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The Quality of Democracy Beyond Substantial [substantivist], Procedural [proceduralist] and Ethical [ethicist] Understandings of Democracy

Philosophy, including political philosophy, must start from something puzzling or problematic, something that we do not understand, at least not immediately. The attempt to understand it then brings us not only, and not even primarily, to a better understanding what we previously did not understand, but also, and more importantly, to an understanding of why we did not understand it in the first place. The attempt to understand what prevents our understanding points the way not so much to our ignorance or lack of empirical date, but to our preconceptions, prejudices, and preferences, including political ones. It is here, in the reflection on our own conception, that political philosophy, distinct from both political science and from politics proper, but related to both, begins. Therefore, I start with a few examples that may give us some food for thought. Three Examples. The first example is formed by the recent presidential elections in Iran, where Hassan Rouhani was elected democratically in generally undisputed elections. The second example is an interview with Rashid Ghannoushi, leader of an-Nahda, coalition-leading party in Tunisia, again after unquestioned democratic elections. The third example is a speech by the representative of Antonios Samaras, democratically elected prime minister of Greece in Athens on 4 August, 2013. First example: the recent presidential elections in Iran, on 14 June 2013, where Hassan Rouhani was elected democratically with 50.88% in the first round. These elections were, first of all, fair: there have not, to my knowledge, been serious accusations of fraud or rigging. They were also, free, in the sense that many politicians had put forward their candidature, even though it should be emphasized that not all candidatures were accepted: the range of candidates was limited by the religious authorities. Further, these elections were frequent, in the sense that the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had also been elected (his reelection in 2009, however, was disputed and led to massive protests that could have turned into a revolution), and that at this point in time we do not have a reason to assume that there will not be presidential elections again, four years from now. With qualifications, then, the big three Fs can be said to apply to this case. Apart from being both secret and universal

all citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote-, the presidential elections were also, finally, contested in the sense of there being something at stake in them.1 There were serious campaigns, voters were motivated to vote (72% turn-out), and there were significant differences between the candidates, both with respect to domestic, and, to a lesser extent, foreign policy. In this sense, the least we can say is that these elections were not a mere faade, and that they, to a significant extent, meet the six familiar criteria: fair, free, frequent, secret, universal, and contested (in the intra-electoral sense just indicated). I will, from now on, call this FFFSUC-model the 6-pack conception of democracy (just as supermarkets sell 6packs of cheap beer I suspect that they do that in Brazil, too). However, every journalist or analyst will quickly add that the Iranian presidency is limited by the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and that, to say the least, popular sovereignty is not the only source of legitimacy of political power, the other being religion [Shia Islam], guarded by the Supreme Leader. Clearly, there is more at stake than popular sovereignty alone; Abdolkarim Soroush has dubbed this Islamic Democracy, as a system in which both people and God are sovereign. The we to which I belong, i.e. the mixture of citizens of Western liberal democracies and the global community of philosophers thinking and writing about democracy, has a spontaneous problem with this. Spontaneous problems are one of the points of departure of political philosophy. I suggest that we have a double problem here: we find it hard to accept elections that do not fully fit to the standard just suggested, FFFSUC, and we find it hard to understand how there can be two sovereignties at the same time, esp. within a monotheistic conceptual framework. Still, the same we cannot deny that the Iranian presidential elections are far more democratic than elections in most countries in the region, such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia. Even in Armenia, colleagues informed me that they were looking at neighboring Iran as a source of hope. My second example is a recent interview, in the International Herald Tribune of 03/08/2013, with Rashid Ghannoushi, leader of the Islamist an-Nahda party [], the democratically elected coalition leader in Tunisia: Ennahdas 51 percent majority was not enough for it to be able to govern alone, nor was a two-thirds majority enough to pass the Constitution, he told a discussion forum here last week. Thats why we need a concensus. From this quotation, one feels entitled to conclude that, if its majority would have been large

A technical remark: I use contested for the intra-electoral phenomenon that candidates are actually opposed to each other, either in terms of their profile as politicians or in terms to their programme. Thus, contested electins means elections in which something is at stake. It does not point to extra-electoral protest against the fairness of elections in terms of procedure or outcome for that, I use the word disputed.

enough, an-Nahda might have chosen to govern alone, i.e. acquire hegemony. Consensus, it seems, is only desirable if ones majority is too small to rule alone. But is not every political party not only hoping to get an absolute majority, but also actively aiming to get it? Is majority rule not a key principle of democracy? It might be that there is nothing particularly noble or ethically good about consensus democracy, but that consensus is simply a consequence of the repeated experience of not having a simple majority, so that, from that angle, democracy is to be seen as a learning process, rather than as an ethical ideal. At any rate, I would suggest, there is nothing Islamic or Islamist about Ghannoushis statement he seems merely to be pointing to a general feature of a democratic multi-party system. Moreover, even a coalition that relies on consensus still forms a majority that excludes others from political power, at least at that very moment. Democracy, in this respect, is always-also about majority / minority, winners / losers, i.e. about hegemony [Laclau/Mouffe], at least for the time being, i.e. until the next elections. Surely, modern liberal democracies contain many checks and balances, related for example to separation of powers, but even if their acceptance is nation-wide, it is not based on consensus, but on the hegemony of earlier majorities. Ghannoushi, in this sense, is merely being honest. But does this not risk to reduce electoral democracy to a competition between potential tyrants? How can that be what people all around the world want and claim? Is that what they occupy squares for? My third example is a speech by the representative of Antonios Samaras, prime minister of Greece, in the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens on 4 August 2013, in front of 2000 philosophers [it was part of the opening ceremony of the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy], many of whom were also Greek citizens. The speech was simultaneously projected in English translation. At one point, the representative started discussing the economic crisis that Greece is experiencing, and told the audience that the government was doing its best to make the austerity measures bearable for the population. At this point, part of the audience started booing him, i.e. the Greek citizens present felt free and entitled to voice their protest against the governments policies. Instead of angrily walking off or hiding behind the fact that he was merely a representative, not the prime minister, Samarass representative added an improvised part to his speech (this was clear from the fact that it was no longer translated), in which he apparently further publicly defended his policies which only led to more and stronger protest from the audience. Interestingly, in Greek democracy we were close to the location of the Peoples Assembly of 2500 years ago- accounting publicly for someones policies, as well as openly protesting against them, are a(n important) part of democracy. This suggests that democracy is not about elections alone. It also suggests that 3

there may be significant differences between countries on this point: compare the reactions, both very recent, against public protest by president Tayyip Recep Erdoan in Turkey and by president Dilma Roussef here in Brazil you can be critical of both, but their recognition of the legitimacy of protest was quite different.. Some Questions. From the examples just given, a number of questions arise (there no doubt are more questions than these). If elections are not the whole story, what else is there to add as crucial features of a democratic polity? Are elections, by the end of the day, decisive, or can forms of democracy be imagined that do without? What is the relevance, within more or less established democratic polities, of the attitudes of individual politicians are some more democratically minded, while others are more authoritarian? Obviously: yes, but which difference does that make? How can we develop a conception of democracy that does justice to our spontaneous, intuitive, arguably even instinctive reactions, while, at the same time, not taking them for granted, but seeking a critical distance from which to reflect upon them? The examples just given show us, I suggest, several important points: 1. procedures are (very) important, and it is important that they are executed in such a way that participant may contest everything, even the procedure itself for the next time, but not its execution in this particular case [the election outcome as such has to go uncontested]; 2. in democratic contexts, there is always something at stake (economic policies in Iran, a secular vs. islamic constitution in Tunisia, austerity measures in Greece), i.e. there is always substance; 3. popular sovereignty and democratic legitimacy are key notions, but they are not / cannot be the whole story: there is no substance, called the people [], magically transforming its will [voluntas] into the transformation of society by means of its voice [vox] and its vote [votum] in elections: what the examples tell us is discord, not unity, and division, not substance; 4. this should lead us neither to a proceduralist nor to a substantivist conception of democracy, but to one that does justice to both aspects as well as others => a conception that reflects the complex reality that democracy refers to and that refuses to articulate any essence;

5. keeping a distance from both proceduralism and substantivism, we might tend towards an ethical understanding of democracy, one in which it appears as a matter of ethos, democratic attitudes, or even as a form of (the) good life. Negatively formulated, I suggest that we need to recognize the relevance of both procedure, substance, and ethos, while steering clear of a reduction of democracy of either of the three, i.e. steering clear of proceduralism, substantivism, and ethicism. Very crudely, we can define proceduralism as the position which says that democracy is about the right procedures to arrive at decisions, irrespective of what these decisions are about and irrespective of their outcomes. Substantivism is the position which says that democracy is about the selfgovernment or self-rule of a dmos irrespective of whether this dmos is conceived as a nation, a people, or a dmos in the more strictly political sense of the citizens. To illustrate this point, I briefly look at a fourth example, the case of the polity of which I myself am a citizen (apart from being citizen of the European Union, which complicates matters), and which, I presume, is regarded worldwide as a model case of liberal democracy: the Netherlands. The Netherlands are a constitutional monarchy since 1815 and a parliamentary democracy since 1848. This situation is permanent, with the exception of five years of occupation by Nazi Germany, 1940-1945. The system has become one of proportional representation since World War II, with general male suffrage since 1917 (first elections on that basis in 1918, with all male citizens, but only male, having the right to vote) and universal active and passive suffrage since 1919 (first elections on that basis in 1922), when all citizens (women and men) can both vote and run for office. The age limit has moved from 25 in 1917, to 23 in 1946, 21 in 1965, and 18 since 1972; currently, there is some discussion about further lowering the age limit to 16. Since the 19th Century, there has never been a one-party government, always a coalition government; at present, there is a two-party coalition government of liberals and social democrats, and eleven different political parties are represented in parliament, including a fundamentalist Christian party and a Party for the Animals which advocates animal rights. The Netherlands are an example of an stable established liberal democracy, consistently getting like your neighbour, Uruguay- the highest score for both political rights and civil liberties at Freedom House and other organizations, and many people across the world are jealous of its democratic tradition. At the same time, it is a place where citizens are deeply dissatisfied with the current state of democracy, where some 30% of the votes are socalled protest votes, and where entire academic programs are dedicated to studying the crisis of democracy. Fairly recent general elections -12/09/2012- occasion us to address the 5

state of democracy. From a proceduralist perspective, everything is in order: procedures are well-respected, the 6-pack of democracy is celebrated during what a strongly advertised and mediatized Feast of Democracy. That people vote is more important than what they vote, because the system as a whole relies on this transfer of legitimacy. From a substantivist perspective, the Dutch democratic system is only faintly reminiscent of democracy as selfgovernment of a dmos, limited as it is to regularly electing representatives at four levels. The Dutch, as well as the French or the Finns, may indeed seem to live, as Jacques Rancire has put, in des tats o le pouvoir de loligarchie est limit par la double reconnaissance de la souverainet populaire et des liberts individuelles.i Even if it is an elected aristocracy that rules, the actual democratic participation of citizens is minimal: they have become spectators watching funny politicians do their tricks. From the perspective of an ethical conception of democracy, finally, politicians of all feathers seem to be doing their utter best to deserve the public contempt that their colleagues receive in, for example, the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. The conclusion would be that a liberal, and even more strongly a neoliberal socio-economic order tends to limit democracy to its procedural dimension, reducing it to the status of sole provider of legimitimacy of political power. Habermas has stated it very clearly: Democratic legitimacy is the only one available today.ii If this is true, it implies that anyone who holds power or wants to hold it, must somehow try to legitimize it democratically. In the world today, I think, this is exactly what we see those who rule doing. Via negativa and Via constructiva An attempt to address the questions just posed, and to take into account considerations just given, is an attempt to arrive at a conception of democracy that is both philosophically tenable and practically relevant (in the sense of enabling people to come to conceptual grips with their surrounding political reality), I suggest two parallel and simultaneous paths here. The first path consists of a critical discussion of major pretenders to the status of tenable position; the second path consists of an attempt to develop an alternative position, organized around an understanding of democracy as quality, rather than as procedure, substance or ethos. In contemporary political philosophy, three families of conceptions of democracy can be distinguished. Firstly, procedural conceptions place emphasis on the proper forms and procedures, and tend towards an instrumental understanding of democracy as a mere means. Secondly, substantive conceptions emphasize notions like self-government and positive freedom, and tend towards an understanding of democracy as a good in itself. Thirdly, ethical 6

conceptions understand democracy primarily as a set of values and attitudes, connecting it to some notion of ethos, and tend towards a moralizing approach. These three approaches are exemplified with the conceptions of Philippe Van Parijs, Jacques Rancire, and John Dewey. Rather than focusing exclusively on procedure, substance, ethics, we are, I argue, in need of a conception that moves democracy as a concept beyond all three, which is only possible if none comes first, i.e. if all three are part of a conception that does not establish a hierarchy of principles [this is also where such a conception differs from the well-known polyarchic theory of Robert Dahl. The alternative understanding of democracy as a quality moves beyond both procedural, substantive, and ethical conceptions, recognizing their relative truth, but avoiding a synthesis of the three. In doing so, I invoke the work of authors like Claude Lefort, Pierre Rosanvallon, Iris Marion Young, and Bonnie Honig. The key idea of this qualitative conception is this: democracy is primarily a possible quality of social situations in which power is at stake, it can be the quality of those situations to a varying extent in abstract and general terms: from zero to full, though in practice it will always be somewhere on the scale. As such, it can itself be the object of choice and decision: people can want this quality to be present or absent, stronger or weaker, and they can decide about this; the latter point immediately implies a certain circularity, because the conditions of this decision (the deliberation that precedes it, the procedure that organizes it, the acceptance of the result, etc.) are themselves democratic to a greater or lesser extent. There is an infinite regress at stake here that often is blocked by the assumption of an absolute beginning in the sense of a founding moment, but that, to my mind, rather points to the fact that, one way or another, the actual state of affairs is the outcome of a process of self-determination of people or the multitude. A qualitative understanding of democracy does not deny the presence or the relevance of procedures, self-determination, or values and attitudes: on the contrary, it tries to offer a conceptual framework in which all three can be theorized as important, but not exhaustive dimensions of democracy. In fact, they presuppose each other: mere procedure risks to become a dead letter in political life, and a board game in democratic theory; actual self-determination risks to become a manifestation of the Being of a dmos that denies the crucial and constitutive difference between politics and the political, i.e. the fact that politics is always, and necessarily, about something that cannot be itself [I use the political here in the sense of Lefort]; pure ethics, finally, risks becoming an abstract standard to evaluate existing practices and arrangements which, as a rule, fall short of the standard. Moreover, full realization of each of the dimensions tends to annihilate the others: total procedure denies 7

substance as well as ethics; absolute substance destroys procedure and subjugates ethics to the actual manifestation of will; and full ethics makes politics irrelevant, denying the very question to which democracy is an answer. At the same time, however, we should also recognize that each of the three positions here criticized states an important truth. The truth of proceduralism is that procedure does matter, and that is crucially important to monitor elections, make sure that procedures are observed to the letter, and that the outcome of the procedure must be ex ante accepted in order to be legitimate. The truth of substantivism is that, by the end of the day, the actual will of the multitude, the way in which the vast majority of people, consciously or unconsciously, act and decide, is decisive within any polity: not even the harshest dictatorship can, in the long run, resist the protest and resistance of large parts of the population even if that protest and resistance manifest themselves in ways that, given the dictatorship, are illegitimate; this implies that mobilization of the multitude, raising the political consciousness of people, and organizing solidarity with other parts of the protesting multitude is not un- or anti-democratic, but democratic by definition the fact that, however, it can go against established rules and ignore procedures, already shows that neither procedure, nor substance, can be the ultimate truth. And the truth of the ethicist position, finally, is in the fact that democratic political virtues and attitudes, an inclination, deliberate or not, to play by the rules, a democratic ethos as Mouffe calls it, does make a difference. So, it is not either / or / or, but and / and / and: both procedures, substance and ethos are important. And, I should add: not only is none of them exclusively important, also none of them is decisively important, and further, it is not about a synthetic combination of the three. The conception here proposed does not claim: democracy = procedure + self-government + ethos. The claim rather is that, to the extent to which an existing situation or constellation has the quality of democracy, it is marked by a dynamics in which those three, and perhaps others, are brought into play: democratic politics is not a mixed constitution or regime, but a plurality of mixing repertoires, in which procedure, substance, and ethics play mutually irreducible roles. If we conceive of democracy as a quality, we can give the following definition: Democracy is an (always) possible quality of any social situation in which political power is being executed by human persons and/or groups traditionally called rulers or ruling- over human persons and/or groups (which can, at least in principle, be the same persons and/or groups) traditionally called ruled-, and it consist in that a preponderant part of those over whom political power is being executed have a substantial and relatively equal share in the decisive power that determines the executed power (but not 8

necessarily in every political act). Procedure, substance, and ethos will have to be fit into this definition: procedure has to do with the question how those ruled share in decisive power, possibly also its preparation (deliberation) and its execution (governance); substance points to the material power of the ruled in the sense that the rule that is begin exercised over them requires a minimum of acceptance in order to be effective; and ethos points to the fact that, at every level of a given situation, people can only share if they are let to share, i.e. not kept out of deliberation, decision-making, or execution by violent or other means (such as propaganda). The proof of this chipolata pudding is of course in the eating, i.e. in its capacity to make sense of situations that have to do with democracy. For brevitys sake, I give a number of what I think are key characteristics of this quality called democracy: The defining characteristic of this quality is: any situation can be called democratic if or to the extent that in it, the overwhelming majority of those over whom power is exercised effectively have a relatively equal share and say in the basic decisions that determine the power that is being exercised over them. This can imply notions like: election, participation, representation, deliberation, surveillance [Pierre Rosanvallon], all of them in many possible forms, but neither of them in an exclusive manner. It cannot nor should it- be a priori decided what counts most or what does not count as democratic; democracy is self-foundational, meaning: the bottom line is not the will of the people, but people willing things, claiming, and getting their share in decisive power. Further, the quality democracy, thus defined, can be connected to the following four principles [first 3 taken from Chantal Mouffe]: 1. popular sovereignty: there is no other source of the legitimacy of political power than the expressed will of those concerned (=> of people, not the people) [but note that it can, at least in principle, the expressed will of those concerned that there is another source of legitimacy: if 80% of Iranian citizens want a Supreme Leader to warrant the Islamic character of their republic, this is not undemocratic (it may be illiberal, but that is another issue)]; 2. equality: the share that those governed have in decisive power is / must be relatively equal: => one-(wo)man-one-vote is not the only possibility, even if it is the most logical and simple one: today, the burden of proof has been reversed in the sense that 9

you need good arguments to exclude citizens from having the right to vote or to privilege some citizens by giving them more or heavier votes than others, but there has been, for example, been a period in France when there was a debate over whether fathers with large families should not get an extra vote in elections; similarly, one could suggest that vulnerable groups in a given society for example, indigenous peoples- might temporarily be given an extra vote until equality of citizenship realized the fact that this will produce endless debates is of course a reason not to do this and to stick to the one-woman-one-vote rule, but alternatives are at least imaginable; 3. identity of governed and governed: this identity is relative by definition, because 100% identity would no longer be government, but pure manifestation; that is a limit case which effectively means the end of politics it can be imagined, but not realized; similarly, a 100% non-identity is also hard to imagine: even the harshest dictator will, for example, have advisors who then are both ruled and part of the ruling body: even if they do not share in political power, they have influence on it; 4. majority rule in two senses that need to be clearly distinguished: 50% + 1 is sufficient to win [majority rule of the game => there are always winners and losers, but the game goes on; acceptance of majority here relies on the fact that participants find it more important that democratic procedures are followed in which they can participate, than what the actual outcome is in this or that particular case]; there always is a ruling majority, and this ruling majority can stabilize, for example when a single party wins election after election and gradually becomes used to political power or, worse, deeply engrained in other than strictly political structures, for example economic structures (think of the Parti Socialiste in Senegal, the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, or the Partido Revolucionario Institucional in Mexico).; the effect of this is sustained political hegemony => risk of tyranny of the majority, esp. if there is an admixture of ethnic or religious factors or, for example, unsurmountable social divisions such as a caste system; once people feel systematically underrepresented or excluded, they will organize their political will in other ways, which are not less democratic, but which do, because they must, break with the rules of the existing democratic game the latter loses its very legitimacy through the existence of these alternative forms of democratic expression.].


Additionally, I think I should emphasize the fact that, upon this conception,democracy is not necessarily the only quality of a situation of political power exercise, there can, and usually will, be others, for example: - limiting principles regarding the extent of citizenship: Athenian democratic polity was highly democratic internally, but at the same time based on exclusion (gender, age, ethnicity, social status) in fact, this has been the reality of all democratic polities, and in a way still is: children, immigrants, convicted criminals; - limiting principles concerning the scope of democratically legitimized power: an example of this is Morocco, which is a functioning multi-party democracy, but at the same time a country where the King retains power over a number of sensitive domains, such as Defense and Religion; - compensating principles concerning liberty: a democratic polity can be highly oppressive, and can preferably should- be compensated by liberal principles: rule of law, separation of powers, protection of the rights of minorities, individual rights and liberties (including those which make the democratic game possible in the first place: freedom of speech, demonstration, organization, etc.); - additional principles regarding legitimacy: democratic legitimacy is not necessarily the only principle, other sources of legitimacy of political power can be, e.g., religious or priestly authority [Iran], royal authority [Morocco], autonomous state authority [Russias sovereign democracy [ ]], etc. we may not prefer or like all of this, and we may have good reasons for this, but while it does make sense to call Iran less democratic since other principles are at play, too, we cannot sensibly call it un-democratic if it has the presidential elections that it recently had; as for Russia, the problem is that the presidency also claims democratic legitimacy, in addition to, and even instead of elected politicians: he pretends to embody the will of the people. Further, I want to make some non-academic distinctions which can also, as claims, serve as points for discussion: Democracy is not the same as liberal democracy: both Athenian democracy and modern, liberal democracy, or present-day Iranian Islamic democracy are democratic, i.e. possess the quality of democracy, in a variety of ways [the Iranian example]; liberal democracy is a relatively stable and successful, but both historically contingent [Mouffe] and logically contingent combination of liberal and democratic principles. 11

Democracy is not a thing: it is neither a form of state, nor a regime, nor a form of government / governace, though all of those can be less or more democratic (=> gradual concept) [the Tunisian example];

Democracy cannot be a standard package that can be transferred or exported from one place to the other (imported, imposed, implemented): it is not Western, but must always be (re)invented under local conditions and against the background of local political traditions that are part of a collective political memory [the Odeon example with the representative of Greek Prime Minister Samaras] it cannot be transplanted, but at best grafted, to use a notion from horticulture.

Finally, I formulate a few consequences of what has just been said, to which, again, we may return during the discussion: The quality of democracy can be materialized in a large variety of ways I call them repertoires- which do not form a whole, but can conflict with each other: elections FFFSUC elections and others- are one repertoire, herrschaftsfreie Diskussion [Habermas] is another, very important repertoire which creates space for deliberation, occupying a central square is a third [=> Egypt 2011 and 2013 & NB: proceduralist liberal protest by people who say that Morsi was elected democratically and that, therefore and therefore alone, it is not democratic to remove him from his post as if abuse of power has not always been a possibility]. So, there is not, and cannot be, a model democracy that is, as it were, ideal under all circumstances. More seriously, there cannot be perfect democracy under specific circumstances either: societies change, populations change, procedures can become empty forms, etc. Democracy has to be permanently reinvented if it is to main fit to its tasks. Of course, it is never invented or reinvented from scratch, but it goes through a permanent process that consists of reproduction, regauging, and reinvention. Concretely, therefore, democracy exists as a plurality of not necessarily fitting repertoires that can, in each and every situation, materialize the quality democracy and that are, themselves, objects of deliberation, decision, and contestation. Paradoxically, however, the actually existing constellation of democratic repertoires must have a sufficient stability & fixedness in order for people to participate in it, i.e. to act as citizens within it: accountability, reliability, predictability, and trust come


in as vital notions here => there must be a given constitution [Verfassung, ].2 Conclusions Democracy is not the substance of what is going on in all these and many other cases, but a quality of processes, practices, and repertoires that people citizens, but also those who demand citizenship- engage in with an eye to their outcome: power, policies, peace, etc. Although it is true that, in order to work, democracy like any tool, instrument, or meansmust be treated and cultivated as if it were an end in itself, ultimately it is a means to achieve substantial goals (whatever they may be). Democracy can certainly be seen as a game, but it is a game that people play not for the sake of the game (although they may enjoy it), but for what is in it. Why is this an important issue? Why not stick with the idea that we, citizens of liberal-democratic polities, may not know exactly What is democracy?, but are perfectly capable, for all practical purposes, to function within democratic systems without a shared understanding of democracy? One could suggest that the plurality of competing conceptions of democracy deliberative, participatory, agonistic [Chantal Mouffe], polyarchic [Robert Dahl], radical, etc.reflects the plurality of the dmos itself. One could suggest that more procedural and more substantive conceptions of democracy, supported by an ethical background consensus, coexist peacefully within liberal-democratic polities within a range from liberal to republican positions. From that angle, we might be tempted to see the attempt by Habermas to articulate a discourse-theoretical conception of democracy as a middle way between the republican and liberal positions, avoiding the overdemanding of the first as well as the underdemanding of the latter, demanding just the right amount of citizens commitment and activity.iii The reason for thinking that this peaceful view is mistaken, is the discrepancy between, on the one hand, the global spread of democracy as, if not the fact, then at least the norm of political systems, and, on the other hand, the dissatisfaction with existing democratic systems, both in established democratic polities like the Netherlands, the USA, or India, and in countries that have recently adopted democratic models, such as Egypt, Georgia, or the Russian Federation. Some authors might feel tempted to speak of increasing dissatisfaction and growing discrepancy. Refraining from ringing such apocalyptic bells, I think that the situation is serious enough as it is, and provides ample reason to rethink democracy along

I use constitution in the broad sense of politeia or Verfassung, i.e. the general political form of a given society, not in the narrower sense of a written or unwritten- basic law [Grundgesetz, osnovnoj zakon, grondwet, etc.].


different lines, knowing that such rethinking can always be sees as adding just one more voice to an already motley choir. If we aim to combine theory and practice and want a theory that is practically relevant, we as political philosophers, not as citizens- should not offer recipes or blueprints, but engage in a critical analysis of concepts as they are used both in theory and in real political life, always bringing the two together in a mutually enriching confrontation, avoiding both abstractness and politicization. Ultimately, we will have to live with the following paradox: to the extent to which our political reality is actually marked by the quality democracy, i.e. to the extent to which that reality actually is democratic, any attempt to answer questions like What is democracy?, Which form of democracy is preferable over others?, Is democracy good? or Should we want more democracy or less democracy? must itself embody the very quality that the questions are about, both in the ways the questions are posed, in the ways answers are sought, in the ways definitions are given, and in the ways in which practical answers are given, for example when new repertoires are invented, institutions established, procedures adapted, or when old ones are abolished. The political future is always open, because it depends on decisions, individual and collective, of human beings, but a democratic political future must be explicitly and, if you like, positively open, i.e. it must appreciate this very openness. That, of course, also applies to my lecture today, of which this is, for the moment, the last phrase: thank you for your attention.

Evert van der Zweerde, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands


Rancire 2005, 81. Habermas 2011, 24. iii Habermas 1999.

i ii