Common Democracy

Political Representation beyond Representative Democracy

in Democratic Theory

Abstract:

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.

The paradox of a deep malaise of liberal democracy at the time of its globalization has been a leitmotif of much political thinking since the late 1990s (see, e.g., Crouch 2004; Stoker 2006). Representation, “the foundational idea of modern politics” (Vieira and Runciman 2008: 60), has occupied center stage in debates over the malfunctions of established democratic regimes and the wide popular disenchantment with them. Representation’s problems have only been exacerbated by the rise of corporate power and the recent financial crises experienced in various countries (Crouch 2004). The democratic protests of 2011, from the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignados to the Occupy movements, marked a point of culmination in what can only be read as a contestation over democratic representation as these movements tried out new forms of collective, participatory self-governance in protest against the status quo (Prentoulis and Thomassen 2013; Hardt and Negri 2012).

Contemporary Marxist and poststructuralist political theory, for its part, has set out to rethink representation in order to reappraise its political value and its actual workings (see, e.g., Manin 1997; Micheletti and McFarland 2012; Shapiro et al. 2009; Tornquist et al. 2009; Urbinati 2006; Vieira and Runciman 2008). In this burgeoning body of critical reflection, a dividing line has been drawn between accounts that uphold representative politics as a democratic institution, and arguments that tend to dismiss it, celebrating the prospects of a democracy “beyond representation” (Robinson and Tormey 2007). Ernesto Laclau (2005: 61), among many others, has thus asserted that “the construction of a ‘people’ would be impossible without the operation of mechanisms of representation.” On the other side of the divide, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004: 244) have insisted that “democracy and representation stand at odds with one another.” Their rhetoric resonates with a broader “posthegemonic” turn in these pockets of contemporary theory, which take issue with Gramscian hegemony (political leadership, ideology, representation) as a way of pursuing collective freedom today (Beasley-Murray 2010; Day 2005; Newman 2010).

This article comes to grips with the renewed debate over representation in our times in order to consider whether enhancing democracy today would require a move beyond representative democracy or a radical reconfiguration of political representation. To address this key political question, the article engages with the controversy over representation as it is carried out in a particular quarter of contemporary political thought with post-Marxist and poststructuralist (Foucauldian, Lacanian, and other) influences, in order to chart a path between and beyond these two contrasting theses.

At a time when representative democracies are in deep crisis across the globe and several social movements have cried out to their political establishment, “You don’t represent us!”, reconsidering political representation, its relationship with democracy, and the possibility of other democratic institutions, without representation or with different forms of representation, becomes more urgent than ever. The debate over representation within poststructuralist thought is a particularly suitable site in order to grapple with these questions, as it rehearses some of the standard arguments for and against representation, it theorises political representation in some depth, and crucially, it articulates also the most recent challenges to representative politics and contemporary ideas of a democracy beyond representation. The debate reveals, at the same time, the limits of polarized discussions, and it motivates a search for different modes of representative democratic politics, which could enhance and deepen democracy in our times.

My argument begins with an analysis of conflicting approaches found in the works of Ernesto Laclau and Michael Hardt with Antonio Negri. I provide this analysis to outline the dominant positions in this particular debate and to show their respective limits and problems. What this reveals is that overcoming the dominant form of representation in actually existing representative democracies is conceivable and perhaps desirable, whereas an elimination of political representation is neither. With this finding in hand, the article proceeds to an exploration of an alternative conception of democratic representation in ancient participatory democracy, the contemporary governance of the “digital commons” (in the case of Wikipedia) and recent democratic mobilizations (the Indignados and the Occupy movements in 2011). I provide these three examples in an attempt to draw out a different, “nonhegemonic” logic of political representation that might serve to inspire political projects for reinvigorating democratic participation today.

The examples examined here, however, are limited by time and space. They are used to flesh out an alternative logic of political representation that they incarnate only partly and in embryo. Moreover, as their context differs from those of late modern polities and their structures of governance, the examples studied can offer us only hints and sources of inspiration. The alternative logic of representation that they embody has not been adequately enacted in any modern mode of political governance on a large scale. However, recent developments in European municipal politics, such as the citizens’ platform, Barcelona en Comú, that now governs the city of Barcelona, constitute attempts to institute it more extensively (Zechner 2015). By discussing three telling examples, which far from exhaust all relevant cases, this article seeks to sketch out a theoretical framework for understanding an alternative mode of political representation that remains largely unfulfilled and little explored in contemporary political theory, but emerges variously in civic initiatives, protests, movements, municipal politics, and digital communities.

This logic of representation offers an alternative to both “hegemonic representation,” that is, the rule of elected oligarchies, and the mirage of popular full presence in democratic self-governance. The crux of the argument is that various aspects of representation are necessary or appropriate for participatory democracies, but hegemonic representation is arguably not. The foremost difference of participatory democracy is not that the body of citizens is permanently and fully present as a unified sovereign in collective self-legislation and administration, but that political governance becomes a common affair: a public process accessible to all members of a community on the basis of equality. Such a democratic regime is antagonistic to representative democracies, where the assembled demos is excluded from any effective participation in the everyday exercise of major political power, which is entrusted to experts, bureaucracies, and elected (or not) elites. But it also contrasts with direct democracy in a wholly postrepresentative polity, where the collective sovereign would be fully present to itself, total and undivided.

Contesting Hegemonic Representation

According to Hanna Pitkin’s (1972: 8–9) seminal analysis, “representation, taken generally, means the making present in some sense of something which is nevertheless not present literally or in fact.” Political representatives stand for the subjects they represent in a variety of ways, which may range from purely symbolic, when, for example, a party leader becomes a point of identification for his party, to more active and politically consequential, when representatives speak and act on behalf of their constituents, making decisions for them (38–111).

A guiding thread of my argument is that representation as “the making present” of something which is “not present literally or in fact” remains operative in participatory or direct democracies. What effectively marks off representative democracies is not merely the more extensive political role conferred on representatives but the establishment of a “permanent and institutionalised power base” (Alford 1985: 305) that underpins the separation of political representatives from the represented and releases the former from the immediate pressures of their constituencies by providing them with securely tenured office (Alford 1985; Brennan and Hamlin 1999; Manin 1997: 9). This institutional base, which comprises the parliament and the entire governmental machine of modern democratic states, gives rise to a “standing division” between citizens and the government that substantially enhances the sovereign power of representatives over the represented. This type of representation can be designated as “sovereign” or “hegemonic” insofar as governments are authorized by the people but act as sovereign rulers during their term in office.

Ernesto Laclau’s thought, which is highly influential in poststructuralist theory today, assigns to representation a constitutive role in a “hegemonic” account of the political. Grappling with his argument can help to set out and challenge one of the two theses in the current poststructuralist/post-Marxist debate around representation. His defense of representative rule draws part of its rhetorical force from an elision between “hegemonic representation” and other, pertinent dimensions of representation.

Recasting Gramsci’s hegemony in Derridian and Lacanian terms, Laclau’s work theorizes politics as a constituent process that constructs social relations in a hegemonic manner grounded in power asymmetries and logics of representation (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 93–194). Social formations are contingent fields capable of different and rival configurations. Social orders are hegemonic in the sense that unequal social power decides the prevailing pattern of social structures. When established regimes are challenged by social antagonisms, crises, and dislocations, new orderings of society can emerge if the different groups and demands that confront the current regime coalesce into a “chain of equivalence” articulated around shared demands and symbols. The antagonistic bloc will manage to prevail over the hegemonic regime and consolidate itself, instituting its own vision of society, if there is sufficient concentration of force within the bloc to enable it to organize effectively and overthrow its established opponent (Laclau 2000a, 2000b).

In Laclau’s conception of the “political,” representation is necessary for the creation of a hegemonic social formation: “representation is essentially inherent to the hegemonic link” (Laclau 2000b: 211). The thrust of Laclau’s argument turns on the relation between the “universal” and the “particular.” For Laclau, the universal as such is empty. There is no universal human essence, rationality, or set of laws determining the structure of human societies, and no substantial common identity underlies all different groups and identities in modern societies (Laclau 2000a, 2000b; Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 93–194). Hence, the unity of a collective front that will vie for hegemony is built around “empty signifiers” that represent a chain of equivalent demands and, by the same token, construct a community out of differences. The symbol of the unity (words, images, names of leaders, and so on) is a particularity that is somewhat emptied of its particular meaning in order to function as a surface of inscription for many different demands and aspirations. This particularity acts as the representative of the “universal,” that is, of the community of struggle, and of society as a whole when the chain of equivalences expands to embrace broader social sectors in order to win the struggle and impose new social arrangements.

Social fragmentation and the dissolution of social bonds cannot be overcome without any reference to universal demands, aims, and identities that enable the creation of partial and contingent communities. But if there is no objective universality (principle, human essence, needs, etc.), a particular demand or project will need to present itself as the incarnation of that elusive universal, that is, of wider social needs and aspirations. The constitution of a community through hegemony requires a particularity that will re-present a universality in Hannah Pitkin’s sense: this particular thing will make present something (the universal) that is literally absent and is bound to remain so. “Particularities which, without ceasing to be particularities, assume a function of universal representation. This is what is at the root of hegemonic relations” (Laclau 2000a: 56).

Assuming the contingency of society and history, Laclau’s account of representation through the dialectic between the universal and the particular seems reasonable and insightful. But this account goes awry when it conflates the necessity of “universal representation” by particular “empty signifiers” with the distinct claim that the representative function must be taken on by a particular social group that possesses asymmetrical power over others: “the ability of a group to assume a function of universal representation presupposes that it is in a better position than other groups to assume this role, so that power is unevenly distributed between various organisms and social sectors” (Laclau 2000b: 208; see also Laclau 2005: 158–164). Hence, “unevenness of power is constitutive” (Laclau 2000b: 207; see also Laclau 1996: 144). It is obvious that the counterhegemonic political front will need to win the game of power against the ruling forces and, therefore, will need to amass more power than the latter. But why is the same asymmetry and concentration of force also required within the counterhegemonic bloc? Could not the interaction among the social sectors and groups that make up this bloc proceed in horizontal, egalitarian ways that prevent the rise of leadership among them?

Laclau makes a plausible case for the need of representation at a discursive level, whereby particular signifiers stand for essentially indeterminate universal values. But he elides this discursive representation with hegemonic political representation, whereby the building of collective formations around “empty signifiers” is assumed by particular leading forces that rule over other members of the community. Yet he offers no evidence to refute the possibility or the desirability of a discursive formation of collective identities and relations that is undertaken on equal terms among their agents.

Laclau (1996: 98) has also produced a more specific line of reasoning in defense of political representation. He construes it as a relation between representatives and represented that is established when the identity of the represented is constituted in place A and decisions affecting it are made in place B. In this exchange, the representative will come to define the interests of the represented because his or her role cannot be reduced to the transmission of a preconstituted interest. The terrain where representation takes place and decisions are made involves negotiations with other forces and considerations in a context that exceeds the original perspective of the represented. “So, the representative inscribes an interest in a complex reality different from that in which the interest was originally formulated and, in doing so, he or she constructs and transforms that interest” (Laclau 1996: 98). Hence, in political representation there is a “lack in the identity” of the represented. This is filled by the representative, who thus plays a decisive role in constituting the will of the represented, enlarging and transforming it. In Laclau’s view, this is always the case (1996: 98; see also Laclau 2005: 158–161).

Under the conditions of growing diversity and fragmentation in late modernity, social agents bear multiple, loose, and shifting identities. In an ever-larger variety of issues, the “collective will” of citizens is something to be configured or defined anew rather than a pregiven objective reality to be discovered (Laclau 1996: 99). Accordingly, for Laclau (99–100; emphasis in original), “the need to ‘fill in the gaps’ … becomes a primary terrain. The constitutive role of representation in the formation of the will … now becomes fully visible … the role of the ‘representatives’ will be ever more central and constitutive.”

This is “hegemonic representation” at its purest. The representative operates as a sovereign ruler who does not simply make policies for her subjects, but determines their social relations, identities, interests, and will. In the spectrum between the representative as an accountable, instructed delegate and the representative as an independent, authorized Hobbesian sovereign (Pitkin 1972: 14–20, 55–59), we are getting ever closer to the second extreme. There is no denying that late modern circumstances unsettle any pregiven communal substance, and continuously raise new challenges that call for the creation of collective identities and wills where there were none. The open-ended, creative, and antagonistic formation of the collective will lies also at the core of an empowered participatory democracy in various accounts of the latter (Barber 2004; Bohman and Rehg 1998; Castoriadis 1997). What is in dispute is whether hegemonic representatives, that is, political leaders, are an indispensable condition for collective will formation.

One wonders why democratic citizens could not actively engage in the formulation or renegotiation of their interests and relations. Why is it that they need political rulers to perform this function in their stead? It is arguably impractical for all citizens to take part in collective deliberation in all the diverse contexts that require political decisions in complex societies. But there is no reason why democratic politics should not foster enhanced interaction between representatives and represented and should not multiply opportunities for an effective political involvement of citizens. New communicative technologies may furnish facilitating infrastructures for increased civic engagement, and collective imagination may craft new participatory institutions adjusted to contemporary contexts, as the discussion of the Indignados and the Occupy movements will indicate. As I come to argue, civic empowerment along such lines is precisely what democratic societies should strive for if they seek to redeem the egalitarian promises of democracy as the self-government of the people.

Laclau’s reasoning eclipses this possibility and the democratic demand for collective participation without adducing any argument against them. He seems to just presume that political representation can take only its conventional form, which confines sovereign decision making and creative political agency to representatives. His conception of representation thus reproduces the elitist prejudice that is common to both Leninist and liberal hegemonic politics. The people are an “amorphous mass” that need to be educated, molded, and directed by enlightened leaders (Laclau 2005: 159). Laclau holds that, unless they are led by political representatives, the marginalized, weak, and fragmented plebs could not configure a collective identity for themselves and struggle for their rightful inclusion in their respective communities (1996: 99).

Under the influence of Laclau’s thought and poststructuralist political theory more broadly, recent accounts of the 2011 democratic protests have taken pains to counter the pretensions of these mobilizations, which have strived to move beyond representation (see, e.g., Prentoulis and Thomassen 2013). However, in both theory and practice, contemporary democratic movements have challenged hegemonic representation that affords sovereign authority to elected representatives, erecting oligopolies of power and nested hierarchies. There is a substantial political difference to be marked between instructed delegates and representatives who are authorized to make binding decisions, or between coordinators who are subject to recall by general assemblies and contemporary governments with tenured office. These distinctions are effectively obfuscated when the practices of representation pursued by actual democratic movements are all subsumed under the same mantle of vertical, hierarchical representation.

Absolute Democracy beyond Representation?

On the other side of the debate, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004: 240–241, 247, 255) uncover a certain promise of absolute democracy that is embedded from the outset in modern democracy—the “rule of everyone by everyone”—and they envision its realization beyond all dominant forms of representation. The case that they mount dovetails with the critique of modern representation I outlined in the previous sections of this article. But its critical scrutiny can serve to advance the present argument by gesturing toward the need “to invent different forms of representation,” which Hardt and Negri (255) also assert, instead of moving beyond representation, as they frequently suggest. Under conditions of conflictual pluralism and extended democratic self-management, such a move beyond representation is hardly imaginable.

Hardt and Negri (2004: 241, 245–255) argue that representation is an alienation of the sovereignty of all and, thus, in conflict with democracy on a fundamental level. Representation brings about a “disjunctive synthesis” that connects the multitude with the government and, at the same time, separates it. The moment of separation is present in different degrees in all Socialist and liberal variants of political representation (fully autonomous, relatively autonomous, and instructed) whereby sovereignty is partly transferred to the representatives. Consequently, they all fail to fulfil the promise of full democracy, “the rule of everyone by everyone” (247).

Political representation is bound up with modern sovereignty, which entails a vertical exercise of unequal state power over citizens in a manner that unifies differences (Hardt and Negri 2004: 242–243, 247). The institutionalized disconnection of representatives and represented in the management of collective affairs perpetuates the state as a sovereign power separate from society. Accordingly, asymmetrical power and the ensuing negation of democracy are built into the very logic of political representation in the state. Additionally, political scientists and sociologies have demonstrated in empirical studies how “representation becomes bureaucratic … and thus the claims of representation to social universality become completely illusory, leaving political rule in the hands of elites” (Hardt and Negri 2009: 247).

Representation is, furthermore, intrinsic to the modern politics of hegemony construed in Laclau’s (and Gramsci’s) terms. First, representation serves to configure a people out of a multitude by translating the diversity of actual subjectivities into unity “through identification with a leader, a governing group, or in some cases a central idea” (Hardt and Negri 2009: 305). Second, it performs the disjunctive synthesis between represented and representative rulers, which is a basis for hegemony and, thus, for hierarchies and control exerted over the multitude. In both instances, representation produces an aristocratic form of government by subduing the people to leaders, and it stifles diversity (305).

To this fake or impoverished democracy through representation they oppose the vision of an absolute democracy beyond representation. But this fails, ultimately, to offer a cogent alternative, as it is informed by an implausible Rousseauian understanding of democracy.

Hardt and Negri’s idea of a democracy without representation is fleshed out in detail in their Declaration, where they seek to draw out the new political principles declared by the 2011 democratic uprisings experienced across the globe. The refusal of political representation by governments and leaders is located firmly at the heart of these mobilizations, which initiated a “constituent process” for another democracy of the multitude and issued the death certificate of modern representative regimes (2012: 2–3, 5, 7, 25–30, 43–47, 68).

The deliberative assemblies set up by the 2011 democratic protests indicate how a collective, egalitarian self-management could operate today through plural processes that are hospitable to conflicts and diversity, fashioning politics according to “the will of all” (Hardt and Negri 2012: 64). Assemblies, federated in a horizontal network, enact their own rules of decision making. But they foster the common goal of the equal inclusion of all in deliberation and lawmaking, free of leaders and centralized structures (90, 107–108). The new democratic regimes these movements foreshadow would realize a collective governance of the “common.” The common refers to products of social labor, such as codes, networks, and information, when these are organized as shared resources, and they are administered and distributed in egalitarian ways that eschew the terms of both private and state or public property (6, 69–80, 95). Common goods are to be managed “through the direct participation of citizens” (71).

The community of all citizens should not only enjoy equal access to these goods on sustainable terms, but it should also control and administer them via practices of direct participation (Hardt and Negri 2012: 71–72, 103, 105). The “common” figured along these lines should guide the reconstruction of social goods across a variety of domains, becoming “the central concept of the organization of society” (71). Through the assembly form, the “constitutionality of the common” would extend collective self-management to much larger fields of society, seeking to include all in decision making (92).

Despite the critical shafts they direct against Rousseau’s “general will,” it is evident, however, that his specter haunts Hardt and Negri’s “democracy of the common,” its negation of representation, and its frailties. The full and direct presence of the demos in the self-legislation of society “across the entire social terrain” (Hardt and Negri 2012: 92) is to take the place of sovereign, alienated representatives.1 And, although the multitude is distinguished from the homogeneous people, composed as it is of diverse singularities that may clash with each other, these singularities can communicate through their differences, “agglutinate” them in contingent ways, elaborate a common project, and “develop a coherent perspective” (107; see also 65, 105–107).

An overcoming of representative democracy could not be plausibly envisioned in such terms. A multitude’s full presence means that the community of citizens would constantly participate as a whole in collective self-management across multiple social fields, and it would be able to partly reconcile its differences. But on practical grounds, such as the concerns of everyday life, and for political reasons, such as the right to abstain from politics, a variable fraction of the citizenry will normally attend regular assemblies and other fora of social self-governance. Hence, a part of the whole will be usually present in the institutions of direct, popular self-rule and will make decisions for a whole that is absent as such. In other words, a form of sovereign political representation will remain in place in most conceivable instances of an assembly-based democracy of the common.

Moreover, under conditions of historical contingency and in the absence of a preconstituted universal reason or any other guarantor of general agreement, a partial consensus among dissenting views and desires cannot be always anticipated with certainty. This is even more the case if the singularities in the multitude are as diverse and self-changing as Hardt and Negri (2009: 331–340, 350) make them out to be. When antagonistic divisions split the body politic, a part—preferably, the majority—will again make decisions for the whole, acting thus as a sovereign political representative of the entire community, even in the exceptional circumstances when all its members are present at the moment of deliberation and decision making.

It looks as if political representation is an ineradicable structure of politics, and the oligarchic grip on power in representative democracies cannot be broken if the sole alternative is an unlikely politics of full presence of society to itself—the constant involvement of all members of society in its self-governance, making decisions that regularly attain a general consensus. So, to burst through the oligarchic bounds of representative democracy we would need to think beyond the figures of both Rousseauian self-presence and actually existing representation.

Making Representative Governance Common

Actuality and history furnish examples of collective self-rule that map out political avenues beyond both hegemonic representation—the rule of elected oligarchies—and the perilous mirage of popular full presence. Principles and practices of a counterhegemonic democracy that would be egalitarian, participatory, and effectively representative at the same time can be traced out in ancient instances of limited direct democracy, in contemporary digital “commons,” and in radical democratic mobilizations. Despite their differences, these figures can be all said to make political power common, an equally shared good accessible to all and sustainable over time.

By “common” I mean here the basic idea shared across the different definitions of the “commons” or “common-pool resources” (Ostrom 1990: 30, 90) or “commons-based peer production” (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006: 395) or the “common” (Dyer-Witherford 2012: 2), among others. This refers to goods and resources that are collectively owned and/or collectively produced. Access to them is provided on equal terms (which may range from totally open access to universal exclusion from consumption, with many possibilities in between), and the common good is collectively administered in egalitarian, participatory ways by the communities that produce or own them. There are many different types of common goods, from natural common-pool resources (fishing grounds, irrigation canals, etc.; Ostrom 1990: 30) to common productive assets such as workers’ cooperatives to digital goods such as open-source software (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006; Dyer-Witherford 2012: 2). What is crucial for our understanding of “common democracy” and “common representation” is that the “common” pertains to shared resources that are managed, produced, and distributed through collective participation on equal terms that eschew the logic of both private and state/public property (Ostrom 1990: 1–30, 90; Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006: 394–396; Dyer-Witherford 2012; Hardt and Negri 2012: 6, 69–80, 95).

The following examples illustrate a different conception of political representation that incarnates a process of “commoning” representation and representative government. This process is bound to face numerous practical constraints in each case and cannot be immediately applied to all the various scales of contemporary democratic politics. But the examples serve to illuminate an alternative logic of democratic representation that can orient efforts to practice it more extensively through adaptations and tests, if it strikes as plausible and promising enough.

Against representative democracy, “common” representative democracies eliminate any standing division between the rulers and the ruled, enabling anyone who so wishes to involve themselves in political deliberation, lawmaking, administration, and law enforcement regarding collective affairs. Collective self-governance becomes in principle an affair of common citizens, of anyone. As distinct from Rousseauian democracy, however, sovereign power is not exercised by the assembled demos in its unified totality. Divisions within the people and between governors and governed remain in place, and the demos is never wholly present at once in any single political institution. Only an alternating fraction of the community participates normally in the various sites of self-management, as they freely choose. Political representation is not eliminated. But institutional devices such as lot, rotation in office, limited tenure, increased accountability, and the casual alternation of participants in collective assemblies work against the consolidation of lasting divides between rulers and ruled, expert governors and lay people.

A classic model of direct democracy is indeed paradigmatic in this respect, despite the cultural homogeneity on which it relied and the exclusion of women, slaves, and alien residents from the body politic, which is deeply significant for us today. In ancient Athenian democracy (fifth–fourth century BCE), decisive political power lay in the Assembly and the people’s courts. In these central democratic loci, the key figure was ὁ βουλόμενος, or anyone “who wishes to speak … whenever he wishes” (Aeschines, quoted in Manin 1997: 16). The first comer among enfranchized Athenian men was equally able to submit a proposal to the Assembly and to address his fellow citizens.

The cardinal principle of direct democracy in Athens was not full popular presence. Not all citizens actually attended the general Assembly, as only one-fifth of the total citizenry normally did, nor did they all staff the people’s courts each year, as six thousand judges were drawn by lot from a pool of volunteers (Manin 1997: 18, 30). The cardinal principle was that political initiative, and involvement in the judiciary or the magistracies, was a common right of any random citizen (12, 16, 30, 38). Anyone had an equal right or an equal chance to exercise decisive political functions whenever he wished, yet not all did at the same time. Isegoria, the equal right to take the floor in the sovereign Assembly, and the typical use of the lot in filling most public offices in the magistracies and the courts, attest to the same idea: government is to be a collective good equally available to anybody, without pursuing and attaining the presence of all in its functions. “The Assembly was identified with the people not because all citizens attended, but because all of them could attend, and because its membership was constantly changing” (31).

Hence, various divisions between rulers and ruled persisted, and the demos was re-presented in political power by an alternating number of its citizens. But sovereign decision making could not become the monopoly or oligopoly of anyone. Hierarchies and divisions of power were always provisional, fluid, and reversed at regular intervals. This effect was systematically pursued through a wide array of political technologies: the extensive use of lot to fill political posts; strictly limited terms in office; the legally enforced rotation of citizens in executive posts; the right to demand the suspension of magistrates at any time, which made tenure in all offices insecure; the simplification of all administrative jobs and judicial functions; the actual alternation of citizens attending the Assembly; and the frequently exercised right of any citizen to bring an action for illegality (γραφή παρανόμων/graphe paranomon) against any proposal submitted to the Assembly, even against laws passed by the Assembly, and to achieve their repeal by the people’s courts on the grounds that they were detrimental to the public interest (Alford 1985: 305–308; Manin 1997: 8–41).

This elaborate political architecture was intended to render collective self-government effectively common by banning the rule of experts, professional politicians, or any other standing elite (Manin 1997: 32–33; Rancière 1995: 19–40), and by “guaranteeing anyone who so desired—the ‘first comer’—the chance to play a prominent part in politics” through ἰσηγορία and selection by lot (Manin 1997: 38).

The rule of anyone does, however, engender the risk of new oligarchies or populist dictatorships. In direct democracies that lack any constitutional checks and balances, militant minorities, activists, and popular leaders can gain the ability to dominate sovereign assemblies. But Athenian democracy, through institutions such as the graphe paranomon and the political power of people’s courts, had put in place effective checks and counterweights. These balancing institutions were still, though, open to any citizen rather than reserved to elites and closed bodies, thus securing the real commonness of collective self-rule. The Athenian democracy was common, then, in the precise sense that it offered to all ordinary citizens the equal possibility to accede to political power, and it was intent on abolishing any permanent separation between the governors and the governed, recurrently unsettling the subsisting divisions of power, mixing, fusing, and rearranging the composition of citizens who exercised sovereign functions in the various bodies of government.

It is illuminating to see analogous principles at play in the self-governance of contemporary “commons,” that is, of natural and cultural goods sustained and produced by communities that manage them collectively and share them in association (Dyer-Witherford 2010; Hardt 2010). Certain categories of these common-pool resources, such as the “digital commons” of open-source peer production, display structures of self-management akin to those governing Athenian democracy. Wikipedia, the free, internet-based, and collectively written encyclopedia, is a highly cited case in point. It is a public good freely accessible to anyone and collectively manufactured through the inputs of a multiplicity of volunteers without top-down command. It is also collectively self-managed by the community of its producers and users in ways that enhance the power of anyone to participate in policy making and enforcement according to their interests and abilities.

Wikipedia’s key innovation lies in wikis technology, which makes websites editable by anyone with access to the internet. The knowledge content of the encyclopedic articles is thus provided and edited by any interested member from an increasingly global community of internet users. The common good, this online encyclopedia, is freely created and consumed by an indefinite multiplicity of individuals through their cumulative, decentralized, and interacting contributions to each article, with no hierarchical direction of the production process (Konieczny 2010). The communicational architecture of the wikis upholds an ongoing collaboration among an open social network, enabling the participation of an anonymous, shifting, and infinitely extensible multitude in the evolving creation of a collective resource. The terms of their involvement are exactly those of ὁ βουλόμενος and ἰσηγορία: “the design of the wiki technology … provides equal and adequate speaking opportunity to anyone who wishes to be part of the community discussion” (Black et al. 2011: 606). This also holds true for the governance of the “digital commons,” as the policy pages are equally editable by any registered user of Wikipedia. Publication policies thus come to reflect a mutable consensus among editors and the slow evolution of conventions (Konieczny 2010: 267–268). Wikis set up here an open platform of decentralized, horizontal, and fluid collective self-governance available to any self-chosen party, achieving a “high level of empowerment of individual Wikipedia editors with regard to policy making” (Konieczny 2009: 190).

A variety of mechanisms obstruct, moreover, the consolidation of cabals and oligarchic rule amid this seeming chaos whereby “anyone can edit” the content and the rules of the communal good. Wiki pages enhance transparency and collective monitoring because they operate as persistent public records and allow the tracking of changes in content management. Articles and policy pages are then subject to constant control and revision by any editor and are watched over by administrators, who are, again, self-selected candidates elected by Wikipedia users. Administrators and experienced editors are formal and informal leaders who are thinly and reversibly separated from the community. Their rulings can be effectively challenged, any editor can accede to these positions, and leaders rub shoulders with the rank and file on an everyday basis as they regularly collaborate in the production of the common good—which is the publication of articles. Furthermore, Wikipedia’s open-content license means that anyone can copy the database and start up a competing project, canceling out any efforts to gain an authoritarian grip on the community (Konieczny 2009: 165, 178–187, 2010: 275–278; Viégas et al. 2007; Beschastnikh et al. 2008).

Once again, collective self-management does not entail the simultaneous presence of all in the institutions of e-governance. A real representation of the collective is attained by providing any interested person with equal access to power (policy making and lawmaking, monitoring and rule enforcement) while diffusing the processes of surveillance, rule enforcement, and correction to thwart the concentration of power. Pursuing the common means also pursuing a sort of “holistic fusion” where “participants in these projects seek a feeling of unity between their identities as consumers and producers … their status as experts and amateurs … as leaders and followers, between their activities of work and play, and between themselves and their fellow participants in the project” (O’Neil 2011: 6).

The self-management of contemporary digital commons has the potential to burst beyond the sociopolitical confines of patriarchal regimes by instituting virtual places of participation available to any and all, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, and other exclusionary identities. Moreover, their communicational technologies can eliminate constraints of time and space, fusing collective labor and self-regulation and making democratic decision making an ordinary aspect of everyday life (O’Neil 2011: 5). In short, “common” entails here that government becomes equally an affair of any average individual and is integrated into everyday life. It upsets fixed identities and divisions, functioning as a fluid, ongoing process that draws on the wisdom of the crowd.

The many appeals and democratic virtues of this mode of representative governance have prompted enthusiastic attempts to translate it into systems of “wiki” or “open” government (Lathrop and Ruma 2010; Noveck 2009) that are directly applicable to contemporary democratic states. However, the spatially bounded nature of political associations, the many vital, scarce, and degradable resources that they have to manage (resources that are substantially different from universally usable, inexhaustible, and less-than-indispensable digital goods), the uneven distribution of digital literacy, and unequal access to e-sources are a few of the impediments that stand in the way of an immediate translation of wiki government into political institutions for offline democratic communities. This is not to say that wiki technologies could not be put to such use; but they would need to be embedded in a wider sociopolitical framework and act as a part of some broader sociopolitical transformation.

This is where the importance of the 2011 democratic uprisings becomes evident (e.g., the Arab Spring, Occupy, and Indignados movements—especially those witnessed in Spain and Greece). These were “leaderless resistance movement[s] with people of many … political persuasions” (Harcourt 2011:paragraph 4) that stood up against material inequalities, debt, foreclosures, and the economic system that links them with a corrupt representative government that no longer represents the people. But the movements refused to make demands on the state, and they dismissed political representation, party partisanship, fixed ideologies, centralized leadership, the power of money and politicians, and the homogeneous unity of the people or the masses. They set out, instead, to construct and to prefigure new practices of self-governance that would break hegemonic politics asunder by organizing autonomously in public spaces. They sought to craft processes of egalitarian, consensual deliberation that are open to all, welcoming diversity and creating horizontal, decentralized networks that enable collaboration without suppressing the freedom of singularities. They publicly performed alternatives to representative and capitalist democracy and enacted the vision of another, more equal and democratic world (Castañeda 2012; Giovanopoulos and Mitropoulos 2011; Graeber 2013 Harcourt 2011; Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis 2014; Lorey 2014; Papastergiadis and Esche 2014: 34–36; Tejerina and Perrugoría 2012).

From my perspective, these movements can be seen as a massive endeavor to perform a political logic of the common in public areas and inside sovereign institutions. The popular assemblies organized in public squares sought to carve out participatory spaces for collective decision making. They sought to open political power to all citizens and contest the rule of money and professional political classes. Opposition to representative politics and the dominance of the markets went hand in hand with their endeavor to involve “normal and common people” (Dhaliwal 2012: 265) in politics. This struck down informal and institutional barriers to participation in the exercise of sovereign power and strove to increase “community control” over the entire social system (266).

The evocation of “real” or “direct” democracy did not mean that these instances of democratic self-organization rose beyond any sense of representation. Mobilized participants addressed other, nonpresent citizens in an attempt to enlist them, and they staked representative claims in their appeals: “We are the 99 percent,” “We are like you: people who get up in the morning to study, to work, or to look for work” (Dhaliwal 2012: 265). The multitudes, for example, composing deliberative assemblies in Madrid’s Puerta de Sol or in Athens’s Syntagma Square thus claimed to re-present the people in general, making physically present what was actually absent as a whole.

Yet, a sea of difference sets apart this mode of political representation from institutionalized representation in liberal democracies. The difference is not accidental, but deliberately and obstinately striven for by the “outraged” democratic insurgencies of 2011. From this perspective, these movements initiated a process of “commoning” political representation in collective self-rule.

The very choice of public squares and streets to set up popular assemblies, in its sharp contrast to decision making behind closed doors, signals the will to publicity, transparency, and free accessibility of political power to any and all (Nez 2012: 131). Political rule is thereby located in open platforms that invite the participation of laypeople and transform governance into a shared-pool resource. Inclusive openness to the multitude in its diversity was fostered, furthermore, by the dismissal of ideological closures and programmatic definitions. The assemblies articulated a spacious discourse hospitable to a wide range of differences (Dhaliwal 2012: 265; see also Stavrides 2012). Occupied squares were redesigned as “spaces to do politics without politicians … spaces without money, leaders and merchants” (Dhaliwal 2012: 263) available to ordinary citizens, poor, nonexperts, and socially marginalized people (see also Giovanopoulos and Mitropoulos 2011: 43–54, 221). As a result, the squares became “a magnetic furnace where strangers that once walked anywhere alone meet, mix and melt” (Dhaliwal 2012: 259).

The intent to make democratic representation common was evident also in the regulation of the practices of governance. These deliberately sought to enforce the rule of “whoever, whenever s/he wishes” against the hegemony of leaders, elites, sovereign representatives, and a homogeneous people bound to be present en masse in decisive political functions. The 2011 Indignados movements implemented binding mandates and alternation in the posts of spokespersons, discussion moderators, and special working groups. They set strict time limits and used rotation and lot to allocate participants the opportunity to speak in the assembly. They recognized only individuals, and no groups, as equal participants in the procedures of political deliberation. They worked out flexibly regulated, impersonal processes of consensual decision making and upheld them as “the commons of democratic government”: a shared good that provides a mechanism of government over and against the sovereign authority of any individual office or closed body (Dhaliwal 2012: 262–263; Giovanopoulos and Mitropoulos 2011: 52–66, 113, 333; Lorey 2014: 50–55; Nez 2012: 132–134; Stavrides 2012).

It is in this context, and in close connection with face-to-face interaction and urban spaces, that the role of digital technologies in “commoning politics” could be situated and properly appreciated. Digital communication networks, internet communities, and “social media” are well known to have catalyzed the 2011 democratic mobilizations, from the Arab Spring to the Indignados and the Occupy movement (Castells 2012; Mason 2013). Digital platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have enabled “anonymous” individuals and groups to act politically in self-organized ways. Through these widespread new media, any connected individual can effectively originate and circulate political messages, call for action, disseminate critical information, participate in collective debates, and initiate and organize mass action. By means of such popular, accessible, and densely connected networks of communication, ordinary citizens were able to rise up, to coordinate themselves, and to occupy public squares, bypassing not only state-controlled fora and institutions but also corporate media and any established “representative” organizations, such as political parties and trade unions (Bimber et al. 2015).

In recent years, digital communication technologies have effectively facilitated a personalized engagement with political causes and collective action, allowing for flexible coordination and individually variable degrees of commitment. In contrast to modern modes of political coordination, which were based on centralized organizations and required ideological convergence, new digital media shift the burden of coordination to individuals themselves, making more room for personal differences and autonomy. They foster self-directed interaction between individuals on both small and large scales, diminishing the importance of elites and organizations. As a result, and under the late modern conditions of growing individuation and diversification, the new media environment is conducive to effective collective action. It contributes considerably to the “commoning” of politics by opening political activity to a multitude of citizens and their differences, beyond the confines of formal organizations and professional politics (Bennett and Segerberg 2011: 771–775; Bimber et al. 2015: 21–26; Castells 2012: 230; Xenos et al. 2014: 151–155). This “commoning,” however, should be grasped in terms of an impure, ongoing, and hybrid process. It involves a variable combination and interaction between collective and “connective action”; formal representative politics, parties, elites, and diverse civic engagement; and hierarchical and horizontal, decentralized structures, rather than a full displacement of the one by the other (Chadwick 2013; Halupka 2016; Tormey 2015).

In sum, the digitally enabled “square” movements in 2011 did not abolish representation either within their own operations or with regard to society at large. But they put in place institutional impediments to avert the usurpation of collective power by particular individuals or groups, and they empowered anyone to take part in institutions of social self-management, removing both gate-keeping barriers and exclusionary conditions of full commitment. The occupied squares installed common pools of representative self-governance that anyone could easily join according to their various degrees of resource availability and interest (Morell 2012: 390).

(In)conclusive Thoughts

Historic figures of participatory democracy and its present-day enactments furnish various hints and insights to help us map out paths of political autonomy beyond both hegemonic representation and democratic presentism. The collaborative production and management of collective goods illustrate today practices of self-government in common that could evolve, expand, and coalesce into larger associations across society to support grassroots democratic empowerment. A process of “commoning” social self-governance could develop mainly from the bottom up, through civic initiatives in such fields as the social economy of collectively self-managed enterprises and community services (see, e.g., Amin and Roberts 2008) or local government. Such democratic empowerment cannot be plausibly envisaged as a top-down process, since ruling elites would have little or no interest in dispersing and diluting their power downward.

We are accustomed to thinking of representation in “hegemonic” or “sovereign” terms, whereby political representatives make decisions for those they represent on the basis of standing divisions that exclude the represented from effective participation and influence in representative governance. Accordingly, the aspiration to radical, empowered, and inclusive democracies has often assumed the form of an all-out rejection of representation in both contemporary political theory and practice. However, a full negation of representation is neither feasible nor desirable. It would require a people fully and permanently present in institutions of governance and able to reach consensus on all political questions that matter. In any inclusionary, participatory democracy that exceeds the bounds of a small and homogeneous community, it will be normally only a fraction of the whole that will be involved in decision making on different occasions and who will agree with the decisions made. It is crucial to recognize that this part still re-presents a whole that is absent and to which the part should remain responsible and accountable. Assuming that participatory collective self-governance can eliminate political representation as such entails the risk of obscuring the partiality of actual presence and the need to hold the variable people who do participate on different occasions accountable to the absent whole.

Hence, to deepen and expand democracy today we should rather set out to make political representation common, that is, open to all, inclusive, participatory, and accountable, by adopting lessons from ancient Athens, the 2011 democratic revolts, and the digital commons, instead of fantasizing about a democracy that has totally dispensed with any sense of representation. This is precisely what various historically known instances of participatory and egalitarian self-governance have striven to do, mobilizing their constituent powers and their institutional imagination. A “common democracy” of any and all must remain inherently agonistic so that it is alert to its limits and stays hospitable to dissent. It must be open to antagonism and struggle in order to effectively foster its radical aspirations to freedom and equality.

NOTE
1

For an account of Rousseau’s democracy in terms of a full, direct, and homogeneous presence of the sovereign people in the process of self-legislation, see Urbinati (2006: 60–100).

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Contributor Notes

Alexander Kioupkiolis is an Assistant Professor in Contemporary Political Theory at Aristotle University, Thessaloniki.

Democratic Theory

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • AlfordC. Fred. 1985. “The ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ in the Athenian Polis … and Today.Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 18 (2): 295312.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • AminAsh and Joanne Roberts eds. 2008. Community Economic Creativity and Organization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • BarberBenjamin R. 2004. Strong Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Beasley-MurrayJon. 2010. Posthegemony. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • BenklerYochai and Helen Nissenbaum. 2006. “Commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue.The Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (4): 394419.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BennetW. Lance and Alexandra Segerberg. 2011. “Digital Media and the Personalization of Collective Action.” Information Communication and Society 14 (6): 770799.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BeschastnikhIvanKripleanTravis and David W. MacDonald. 2008. “Wikipedian Self-Governance in Action: Motivating the Policy Lens.Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media ICWSMSeattleMarch 30 – April 2. http://www.aaai.org/Papers/ICWSM/2008/ICWSM08-011.pdf

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BimberBruceCunillMart C.CopelandLauren and Rachel Gibson. 2015. “Digital Media and Political Participation the Moderating Role of Political Interest Across Acts and Over Time.” Social Science Computer Review 33 (1): 2142.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BlackLaura. W.Howard T. WelserD. Cosley and J. M. DeGroot. 2011. “Self-Governance through Group Discussion in Wikipedia Measuring Deliberation in Online Groups.” Small Group Research 42 (5): 595634.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BohmanJames and William Rehg eds. 1998. Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • BrennanGeoffrey and Alan Hamlin. 1999. “On Political Representation.British Journal of Political Science 29 (1): 109127.

  • CastañedaErnesto. 2012. “The Indignados of Spain: A Precedent to Occupy Wall Street.” Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social Cultural and Political Protest 11 (34): 309319.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CastellsManuel. 2012. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • CrouchColin. 2004. Post-democracy. Cambridge: Polity.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GiovanopoulosChristos and Dimitris Mitropoulos eds. 2011. Δημοκρατία under Construction [Democracy under construction]. Athens: A/Synecheia Editions.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GraeberDavid. 2013. The Democracy Project: A History a Crisis a Movement. New York: Penguin.

  • HalupkaMax. 2016. “The Rise of Information Activism: How to Bridge Dualisms and Reconceptualise Political Participation.Information Communication & Society 19 (10): 14871503.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HarcourtBernard. 2011. “Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Political Disobedience.’The New York Times13 October. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/occupy-wall-streets-political disobedience/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HardtMichael. 2010. “The Common in Communism.” Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics Culture & Society 22 (3): 346356.

  • HardtMichael and Antonio Negri. 2004. Multitude. London: Penguin.

  • HardtMichael and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

  • HardtMichael and Antonio Negri. 2012. Declaration. New York: Argos.

  • KioupkiolisAlexandros and Giorgos Katsambekis eds. 2014. Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KoniecznyPiotr. 2010. “Adhocratic Governance in the Internet Age: A Case of Wikipedia.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 7 (4): 263283. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19331681.2010.489408#.Uv319bS59-w.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LaclauErnesto. 1996. Emancipation(s). London: Verso.

  • LaclauErnesto. 2000a. “Identity and Hegemony.” Pp. 4489 in Contingency Hegemony Universality ed. Judith ButlerErnesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek. London: Verso.

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