International Endowment for Democracy
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Democracy and Ideology

By Professor David McLellan
Goldsmiths' College, University of London

Democracy is the most sought after, but the most elusive, concept in political science. There is virtually no regime in the contemporary world that does not either call itself democratic or promise to be about to restore democracy,1 and thus a prime candidate for a concept that might be called ideology. And recently Francis Fukayama has enjoyed widespread enthusiasm for his thesis that liberal capitalist democracy is the highest and final political form to which humanity can aspire. The present lecture is devoted to examining the validity of this point of view.

It is often said that democracy is an essentially contested concept��a concept the very definition of which is inherently controversial.2 Indeed, the universal acclaim enjoyed by democracy in the 20th century among apparently different regimes might seem to enhance this view. But it is more accurate to say that it is not the definition of democracy which is contestable but its application: the debate is not so much about the meaning of democracy but about how much we can or should have. Most would agree that democracy involves the idea of popular power where all members of a collectivity enjoy equal control over the decision-making process. Thus Schumpeter's famously 'elitist' model of democracy or those who describe democracy in terms merely of consent are really saying that the most that current circumstances permit us to aspire to is that the people should consent to what the government wants rather than that the government should consent to what the people want.

Enthusiasm for democracy in its representative and parliamentary form continues unmitigated as the 21st century begins but, although democracy remains the norm, there is a profound malaise about its potential. One reason for this is undoubtedly the emasculation of the concept, the attempt to define a way its critical edge, the eclipse of its historical promise. The best known example of this is the work of Joseph Schumpeter which tries to reconcile the views of elite theorists such as Mosca, Pareto and Michels, who claimed that it was always elites rather than the people who ruled, with democratic principles. He achieved this remarkable feat by redefining democracy as the people's choosing between competing elites at periodic elections.3 And a plethora of authors have followed his lead stressing the ignorance of the masses who are evidently unqualified to decide methods of high policy and whose role should be linked to choosing those who are so qualified.4 A different version of the same theme is the view, in the early work of Dahl for example,5 of government as responding to interest groups through which, in a pluralist society, people express their preferences. And a more rigorous approach, with essentially the same conclusion, comes from those such as Riker and McLean who use social choice theory to claim that citizens are incapable of deciding policy. 'In the simplest case' writes McLean, 'If voter 1 prefers a to be and b to c, voter 2 prefers c to a and a to b, and voter 3 prefers c to a and a to b, there is a majority for a over b, a majority for b over c, and a majority for c over a'.6 The possibility of this cycle is held to demonstrate the impossibility of a popular vote's reflecting majority opinion (though presumable the same objection should apply to the people's representatives as well). Plato is thus vindicated: the social division of labour advocated by this minimalist approach places politics safely out of the reach of the vast majority.

No wonder that with such dubious friends, democracy as currently practised has a bad name and has even been called 'pseudo-democracy'.7 The superior wisdom of leaders which it presupposes is increasingly called into question as is the reliability of technical expertise��let alone the unsatisfyingly jejune picture of human nature which it implies. But above and beyond this is the feeling that politics is irrelevant, that democracy is hollow. The heart of the present malaise is the realisation that the very nature of our democracy is misguided. It is formal, not substantial. It is concerned with procedures and not outcomes, as in the classic exposition of Hayek where the idea of 'social' justices a contradiction in terms.8 This idea resurfaces in a more practical guise in recent arguments for European Monetary Union and an independent central bank, or the view that the inflation of the 1970s came from too much democracy.9 The formal democracy and civic equality that we have at present leaves social and economic inequalities intact and allows economic dependence and exploitation to flourish. As the industrial revolution proceeded peasants and cottage workers found that their political equality was bought at a price of increasing economic dependence��political freedom was accompanied by economic compulsion. Even more seriously, it is difficult to separate political from economic inequality. Advantages attaching to class, race and gender far outweigh the equality of franchise and freedom of speech; compared to the power exercised by wealth in affecting political decisions, the possession of a single vote seems meagre indeed. Even Robert Dahl, a previously enthusiastic advocate of a behavioural analysis of democracy in which the polyarchy of interest groups dispersed power throughout contemporary pluralist societies, has been lead profoundly to modify his views: 'the consequences', he writes, 'of the economic order for the distribution of resources, strategic positions, and bargaining strength, and hence for political equality, provides an additional reason for concern over the ownership and government of economic enterprises. For the prevailing systems of ownership and control results in substantial inequalities not only in wealth and income but in the host of other values attached to work, job, ownership, wealth, and income'.10 To many it has seemed anomalous that big businesses, which wield so much political power and effect the life chances of most of us should yet be controlled by the few in spite of being��through pension funds, insurance policies, bag deposits��financed by the many. To ignore such questions is, as David Held writes: 'to risk the creation of, at best, a very partial form of democratic politics��a form of politics in which the involvement of some bears a direct relation to the limited participation or non-participation of others'.11

The central reason for this anomalous state of affairs is that democracy, at least in its Anglo-Saxon version, has been more liberal than democratic. It is no accident that liberalism, unlike democracy, is a modem notion. Liberalism with its insistence on the primacy of the individual, on limited government, on the distinction between public and private, was unknown to antiquity because there was no centralised superior state: liberalism begins with the emergence of the nation state, as an attempt to safeguard feudal rights and privileges against centratising monarchies. The milestones in the political history of England, at least, are liberal and not democratic��the Cromwellian settlement and 1688 were considered as attempts to divert democracy by means of constitutional parliamentary government. Even in the United States, where the overt rule of a landed oligarchy was not possible, democracy could still be curtailed by the institution of representative government which acted as a filter: the alienation of political power through the election of representatives meant, in effect, a system of government which a thinker such as Aristotle would have had no hesitation in describing as oligarchy. During the 19th century democracy as a concept came to be more and more identified with liberalism and therefore more acceptable. And liberalism has come to be more associated with the market which could exercise its own economic compulsions which liberal principles came to defend if necessary by force. This defence of the power of private property was paralleled by an insistence on the family as a private ghetto whose perimeter public authority might police but not cross, thus affording another area where male power could be wielded without hindrance. This is not to deny that liberal political theorists, of whom John Stuart Mill is perhaps the best example, have been concerned with admirable issues such as protection from arbitrary political power, consent to governmental authority, respect for the diversity of opinion and the enhancement of individual choice and opportunity. And contemporary political thinkers such as Walzer and Kymlicka, have made imaginative concessions to their communitarian critics.12 But the essence of liberalism is still a relentless insistence on the individual��an individual who is very specific to Western societies (and to their male half at that): solitary, self-owning, and self-centred. With such a conception liberals can only envision a very etiolated democracy as a form of limited government and not, like Pericles, as a way of life.

How can this sorry situation be improved or must we settle for pseudodemocracy? We must ask ourselves whether it is possible to break down the separation of economics and politics and extend democracy into the economic sphere. This poses the question: is capitalism compatible with democracy and, if not, is it so much the worst for capitalism��or for democracy? Does liberal democracy in its present form seem to be the end of History because it is really unsurpassable or has it merely reached the end of its tether? To put it more modestly: can we modify liberalism without destroying even the very 'weak' democracy13 that we currently enjoy? The sheer size and complexity of modem societies together with the economic and social inequality they reproduce seem to give force to Dunn's statement that 'today, in politics, democracy is the name for what we cannot have��yet cannot cease to want'.14 Let us look at some of the suggestions that would have us reject such a pessimistic conclusion.

It is natural first to turn to the most articulate critique of the short comings of liberal democracy��socialism. But socialism itself is currently beset with problems. In its full-blooded (although, from a strictly Marxist point of view, extremely deviant) form in the Soviet Union, it is clearly perceived as a failure. However successful in the early decades of its existence in promoting economic growth, its central planning eventually failed to deliver on its promise of increased economic well-being and fairer distribution of goods.

With the collapse of Communism an alternative, in theory if rarely in practice, to what democracy meant in the West has disappeared. Nor has the traditional social democratic variant fared much better. Keynesianism in one country is vulnerable to the growing globalisation of finance; the welfare state is perceived a remote, inefficient, and bureaucratic rather than democratic; and the increasingly disorganised nature of the capitalism of the new world order is reflected in the appearance of new social movements not based on the traditional socialist category of class. One result is a growing (and impressive) literature on market socialism;15 but the feeling remains that the conjuncture of these two terms is an uneasy one.

Many of those who feel uneasy with the solutions proposed by traditional socialism, including many in these new social movements, have proceeded to reinterpret socialism in terms of radical democracy seen as a potentially unifying concept for all the emancipatory projects of the left. Two themes stand out in their effort thus to reinvigorate the theory and practice of democracy. First, there has been a revival of interest in classical republican democracy with its emphasis on the idea of a common good different from a mere aggregate of individual self interests and the necessity of equal political participation of all for its implementation.16 Of course, in contemporary societies social inequalities and the model of the market makes the notion of a common good rather tenuous. But there is a realisation that if everyone stands on tiptoe no one sees any better and that there is a general interest in the provision of e.g. health and education that cannot be adequately represented by interest groups even majority ones. The point was well put by Mill: 'two very different ideas are usually confounded under the name of democracy. The pure idea of democracy, according to its definition, is the government of the whole people by the whole people, equally represented. Democracy as commonly conceived and hitherto practised is the government of the whole people by a mere majority of the people, exclusively represented.'17 The lesson is that, to secure this general interest, reliance on the vote and on rights is inadequate.18 And the main teacher of this lesson, after Machiavelli, was Rousseau who notoriously insisted that the British people were free only once every five years, on election day. Representation may be a necessary institution, but it can only be genuinely democratic when reinforced by enhanced participation��a deliberative democracy which actually develops capacities and creates identities previously occluded by disadvantage and oppression.19 A contemporary example of such a vision of a self-managed society might be the 'Forum politics' which preceded the revolutionary movements of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.20 The point is to know how we can be properly represented: one person one vote may be a minimum condition��but it is no more than that. Consider Green's description of what he calls 'town meeting democracy': 'a decision is reached after discussion by the assembled citizens, and some official��the town engineer, the town manager, the town council, etc.��is then authorised to carry out that decision.... This makes town meeting democracy decisively different from our own pseudo-representative system; for the meeting authorises its agents to do something, whereas we authorise our representatives to do anything'.21 This does not necessarily mean abolishing all hierarchy, all deployment of private capital, or appeal to expertise. The aim is not equality per se but equality of political participation��and the consequent removal of all obstacles which stand in its way.

Second, this interest in republican participation and active citizenship has been accompanied by a renewal of interest in the concept of civil society. In the past, the meaning of 'civil society' has been variable. Whereas in 17th century England civil society was co-terminus with the state whose function it was to protect private property, in the following century civil society denoted a space, primarily economic, that was separate from the state, as in Hegel and Marx. Indeed, in Marx's early writings (where the concept of civil society figures most prominently) his point is to criticize the gap between the state as the phantasy of alienated human beings and the sphere of (ideal) common interest as opposed to the economic war of all against all of civil society. On this view, the transition to socialism would close this gap and transform civil society by P. Green, Retrieving Democracy: In Search of Civic Equality, Methuen, 1986, pp. 176 f. infusing it with real freedom and equality hitherto banished to the sphere of the State. This narrow conception of Marx was broadened by Gramsci who emphasised civil society as the non-political sphere where the defused power of capital could exercise its ideology and cultural hegemony. The concept was used in Eastern Europe in the struggle against state bureaucracy where the idea of civil society was deployed to reconstruct democratic politics. Following the collapse of Communism there, it was re-imported into the West, as a foundation for more progressive attitudes to democracy.22 Its meaning remains ambiguous as between a social, economic and political world of arrangements between groups that are not subject to direct political control, or a more restricted concept referring to civil associations and groups such as charities, churches, or social movements. The very vagueness of the term means that often currently fashionable talk about civil society is no more than the oldfashioned pluralism of Eckstein and Dahl. The crucial question here is the role of the economy��is it simply one among many parts of civil society or does it contain a totalising logic which permeates and governs all other spheres?23 It is difficult to see the capitalist system as merely one among many aspects of the pluralist complexity of modem society. Commodification is inherently imperialist. And the current distribution of economic resources tends to limit access to organisations and institutions where the role of the state is often to support the private power exercised therein��consider the idea of a free press not as one measured by the equal access of citizens to self-expression but as the freedom of its owners to profit from, their property. Civil society can often be another name for a market-led society where politics, and therefore democracy, is seen at best as limited to guaranteeing its smooth functioning and at worst as a necessary evil.

All this only serves to emphasise the centrality of the question of the relationship of capitalism to democracy. At first sight, the term 'capitalist democracy' would seem to be an oxymoron: the capitalist free market makes for elitism and minimal political power whereas democracy favours equality and regulation.24 This may be too harsh: the achievements of capitalist formal democracy at its best��the rule of law, guarantees of civil liberty and adequate representation��obviously mark an advance on societies which lack such benefits. But at the same time capitalism involves the creation of enormous powers outside the control of the community beside which any power that might be called democratic seems puny indeed. If capitalists were deprived of the vote what difference would it make? The view that what is good for General Motors is good for the United States and, more importantly, vice versa says it all. Thus capitalist societies tend systematically to devalue politics. In ancient and feudal society, politics was important because economic power flowed from political power. In capitalist societies it is the other way round and the separation of the economic and the political tends to minimize political goods: if democracy is only 'political' then it is increasingly seen as largely irrelevant and indeed alienating��in the very act of a voting many citizens feet they have given away what little political power they had. Moreover, politics is still more unnecessary for those who can buy their way out of the problems such as pollution and toxicity that their own activities have caused. It is true that the excesses of a free market capitalism have been restrained in some societies: rather than just capitalism, there are capitalisms. Japan, for example, by encouraging a sense of community within the enterprise and a corporatist relationship between enterprises and the state has modified competition by cooperation. But how far either inherited cultural practices or Keynesian governmental intervention can hope to tame the market must remain an open question. The answer must depend, at least in part, on the performance of capitalism itself. Capitalist society appears at present to be inefficient in that its characteristic long-term structural unemployment, with the accompanying products of poverty and crime, co-exists with huge waste of resources on advertisement, legal fees, and luxury services and all sorts of essentially Unproductive activities. Nor can the free market provide any convincing solution to environmental and pollution problems which require, at the very least, some form of regulation and planning. Whether these factors will spell the demise of capitalism or only its modification remains to be seen.

It should be noted, of course, that democracy is still usually discussed in terms of the nation-state. But the international dimension of our topic is increasingly intruding itself. Although there is much debate as to whether nationalism is in decline,25 few can dispute the decline in power and authority of the nation- state, an institution which is being increasingly challenged from below and from above. As mentioned before, it is the globalisation of the economy which makes national solutions to economic problems questionable. And threats such as environmental pollution, aids, or nuclear proliferation, are not patient of national solutions. It may be that the growing body of international law and the authority of such international institutions as the WHO or the IW could prove to be the kernel of a future cosmopolitan democratic order.26

Finally, the fate of democracy, whether national or international, is bound up with the profound problems associated with the alleged demise of modernity. The democratic tradition has depended on the values of a robust humanism. What if, as some versions of postmodernism suggest, a relativist pluralism is extending into individual psychology and life-style and involving an aestheticization of politic which robs democracy of its traditional ethical foundation? And, of course, many have thought this approach to be postideological. In a fragmented society in which all that is solid melts into air upon what basis can democracy hope to build? Some have seen postmodernism as part of the solution to the question of democracy rather than part of the problem. They welcome the way in which a fragmented society creates space for more diverse social identities and attempt, in the name of their specificity, to counteract the new inequalities of the liberal market and the bureaucratic state.27 But it is easy to be too enthusiastic here and to forget that the critique of modernist liberal universalism can simply strengthen traditional hierarchy.28 Liberal values need to be extended rather than jettisoned��better, for example, to realise that inequality is a complex concept rather than to deny its validity.29 Moreover, a society unified only by the market is inconceivable��contract, as Hegel pointed out,30 cannot go all the way down. In any case, democracy is best viewed not as itself the foundation of society but as a means of arriving at a consensus on what that foundation might be. The very notion of a consensus presupposes equally free political participation of all members of society��and the social and economic and political circumstances that might guarantee that participation.31 In this sense, the values implicit in a democratic outlook are indeed necessarily universal and the political system is not simply one among many. Although democracy does not itself prescribe what the common good or the 'good life' might be, political democracy is universal in that it guarantees the equal participation of all citizens in determining what that good might be. And the democratisation of both state and civil society is a necessary precondition of such a possibility. It is important to remember that democracy is not something which has been achieved but something to be aimed at. The aim is self-government. The extension of the Athenian ideal to all members of society may be impossible, but at least we can try to ensure that those who exercise political power are answerable to those over whom it is exercised. Such accountability is eroded by the growingly asymmetrical production and distribution of life-chances in the contemporary world. In spite of the fragmentation, diversity, and relativism that characterises our society, almost all are agreed on how the currently lamentable circumstances under which we conduct our government might be improved. The main obstacle to this is that those who have power are unwilling to give it up.




  1. Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989, p. 313.

  2. On the idea of an essentially contested concept, see the original article by Gallie, "Essentially Contested Concepts", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1955/56, vol. 56, particularly pp. 171 ff.

  3. See J. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, London, 1943.

  4. See, for example, S. Lipset, Political Man, London, 1960, W. Komhauser, The Politics of Mass

  5. See R. Dahl, Who Governs?, New Haven, 1961.

  6. I. McLean, "Rational Choice and Politics", Political Studies, vol. 39, 1991, p. 508. See also W. Riker, Liberalism against Populism, San Francisco, 1982. The pioneering work in this area is K. Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values, 2nd ed., New York, 1963.

  7. See P. Green, Retrieving Democracy: In Search of Civil Equality, Methuen, 1975, ch. 2.

  8. See the second volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Chicago, 1976.

  9. See B. Barry, Democracy, Power and Justice, Clarendon Press, 1989, ch. 3.

  10. R. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, p. 333.

  11. D. Held, Prospects for Democracy, Polity, Cambridge, 1993, p. 24.

  12. See M. Walzer, Spheres of Justice, New York, 1984, and W. Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture, Clarendon Press, 1989.

  13. Cf. B. Barber, Strong Democracy; Participatory Politics for a new Age, Berkeley, 1984. this question is elaborated on in J. Keane 'Democracy and the Idea of the Left, in Socialism and Democracy, ed. D. McLellan and S. Sayers, Macmillan, 1992, pp. 16 ff.

  14. J. Dunn, Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, Oxford, 1993, p. 209. Society, London, 1960, and G. Sartori, The Theory of Democracy Revisited, Chatham, 1987. See also the breathtakingly simple endorsement of the Schumpeterian definition of democracy and the notion of an "empirical" as opposed to a normative definition��without realising that the very adaption of a definition is itself a normative exercise��in S. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, University of Oklama Press, Norway, 1991, pp. 6 f.

  15. See, for example, D. Miller, Market, State and Community: Theoretical Foundations of Market Socialism, Clarendon Press, 1989 and D. Schweikart, Against Capitalism, Cambridge, 1995.

  16. See W. Kymlicka and W. Nelson, 'Return of the Citizen: A Survey of Recent Work on Citizenship Theory', Ethics, vol. 104, 1994, pp. 352 ff.

  17. J.S. Mill, Considerations in Representative Government, Dent, London, 1910, p. 256.

  18. Unless, of course, the notion of rights is extended: on the importance of social and economic rights see M. Rustin, 'Which Rights of Citizenship?', in Socialism and Democracy ed. D. McLellan and S. Sayers, Macmillan, 1992, pp. 46 ff.

  19. For an excellent overview of various forms of deliberative democracy, see R. Blaug, 'New Developments in Deliberative Democracy', Politics vol. 12, no. 2, 1996, pp. 71 ff.

  20. See the chapter by N. Acherson, in J. Dunn, Democracy, Oxford, 1993, ch. 12.

  21. 1 P. Green, Retrieving Democracy: In Search of Civic Equality, Methuen, 1986, pp. 176 f.

  22. See A. Honneth, 'Conceptions of "Civil Society"', Radical Philosophy, Summer, 1993, pp. 19 ff.

  23. For an attempt to oppose Capitalist economics to civil society, see Jean Cohen, Class and Economics: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory Amherst, 1982. For a different approach, see John Keane, Democracy and Civil Society, Verso, New York, 1988.

  24. See John Hoffman, 'Capitalist Democracies and Democratic States': Oxymorons or Coherent Concepts', Political Studies, vol. 39, 1991, pp. 342 ff., views expanded in his Beyond the State, Polity, Cambridge, 1995.

  25. See further E. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1789, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

  26. For an invigorating sketch, see David Held, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance, Policy, Cambridge, 1995.

  27. See Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, Verso, New York, 1993.

  28. See the critique of the Communitarian critique of liberalism in M. Walzer, 'The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism', Political Theory vol. 18, no.1, 1990.

  29. See M. Walzer, Spheres of Justice, New York, 1983 and John Keane, Democracy and Civil Society Verso, New York, 1988. And, in a feminist context, compare Iris Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press, 1990, with Anne Phillips, Engendering Democracy, Polity, 1991.
  30. See G. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, ed. A. Wood, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 108 ff.

  31. For a weak form of this approach, see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice Harvard University Press, 1971 and Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, 1993. For a stronger version, see J. Haberrnas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Polity, 1996, and the critical assessments in M. Passerin Dientreves and S. Benhabib, eds., Haberinas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on the Unfinished Project of Modernity, Polity, Cambridge, 1996.

  
 
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