Popular sovereignty and the Capitalist threat
The weakness of representative democracy with respect to the power structure of the capitalist economy has been well documented. The original problem of capitalism and democracy remains, only mildly diminished by the so-called democratic welfare state. With the problems of economic power and democracy unsolved, the whole issue has been generalized, globalized, and imperialized. Since the last wave of still largely indigenous democratic transformations, from Greece in the early 1970s to South Africa in the 1990s, it was always the same fundamental model of popular sovereignty and constitutional democracy that played a dominant role in democratization processes. This is the best normative response to the challenges of globalization and even empire, if only a first step.
This text represents the first contribution of Andrew Arato in his dialogue with the philosopher Hassan Hanafi, published by the magazine Reset in its September-October 2007 issue (no.103).
We inherit the word, the idea, perhaps the norm but certainly none of the institutions from Hellenic Antiquity. As to the norm, the ideas of “isonomia” that is “equal law”, and even taking turns at ruling and being ruled are still alive in notions of the status equality of citizens and the value of their political participation in democratic republics. But we moderns reject the powerful exclusions built into ancient city states, and we do not rely on their political forms of participation. Occasional attempts, like Hannah Arendt’s and that of Cornelius Castoriadis to revive the spirit of the latter, while understandable given the instrumentalization of the norms today, are nevertheless futile because of social complexity. Far more prescient were those ancient and early modern thinkers from Aristotle to Polybius, and from Machiavelli to the British advocates of balanced government who hoped to save something of ancient democracy in formulas of mixed political regimes.
For us the European 18th Century, retrospectively titled Age of Democratic Revolutions, is formative, even if democracy was still a rather despised term, or at best “a government fit for gods” (Rousseau). The key concept was popular sovereignty, itself revived from the past. What it indicated was that democracy henceforth would be a principle of political legitimacy that would ascribe or impute the origin or source of authority of government to the “people”. Government itself, in terms of its institutional mechanisms would no longer expected to be directly ”democratic” but representational. To its critics, this democracy would be “fictional” or at least “formal”, and there is certainly some truth in these criticisms. But it is not the whole truth. As a principle of legitimacy, democracy still contains the old norms of status equality and political participation for the citizenry. And that means that its relationship to the actual mechanisms of government is critical, potentially oppositional. Radical democratic politics thus always accompanies the couplet democratic legitimacy (or: popular sovereignty) and representative institutions.
The demand is always to make the institutions more democratic, or more responsive to extra-institutional practices that are deemed more democratic, more popular or even more representative. The transition from constitutional regimes or even oligarchic republics based on popular sovereignty to regimes called democratic, based on popular suffrage for the first time was motivated by this type of struggle. Even earlier, the question of establishing republican government in a large territory had to be solved, and here the institutions of federalism, separation of powers (as against the old mixed government), and especially types of political representation, fundamental rights, modern constitutionalism, as well as the open public sphere provided the solutions. But only with the universalization of suffrage and education could these new republican institutions satisfy even minimum democratic demands. These battles continued with women’s suffrage and with problems of ethnic and class inclusion in many parts of the world, but today they less and less represent the central problem of democracy.
The same is not true of interrelated issues of participation and economic democracy, dramatically raised by the 19th century. These survive, if in new globalized and culturally highly differentiated forms. On the one side, the oligarchic implications of representation based on popular suffrage became clear much before the “elite theory” correctly redescribed the democracy we factually have in these terms. Experimentation with direct, participatory and plebiscitary forms have been continual since the French revolution, but only the last, an authoritarian variant often leading to Caesarist dictatorships had any lasting success. This form reappears periodically in populist struggles for inclusion, and it always means not only the loss of formal democracy but suppression of its self-critical democratic dimension as well. On the other side, the weakness of representative democracy with respect to the power structure of the capitalist economy has been well documented, as the absence of any democracy or rights from the sphere directly dominated by these powers. Here too attempts at solutions targeting the capitalist economy floundered, and in the 20th Century particularly repressive and lasting dictatorships inhibiting all democratic process were the result. Now that most, not all of these are gone the original problem of capitalism and democracy remains, only mildly diminished by the so-called democratic welfare state. It becomes especially grievous when the public sphere, one of the central institutions of republics in large territories is delivered to capitalist private interests, that can use it to privatize politics even further especially when offering a new brand of plebiscitary politics. Only a resolute protection of public service electronic media, widely accessible to diverse publics, could protect us from this calamity in a lasting way.
With the problems of economic power and democracy unsolved, the whole issue has been generalized, globalized, and imperialized. The issue is generalized, because today it is not only big capital, but also big military, big science, big medicine, big communications, big sport and big culture that represent spheres impinging on political systems that have escaped from democratic controls and whose internal practices are not at all democratic. It is globalized because the relevant institutions are located not only within nation states but in a global sphere where they could not be controlled by individual states even if these became democratically much more responsive. And finally we can speak of imperialization, not in the sense of the recent book, but in terms of the open and explicit role of the last remaining super-power to manipulate most of the supposedly independent spheres to its own asymmetric advantage through its dominance of the military one, and much more tenuous leading position in the economic. The last is especially fateful, because democratization has become a stake in the politics of the imperial power.
In the meantime the norms of democracy have themselves become international, and that is why I have used the first person plurals “we” and “us” throughout this essay. Since the last wave of still largely indigenous democratic transformations, from Greece in the early 1970s to South Africa in the 1990s, it was always the same fundamental model of popular sovereignty and constitutional democracy that played a dominant role in democratization processes. This too may be seen as a result of the globalization of culture, or it may be considered, as I would, the best normative response to the challenges of globalization and even empire, if only a first step. What this wave of democratization could not solve is the problem of defining the units which should be democratized where the structure of the state was itself violently contested usually by ethnic nationalist groupings, and the problems of democratizing particularly entrenched dictatorships where specific historical givens (post colonial heritage, oil economy, external threats, new anti-democratic movements, ethnic fragmentation etc.) made the internal prospects of democratizing movements weak, and military-administrative coercion particularly strong. The imperial project, using democratic slogans but acting in profoundly undemocratic ways, abroad as well as at home, has injected itself into these contexts marked by such state failure or surviving but increasingly illegitimate dictatorships, and sometimes their combination, as in Iraq. This instrumentalization, in which amazingly enough parts of the human rights community have willingly participated, threatens to devalue the idea of democracy itself. If that happened, we would be again defenseless not only with respect to local dictators, the increasingly autonomous systems of global society, but ultimately imperial domination itself. But it must not happen!
Andrew Arato, constitutionalist, is the Dorothy Hart Hirson Professor of Political and Social Theory at the New School University of New York. Throughout his career his research has focused on the Frankfurt School, the history of social thought, and theories of Far Eastern societies and social movements. His current research concerns the sociology of law and theories of model societies. He is the author of numerous publications, including Sistani v. Bush: Constitutional Politics in Iraq (2004), The Occupation of Iraq and the Difficult Transition from Dictatorship (2003), Civil Society, Constitution and Legitimacy (2000).