The central aims of this article are, first, to theoretically explore the relationship between social quality (in particular, the conditional factor of social empowerment) and participatory democracy. This uses the democratic dialectic (Bernard 1999) as a normative guide to assess democratic values. Second, the article describes how this theoretical discussion of the social quality of participatory democracy can be operationalized in critical qualitative sociological research. This offers a new direction for social quality research, which has thus far involved theoretical development and the establishment and use of statistical indicators (Beck et al. 1998, 2001; van der Maesen and Walker 2012). The findings of two empirical case studies are called in as evidence that, to different extents, participatory democratic settings can be socially empowering. This research suggests implications for the full realization of social quality in existing liberal and social democratic societies.
What Democratic Theorists Can Learn from Democratic Professionals
Selen A. Ercan and Albert Dzur
Selen A. Ercan’s Interview with Albert W. Dzur
In an era when democracy is claimed to be in crisis, citizens are portrayed as increasingly distrustful of politicians and political institutions, and change, if any, is expected to be coming from extra-institutional spaces, Albert Dzur invites us to seek and find the seeds of democratic change within the existing institutions of representative democracy. Dzur’s work captures the difference democratic professionals can make in these spaces and tells us about the fresh approach they bring to their everyday routines in schools, community centers, government agencies, and even prisons. What links democratic professionals in different institutions is their aspiration to create power-sharing arrangements and collaborative thinking skills in places that are usually characterized as hierarchical and non-participatory. Dzur explains how democratic professionals transform the way institutions function and find solutions to collective problems. Yet such transformative practices often elude the attention of democratic theorists as they fall outside of the established notions of democracy and democratic change. The following interview focuses on the relationship between democratic theory and practice, the difference between social movement actors and democratic professionals, and the challenges of bringing democratic change and sustaining it in existing institutions, organizations and work places.
This article considers the contribution of radical South African philosopher Rick Turner to theories of ‘workers’ control’. Turner’s philosophical work, especially his book, The Eye of the Needle (1972), posited the workplace as a fundamental site of ‘participatory democracy’ and a space for the potential radical transformation of South African society. During the early 1970s, Turner’s philosophical writings, teaching at the University of Natal, and political activism in Durban helped galvanise a cohort of radical white students who joined in support of protesting black workers in the 1973 Durban mass strikes. The confluence of Turner’s ideas about workers’ control, the students’ activism, and the collective action of the black working class gave South Africa’s labour movement a radically democratic, shop-floor orientation that deserves a revival in the new South Africa.
A Commentary on Jeff Jackson
William R. Caspary
This critical commentary engages Jeff Jackson’s reading of John Dewey’s approach to participatory democracy and direct action—both are fundamental issues in democratic theory today. I probe Dewey’s texts for what I reason to be a more precise reading of his views on social movement action. I go beyond Jackson’s assertion of a role for direct action, to theorize it as an intrinsic element of participatory democracy.
This article challenges the prevalent interpretation of John Dewey as a forefather of deliberative democracy, and shows how Dewey's theory can help turn democratic theory toward participatory democracy, which is widely seen as having been incorporated by deliberative democracy. I argue that Dewey would find deliberative principles to be abstracting from our unequal social conditions by attempting to bracket the unequal social statuses that individuals bring with them to the deliberation. Dewey traces the deficiencies of current political debate to these unequal social conditions, and he thus claims that democratic theorizing should focus on enacting effective plans for overcoming social inequality, plans that may require nondeliberative practices that compel concessions from advantaged social interests. Deliberative democrats have increasingly aimed to account for such practices, but I claim that participatory democrats can draw on Dewey to illustrate how their theory can more comfortably accommodate these practices that directly attack inequality than can deliberative democracy.
The Crisis of Venezuelan Democracy
The legacy of Hugo Chavez is contentious. Some lament the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy from one of Latin America's most stable political systems to a populist authoritarian regime. Others celebrate Chavez's participatory project of institutionalizing structures for community-driven development, redistributing oil wealth through welfare policies, and creating a political party closely linked to mass movements. This article provides an alternative assessment of Venezuela's democratic quality by drawing on deliberative democratic theory. I argue that Chavez's participatory project is incomplete because it fails to create structures for deliberative politics. Without these mechanisms, Venezuela remains vulnerable to crises brought about by “uncivil action,” such as military coups and violent protests, making deliberation an important component in averting crises in democratizing polities.
The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits), has been a prominent site of student protests since 2015. In the midst of the conflicts various Wits actors claimed or implied a special democratic legitimacy. This article examines five exercises at Wits: the election of student representatives, the student protest movement, a student petition, a management-initiated poll and an aborted General Assembly. These exercises are scrutinised and scored along six democratic dimensions: directness, participation, representation, pluralism, equality and deliberation. According to the weak thesis, this dimensional analysis reveals a landscape of democratic complexity that belies the claim of any one actor to a superior democratic model. According to the strong thesis, there is a particular problem with democratic practices that score weakly in terms of representation. The weakness of the ‘fallist’ student movement in the representation dimension undercuts its claim to prefigure a superior form of comprehensive university-wide democracy.
Amidst a global turn towards authoritarianism and populism, there are few contemporary examples of state-led democratization. This article discusses how Uruguay’s Frente Amplio (FA) party has drawn on a unique national democratic cultural heritage to encourage a coupling of participatory and representative institutions in “a politics of closeness.” The FA has reinvigorated Batllismo, a discourse associated with social justice, civic republicanism, and the rise of Uruguayan social democracy in the early twentieth century. At the same time, the FA’s emphasis on egalitarian participation is inspired by the thought of Uruguay’s independence hero José Artigas. I argue that the cross-weave of party and movement, and of democratic citizenship and national heritage, encourages the emergence of new figures of the citizen and new permutations for connecting citizens with representative institutions. The FA’s “politics of closeness” is an example of how state-driven democratization remains possible in an age described by some as “post-democratic.”
A Response to Caspary
This critical reply addresses William Caspary’s commentary on my use of John Dewey to elevate the theory of participatory democracy above deliberative democracy within contemporary democratic thought. In this reply I will defend my reading of Dewey against Caspary’s claim that Dewey is not the supporter of “nondeliberative” direct action that I take him to be. I will also explore the similarities and differences between my and Caspary’s views on the consonance of participatory democracy with practices of direct action, and I will expand on my own critique of deliberative democratic thought.
Political Representation beyond Representative Democracy
At a time when representative democracies are in deep crisis, this article examines the debate over representation as it appears in contemporary Marxist and poststructuralist political thought. The article discusses, more specifically, Ernesto Laclau’s defense of political representation and pits this against Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s vision of an “absolute democracy” beyond representation, in order to chart a path between and beyond both contrasting positions. The crux of the argument is that in participatory democracies political governance becomes a common affair: a public good accessible to all members of a community on the basis of equality. Such a democratic regime contrasts with both representative democracies, where the assembled demos is excluded from any effective participation in the everyday exercise of major political power, as well as direct democracy, where the collective sovereign would be fully present to itself, total and undivided. Common political representation is open to all, inclusive, participatory, and accountable.