Democracy a ‘joint venture’ of humanity

We should not cut ourselves off from the many counter-hegemonic and inclusionary strands in the democratic tradition that can be found as much in the West as in the East and the South.

Some of us wanted to ‘re-imagine’ democracy, but the general view was that this term had become a postmodern cliché.  I would add that it is profoundly elitist and disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people, whose engagement we need to encourage. So I offered ‘joint venture’ as a way to promote the energies and enthusiasms of multiple currents of opinion from all round the world.  But some felt my terminology was too static, and others said it was too corporate. In an attempt to meet these objections while maintaining the underlying idea, I offered ‘collective journey’ as a substitute.  That seemed to elicit wider support.

Nevertheless, from a personal standpoint, I prefer the ‘joint venture’ phrase.  To me a ‘venture’ is inherently dynamic and open-ended, so I cannot see the force of the ‘too static and closed’ objection.  It is true that ‘joint ventures’ has become a term associated with business and commerce, but rather than signalling the takeover of democracy by the market, my proposal is intended to re-appropriate an idea that is essential for collective action in the broadest sense, and that has been wrongly captured by narrowly blinkered marketeers.  The problem with the ‘journey’ metaphor is that it is too unfocussed. Why should ordinary people divert their energies from everyday tasks of self-provision and family maintenance in order to take part in some vague collective movement towards an unknown destination?  Democracy is not just about participation as an end in itself – it involves the application of reasonable judgement and practical decision-making in order to address collective needs.  In other words it is a ‘venture’ involving costs and benefits and means/ends rationality.  It requires dialogue, but also decision rules, engagement but also the delivery of defined results.  The great challenges facing humanity demand practical reason, not just uplifting solidarity. So, in my parlance, democracy is better construed as a joint venture of humanity, rather than just as a collective journey.

There is a prevailing orthodoxy about democracy that must be contested, because it distorts the principles of self-rule and popular engagement, and therefore denies fair access to major currents of global opinion, demotivating collective energies to the profit of entrenched and self-serving elites.  But this prevailing orthodoxy should not be misrepresented as simply ‘western ideological hegemony’. This is in part because non-western elites are equally capable of misappropriating the normative energies associated with the democratic ideal in order to shore up their own parochial privileges.  It is also because western traditions of political thought are multi-stranded and intimately entwined with the conversations of the rest of humanity. We should not cut ourselves off from the many counter-hegemonic and inclusionary strands in the democratic tradition that can be found as much in the West as in the East and the South. All these currents of thought and practice should be given due recognition in our joint venture.  Only then can the falsities of the prevailing orthodoxy be effectively contested and dethroned.

The tasks of contestation and reconstruction must be both conceptual and practical.  I believe that our global conversations and our broad manifesto have sketched out a promising initial standpoint.  Others will no doubt extend and deepen our arguments at the conceptual level, on such issues as democracy’s duties to the environment; to gender difference and justice; to aboriginal communities; and on many other fronts.  However, we also need to engage on a more practical level.  If the nation state (and the state-nation) are no longer such privileged sites of democratic politics as assumed in the prevailing orthodoxy, how can we demonstrate in concrete terms what alternatives are emerging, and what new ventures are therefore becoming feasible? The networked world contains previously unimagined possibilities and also great dangers, that we need to address with research and empirical evidence, not just theorisation.  If democratic innovation is to be accomplished both at the more global and the more local levels, we need to address the huge problem of co-ordination that emerge between different scales of deliberation and decision-making.  Such problems require work that is both conceptual and empirical.

So these brief comments conclude with two more specific suggestions for closer examination in future rounds of our global conversation:

i)  There is an interesting level between the nation-state and the totality of humanity that requires further investigation. It was well-illustrated by the ‘State of Democracy in South Asia’ project, but it also has some counterparts elsewhere.  Moving beyond the false universalism of Anglo-Saxon political science orthodoxy, we could examine what is specific, and what is general, about the democratic experiences and aspirations of the various ‘large regions’ of the world.  It is not plausible to project a Rawlsian East Coast protestant veil of ignorance onto the tortured inhabitants of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, but it is vital to discover what hopes and possibilities are real in that, and many other, historical and geographical contexts.  How does the South Asian democratic imaginary overlap with, or diverge from, the Latin American equivalent?  Where does that leave what until yesterday was considered to be ‘the Arab exception’?  By tackling such issues in a balanced and regionally informed manner we could also forge the tools required to situate North American and European self-understandings in a more realistic and decentred global perspective.

ii)  From such a standpoint we could also generate an empirical critique, and perhaps even a practical alternative, to the current armoury of comparative indicators and rating exercises that so mis-describe the democratic possibilities of the post-Cold War World.  The critique could flow from our stress on self-rule (so that the purpose of measurement would become to help democratic communities to profile and assess their own strengths and weaknesses, rather than to provide international bureaucracies with tools to guide their distribution of rewards and punishments).  A practical alternative could involve the identification of different sources of evidence, better attuned to regional and local contexts (Leonardo Morlino’s ‘quality of democracy’ effort which can be applied at sub-national as well as national levels could constitute a useful staring point).  Our more open-ended and multi-stranded conception of democracy and democratization would also provide grounding for the assembly of a wider array of comparative indicators (which would need to interrogate the status of the old and in my terms ‘immanent’ democracies as well as the newcomers).  How much private interest manipulation and monopoly of the news do we find in each setting?  Which democratic states practice or tacitly condone torture or forced rendition?  How democratic is the arms trade?  Such empirical questions are purely illustrative, but they highlight what the prevailing orthodoxy overlooks and what our conversation could bring back in.

About the author

Laurence Whitehead is an Official Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford University, and Senior Fellow of the College. In March 2011 he took up a one-year post as Senior Proctor of the University.  His most recent books are Latin America: A New Interpretation, (Palgrave, 2006), second revised updated edition 2010.   Laurence Whitehead, Democratization: Theory and Experience (OUP, 2002).  His most recent edited publication is The Obama Administration and the Americas: Shifting the Balance (Brookings Press, 2010 ) which he produced jointly with Abraham F. Lowenthal and Theodore J. Piccone.  He is editor of an Oxford University Press series, ‘Studies in Democratization’ and President of the Conseil Scientifique of the Institut des Ameriques in Paris, and belongs to the steering committee of the Red Eurolatinoamericano de Gobernabilidad para el Desarrollo.