Posts tagged ‘democracy’

September 14, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 6: Radical Pluralism

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

Radical pluralism is a democratic theory put forward by such thinkers as Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Claude Lefort. It opposes liberal and deliberative democracy primarily in its insistence that rational consensus cannot be achieved, but that democracy must allow for healthy political clashes between voters whose positions are deeply held and fundamentally diverge. The philosophers are very suspicious of current democratic practices that seek to gloss over fundamental disagreements by switching the register of public discourse from political conflict to moral consensus.

A pollyty is based on a similar assessment of the necessity of political conflict, however, instead of trying to re-insert a healthy agon into the state’s democratic practices, the pollyty relocates those political disagreements away from the state onto a separate, higher level at which particular cultural and moral choices are no longer mutually exclusive. One pollyty can be thoroughly socialist, denying to its members the very notion of private property, while another could restrict itself to providing (capitalist) mutual insurance policies, another could essentially function as a union, whereas a fourth might provide guild-like educational and employment services. Moreover, an individual could potentially be a member of all four of those guilds. This is a marked advance over the agonistics of radical pluralism, which still requires that the state’s democratic process eventually decide upon one set of laws which must then be applied to the entire population.

September 12, 2014

Isaiah Berlin on Rousseau

Having recently found Isaiah Berlin’s Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty at my local bookstore, i decided to read through some of the essays in search of a healthy contrarian view. The chapter on Rousseau was tendentious and at times frankly ad hominem, but nevertheless worthwhile. (The other indictees in this little book are Helvétius, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and de Maistre.) Though Berlin objects primarily to the outcome of the philosophy (Hitler and Mussolini! — these are, after all, transcribed radio addresses from the early ’50s), his main contention is with “the mysterious assumption of the coincidence of authority and liberty” which is his gloss on Rousseau’s volonté générale.

Without attempting to defend Mr. Rousseau against Sir Berlin, i would nevertheless like to suggest how the Genevan’s bohemian “paradox” might be calmly explained to a gentleman and a scholar. One might think of this general will, as an instance of Harry Frankfurt’s second-order will. In agreeing to such a social contract, each individual is establishing a second-order will, namely, that e will want what the democratic institutions decide (because it is in es overall or long-term interest). Of course, this defense would be rather weak for large representative democracies as we know them today, but it should be remembered that Rousseau was advocating town-sized direct democracy, so every law was voted upon by every one (well, all eligible voters). Though this does not reduce the Contrat Social to an acceptable form of “negative liberty”, it does explain how one’s liberty might be reconciled with the authority of laws one has freely elected to follow.

Finally, i would like to point out a few modifications one might make to Rousseau’s idea, which would take it yet further towards something Sir Isaiah Berlin might find less objectionable. Two advances in our modern societies have made Rousseau’s general idea more palatable. One is the existence of liberal democracy and its rule of law. A Rousseauvian mini-democracy could easily sit atop this legal framework. This would add two further degrees of freedom: For one, such an association would no longer need to span a defined land area. This would make it much easier for people to leave the association should any of the laws passed not meet with their approval; exit would not require emigration. For another, being freed from maintaining the conditions of negative liberty, the associations could be truly voluntary, making entrance, as well as exit, a matter of individual choice. The second advance is the Internet and mobile computing devices, which add further degrees of simplicity. Associations can now be easily managed, significantly reducing the overhead of direct democracy, since the laws or rules can be automatically implemented by software, and voting requires only that one’s fingers do the traveling.

September 10, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 5: Deliberative Democracy

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

 Deliberative Democracy is described as the grandchild of Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action. As such it is an attempt to avoid the problems of liberal democratic electioneering by substituting a principle of reasoned debate that should as much as possible reach a consensus, but which can employ voting when a decision is not forthcoming. Against liberalism, it sees the democratic process as one of changing people’s minds and preferences, not aggregating them.

If only due to their relatively small size, pollyties will naturally tend towards a more deliberative and consensual approach. Even if a pollyty is operated through software applications, and hence relies primarily upon voting for decision making, it can easily emulate a consensual process by instituting rules that apply a proposed change as soon as 60% or 90% of members have voted “yes” and none or very few have voted “no”. Moreover, since pollyties are voluntary and self-selecting (unlike nation states or government districts) they will also perhaps more easily reach consensus.

September 10, 2014

Sates, Corporations and Pollyties Compared

The following is a preliminary attempt to outline the specificity of the pollyty by comparing it to the two primary sources of inspiration for it. Pollyties are similar to nation states in their goal of protecting people by being just and democratic; like corporations, they are smallish, voluntary associations that require the stability of existing nation states in order to function.

Criteria State Corporation Pollyty
Sovereign  •    
Land-based  •    
Use of violence/power  •    
Maintains infrastructure  •    
Redistributes wealth  •    •
Provides social insurance  •    •
Democratic  (•)    •
Define themselves in laws/rules  •    •
Trans-national    (•)  (•)
Voluntary    •  •
Members are geographically dispersed    •  •
Subordinate to states’ laws    •  •
Authoritarian  (•)  •  
Hierarchical  •  •  
September 9, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 4 and Excursus: Democratic Pragmatism

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

Democratic Pragmatism is not so much another theory of democracy, according to Cunningham who is drawing primarily on Dewey, but more so an orientation towards the problems that arise within democracies. In particular, it pays attention to the scope, context and differing degrees of existing democratic institutions. This conforms well with the pollyty inasmuch as the pragmatic approach sees democratic possibilities in a wide range of institutions such as guilds, unions, associations, corporations and, of course, governments at all levels. Democracy will also look and behave differently depending on the cultural, social or economic situation in which people find themselves. Like a pollyty, also, such a pragmatic approach is not concerned with understanding perfectly democratic institutions, but merely how to make existing institutions a bit more democratic than they currently are.

This brings me to a tangent. Why are we striving for democratic solutions in the first place? All theories Cunningham has so far brought forth are concerned with justifying the desirability of democratic institutions, and doing so from the perspective of the (lone) individual. I do not believe the best form of government is democratic, though i could not exactly describe a better form of government. However, i would argue that we needn’t settle on a theory of justice or democracy only then to tweak our institutions into such a format. To channel Rawls, the first virtue of social institutions is not justice but malleability. If we can ensure that our institutions are flexible and respond well to their members’ desires, then they will naturally move towards something like justice, liberty and equality — though perhaps nothing that would exactly fit those three ideals.

read more »

October 31, 2012

Un pour tous et tous pour un

The first pollykaryote arose quite by chance. Someone had started a co-operative insurance group with es neighbors so they could protect one another from foreclosures. Needing a constitution of sorts, they had found a set of governance rules online which looked to do the trick. But as it turned out, there lay a clause somewhere in that code stipulating that any section could be changed, added or removed on a vote. Naturally, members began to suggest new uses for their polity, slowly shifting, nudging, extending its initial function. As it matured and friends or neighbors asked to join, the leaderless society swelled beyond its earlier, more manageable size, and so, after much deliberation and a vote, it split in two.