Friday, March 06, 2020

Ten Essential Books on Contemporary Democratic Theory and Praxis

Mill on democracy  Gilbert 2  Urbinati Representative Democracy 

I made this list within the somewhat arbitrary constraint of ten titles, so as to render it manageable, which of course means a number of different works might have made it onto a compilation such as this if composed by someone else familiar with the requisite literature. I imagined myself teaching a two-part graduate level seminar (which has never happened nor will happen), relying on five books for each quarter or semester. The bias here is toward more theoretically informed works, but any theory deserving of the appellation is well informed by historical and sociological knowledge and chock full of philosophical and psychological presuppositions and assumptions. And the emphasis is on contemporary democratic theory and praxis. These titles should be deemed fundamental to anyone concerned about the necessary and possible meanings of the adjective “democratic” in the term “democratic socialism,” even if our authors are not directly speaking to the subject of socialism.

Incidentally, we use the phrases “democratic capitalism” and “democratic socialism” with regard to democracy qualifying respective forms of political economy, which tends to insinuate the relative importance of political economy vis-à-vis democratic organization of our individual, social, and political lives, justified in large measure by its historical and descriptive salience. But it is perhaps more accurate and thus warranted to speak of “capitalist democracy” and “socialist democracy” (the latter of course distinguishable from ‘social democracy’). Consider, for example, the fact that the adjective “capitalist” here better captures the nature and scope of the severe limitations when not contradictions, distortions, and deformations of a would-be democratic polity and civil society attributable to capitalism. Socialist democracy, on the other hand, represents the historical, moral, and political endeavor to systematically and structurally overcome those contradictions, distortions, and disfigurations in a manner in keeping with the ideals, principles, and values, as well as the institutions, methods, and processes we consider intrinsic to democratic theory (sometimes better, ‘philosophy’). In short, socialist democracy is democracy deepened and extended so as to better enable our pursuit of justice, to equalize our essential liberties or freedoms, and enhance the probabilities for the mutual dialectical realization of individuality and community (in the logic and spirit of a gender-neutral fraternité), what the late David L. Norton referred to as eudaimonistic individualism (J.S. Mill preferred the term ‘individuality’ so as to distinguish it from the typically pejorative philosophical and psychological connotations associated with the word ‘individualism’): 

“[E]udaimonism [a fortuitous conjunction, if you will, of happiness and self-fulfillment] is a variety of moral individualism, unlike some forms of individualism it does not conceive of individuals as ‘atomic,’ that is, as inherently asocial entities. [….] [It] recognizes persons as inherently social beings from the beginning of their lives to the end but contends that the appropriate form of association undergoes transformation. As dependent beings, persons in the beginning of their lives are social products, receiving not merely material necessities but their very identity from the adult community. The principle of association is the essential uniformity of associates, usually expressed in terms of basic needs. Subsequent moral development leads to self-identification and autonomous, self-directed living, but is associative as an interdependence based in a division of labor with respect to realization of values. The principle of this form of association is the complementarity of perfected differences. Accordingly, the meaning of ‘autonomy,’ if the term is to be applicable, must be consistent with interdependence. … [It thus] means, not total self-sufficiency, but determining for oneself what one’s contributions to others should be and what use to make of the values provided by the self-fulfilling lives of others. [In such cases,] [t]o follow the lead of another person in a matter he or she understands better than we is not a lapse from autonomy to heteronomy but a mark of wisdom. [….]
Goodin  Goodin reflective  Democratic reason

[T]he self here is conceived of as a task, a piece of work, namely the work of self-actualization [or what both J.S. Mill and Marx referred to as ‘self-realization’]. And self-actualization is the progressive objectivizing of subjectivity, ex-pressing it into the world. This recognition exposes as a fallacy the modern use of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ as mutually exclusive categories. Every human impulse is subjective in its origin and objective in its intentional outcome, and because its outcome is within it implicitly from its inception, there is nothing in personhood that is ‘merely subjective,’ that is, subjective in the exclusive sense. Narcissism (with which individualism is sometimes charged) is a pathology that tries to amputate from subjectivity its objective issue. It is real enough, and was a propensity of some romantic individualisms that judged experience by the occasions it affords for the refinement of the individual’s sensibilities. But the supposition that individualism is narcissistic subjectivism represents (again) a failure to recognize divergent kinds of individualism [again, Mill would say ‘individuality’]. For eudaimonistic individualism, it is the responsibility of persons to actualize objective value in the world.” And of course the assumption and attribution of such responsibility requires, in the first instance, the necessary “resources,” “primary social goods” (John Rawls), and “capabilities” or “functionings” (Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum), hence the pride of place accorded to democratic government and governance. Please see Norton’s Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue (University of California Press, 1991), for an explanation of “eudaimonistic ethics,” “developmental democracy” (in reference to the individual), and the specification of the notions of “right” tradition and community (as the ‘sociality of true individuals’). The latter topic should be read alongside the discussion of various kinds of “community” in Goodin’s Reflective Democracy (2003).

Rawls 2  Richardson

The reader interested in exploring the depth and breadth of the relevant literature should consult the bibliographies on (i) Liberalism, (ii) Democratic Theory, and (iii) Social Security and the Welfare State, available on my Academia page.
  • Elster, Jon, ed. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Gilbert, Alan. Democratic Individuality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Reflective Democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Innovating Democracy: Democratic Theory and Practice after the Deliberative Turn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008
  • James, Michael Rabinder. Deliberative Democracy and the Plural Polity. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
  • Landemore, Hélène. Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005 ed.
  • Richardson, Henry S. Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning about the Ends of Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Elster deliberative  James Deliberative


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