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Conclusion: Shapes of the Frontier
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Book Chapter on April 23, 2021 0 Comments 23 min read
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Conclusion: Shapes of the Frontier

[This is the final chapter of the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought first published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.]

Shapes – they are objects of differing dimensions, compositions and structures. Together they can make striking mosaics. On their own they can offer conceptual boundaries. Shapes are integral to one’s thinking. They give form where there often is none. They help us to understand disparate information across complex strands of space and time. Shapes happen in the mind. They happen for example on paper through words, digitally on screens and physically in art. In this Conclusion I offer what I consider to be certain shapes on the frontier of democratic theory as a discourse and as discussed throughout this book.

In order to build structures there has to be a list of building materials, or at least materials with which to build something. As I established in the paragraph above, my building materials are the themes taken from the interviews in this book. It would help, I think, to set these out explicitly. Each interview discusses a different matter. The list below displays the thematic breakdown of each interview in this book.

A breakdown of themes for each interview in this book

(1) John Dunn: the difficulty of understanding democracy; describing the illogic of current political systems; calling for an entire epistemological change; democracy cannot be defined.

(2) Albert Weale: the history of democracy has broadened; there is an erroneous standard narrative; complexity has increased in the historiography of politics; the definition of democracy is dependent on institutions.

(3) Francis Fukuyama: emphasizes the modern, legally protected, individual; focus is not on the type of democracy but the quality of democracy; the state is still very relevant; liberal constitutional modelist definition of democracy.

(4) Ramin Jahanbegloo: the apathy of citizens; the underlying violence in democratic governance; recognizes a turn towards the new; democracy is defined through cultural practices.

(5) David Held: it is important to take care with claims to the new; democracy has changed as it always does; focuses on the interactions of individuals and institutions across boundaries; modelism used to define democracy.

(6) Ulrich Beck: democracy is distinctively different now; it is the product of reflexive modernization in response to risk; the focus is on individuals taking further action globally; democracy is defined using a funnel heuristic (starting broad and narrowing in).

(7) John Dryzek: global deliberative democracy; contrasting democratic theories; identifying divisive power in global governance; post-foundational approach to defining democracy.

(8) Pierre Rosanvallon: the abilities of citizens; the onus of governments to demonstrate legitimate authority; the poverty of democratic innovations within the state; democracy is an ethos of ‘the people’ and difficult to define.

(9) John Keane: actions and knowledge of citizens; focus is on monitory phenomena; describing the inherent complexity of democratic praxes; democracy is defined as a complex, global phenomenon.

(10) Thomas Seeley: nonhuman democracy; learning about democracy from nonhumans; focus on interspecies genesis of democracy; democracy is defined through modelism.

(11) Noam Chomsky: individuals taking action; global networks of citizens; emphasis is on individual political responsibility; democracy is defined as shared governance between people.

Similarities are evident in the lists of themes given in the list above. The key is to recognize these similarities. But it is to also recognize that each treatment of the same theme will have a different emphasis. As can be seen below in my construction of a triangle there are three angles, each from a separate thinker, to the same theme (individuality). That is how I build shapes. The amount of angles apparent for a particular theme determines what I can build. And it is the building of shapes that makes it easier for us to understand how different angles all fit together. They give us a bigger picture – a better understanding. Without this heuristic of identifying building materials and without the demand of making something out of those materials, we would be left with the vagaries of themes floating, as it were, like ether through these pages and our minds. It sometimes helps to be deliberately constructivist.

The aim then of this Conclusion, which I fulfil over the next few pages, is to purposefully explain how the themes across all the interviews in this book fit together to make shapes. These are objects that we have only recently started to build or to identify. We are shining a light on them and they are casting shadows into the future. These objects also darken areas in democratic theory that were of previous interest and, in so doing, make brighter other less looked at places in the discourse. By delicately constructing these objects here, at the end, we will be able to come away from this book with a firm grasp of certain cutting edges in democratic theory. We will be armed with important tools to use in current or future research, work, activism and citizen-living (the art of living life as a self-reflexive citizen).

Triangles, dumbbells, double helixes and circles

As set out in the Introduction, and in my list above, there are several shared themes that my interviewees built together. These will serve as the building materials for the shapes that we will now construct. The first shared theme concerns the individual understood as a human protected by legal rights from tyranny over the self by any group be it family, workplace, state or religion for instance. Individuals are the starting point for democracy to be exercised. Without them there is no demos or demoi. Without the protected broadly conceived freedom of the individual, democracy is in this sense not possible.

Keane, Fukuyama, Rosanvallon, Jahanbegloo and Chomsky each focus on the individual citizen in their own way. We saw from Keane a focus on the sense of obligations that citizens have, if any, toward their respective polities. What actions do citizens take and how does this support, weaken or change democracy? Is this driven by ignorance and passion? What do people actually know? There is a pluriverse of citizenries, of demoi, even within one bounded territorial state. They are fluid. They seemingly change in composition from day to day. They are dependent on who is affected by what. They are reactionary to surprises or changes. They are predictive and precautionary when trying to mitigate the forthcoming ills that highways of information determine are ‘in the cards’.

Fukuyama’s insistence on the importance of the liberal and protected individual and the importance of dramatically increasing the quality of democracy drives a unique focus: how can individuals make better citizens? And can better citizens make better democracy? Democracy’s health depends on a politically intelligent middle class protected by the rule of law. It is a more compassionate tale to what some commentators over the last twenty years have labelled the ill-claimed victory of cut-throat capitalism. Fukuyama has made no such claims. He sees a healthy form of compassionate capitalism as essential to the protection of the middle class. Inequality is the bane of social fabrics. It weakens the fibres that link individuals together. Individuals of this compassionate type are essential for Fukuyama’s model of democracy. It is now all about trying to figure out how to reverse the decline of this model in the USA. It is about trying to figure out how to greatly improve the quality of this type of democracy.

We saw from Rosanvallon a defence to some extent of distrust and apathy. These problems are not deleterious to the health of democracy. They are rather an invitation for the state to recognize it could be doing things better. It is an opportunity for the citizenry to offer its disapproving voice by withdrawing from democratic life. It is also an opportunity for the other agents of governance within the state, but outside of elected government, to recognize that a withdrawal is happening: that ‘the people’ are removing their consent. This creates space in which innovative or responsive governance can happen. Democracy is not then in decline when situations like this occur – it is still active and giving voice through apathy.

There was also from Jahanbegloo the opposite argument that apathy is a symptom of democide in Western states. This, I think, is because Jahanbegloo does not see a fervour of responsive or innovative governance occurring in North America in response to ever-growing levels of apathy. Individuals, especially the young, are pulling away from the conservative institutions of representative democracy. A small response seems to be taking shape in the form of digital assembly formation and monitory bodies. But as Jahanbegloo stresses in his own way, the trend is not towards these growths. The trend is to pull away from politics and the democratic life altogether. This he argues is not the case for Iran or for a majority of Arab states. The youth of these places are politically active. But are they democratically active? The political actions individuals are taking are often too violent to be seen as democratic.

And from Chomsky we saw that citizens in the West are active. Citizens are forming powerful constellations that are and will continue to affect corporations and governments. He shares a number of examples on how citizens are uniting to combat poor governance and overbearing corporations. A key for Chomsky is that citizens in the USA and elsewhere desperately need to regain ownership of politics. He argued, and I agree with him, that citizens in the USA are disenfranchised. Politics is ‘the shadow cast by business over society’. Individuals thus must take collective actions to regain control over politics. If democracy is not understood more broadly than it is today – we may actually be witnessing democide in action. Keane’s (2009) arguments may be true: that the USA is an empire of democracy now in decline. As an aside, the contrast over the concept of ‘apathy’ between Jahanbegloo, Rosanvallon and Chomsky warrants further research.

The shape that represents the problem of the individual in this book is a triangle. One side is labelled ‘apathy’, the other ‘action’ and the last ‘knowledge’. Contemporary democratic theory is struggling to better understand why individuals are apathetic to politics, to being a citizen, and to ‘living’ democratically. Although there is a large body of literature on the subject, some strands from the literature argue that people are apathetic because 1) they feel excluded from politics (Dean, 1960); 2) they do not care for politics (Davis, 2009; White, 2004); and 3) that they do not have the time to ‘do politics’ (Rosenberg, 1954). Others argue that individuals are simply not knowledgeable enough about the praxes of democracy and the extreme importance of individuals participating in those praxes. It is the latter that relates most strongly to my emphasis.

Part of the cutting edge of democratic theory looking at individuals is doing this on two fronts. The first is testing to see how much knowledge citizens have about information considered important for a citizen to be effective (Rapeli, 2013). The second is to see which actions individuals take as part of their own self-reflexive praxes of citizenship. We know that most individuals have divergent and rudimentary understandings of what it means to be a citizen. And we know that most individuals in this world are entirely lacking when it comes to the knowledge they should have to be able to act as capable citizens. What we know less of are the intimate details of how individuals form relationships with this expectation of ‘being citizen’. For most, citizenship is administrative. It is legalese with little importance for the valuable aspects of daily life. What is the citizen-self? And what praxes are apparent in that relationship? If apathy is a bad thing then maybe we can figure out ‘action’ and ‘knowledge’ in our triangle to solve for ‘apathy’ as is standard in geometry.

There is another shape here. It represents the tension apparent in how democracy is defined in this book. It is a dumbbell. On the one side there is a weight representing model-like approaches to defining democracy. These are often scalar and procedural. They depend on institutions. They lend themselves more easily to empirical studies
but suffer the consequences of making erroneous universalistic claims (Gagnon, 2012) which are then taken up by foreign and domestic policy makers. The other side has a weight representing non-foundational definitions of democracy where seemingly almost anything goes. This nonfoundational side better reflects the reality of the theory in democracy as we do not know what democracy means. By that admission then we must be inclusive and capacious of most politics as possibly democratic. Across the chapters, the interviewees in this book may have favoured one weight more than the other, but they all seemed to be grabbing the dumbbell somewhere in between these two heuristic extremes. Models are more capacious. Non-foundations appear to be resting on some basic universalistic footings. There is what some, like Wingenbach (2011), are calling a turn toward post foundationalism in the praxes of democracy. It is about working together to better reflect theory and to better enable practice.

A good example for this tension in the dumbbell comes from a comparison of Dryzek and Held’s definitions of democracy. Both come from different sides. Held favours more rigid and distinguishable models. These must empirically reflect cosmopolitan realities. Held’s underlying democratic theory is much broader and more capacious than the theory seen in the circa 1960s with for example Mayo, Sartori and Dahl. Comparatively, Dryzek resists the use of rigid models as he worries about what they exclude. He takes a less foundational approach. But rather than going into the direction of radical theory and non foundationalism, he argues that there are some broad principles of democracy endemic, it seems, to a large swathe of humanity. He uses this approach to build careful and tenuous frameworks for discursive democracy. So although there is a departure, between Held and Dryzek, between two different points, it does seem however that they are working much closer than was previously suspected. Over time we will continue to determine that the differences some have constructed between democratic theorists are specious and false. We have much more in common than we do in difference.

A third shape present in this book is the double helix. This object is less pronounced in the book than the first two shapes that we have so far covered. A double helix is composed of two parallel lines that are joined together by perpendicular lines. This shape represents the relationship between humans and nonhumans across our evolutionary histories directly in relation to democratic practice. One of the parallel lines is humanity, the other is nonhumanity, and the perpendicular lines represent the instances where we learn about human democracy through the observation of nonhuman democracy.

Seeley is the most relevant to this emphasis in the double helix. An important aspect of our conversation to remember is that Seeley is not only focused on nonhumans. He does set out that humans have a role to play in relation to better understanding the democratic ways of our genetic relatives. The observations of democracy in nonhumans are an inescapably reflexive practice. We must take stock of how we do simple democratic things and, after observing these practices in nonhumans, ask ourselves if we could be doing these things better. I agree with Seeley that honeybees are better decision makers than humans. And I agree with him that we humans have a lot of hard learning to do to answer why bees are the better decision makers. It may have to do with the apparent fact that bees are dealing with fewer parameters (thus less complexity) and have, as far as we know, no individual choice in the matter. They are hardwired to behave this way. But then again, are humans not in themselves behaviourally hardwired to some extent?

There is also, on the humanity side, the issue of history. Muhlberger and Paine (1993) argued that democracy’s history should be viewed as constructing a large and strong rope. It takes thousands of small fibres or strings that are then spun together to make a rope. As these strings and fibres join in a systematic way, they form something much larger and much stronger than any individual fibre or string could ever hope to be. They become a rope. This process must happen for democracy. This type of history for democracy is, however, mostly lacking. We cannot at this stage of human knowledge make a rope. We are today working only with delicate strings and some loose fibres floating around. We are claiming that these strings, for example, are capable of mooring enormous ships (polities) to the land (democratic governance) during even the most violent storms (war and famine, forced austerity, and natural disasters for example). I do not think this is possible. The strings we are using today cannot meet that function. And these strings are not representative of democracy itself – the discourse of the planet, the human and the nonhuman combined.

Weale is good to focus on as an example of how history is being reconsidered. He argued that the history and genealogy of democracy is becoming increasingly broader. He argued that a multidisciplinary body of scholars are implicitly contributing as a whole to this opening up of democracy’s historiography. It is a direct challenge to the colonized discourse. Or, in the style of Paine and Muhlberger, we are identifying new fibres and strings. Unfortunately, these new directions in history have yet to make their way into most curricula on democracy.

The last shape that I would like to define is a circle. On the top half of the circle we have Dunn’s position that there is no knowing democracy. The word, the process, the theory, the concept, its history and its genealogy are entirely lacking in evidence. The scholarship of this discourse and the practice of democracy have been spinning off illogically – rambling like madmen about something no one can possibly have any idea about. ‘Democracy hysteria’ is a condition for politics today. It was a condition of politics for a long time. This makes the top half of the circle not inhospitable to the study of democracy or its practice but rather puts it into what I consider to be the better context. We gain a command of the discourse if we keep this context in the back of our minds during our readings, political dealings or activism for instance. Dunn’s is a strong challenge to the discourse. It is needed for the health of democracy (whatever that may be).

The bottom half of the circle is Beck’s position. It contrasts with Dunn in that Beck thinks it is possible to provide some largely acceptable definition of democracy with all its blemishes and warts. These imperfect concepts, as Held has argued, are what we consistently have to work with in any human activity as all of our knowledge is partial and only, hopefully, improved over time. Conversely, what Dunn is arguing is that ‘democracy’ is not anywhere near an imperfect concept. It cannot in its lacking state be compared to concepts like the human heart, photosynthesis or water. Democracy needs an incredible amount of research across its entirety to reach the point of being a working concept.

But Beck and Dunn do work together. It has to do with the self-reflexive process endemic to progress in for example democracy’s theories, concepts and practices. There comes a time where an alarm is sounded (such as Dunn’s) or where different or new research methods and ontologies crop up (such as post foundationalism and post universality) where concepts like democracy can undergo fundamental transformation. Beck argues that this has happened in regard to modernity. We are in Second Modernity and there are varieties of it. The same I would say has happened to democracy. Beck and Dunn in this sense complement each other. They form the shape of a circle as their theoretical standpoints in this book work well together. Uncertainty over democracy drives reflexive thought about it which uncovers more knowledge which reduces or increases uncertainty depending on the outcome of the reflexive process. The circle spins. It is a continuous process.

As I made mention of in the Preface to this book, it is possible to read these conversations out of order and to come up with different shapes. It would also be possible to use the shapes I created in this Conclusion but to change the thinkers responsible for their existence. Due to his interests in ‘green’ and ‘environmental’ democracy, Dryzek for example could easily be included in discussions about nonhuman democracy with Seeley (the double helix). Keane could be included in the expectations that democratic theorists have for citizens (the triangle). Due to the way he defined democracy, Rosanvallon might reasonably be given a share of Dunn’s part of the circle. Carrying on with this constructivist activity is worthwhile and something I hope the reader will pick up.

A look to the future

From this book’s Preface and Introduction to its Conclusion, we have covered what this book is about. We have addressed its contents in three different ways. The first treatment in the Preface was a candid look at each conversation. The second treatment in the Introduction was more formal. Following tradition I offered a critical literature review and defined what I thought were the more obscure terms used in this book. The last treatment in the Conclusion was via the heuristic of shape building. This allowed me to construct more complex objects. It makes it easier to understand the themes in this book as wholes.

I have, however, given no treatment so far as to what this book has not covered. What remains, for example, of critical and unresolved problems in gendered democratic theory or in the democratic thinking of subaltern theorists? We need to consider gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersexual, racial or other narratives of the self as this does have bearing on the praxes of citizenship (see, for example, Russell, 2005; Narrain, 2007; and Potgieter and Reygan, 2012). We still need to decipher to what degree and how women or youth govern in the pluriverse (see Pruitt 2007, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2013a, 2013b; and Berents 2012). Is it still true that older men are the ones that do most of this world’s governing? We must also embrace the politics of nonhumans and material nature (see Marres, 2012; Braun and Whatmore, 2010; Bennett, 2010; Coole and Frost, 2010; and Bryant, 2011, for more). We are consistently representing the interests of the voiceless and involving them in our politics. The democratic theory underlying this representation of, for example, future generations, mentally disabled individuals or nonhumans is not, however, widely known.

There is also the comparative treatment of democracy’s subjective definitions. In this book we gained definitions from men, and from men mostly out of non-African, non-indigenous, non-Asian, non-Arab, and non-Latin American backgrounds. Will an entirely different host of democracy definitions made by scholars from those other backgrounds actually be different to what we have here in this book? The theorists that I have interviewed are not ignorant of non-Western definitions. Many actually draw upon these narratives. They seek them out and draw from them in their own definitions. Will, for example, African theorists be citing Robert Dahl and Larry Diamond or will they be citing lesser known but equally important African or Arab theorists? I worry that the democratic theory of subalterns is sublimated by the colonized discourse. It deserves, like the thinking of self-identified females, the same treatment that I have given to others in this book.

It is then to two future projects that I turn. They are two further volumes of Democratic Theorists in Conversation. The first looks to self-identified female theorists like Robyn Eckersley, Nadia Urbinati, Jane Mansbridge and Paulina Tambakaki. The second looks to self-identified subaltern theorists like Ademola Kazeem Fayemi, Apollos Okwuchi Mwauwa and Larbi Sadiki. Once these volumes are completed they will, together with this book, act as a benchmark for contemporary democratic theory. It is hoped that this will encourage more women and subalterns to contribute their important and needed insights into the field of democratic theory.

The sum of this book and its finer details begin to define, as argued in the Introduction, a turn in the discourse of democracy. I see this as the construction of new democratic theory. It is a novel and not previously seen ontology in the study of democracy. The interviewees in this book have, like explorers, discovered new frontiers. Some may disagree with this ontology. And that is fine. Only time and reflection on the past will determine whether I am right or wrong. I would, however, be happy with either outcome because there is one undeniable fact that is not dependent on this ontology: there is now more work to be done on the study of democracy than ever before. This book is a call for solidarity; for the curious to join the scholarship of democratic theory; for universities, governments and private funds to financially and institutionally support this area of scholarship; and for transdisciplinary work on this discourse to take off into new heights and into better outcomes for both humanity and nonhumanity.

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


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