Dethroning Deliberation

A Response to Caspary

in Democratic Theory

Abstract:

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.

In his commentary on my 2015 article in this journal, William Caspary writes that he welcomes my effort to bring greater attention to participatory democracy and to practices of direct action—such as marches, protests, and strikes—within contemporary democratic thought. At the same time, he questions my specific connection of John Dewey with these themes and aims to provide what he “reason[s] to be a more precise reading of [Dewey’s] views on social movement action” (Caspary 2017: 109). He also takes a somewhat different view on the relationship of participatory democracy to deliberative democracy (which I present as largely different theories), stating that he seeks “to clarify [participatory democracy’s] continuities with deliberative democracy as well as its distinctions” (110). Caspary’s commentary makes some extremely valuable points, and I welcome the opportunity to reply. In this reply I will defend my reading of Dewey and of his relationship to these contemporary models of democratic thought. I will also identify where I think Caspary and I converge as well as diverge in our depictions of Dewey and democracy, and I will expand further on my own case for why participatory democracy is a more suitable model of democratic thought than is deliberative democracy.

In particular, while Caspary argues that Dewey should not be seen as quite the supporter of direct action—or of what I called “nondeliberative” practices (Jackson 2015: 64)—that I take him to be, I will show that there is good evidence for seeing Dewey as taking this position while confronting a structurally unequal society. I will also demonstrate how Caspary and I are nonetheless in agreement that Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy can provide an effective justification for nondeliberative practices in the face of social inequality. It is still the case, however, that Caspary sees these practices as needing to abide by certain “deliberative” standards in order to be considered consistent with democracy, which is a view I do not think we should necessarily hold to nor do I think Dewey holds. I will conclude by clarifying that my argument does not claim that deliberation is to be forbidden so long as structural inequality exists but that deliberation does have questionable democratic credentials under unequal social conditions and that deliberation should thus be at least “dethroned” from the place of prominence it has had in democratic theory for the better part of two decades.

Dewey and Direct Action

My 2015 article challenged the common categorization of Dewey as a deliberative democrat and argued instead that he is better connected with the model of participatory democracy. Caspary begins by first stating that his 2000 book should not be placed (as I did in my article) within the literature of deliberative interpretations of Dewey and that he in fact linked Dewey with participatory democracy (for some of the points in Caspary’s book that led me to see it as linking Dewey with deliberative principles1 see 2000: 3–4, 9, 27, 111, 140, 148, 151, 154). Caspary’s larger point, though, is that he sees my specific interpretation of Dewey as not quite on target. He argues that Dewey is not the proponent of direct action that I suggest—“direct action” referring to practices that seek to compel concessions from certain (e.g., structurally advantaged) individuals or groups and that I present as being compatible with participatory but not deliberative democracy. Caspary then proceeds to argue that practices quite reminiscent of deliberative democracy (though he does not connect his view with deliberative theory) are more central to Dewey’s thinking, particularly the practice of rationally weighing competing viewpoints in order to reach a mutually acceptable decision. It makes sense that Caspary would link Dewey with participatory democracy and still describe Dewey as having deliberative qualities, as Caspary indicates that he sees participatory and deliberative democracy as having more common ground than I do (2017: 110).

After providing a description of Dewey’s definition of democracy, Caspary remarks that “this definition … makes no place for direct action; it includes no mention of political struggle” (112). I find this to be a surprising claim, and I do not think Dewey’s statements and actions support it. Caspary responds to a couple of my uses of Dewey’s words by pointing to the titles of the works from which those words were drawn, titles like “The Need for a New Party” and “You Must Act to Get Congress to Act” (114). The inference appears to be that these titles do not support my use of Dewey’s statements in these works—statements regarding the need for “conflict and battle” with the structurally advantaged and for “compulsion” of the advantaged in order to further achieve democracy (Jackson 2015: 68–69)—to link Dewey with practices of direct action such as marches, protests, and strikes. However, I would maintain that the effort to generate and support a new (and, in Dewey’s case, very leftist) political party and to get Congress to legislate in favor of less powerful individuals and groups are certainly consistent with a commitment to direct action. The attempt to gain political power for a new, leftist political party and to obstruct Congress from continuing to serve the powerful at the expense of the many can absolutely involve the use of practices that do not signify “reasoned” engagement and discussion with opponents (e.g., the wealthy) but rather an attempt to compel concessions from those opponents.

Caspary similarly responds to my reference to Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action, where Dewey states that “discussion and dialectic” are “weak reeds to depend upon” for originating the kind of “comprehensive [social] plans” that are “required if the problem of social organization is to be met” (Dewey 1935: 70, 73). I referred to this statement to help show how, under unequal social conditions, Dewey would be skeptical of the idea of associating democracy with a deliberative exchange of reasons, but Caspary claims that “in the passage” Dewey is seen calling for “the scientific method of experimental observation guided by comprehensive working hypotheses” (2017: 114). I am not convinced, though, that a remark about scientific method should make us doubt that Dewey would be skeptical of the democratic quality of deliberation between structurally unequal elements of society. Caspary may be simply trying to say that members of a movement who are seeking to coerce the powerful still need among themselves to engage in a rational weighing of competing viewpoints—that is, deliberation—and I could concur with that point (I will address this further below), but that does not tell us how Dewey would have the structurally disadvantaged deal with the advantaged.

Caspary also refers to my statements that Dewey himself marched in the streets for women’s suffrage and expressed support for the 1894 Pullman workers’ strike (Jackson 2015: 77). He grants that Dewey was “an activist, public intellectual, and social critic,” but he casts doubt on the significance of his support for the Pullman strike, saying that Dewey “did not express [his support] publicly” (2017: 114–115). He asserts further that he “can find no biographical reference to Dewey publicly endorsing direct action in relation to this event or any other” (115). However, I would first hold that Dewey’s statement of his support for the strike in private correspondence should not lead us to diminish the genuineness of this support. Furthermore, in addition to the evidence I presented in my 2015 article, we can also find yet more evidence for Dewey’s support of direct action by pointing to two essays from Dewey’s Middle Works: “Force, Violence and Law” and “Force and Coercion.” Dewey there addresses “direct actionists” who “lead us to inquire whether manifestation of force, threatening and veiled if not overt, is not, after all, the only efficacious method of bringing about any social change which is of serious import” (MW10: 244–2452). In fact, he explains regarding “the question of the justification of force in a strike” that if “the existing legal and economic machinery … represent an ineffective organization of means” for addressing the power disparities in the relationship of owners to workers, “then recourse to extra-legal means may be indicated” (MW10: 247). Dewey ultimately declares that because the “present methods of capitalistic production” already subject the working class to so much coercive power, we may “require the use of coercive power to abrogate [those methods’] exercise” (MW10: 250–251).

I cannot therefore agree with Caspary’s claim that there is “no place for direct action” and “no mention of political struggle” in Dewey’s thinking on democracy. I would maintain that my portrayal of Dewey—and also the portrayal provided by John Medearis (2015) and Marc Stears (2010), who, as Caspary points out, have also found strong support for practices of direct action in Dewey’s work—stands up against Caspary’s challenge. Caspary does refer to a quote from the Ethics, which Dewey cowrote with James Tufts, in order to suggest that Dewey primarily wants workers to engage not in direct action but in reasoned discussion and cooperation with employers, again bringing to mind (though not explicitly referencing) deliberative democracy (2017: 115). I would argue that there is greater evidence from Dewey to say that he is not at all clearly committed to deliberation in situations of severe inequality such as that involving employers and workers.

Direct Action and Participatory Democracy

With that said, there is significant common ground between my and Caspary’s arguments. In particular Caspary shares my view that participatory democrats have not connected their theory with nondeliberative practices of direct action in the way that they could. He refers to the work of Carole Pateman and C. B. Macpherson, two exemplars of participatory democracy I discussed in my 2015 article, and points out that neither of them clearly endorses direct action (2017: 112). This coheres with my point that “participatory theory has been unclear on … the specific practices it endorses” for achieving the broad-scale social and political democratization the theory seeks and that there is thus an “empty spot in participatory democracy” (2015: 80).

Also, while Caspary has stated that there is “no place for direct action” in Dewey’s definition of democracy, he does argue very similarly to me that Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy can illuminate the fit between participatory theory and forms of direct action. He says that he attempts to use Dewey “to offer the missing explicit argument for the intrinsic and deep connection between direct action and participatory governance” (2017: 116). He explains that “[Dewey’s] pragmatist philosophy … has much to offer, not only for including direct action in participatory democracy, but also for strongly integrating direct action with the self-governance features of participatory democracy” (116). In my article I argued that Dewey’s pragmatism provides justification for nondeliberative practices in the face of structural social inequality, as “his pragmatism requires that our ideas and practices be attuned to the conditions we currently confront” (2015: 64).

Thus, while Dewey’s own words and actions provide a case for seeking to compel concessions from the structurally advantaged, his philosophy itself can also illuminate why nondeliberative practices are appropriate for deeply unequal social conditions and why deliberation can be undemocratic under unequal conditions because of the material and discursive privileges available to the advantaged (2015: 76–79). Pragmatism thereby shows why nondeliberative practices that directly attack inequality are consistent with participatory democracy’s own focus on overcoming inequities in our broader society (e.g., despotic workplaces, severe economic inequality) as well as in our political institutions (65, 77–80). These types of practices are largely based on the notion that social inequality is undemocratic itself—that is, it prevents individuals from exercising control over their lives—and these practices are therefore particularly attuned to the conditions we currently confront. Although participatory democrats have not directly connected their theory with direct action, their focus on overcoming social inequality and their lack of a specific commitment to deliberative practices allow them to make this connection on a pragmatist basis. Caspary and I are thus on the same page here.

Another central element of Caspary’s argument is that we must turn to the New Left movement of the 1960s to find “the explicit call for direct action” that he says is lacking in Dewey (2017: 115). I very much welcome the addition of New Left thought to this discussion. My position is not that we must turn to Dewey alone in order to connect participatory democracy with direct action, and certainly I think we can draw on other thinkers who could also be said to be both participatory democrats and advocates of direct action. My point, though, is that Dewey can be a particularly valuable resource for participatory democrats, specifically because of how his pragmatism provides a solid intellectual foundation for understanding why a wholesale commitment to deliberation is problematic under unequal social conditions. I also hold that Dewey is an especially interesting case study for participatory democrats due to the way he is so commonly associated with deliberative democracy. If we can show that Dewey is actually an effective ally for participatory as opposed to deliberative democracy, then we are depriving deliberative theory of one of its primary historical pillars.

At the same time, Caspary and I differ in our explanations of how nondeliberative direct action can be seen as democratic. For Caspary, although again not explicitly connecting his argument to deliberative democracy, it is still essential that direct action abide by fundamentally deliberative standards in order to be considered democratic. He claims that “direct action is democratic if its confrontational tactics, rather than compelling policy outcomes or coercing agreement, open up democratic discussion, inquiry, and experimentation” (117). He also holds that direct action can be democratic because it can “train members” in “dialogical and deliberative skills” (118). On this view nondeliberative action is democratic not in the way it compels concessions from the socially advantaged but in the way it can open up spaces for deliberation. I have a different view, and I think Dewey would as well. For one, it has to be noted that Caspary’s discussion of the need for direct action to abide by deliberative standards is not buttressed by citations of Dewey but by a citation of Taylor Branch’s book Parting the Waters (1988). Further, within the various statements from Dewey that show support for “compulsion” of the powerful, it is evident that Dewey is seeking to directly achieve certain policies that combat inequality rather than only calling for a properly deliberative debate on those policies.

What’s more, even if we grant that such a debate is what Dewey would ideally like to see under conditions more equal than our own, this political element is only part of Dewey’s conception of democracy, which is based on a broader social idea of individuals exercising genuine control over their lives (Jackson 2015: 64). This type of individual self-government, in characteristically Deweyan fashion, is an aim that is never fully achieved but exists in a process of unending actualization (75–76). If nondeliberative practices, in which action is taken that directly benefits the disadvantaged rather than the advantaged, are necessary “means” for Dewey in order to further actualize democracy, then they must at the same time be seen as “ends” rather than being merely instrumental in order to make deliberation possible. Caspary raises the point about means and ends being intertwined for Dewey (2017: 116), but I think Medearis (2015) more adequately grasps its significance. Medearis uses Dewey to argue that the nondeliberative actions of social movements are both a means for changing a nonideal present and an end in themselves because they can manifest the self-governing capacities of individuals who are often oppressed and exploited by the more powerful (146–147).3 This view allows us to better account for how deliberation can be undemocratic under unequal conditions, and it is more distinctly Deweyan in that it conveys how the “end” of democracy is present in the necessary “means” toward its achievement. I also think this is just a stronger position for democratic theorists to hold more generally because it helps us comprehend why nondeliberative activities that have been so crucial historically to the further achievement of democracy (e.g., strikes, marches, protests) can be seen as expressions of democracy on their own and not merely as preludes to the practice of deliberation.

Conclusion: Dethroning Deliberation

I am very pleased to see Caspary’s contribution to this discussion of Dewey and contemporary democratic theory, and I particularly welcome his discussion of New Left thought and his endorsement of the idea that Dewey’s pragmatism provides particular justification for direct action. I also find it exciting how Dewey’s thought has been receiving increasing attention within contemporary discussions of democracy and how he is being seen more as a valuable resource for conceptualizing the need to combat social inequality, as evidenced by the recent work of thinkers like Medearis and K. Sabeel Rahman (2016).

Further, although Caspary’s overall view on Dewey is more deliberative than I think is right, I do think he is correct in the idea that in situations in which members of a group or association are substantively equal, Dewey would like to see decisions made in a deliberative fashion. I made a similar point in my 2015 article when I noted that Dewey would like to see deliberation in political forums if social conditions were actually equal (2015: 64, 77), and although I did not make this specific point in my article, I do agree that even under unequal conditions, it would be appropriate on Deweyan terms for members of a social movement, labor union, and so on to make decisions in a deliberative way if the members of those groups have genuinely equal status. But nonetheless I do not think we should take from this that Dewey is essentially a deliberative thinker, nor do I think this point about deliberation in situations of actual equality is the main lesson we should take from his democratic thought. Dewey, as a pragmatist, is particularly alert to problems, and the problem his work primarily focuses on—and that I would say we as democratic theorists should focus on—is the need to overcome structural social inequality. While Dewey’s principles do have something to say about how members of a social movement or labor union should interact, such individuals’ interaction is not what Dewey considers the most pressing problem standing in the way of democracy’s actualization. Severe social inequality, I would argue, is what he identifies as our most pressing problem, and he does not assume that deliberation is adequate for combating that problem.

Therefore, my position is not that deliberation has no place in a democratic theory nor that we should never engage in it so long as structural inequality exists but that deliberation should at least be dethroned from the place of prominence it has had in democratic theory for over two decades. Deliberation has a tenuous connection—and should not be seen as equivalent—to democracy because requiring deliberation between structurally unequal elements of society implies that the deliberation will bracket the impact of the material and discursive advantages available to the powerful, which is, in my view, an unsound assumption. If we admit that deliberation will not be truly democratic under unequal social conditions, as certain deliberative democrats such as Archon Fung (2005) have done, then we must recognize that structural inequality is a much more pressing obstacle in the way of democracy than is the issue of whether individuals are deliberating properly over policy. We must also recognize that not only is deliberation potentially inappropriate under such conditions but that it can actually get in the way of democracy’s further achievement by assuming equality between participants has been attained when it really has not. At the very least this calls for democratic theorists to take a far more nuanced position on deliberation. Participatory democrats can take this position, as they have not made any wholesale commitment to deliberation, and Dewey can be especially valuable to these thinkers in the way that his pragmatism illuminates how deliberation is democratic only under unique conditions. Dewey would like to see deliberative decision making in situations where substantive equality is actually present, but where that equality does not exist (as is often the case now) he shows us why deliberation should be seen with suspicion.

NOTES
1

Caspary’s book is similarly interpreted in Ralston (2010) as presenting Dewey as “anticipat[ing] the deliberative turn in democratic theory” (26–27).

2

In line with the common practice in Dewey scholarship, this is being referenced by the volume number and page number from the Middle Works.

3

Medearis also makes a compelling case for why, contra Caspary, it is unreasonable to require that the coercive activities of the disadvantaged (e.g., workers’ strikes) should aim not at compelling concessions from the advantaged but at bringing about a coercion-free space for deliberation (2015: 40–41).

REFERENCES

  • BranchTaylor1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–1963. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  • CasparyWilliam. 2000. Dewey on Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • CasparyWilliam. 2017. “John Dewey between Participatory Democracy and Direct Action: A Commentary on Jeff Jackson.Democratic Theory 4 (1): 109120.

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  • DeweyJohn. 1935. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

  • DeweyJohn. 19761988. The Middle Works of John Dewey 1899–1924. 15 vols. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

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  • FungArchon. 2005. “Deliberation before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World.Political Theory 33 (2): 397419.

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  • JacksonJeff. 2015. “Dividing Deliberative and Participatory Democracy through John Dewey.” Democratic Theory 2 (1): 6384.

  • MedearisJohn. 2015. Why Democracy Is Oppositional. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • RahmanK. Sabeel. 2016. Democracy Against Domination. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • RalstonShane. 2010. “Dewey’s Theory of Moral (and Political) Deliberation Unfiltered.Education and Culture 26 (1): 2343.

  • StearsMarc. 2010. Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Contributor Notes

Jeff Jackson is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. He received his PhD in political theory from UCLA in June 2014. His articles have appeared in Democratic Theory, Polity, The Pluralist, and Education and Culture. E-mail: Jcjackson@uchicago.edu.

Democratic Theory

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • BranchTaylor1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–1963. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  • CasparyWilliam. 2000. Dewey on Democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • CasparyWilliam. 2017. “John Dewey between Participatory Democracy and Direct Action: A Commentary on Jeff Jackson.Democratic Theory 4 (1): 109120.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DeweyJohn. 1935. Liberalism and Social Action. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

  • DeweyJohn. 19761988. The Middle Works of John Dewey 1899–1924. 15 vols. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FungArchon. 2005. “Deliberation before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World.Political Theory 33 (2): 397419.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • JacksonJeff. 2015. “Dividing Deliberative and Participatory Democracy through John Dewey.” Democratic Theory 2 (1): 6384.

  • MedearisJohn. 2015. Why Democracy Is Oppositional. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • RahmanK. Sabeel. 2016. Democracy Against Domination. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • RalstonShane. 2010. “Dewey’s Theory of Moral (and Political) Deliberation Unfiltered.Education and Culture 26 (1): 2343.

  • StearsMarc. 2010. Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.