as it emerged in the US and Western Europe at the end of the 19th century. It is essentially a somewhat uneasy marriage between individualistic liberalism and representative democracy on a background of capitalism.

A pollyty differs in a few basic respects. First, Liberal Democracy is almost always associated with a nation state. This means both that such democracies claim ultimate authority in matters of law and policing, but also that they are bound to strict geographical dimensions. A pollyty, however, rests on top of existing law, and hence does not claim to be sovereign, nor does it confine itself to a specific nation or land, and hence can span nationalities (as do corporations) and can restrict itself to much smaller (or potentially larger) groups of people than our current nation states (again, as can corporations).

Secondly, a pollyty is not representative, but employs primarily direct voting to make its decision (more on this later when we get to whatever chapter will deal with Rousseavian solutions).

Thirdly, a pollyty does promote individualism and Kantian-inspired notions of autonomy, but at the level of the pollyty as a whole, not primarily on that of individual persons. Whereas the primary purpose of liberalism is often stated as protecting individual liberties against any form of undue encroachment, and thereby strengthening the position of the (lone) individual in society, a pollyty seeks to protect the group’s economic and political liberties from encroachment. Within the pollyty, individuals subordinate their liberties to the pollyty’s rules as this is the primary weapon the group has to maintain a cohesive protective front against outside pressures.

Finally, where Liberal Democracy lays the groundwork for capitalism, either by simply enforcing private property and the rule of law, or following Karl Polanyi’s analysis, by creating through those laws the very markets (for labor, land, etc.) that capitalism requires, a pollyty sets itself up within capitalist frameworks (as a corporation or a co-operative, for instance) but also against corporations when it seeks to protect it’s members from the vagaries of uncertain employment (i.e. when it functions as a guild or a union).


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