Theories of Democracy Part 3: Participatory Democracy

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]


This chapter deals with the intellectual descendants of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And this is the closest we have come to something similar to a pollyty, for Rousseau’s ideas are also best suited to small societies practicing direct forms of democracy by voting directly upon their laws. One of the main thrusts of this vision is to enable a group of people to gradually establish a unique and cohesive volonté générale instead of the merely aggregated volonté de tous that most forms of representative government achieve. This is no different in a pollyty where all members vote on any rule changes, and it is these rules then that constitute this stronger general will, since they are not mediated by representative’s individual wills or by the rent seeking or lobbying that befall indirect forms of legislation. Moreover, a pollyty, especially one that is instantiated through software applications, needs little administration or executive enforcement, since the (small) group itself (or, better, the software) ensures the rules are always followed. 

Secondly, pollyties also match Rousseau’s vision in that they are autonomous, even in the strict sense of Rousseau’s admirer Kant. Pollyties deliberate and decide upon their own rules and live by them. They are also autonomous in the broader sense of not being submitted to outside forces; their primary goal is in fact to protect their members from the vagaries of capitalistic existence. Though inasmuch as they are built upon the existing rule of law, they do remain within the strictures of modern nation states and are thus not entirely autonomous or sovereign (on which more below).

However, differences remain. Rousseau’s entities are sovereign and land-bound. Their model is a Swiss canton. Pollyties are much more like corporations: they can span national borders and would rarely concentrate all their members into one contiguous piece of land, nor are they concerned with providing the infrastructure or policing that lands require. In that sense, pollyties let nation states retain the honors and duties of sovereignty. This in fact alleviates some of the objections made against participatory democracy, namely, that it becomes unmanageable when applied to modern nation states with large populations and land masses. Pollyties abstract themselves from geographic conditions, and though they are intended for small memberships, they can easily federate upwards and thereby manageably encompass millions.


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