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, 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. 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. 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. A different version of the
same theme is the view, in the early work of Dahl for example, 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'. 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'. 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. 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. 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'. 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'.
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.
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'
democracy 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'. 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; 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. 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.' The lesson is that, to secure
this general interest, reliance on the vote and on rights is inadequate. 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. 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. 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'. 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. 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? 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. 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, 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.
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. But it is easy to be too enthusiastic here and to forget that the critique of
modernist liberal universalism can simply strengthen traditional hierarchy.
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.
Moreover, a society unified only by the market is inconceivable��contract, as
Hegel pointed out, 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. 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.
- Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989, p. 313.
- 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.
- See J. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, London, 1943.
- See, for example, S. Lipset, Political Man, London, 1960, W. Komhauser, The Politics of Mass
- See R. Dahl, Who Governs?, New Haven, 1961.
- 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.
- See P. Green, Retrieving Democracy: In Search of Civil Equality, Methuen, 1975, ch. 2.
- See the second volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Chicago, 1976.
- See B. Barry, Democracy, Power and Justice, Clarendon Press, 1989, ch. 3.
- R. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, p. 333.
- D. Held, Prospects for Democracy, Polity, Cambridge, 1993, p. 24.
- See M. Walzer, Spheres of Justice, New York, 1984, and W. Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and
Culture, Clarendon Press, 1989.
- 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.
- 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.
- See, for example, D. Miller, Market, State and Community: Theoretical Foundations of Market
Socialism, Clarendon Press, 1989 and D. Schweikart, Against Capitalism, Cambridge, 1995.
- 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.
- J.S. Mill, Considerations in Representative Government, Dent, London, 1910, p. 256.
- 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.
- 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.
- See the chapter by N. Acherson, in J. Dunn, Democracy, Oxford, 1993, ch. 12.
- 1 P. Green, Retrieving Democracy: In Search of Civic Equality, Methuen, 1986, pp. 176 f.
- See A. Honneth, 'Conceptions of "Civil Society"', Radical Philosophy, Summer, 1993, pp. 19 ff.
- 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.
- 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,
- See further E. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1789, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- For an invigorating sketch, see David Held, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State
to Cosmopolitan Governance, Policy, Cambridge, 1995.
- See Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, Verso, New York, 1993.
- See the critique of the Communitarian critique of liberalism in M. Walzer, 'The Communitarian
Critique of Liberalism', Political Theory vol. 18, no.1, 1990.
- 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,
- See G. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, ed. A. Wood, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 108 ff.
- 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.