The Impossibility of ‘Knowing’ Democracy
[This conversation with John Dunn took place in his office at King’s College, Cambridge University, an video of which can be found here. The talk was first published in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]
Gagnon: How do you define democracy?
Dunn: Well, I suppose I think of democracy as an aspect, a rather vaguely specified aspect, of the political experience in the world that we live in, and in some respects definitely a more pervasive and consequential aspect than it would have been 500 years ago. But I think of it as indeterminate in a deep way in, I suppose, extension and content, because it has the clear property of having acquired a way of identifying itself emphatically within political experience and it has done so through a very confusing historical sequence.
There are three distinct features to democracy, or, if you like, three incarnations of it. It is a word; it is an idea; and it’s a set of institutional structures which purport to instantiate the idea and which are now quite frequently referred to through the word. The question of exactly what the content of the idea is has always been very open, very indefinite, and the question of how far institutional structures satisfy the requirements of whatever its content is assumed to be has always been politically very moot.
So it’s not a clarifying idea at all, democracy. I think one must face the fact that its presence in the political experience of our world, however emphatic it may often be, is not a clarificatory presence. It does not show us how to understand. It is part of what we need to understand. In some sense we need to interpret our political predicaments, and act within and upon them, through it. So it’s not, as I see it, a blithe feature of contemporary political experience; and you clearly should not think of it as having been a blithe feature of political experience at any point in the world’s history where you can robustly defend the judgment that it was present.
It is possible to think about each of these three guises with different degrees of clarity and competence; and it’s only possible to think about democracy in a really clear way where the clarity comes in some sense from the history of the word rather than from the thought processes of anybody trying to think about it. You cannot actually even follow the progress of the word over most of its trail. We cannot recover most of that trail, because it has simply been effaced. But you can recover significant parts of it over a long period of time; and you can be really confident that it is this word, in more or less the semantic form that it has survived into contemporary political speech and settled at particular points in time and moved through particular places, that you are recovering. That is a trail which to some degree we can follow and one where we can be quite confident, as we do so, that we are talking about something which in a certain sense was entirely real.
But of course the reality in its passage is not just the reality in the word itself. So it’s a very tantalizing challenge to grasp that reality in any adequate way. But it remains true that it is the passage of the word itself which is the only, I think, absolutely incontestable bit of the far more capacious, concrete and significant reality. Once you get to the idea, you are dealing with a different sort of material and the presumption of determinacy, the thought that you might be able to in a sense elicit determinacy from the idea, or impose determinacy upon it, is an intellectual mistake; and the idea that you might be able from some non-fictitious determinacy of the idea, to adjudicate between the merits and demerits of particular political institutions is, as it were, two mistakes for the price of one, because there’s something incoherent about what you are trying to do and there’s also something politically consequential and necessarily politically contestable about what you are in fact doing.
So by that stage there are intersecting processes of very drastic indetermination in interaction with one another. That is why democracy has such an unclarificatory role in the political experience of the world. In some ways that is paradoxical, since the word itself entered global political speech (as I tried to show in Setting the People Free, 2005) solely because it survived within a particular intellectual and textual medium of more or less critical contextual thought about politics that came out of political experience, the experience of ancient Athens, and survived in a sense as an intellectual instrument, or anyway as something which could be deployed as an intellectual instrument.
Actually democracy was always very ill adapted to serve as an intellectual instrument. It was and remains not a good intellectual instrument at all. So I see and think of it as a very motivating and problematic aspect of our political experience, and a highly consequential aspect of that experience: a dimension of the political problem of our lives, but not an intellectual resource for handling that problem felicitously, and an element which one must see that way round if one is to understand its presence in our lives.
From the point of view of political allegiance, a very important field within which democracy is consequential, I’m personally quite susceptible to it. I think it’s in many ways an attractive idea, even if it is not a very coherent one: that there is something non-speciously attractive about it. So politically speaking I’m definitely in favour of it rather than against it. But I also think that it is important to understand why it channels as much power as it does in the world. It’s important to recognize that, in channelling that amount of power, there is no sense at all in which democracy is contriving to sanitize that power.
In so far as democracy is politically potent, the potency it has comes from the justificatory suggestion that it carries, but it’s never going to be the case that that justification is clear, lucid and reliable. It’s a sort of justificatory ploy, not a valid justification. So I see democracy as something which it’s very important to understand about the political experience of the world we live in but also something which in a way academic work over the last century or so, more particularly in North America, has miscalculated very badly in placing so many strategic analytical bets on the category of democracy in the presumption that the category itself could in principle bear the weight of those bets. I think it’s clear that that has just been a misjudgment and an intellectual error.
That is a very eccentric and transgressive view to hold today. It puts me in one bound or stumble in a very adversarial orientation intellectually to a large component of the political science profession obviously, but actually also to quite a lot of the official political culture of quite a lot of the world. The way I think about it and what it means ensures that many of my political thoughts are unlikely to find a ready welcome either amongst those whose professional responsibility it is to try to understand systematically what is going on politically in the world or on the whole amongst those who are in some sense exercising power over large areas of it on the basis of a claimed political legitimacy derived through the choices or attitudes of their citizens.
So I’m not all that comfortably positioned as a result of the way I think about democracy. But insofar as I can carry through the way I think about it, and insofar as I’m right to do so, a hell of a lot of other people are actually just wrong; and I, unsurprisingly, think I am right. I do not on this, unlike almost any other topic on which I have opinions of my own, see any room for inclining towards the opposite view. In that sense I have got quite a confident approach to thinking about democracy; but it’s not at all a popular approach and it’s not in any danger of sort of becoming so in the short term.
Democracy versus despotism and autocracy
Gagnon: I agree with you that democracy, its multifarious histories, meanings, theories and practices, are each in epistemological crisis (which is something you speak to in your book Breaking Democracy’s Spell ). What is one and what is the other and who knows them all? I think this realization is the new state of the discourse. I know John Dryzek is concerned with trying to rescue democracy from its nebulous tautology. It is certainly a point that has brought me into contestation with political empiricists. Some find our arguments frustrating: how can we measure important phenomena, in the effort of getting things done, when theorists are arguing our variables to be not corresponding with democracy?
I think this is a signal for the need to innovate and to look, as it were, for democracy’s ghost. But whereas physicists have been able to conceive and build a large hadron collider to look for the ghost within their atoms, democratic theorists, empiricists and practitioners alike have no such instrument. I think we need to build it. But that of course is not here possible. So we will have to use democracy as a vehicular term to carry us through this talk – I hope that is OK.
In your article with the European Journal of Sociology (Dunn, 2008: 488) discussing the late Charles Tilly’s book called Democracy, we see that you use the locution: ‘[Democracy] is a permanent political process of intensification or weakening. Democratization, the intensification of that process has no inevitable impetus anywhere ever. It may always be more or less abruptly reversed.’ Does this fit with the argument that democracy like despotism or autocracy is an ever present body in human political organization: that both or all three are in contest with each other and that one is, or may have been, stronger than the other?
Dunn: Well, I think it’s certainly right that pretty much everywhere it is in fact true that one is actually stronger than the other. But, I would distinguish between democracy as a potential name for a set of political arrangements which might be correctly or incorrectly applied, and democratization, which is a very elusive and elaborate process, socially, politically, and I imagine necessarily economically as well. If you look as it were at Pharaonic Egypt and compare it with somewhere more recent which you more or less approve of, there has definitely been some degree of democratization in between the two. The idea of democratization is very much a heuristic idea.
It’s an idea which looks at the structuring of power quite pervasively, asks of that power, the power of some over others, how that power can be more or less coherently and reliably diminished; and where it seems that the power is being diminished, so that power hierarchy is flattening out, it registers that as a process or a movement of democratization. It’s very easy to see what’s more or less the other end of the continuum of democratization, which is, as you put it, roughly despotism: completely inert and comprehensively disempowered subjection of some human beings to some other human beings who are completely empowered to subject them.
You can think of that as a relation which exists at times over very short ranges and very small numbers of people (maybe even two), but as extending potentially across the entire world, in thought experiment anyway: as universal monarchy. Of course that, as its advocates saw it, was a beneficent project; but universal monarchy in this light would be global despotism; and of course the political fear, or plausibly fantasy, that global despotism is imminently threatened has played a very consequential role in political history over time and I think is unlikely to have run its course.
I anticipate that, even for our children’s, children’s, children’s, children, there may still be some possibility of global despotism waiting in the wings. That it’s not just going to disappear as a possibility. If you think about the matter that way, there are some things which are absolutely clear. One thing is that the extent to which democracy as a sort of end state or telos of democratization has featured in human experience cannot have been very geographically circumscribed. It could not, for example, have just started somewhere in particular and spread out by the force of example.
We do not in fact know all that much reliably about most of the history of human life: certainly far less than is needed for purposes of serious political judgment. You need to know an enormous amount of quite intimate information really to understand what is happening in human space to see how to make those judgments properly. But we do know enough to see that in fact human beings have lived with one another in very flat relations in many contexts, over much of the globe, and for very long periods of time; and they have done so on widely varying scales. It’s much easier to have very flat relations in a society in which people know each other pretty well, and are lucky enough not to have too disconcerting experiences of one another, and share a very wide range of interests. In a sense some hunter-gatherer societies were pretty democratic. It’s plausible too, that in ideal-typically oriental despotisms or occidental despotisms for that matter, totally autocratic polities, there have been dramatically hierarchical political orders with very high degrees of oppression directed at those at the bottom. So there have been very flat social relations at some points in time, but there have also been quite a lot of dramatically vertical ones too.
The degree of power differentiation within and between human groups varies enormously. You can think of minimal power differentiation as democracy and political equality: not as an institutional form, but just as simply, directly and unmistakably encountered in everyday life. That, by contrast, has probably been fairly narrowly distributed except on a very small scale. What its past dispersion in time and space means about the presence of democracy as an idea and a set institutions, or even as a word, in the world that we live in is a question which does not have at all a clear answer. That dispersion may actually mean nothing at all about democracy’s significance for the world that we live in, because the ways in which human beings lived together when what they were doing was bounded by what they could actually kill or pick up within a particular and relatively narrow space do not really have any obvious relevance to the setting in which they are living now or to the presence of democracy as a genuinely pertinent political idea, or political term, or an inherent element in actually existing institutions in our world. I do not believe you can say much about any of those issues through the recognition that humans have had much flatter relations with one another over quite a lot of their history in quite a lot of different places.
The last is true; but I do not think it’s obviously to the point. It’s a bit like Karl Marx’s observations on primitive communism. It’s a sort of edifying story; but it is not actually to the point you are thinking about: what people have been or are being driven to do now. It does not have any purchase on the practical predicament that they are in.
Democracy removed from the Greek origins narrative
Gagnon: Your description of democratization as something different to democracy has, I think, another point buried within it. That act, of resisting power, and of using power to change norms in the effort to achieve flatter relations, as democratization, bequeaths for us at least one parameter of democracy that is possibly, probably, universal. Obviously that needs much further analysis meeting the demands of complexity and non-subjectivity – but it’s a tangible variable that humans can look to, as you said, across histories: across times and places.
But to do that we need to try to understand some type of time-bound linearity. Namely, if democratization is something we can agree on, and if it occurred within hunter-gatherer societies, does that not then preclude that it existed before the Greeks coined the term demokratia?
John Keane’s Life and Death of Democracy (2009) is, as you are aware, a substantial monograph and is an arguable broadside against conventional wisdom concerning democracy’s history. It argued, convincingly in my opinion, that democracy is not something the Athenians or Greeks invented. It maintained that although the Greeks put a name to it (one that was later adopted by the majority of global humanity) it still existed as something, perhaps under a different etymology, before the Greek coined ‘democracy’. Do you agree with this?
Dunn: Whether it does depends entirely on what you mean by democracy. As I was trying to say I think that actually human beings have decided what to do about their immediate life circumstances in ways which involve talking to one another and deciding on the basis of some sense of shared judgment about what to do, and done so quite pervasively, if seldom or never in circumstances of literally equal power. For any very abstract specification of what democracy is that you could plausibly offer, probably all over the place except Antarctica (I would not be so sure of that), but anyway certainly in other continents and probably in very many settings, there have been such practices. But I do not actually think that there is a story we know and which you can tell about their presence and incidence.
The title of the Keane book, again, is The Life and Death of Democracy. I do not think there’s a story you can tell about either, still less both: a) Because we do not know most of it, and b) because it does not have any sort of determinate shape. There are no criteria for what belongs inside and what does not belong inside it and there is no reason to see it as a connected course or sequence which leads towards anything in particular. So I do not think one can really think very effectively about that. One of the central theses of John Keane’s book is certainly right: that there have been ways of taking collective decisions, and that give some sort of conceptual and even honorific recognition to lots of the members of the community, in lots and lots of different places.
So of course it would be completely ridiculous to suggest that the Athenians invented that and I do not think (actually myself think) that it’s very important to decide exactly what the Athenians did invent because arguments about priority in invention (patent suits, if you see what I mean) in intellectual terms are very complicated arguments; and unless the putative inventions at issue are part of some sort of legal property order, they tend to be pretty inconsequential. It’s unlikely to matter particularly who invented anything unless in a sense they are going to acquire some sort of monetary or power advantages as a result of having done so.
There is some prestige attached to invention. It’s obviously very important to scientists to care who did think of something first because in a way they are all competing to be the person who thought of something first. That is at some level their life project. So it may be fantastically important to them personally and psychologically, but if you are not a scientist, it’s fairly ridiculous to think of what’s important in science as who came first in a particular process of elected inquiry and it’s a distorted way of understanding what’s going on. It’s a very inadequate way of understanding what’s going on and I think much the same is really true in relation to political categories. It does not particularly matter where a name comes from and it does not particularly matter who first thought of a particular institution that now happens to bear it.
What does matter is how names and institutions commence, and more or less corrective ideas enter into the awareness and motivation of other human beings over time (a dynamically interactive process). I think you can see quite a lot of John Keane’s book as a somewhat uneconomical and under-focused venture of that kind. I do not think you could write a serious history of that process, though you might have many different stories, going off in different directions. If you set out to try to write a history of what’s happened to the word democracy across the world over time, you would now be attempting to capture a history of the post-anarchical heuristics of at least partially legitimate government across the world, starting off from wherever you choose, let us say from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries onwards.
But if you were thinking about the political thought of China, you would not I think be very strongly moved to do either of these two things because you would not get any grip at all on the history of Chinese political thinking by construing it from the either of those angles, even though each of those processes have become at least intriguing to China by now. But when they reach it in the end, they tend to meet a very dusty reception because of political thinking in China’s having gone on for so very long beforehand and being in some respects fantastically sophisticated in its own terms.
John Keane’s book has an engagingly cosmopolitan ambition. But it’s obviously written by someone in particular. So it’s as grounded as anyone else’s in sensibility and in personal attachments. It has the ambition of showing what has happened to and through democracy. But I do not think it’s clear that he’s sorted out in his mind the contrast between the word and the idea, let alone what has happened to each or why it has happened.
His ambition is to show what’s happened to the word and the idea, and in some sense through the word and through the idea, to the world over the last two centuries or so, and as a backlog to that to go back to non-Greek-speaking peoples in the Mediterranean, and track as it were outwards from Greece and backwards from Greece to a number of other settings. The point of the latter operation, as I understand it, is to show that democracy has been a more cosmopolitan experience and a more cosmopolitan idea than George Bush thinks of it as being; and of course that must be right.
I didn’t really find the first third of the book very illuminating, although I did learn a certain amount in some bits of it that I didn’t know before. I do not think that the idea that there was in some sense civically recognized elective decision making in other settings in the vicinity of classical Greece but earlier to be surprising. It’s what you would expect. I doubt whether what John did principally find out about was what was actually going on in those settings (the evidence is extremely thin) or that it adds up to anything which contributes to the understanding of anything political today; and it’s obviously the point he had in mind in doing it to try to help to understand things politically today.
So I’m confused about his intentions (or suspect that his intentions were confused) from that point of view. But his big picture of what’s actually happened in the world in the period where a lot obviously has been happening in ways which do implicate either word or idea directly, his attempt to capture that, I think, is very valuable and is done in some places with a great deal of flair and makes a real contribution.
So I do not really regard the demystificatory bit of it as being up to much intellectually; but I do sympathize with the demystificatory impulse. The part which more looks like real history of something which you can actually identify historically, I think, is much more illuminating for thinking about politics. I have some disagreements with aspects of it; but they are analytical. I think the book as a whole is a very good thing to have done and it’s good that it’s in wide circulation, even if it takes longer than it ideally might to read it from one end to the other.
Critiquing the theory of basic democracy
Gagnon: That is interesting. I wonder what you might think of a much more paltry work, if we compared it to Life and Death, but more empirical work in the sense that it used original empirical analytics. In an article entitled ‘Democratic Theory and Theoretical Physics’ (Gagnon, 2010), I briefly discussed an analysis that I conducted mainly in my doctoral dissertation and then in several commensurate papers. The analysis took a body of literature concerning then 40, but now 50, different types of democracy (ones that may either relate to the word, idea or set of institutions throughout a post-universalist history).
We see that the word ‘democracy’ is often taken for granted, not conceptualized very well and that it is subjectively based on a lot of ‘Western’ literature. We also see this subjectivity in institutional- or ideological-oriented analyses of ‘democracy’. Nevertheless, I took that body of literature as my dataset and analysed it, asking if there are any
basic or fundamental core concepts that could explain each and every one of these ‘democracies’.
I am curious to know what you think of my small argument that democracy (that from which all other forms of it are derived) may have something to do with six different parameters. The first is the presence of a citizenry; the second the sovereignty of the citizenry and how they understand their sovereignty; and then the presence of various concepts of equality, communication, law and the selection of officials as expressed by the plurality of the citizenry. I have used this set of parameters to analyse each one of that 50 and came to the conclusion that each type of ‘democracy’ has a different mixture of the appearance of these parameters through observation.
Dunn: What are the 50?
Gagnon: Oh goodness.
Dunn: No, no, I do not mean list them all. I mean what are they? It was an ontological question, what are they instances of?
Gagnon: They are a mixture of historical democratic governments, democracies theorized in literature and democracies that are now being observed typically through the presence or performance of institutions. So we see the inclusion of the Athenian democratic system, deliberative and consociational or representative or monitory styles . . .
Dunn: Yes, I must say I do not think that those categories are on a par with each other. Athens was a place, and in a way consociationalism is a place too, although it is slightly better disguised as such. But I do not think the others are places at all. They are glosses on possible ways of arranging political orders and they are anywhere, dispersed over lots of places. They vary greatly in determinacy in a way representative of democracy. You can say well, it is not a very clear idea in the first place; but in so far as it is a clear idea it is exemplified in standard nonpathological contemporary presumed democracies, soi-disant democracies which affirm that idea of democracy.
Monitory democracy – I do not think that is a clear category at all. As a category it simply points to a fact: that there are some very important political processes and institutional forms which have kicked in relatively recently and which definitely supplement representative democracy in a number of ways, some of which probably are very clearly beneficial and some of which are probably the opposite. It is not to me very clear that, as a name for what has happened in this process, adding an adjective to democracy shows you anything definite because what has happened simply is not that radical change has taken place in the local civil authority’s decision making.
Democracy is an idea about the organizational component. The monitory bit of monitory democracy is not about the organization; it is about a variety of different reaction-formations to power, really. The adjective reflects the presumptive purpose of these reaction-formations, which is to keep power under closer observation. Of course that is more or less exactly the informing idea of classical democracy. That is what the Athenians thought they were doing. That was the point of most of what they were doing. So I do not see anything new in doing this as a political idea or as a political structure. I certainly do not see any element of determinate political solution either to new problems or to old ones.
What I think is true is that the old problems have got very much worse in a setting in which it is impossible for anyone to understand what is really going on. So in that sense, the need for observing as closely as you can manage to has in some sense clearly increased; but monitory democracy (if that is what you want to call it) certainly is not a very powerful corrective response. But its point is to respond correctively to this intensification of the problematic character of political life today.
But the mode of the response does not actually reform or really change the exercise of power, the power to decide or enforce decisions; and it does not offer a coherent proposal for how that power should be modified or changed. So it is entirely internal to the old practices and their political point; and its fundamental mode is a very old mode. This is a conception of democracy itself and of course in some sense I think it must implicitly have been vaguely present everywhere that humans did not live in a completely flat way.
Some individuals of course have always been bigger or worse tempered and so on. So there’s always been unequal power in interactions between humans. But the degree of inequality and the opacity of what’s really going on have tended to increase over time and by now have become quite extreme. So monitory democracy, if you think of it as sort of a tracking term for shifts in political experience, it just picks that up essentially but it does not pick it up in the form of an idea of how we are now actually dealing effectively with it or in the form of an idea about how we could deal effectively with it. It’s a political phenomenon with a relatively weak relation to the sort of malignant processes of unequalization and obfuscation that have come about.
Gagnon: That is the mire I found myself in when it came to trying to put context to what democracy might be. It was taking all of these different and disparate potential explanations of ‘it’ and trying to contrast and compare their good points and blind spots. A problem is that description in itself shows the subjectivity of my initial foray. This is, as a side note, a problem that I addressed in my book Evolutionary Basic Democracy (Gagnon, 2013).
So the empirics behind ‘basic democracy’ was an attempt to take these things that are known to us although they do have each and everyone their ontological differences and to try to make sense of them collectively. Would you have a recommendation for scholars who might be trying to apply Ulrich Beck and Edgar Grande’s cosmopolitan methodology for example to try to go the post-universalist route and provide context to ‘the’ democracy?
Dunn: Well, I think what’s the real context of democracy is the history of the world. It is not a sort of process, the history of the world. It’s just occurred. So I do not myself think there could be a method which showed one how to understand what really happened in the history of the world: a method to get in a sense the answer to what has emerged in history. What definitely have emerged in history have been a lot of questions. All these conceptualizations of democracy are a kind of shot at answering some of those questions. That is the way I see it; and some of them are better shots than others.
I do think of there being a rather strong contrast between bodies of academic fodder and production in their relative wisdom. You can understand why each of them has arisen, and what their point is; perhaps you can even see that there is some real point in each of them. But you can also, if you think critically, see that some of them are much more hopeless than others; that some do not really get anywhere at all. Each has started from a motive, maybe quite an urgent motive, of perhaps an entirely benign kind; but none points unerringly towards reliably benign political experience. Each may have a starting point with some sort of validating potentiality in it; but at the same time their capacity to yield net political insight where the criteria for political insight have to be a comprehension by actually existing humans about what the hell is going on around them and what they had better do about it is always at risk.
That capacity varies very, very dramatically. In some cases there’s virtually no such potential contribution and in others there may actually be quite a lot; but there’s always only what there really is, so you mustn’t ever overcall their hand. You must recognize that they are attempts to understand something which there is a practical need to understand, and where there are very partial successes at understanding it, and that they, insofar as they are successful, can probably make on balance a pretty benign contribution to handling the predicament. But the contribution they are in a position to make is almost certain to fall very drastically short of what’s required to handle that predicament felicitously because politics is very difficult to understand, very dangerous, very confusing and also very disturbing.
It is not just that it’s a big puzzle that our brains aren’t up to solving, but that it’s also a big threat. That sounds like an essentially temperamental response. People with more sanguine temperaments feel more the exhilaration than the threat itself. So some people like to feel the exhilaration, but the threat remains real whereas the exhilaration may be completely hysterical – maybe induced by an intellectual group equivalent to consumption of noxious substances. Politics does excite some people and sometimes it’s even reasonable to think of that excitement as being inspirational.
It’s not wrong to admire some people in politics a great deal, but it is wrong to admire most people in politics a great deal. That is a very serious error indeed; and actually you do not find that they are very widely admired anywhere. Most people in politics have been seen pretty beadily for the sorts of people they are. So I have always thought that we should really take politics seriously. That is a chastening thing to do. You are not taking seriously something which is going to give you robust occasion for euphoria. It is not a euphoric business, politics.
‘Old’ and ‘new’ democratic theory
Gagnon: I agree. The demoi of this world are not regarding with sufficient attention the hands that would slowly strangle them. An outright attempt at quick strangulation we are, I think, good at avoiding: we know how to revolt and we have done that well on many successive occasions throughout many different histories – we are doing it today across North Africa and what is confusingly called the ‘Middle East’. No, power has learned to move slowly. To turn the heat on and slowly boil the frog that is democracy (to borrow a metaphor recently used by Martin Weber). Citizens, I think, are not good with the ‘slow’ of our adversaries: does the democrat have a short or even broken memory? Your argument here has the same desires as Rosanvallon’s: the citizen must become more robust and must become more numerous. Many selves simply do not wish to occupy the role of citizen and do not, for that matter, give that role much critical regard or offer much in ways of innovation therein. How could we if we do not know with any confidence what democracy is?
Would you agree that because of works such as yours, Benjamin Isakhan’s, Stephen Stockwell’s, Ulrich Beck’s and Edgar Grande’s among others and their calls for a cosmopolitan methodology; that there is now a point of demarcation between ‘old’ ways of arguing, understanding, viewing and practicing democracy to ‘new’ ways of doing so? Is this ‘new’ way pointing us into your teleology and is it a place that can offer the frog the impetus to jump out of the increasingly hot water in which it now finds itself?
Dunn: Well, I think there are two different things to look at in that. One is whether there has been some apprehension of the sort of parochialism of political judgment involved in a lot of social scientific practice over the last few decades. I think there has been some recognition of that; but it is not really yet intellectually adequate. But on the other hand, as you can gather from what I have been saying, I do not think that the more recent thinking has yielded much in the way of enhanced practical political insight.
I think that in terms of practical political insight we are in just as much trouble as we were before. What I’m really opposed to in contemporary political thinking and academic reflection on contemporary political thinking is the presumption that any way whatever of thinking about democracy is reliably going to show us better what to do. I think we have to recognize that and we have in a sense to grow up. There is definitely today a sort of superstitious fetishization of the term democracy, which then flows into a superstitious fetishization of features of actually existing political arrangements, actually existing political personnel and so on, and practices of these personnel which I think encourages and importunes us very, very drastically and still with disconcerting degrees of success to trust in the benignity and practical coherence of what we are doing; and I think that a great deal of our political responses, in the socially available repertoires of resources for political action that we have are quite obviously woefully inadequate for the purposes for which we need them.
I think we are in very bad political trouble across the world and I do not think that it’s true that professional political educators have a good record in acknowledging how bad the trouble we are in is and then showing people what sort of trouble it is and what sorts of approaches to handling that trouble are more likely and less likely to make it better rather than worse. What I hold against the place of democracy in contemporary academic thinking about politics is its very, very pervasive role as a site or resource for quite gratuitous and often disinformative encouragement about our political predicament.
I do not think democracy is actually a resource we have for handling the problems we face on which we can confidently rely. I think there is no way at all of understanding democracy in which it comes out as being a reliable resource in that sense; but I think we have disabled ourselves for seeing that clearly and speaking about it frankly to one another. So I think that in many ways the academic registration of contemporary political reality is politically disabling in so far as it has an effect on the consciousness of citizens or real individuals who end up in the political elite.
I do not think it actually enhances their capacity to act for the better at all, but it carries an extremely strong legitimatory glow with it. So it’s constantly invoked by political agents in a self justificatory way and when it is said and written the claim to legitimation which it provides is almost invariably spurious. It’s almost invariably deceptive and I think that matters a great deal. I think that a great deal of harm comes from that and that that harm, you can say, professionally to and on behalf of the profession of political science, is actually the academy’s fault. It is professional researchers and teachers about politics who have done that. It’s been done through them; but they have been the agents of it too. They have been the agents of it, because they, like everyone else, very much want to find something which reassures them of their own merit and more or less discreetly displays them to advantage to their fellows and so on.
So it’s clear on some level what the motivational basis of this aberration of judgment has been, but also it’s clear that it’s a very difficult spell to break and I think that the time has come to try to break it without as it were in some sense switching sides to the engineers of political oppression across the world. Democracy has always been a kind of a name for political hazard; and we need also to acknowledge about contemporary politics that it remains a very treacherous word, a very treacherous idea and a pretty treacherous set of institutions in the form in which we have each of these.
That is not to say that we’d be much (or at all) better off with beneficent autocracy. The absolute minimum you can say for democracy is that if you put it in a competition against autocracy and you do not say anything else, democracy will always win that competition because there is no case for autocracy that is not of a highly contextual and contingent and judgment dependent kind whereas there is a case against autocracy and that is the case for democracy. But it’s a very short case and it does not run any further than: autocracy is a bad idea and not a possible basis for legitimation.
Articulations of democracy
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forms of democracy
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kinds of democracy
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