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Challenging Contemporary 'Democracy' and Identifying Problems
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Academic Journal Article, Democracy, Democratic, Political Theory, Politics on May 19, 2020 0 Comments 8 min read
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Challenging Contemporary ‘Democracy’ and Identifying Problems

Written by Jean-Paul Gagnon and Nicholas Osbaldiston. Originally published by Social Alternatives, 30(3), 2011, Pp. 3-4.

[This is the introductory article to the special issue that Nick invited me to join him in curating for Social Alternatives. Note how it takes us a good three paragraphs just to get through the disclaimers about the difficult terrain that “democracy”, as a word with thousands of meanings (but also many synonyms and hundreds of translations), required of us before we could start engaging it on what I would argue to be appropriately tenuous, if not hesitant, feet.]

Of central concern to this special issue are the etymologies, epistemologies, tautologies, typologies and ontologies of ‘democracy’. As a word, it has a wide variety of adjectives placed before it. Due to this it can fall under the guise of any number of words and become tautological and perhaps meaningless. As a unit of knowledge, we encounter significant difficulties with the way in which we try to understand it. Some, like Dunn (2011) and Isakhan (2011) would argue that we simply cannot understand ‘it’ at present as even records from ancient Athens are too sparse, concerning damos kratos for us to come to a robust understanding of the Athenian system. We may also compare institutions or practices, places (in time and space), and ideologies often attached to this ‘democracy’ as populating the types of ‘democracy’ known and thus informing the emerging study of ‘democracy’s’ typologies. Finally, all of this informs the ontological study of ‘democracy’ that Gordian and shapeless being in human knowledge and existence.

Ironically, and in many ways troublingly, ‘democracy’ is often found on the tongues, minds and pages of many individuals across every citizenry involved in the global telos. We assign virtues and curses to it; declare war or peace in the name of it; and try to organise our societies through it without having the possibility of knowing what it is. Benjamin Isakhan (2011a) and Stephen Stockwell (2011) have sagely argued that this could even be a ‘democratic’ way of understanding ‘democracy’ (which resonates with David Watkin’s (2011) approach of trying to look at ‘democracy’ ‘as’ something instead of what it ‘is’).

We nevertheless must operate within this irrational condition until there comes a time where we might be able to hone what ‘democracy’ is for all of humanity (the basic building blocks that inform the variegation we discussed above). We shall therefore use ‘democracy’ as a guiding term (an imaginative rudder that changes shape with the touch of a new navigator): something to which each contributor attaches his or her own meaning and will in that way come to challenge contemporary ‘democracy’ and identify certain problems associated with it.

Because of this, we see that the central goal of this special issue is to provide alternatives for the growth of ‘democracy’ and especially the diversification of its typical ‘Western’ narrative. The realisation that ‘democracy’s’ narrative is predominantly orientalist, imperialist, racist, Eurocentric and myopic has only recently become an urgent issue in the academy. Certainly, John Dunn, Jack Goody and Ronald Glassman for example came to realise the parochialism of ‘democracy’s’ history earlier but, it was not something that shook the foundations of this discourse. That is perhaps only beginning to occur with the study of non-‘Western’ endogenous ‘democracies’ and the creation of a new narrative of ‘democracy’ (see Isakhan and Stockwell 2011; Keane 2009; and Fukuyama 2011 for more). If one call in particular is to be made herein, it is for the dramatic need to reform the pedagogy of ‘democracy’ on a global scale. Textbooks from primary to tertiary need to be purged from the ‘old’ narrative of ‘democracy’ and democratised with the new findings our colleagues have been making only in these past few years. We are very pleased to say that several of our peers in Australia are leaders in this vanguard.

To start the issue off, Jean-Paul Gagnon proposes that we may be able to see the emergence of a new ‘democratic’ theory by heuristically positioning the extant literature. Where before the history of ‘democracy’ was taken for granted and repeated almost like a mantra by practitioners and academics alike, it is now treated in a completely different light. The ancient Athenians were not the ones to have invented this form of social organisation but were rather one society amongst many that developed a way of actualising it (‘democracy’ may not even be the only term humans have used for this form of governance and government).

We then move to Gavin Kendall and Theresa Sauter’s argument concerning the Greek concept parrhesia and its centrality to ‘democracy’. Free, frank, excessive and ultimately protected speech is a basic parameter for ‘democracy’ to function. It is a key component for the flattening (or horizontalisation) of power and naturally serves as the medium for deliberation, contestation and non-violent politics. However, their key contribution is the argument (from a Foucaldian perspective) that parrhesia is not merely an institution but an ethic: a morality for ‘democracy’ as a vocation to function and not simply a pathway between ruler and ruled (or government and civil society as Habermas has argued).

Geraldine Donoghue then presents to us the work of Ulrich Beck and his ‘risk society’ thesis which has influenced greatly the sociological discussion of politics and contemporary governance. She argues convincingly that within the era of apparently ‘globalised’ risk, we still see evidence for local risk and reliance upon an apparently disappearing nation state to alleviate danger. One only need think of the dependence that US citizens place on the nation state to secure them against terrorism as an example.

Jennifer Curtin comes to challenge Westminster ‘democratic’ systems to re-gender politics through a focus on bringing more women into contention for prime ministerial candidacy and their greater involvement in executive bodies. We see gender not as a concept dependent on biological sex (as in female versus male) but rather gender as a process (such as femininity versus masculinity). This, in certain ways, has led to an institutional turn in gender studies which underlines Curtin’s argument for a need to ‘democratise’ higher order politics through the involvement of the feminist tool kit.

Clive Bean then demonstrates the impressive growth, and future likelihood of even greater growth, of the Internet’s role in Australian politics and how Australians participate politically via this medium. The article draws on data from the Australian Election Study from 1998 to 2010. We have come to see that traditional media (such as television, radio and newspaper) have lost some ground to the internet over this period with indicators showing that they should expect to lose more. What is of concern now to Australia is bridging the digital divide as it is, and will continue to be, a barrier to many in their capacity to participate politically.

Daniel Zirker and J. R. M. Filho finish the peer-reviewed contributions in this issue with their convincing argument of John Keane’s monitory ‘democracy’ in action in Brazil. This stimulating article documents how various media (controlled by elite interests) served to inflame regional protests over the rights of Indigenous peoples in Brazil’s far north. Of central importance to their argument is the way in which non-governmental, quasi-governmental and extra-governmental organisations participated in the peaceful resolution of the conflict. The article shows how ‘democracy’, especially in developing countries, is shifting with technology and a more vibrant international civil society.

To end, this issue has created a new space for commentary. In this, we have two particularly stimulating arguments brought forward by Alain G. Gagnon and Nicholas Osbaldiston. Gagnon discusses how Quebec’s model of interculturalism (as opposed to Canada’s normative multicultural model) is creating a fertile ground for the growth of an active citizenry which ultimately improves deliberative ‘democracy’. Osbaldiston offers an extended review of former federal politician Lindsay Tanner’s book, Sideshow. Here, the media is placed in the spotlight as a contributor to the apparent decline in interest amongst the Australian public. Osbaldiston challenges in this review the ‘fourth sphere’ but also begs the question of what role society plays in the ‘Sideshow syndrome’ as Tanner calls it.

As editors of this issue, we are very excited to present these articles to you the reader. We hope they spark some thoughts about how we might be able to do ‘democracy’ better but also how we might challenge norms that underpin our own Australian ‘democracy’. The issue, we feel, will be a stepping stone for many to consider further within Social Alternatives this great institution that governs much of our daily lives.

Articulations of democracy Boundaries of democracy Breeds of democracy Characterizations of democracy Classifications of democracy Collections of democracy Conceptions of democracy Concepts of democracy Conceptualisations of democracy Conceptualizations of democracy Constructions of democracy Contours of democracy definitions of democracy Delineations of democracy Demarcations of democracy democracy democrat democratic Democratic design Democratic innovation Democratic innovations Democratic Theories democratic theory Democratical democratization descriptions of democracy Designs of democracy Details of democracy Determinations of democracy Divisions of democracy Elucidations of democracy Exemplifications of democracy Explanations of democracy Explications of democracy Expositions of democracy Families of democracy Figures of democracy Formalisations of democracy Formalizations of democracy forms of democracy Frames of democracy Groups of democracy Ideals of democracy Ideas of democracy Ideations of democracy Interpretations of democracy kinds of democracy meanings of democracy Models of democracy Modes of democracy Molds of democracy Moulds of democracy Number of democracy Numbers of democracy Orders of democracy Outlines of democracy Patterns of democracy Profiles of democracy Representations of democracy Schemes of democracy Sets of democracy Sorts of democracy Species of democracy Structures of democracy Styles of democracy Themes of democracy theories of democracy types of democracy varieties of democracy Words of democracy


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