Deparochializing democratic imaginaries

We needn’t disavow the insights of contemporary democratic theory to explore the intuition that they have been deeply shaped by the experience of democracy in one part of the world, and that this might produce inadvertent gaps or weaknesses in the theory.

The present call to ‘re-imagine democracy’ stresses the need to look beyond the west for the ideational resources through which we give content and meaning to the idea of democratic self-rule. Like any manifesto crafted on the basis of conversations with a varied array of experts, it is pitched at a general level and covers a range of intellectual agendas. I am particularly sympathetic to its proposal that democratic theory should be more deeply informed by the experience of democracy in the global South and East, and offer here some reasons why I hope other democratic theorists will be similarly persuaded.

Now, a critic of the proposal might respond that while it’s fair enough to mount a critique of recent experience of ‘democracy export’ as a new form of global domination, that’s no reason to indict the present state of democratic theory as a whole.  Democratic theory is a highly diverse field of inquiry, with ample resources to criticize liberal democracy as it is now practiced at home and exported abroad. Even within the halls of the Western academy, it’s not as though a single democratic imaginary is hegemonic. Debates rage over the relative merits of and competing interpretations of representative as contrasted with participatory democracy, of aggregative (voting-centred) as compared with deliberative (talk-centred) democracy, of agonistic democracy as the constant and radical unsettling of all of these received categories.  We have theories of local democracy, workplace democracy, multilevel democracy and global democracy, all in addition to theories of democracy at the level of the territorially bounded state.  Why, our critic might ask, do we need to re-imagine democracy? Isn’t this dizzying array of democratic imaginaries quite sufficient? Furthermore, what is parochially western about these different ways of thinking about democracy? Don’t democracies everywhere consist of certain core practices by which self-rule is accomplished – arguing, voting, protesting, holding decision-makers to account? Isn’t that, indeed, how we recognize them as democratic?

I think these are important challenges and well worth responding to. We needn’t disavow the insights of contemporary democratic theory to explore the intuition that they have been deeply shaped by the experience of democracy in one part of the world, and that this might produce inadvertent gaps or weaknesses in the theory. The intuition is similar to the one pursued so effectively by feminist theorists and theorists of difference in their critiques of the false universalism embedded in liberal theory.  It is reasonable to suppose that a body of theory that arises out of a particular social location contains blind spots that become apparent only when the topic is critically examined from some other vantage point. In what follows, I’ll sketch a few reasons why the structural position of democratic practices in the South/East may offer resources for democratic theory that has the potential to correct for blind spots that arise from its historical roots in the North/West.

The power of democracy

We might understand democracy in all its forms as a set of practices by which people claim the power to determine for themselves the structures that shape their lives.  Democratic power is always an alternative to some other source or structure of power.  But the structures of power against which democratic power is pitted are different in the global South and East from what they were historically in the global North and West.  The history of European colonialism meant that democratic power in the South and East has had to define itself as against the power of colonizers, that is to say, against structures whose source lay outside the demos, in addition to those structures of power that were internal to a particular society (for example, the power of locally dominant economic elites). 

Anti-colonial or postcolonial democratic struggles, then, imagine the threats to democratic empowerment as existing both within and beyond the boundaries of their own societies.  As such, they offer resources to those who, in the contemporary world, see democratic power as compromised by the global structures of neoliberal capitalism whose consequences (the ‘race to the bottom’ and the consequent hollowing-out of the welfare state; growing economic inequality, etc.) are beyond the reach of state-level democratic structures.  Just as anti-colonial struggles for democracy generated transnational solidarity movements, as well as efforts to create spaces of democratic freedom that sought to escape the gaze of colonial powers (consider Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm in South Africa), contemporary anti-globalization movements are generating new sites of democratic practice that do not map neatly onto the boundaries of the territorial state.  This frame enables us to see phenomena such as the local food and food sovereignty movements (to take one example) as forms of democratic practice whose underlying imaginary (resistance to the power of empire) is indebted to the global South.

The subject of democracy

Democratic imaginaries rest upon constructions of the individual subject who shares in the work of self-rule. It would be a caricature of western democratic theory to claim that it presupposes a fully formed rational autonomous agent as the subject who is capable of voting in accordance with his or her pre-political self-interest or deliberating with fellow citizens through the exchange of reasoned arguments over the common good. But as feminist theorists have brought to light, the caricature is not far off the mark: they have pointedly criticized western democratic theory’s idea of the citizen as deeply patriarchal, modeled on an idealized image of the male head of a bourgeois family. Feminist theory has contributed importantly to re-imagining the subject such that it is possible to recognize the agency of women, racialized minorities, workers and the poor as full democratic citizens.  In a parallel way, anti-colonial writings and subaltern studies press us to re-examine the question of how democratic subjects are formed. While a great deal of western political thought has been devoted to the theme of political education, including the educative effects of democratic participation, much of it has also proceeded from the developmental and civilizational assumptions of western colonialism – that non-European peoples were not yet sufficiently mature to govern themselves democratically.

In response, many towering intellectual and political figures in the global South and East have reflected deeply on the transformation of the self and the emancipation of individual consciousness as an integral part of the process of democratic self-rule at the level of the collectivity.  Albeit in vastly different ways, Frantz Fanon, Mahatma Gandhi, and Zhang Shizhao (as brought out in Leigh Jenco’s excellent study), among others, emphasized the embodied practices and disciplines through which individuals equip themselves for participation in a self-governing political community – long before Michel Foucault developed his account of “technologies of the self” as practices of freedom. 

The ‘demos’ of democratic self-rule

Solving the ‘demos problem’ – the definition of the boundaries of ‘the people’ that properly rules itself democratically – has long vexed western democratic theorists. Nationalism (‘ethnic’ or ‘civic’) has been a dominant answer, though shared national identity is also widely recognized by democratic theorists as a post hoc fiction constructed atop a territory (often through violent means) to facilitate the state-building project that unfolded in Europe through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Democracies beyond the West have certainly availed themselves of nationalist ideologies, but they also offer alternative ways of understanding the collective subject.  Indigenous peoples’ struggles for democratic autonomy have emphasized their historic relationship to the land, understood not as sovereign territory but as a site of mutual dependence and responsibility between humans, other organisms and the particular topography that surrounds them. In East Asia, Confucian traditions have yielded multiple conceptions of min (people) or minben (people-centred rule) that orient accounts of good political order, some of which have been appropriated as foundations for democracy.  The artificiality of state borders, which for reasons of historical accident (or of colonialism) created regimes that ruled ethnically or linguistically diverse populations, stimulated, in some cases, the construction of political community is a product rather than a precursor of shared political order. While such societies (Alfred Stepan, Juan Linz and Yogendra Yadav call them ‘state-nations’) exist in both South and North, the achievement of democracy in India remains the outstanding example because of both its diversity and its scale. 

The practices of democracy

All but the most voting-centred accounts of democracy accord some importance to the role of talking as a process for reaching authoritative decisions.  Deliberative democratic theory tends to privilege a particular form of talk – the exchange of reasons aimed at mutual persuasion. Within western democratic theory, there has been ample criticism of this understanding of democratic talk as overly narrow, obscuring non-argumentative forms of speech as deeply constitutive of democratic exchange (as in Iris Young’s widely read essay on greeting, rhetoric and storytelling).  These lines of criticism bring out the deep cultural situatedness of any form of political talk, something that democratic theory often elides.  We are still in the very early days of studying the ways in which different cultural practices of democratic talk shape the dynamics and outcomes of democratic self-rule. Indigenous talking circles and New England town hall meetings are both small-scale, egalitarian deliberative practices with long histories, but it is self-evident that they represent deeply different ways of imagining democratic community and of arriving at valid collective decisions. Voting, too, is a culturally situated practice. Even a cursory study of ballot forms, the symbols used to designate political parties or candidates, or the conduct of polling practices makes clear that the content of a democratic imaginary penetrates to the micro-level of even the most common democratic practices: who or what should be represented, what forms of power need to be held to account, which version of history is being invoked, what future is promised. Because the institutionalization of democratic forms is always mediated by local normative orders (including religion) and intellectual traditions, a purely formal account of democratic institutions will disclose little of the democratic imaginaries they embody.

Let me close this necessarily superficial defense of the project of globalizing or deparochializing our theoretical understandings of democracy by highlighting the benefits to theory of this endeavour.  The goal is not simply to foster ‘intercivilizational dialogue’ or ‘cross-cultural understanding’ as an end in itself.  Nor is it to revalorize neglected or despised intellectual resources or cultural practices.  A common danger of cross-cultural work is to romanticize non-western sources of political thought or to render them palatable to western tastes and standards. Instead, the argument supposes that a central purpose of democratic theory is to give an account of what can make political power legitimate.  While understandings of legitimate political rule will always be plural and contested, a guiding aspiration of normative political theory is to formulate criteria of legitimacy that have validity across contexts. To the extent that the central categories of analysis of contemporary democratic theory continue to be shaped by historically and geographically specific forms of democracy, to the exclusion of all others, their capacity to claim generalizable validity is compromised. The task of correcting for false universalism in the theory of democracy is one that must be shared by theorists, empirical social scientists and activists who are working on the ground to render political power more democratically responsible. It is a key virtue of the conversations that yielded this manifesto that they have joined these different forms of knowledge in a critical conversation that spans the varied experience of democracy around the globe. 

About the author

Melissa S. Williams is Professor of Political Science and was Founding Director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. Her published work includes Voice, Trust and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation (Princeton University Press, 1998) and articles on a wide range of themes in contemporary democratic theory including citizenship, toleration, deliberative democracy, multiculturalism, and the rights of indigenous peoples.