Political Studies Review: You suggest that we need to rethink democratic innovations. Why is such a “re-innovation of democratic innovations” needed, and how do we best go about this?
Dr Hans Asenbaum: Democratic innovations are commonly understood as participatory institutions created by governments. Examples are the now very popular citizens’ assemblies which flourish across the UK and Ireland and participatory budgets which emerged in Brazil. The way the scholarly community conceptualises these instantiations of lived democracy is limiting. This established understanding draws our attention to top-down initiated governmental institutions that are meticulously designed. Design pre-structures what participants in these settings can do and what they can express. Problems range from time constraints to a too narrow focus on rational arguments and go on to include co-option by the organisers. In other words, democratic innovations often produce the decision their organisers intended them to produce, which, of course, defeats their democratic purpose.
What can we do to challenge or at least mitigate these problems? One reason why we perceive and conceptualise democratic innovations in such a narrow manner is because of the incredible success of theories of deliberative democracy, which have dominated the field in the last few decades. This success is due to the persuasiveness and the merits of deliberative democratic theory. Indeed, the scholarly and practitioner community that aims to study and realise public engagement has benefitted immensely from the vibrant field of deliberative democracy research. Deliberative democracy in theory and practice has taught us about the values of inclusion, listening, empathy, humility, learning and respect. These are values I personally cherish.
Indeed, the scholarly and practitioner community that aims to study and realise public engagement has benefitted immensely from the vibrant field of deliberative democracy research.
The problem, then, is not with the deliberative ideal – it is with the exclusivity of one ideal only, whatever it may be. There are evident problems with dogmatism that prevent learning and development. So what I’m suggesting is not to replace the deliberative ideal with another, which would entail the same exclusivity. Rather, I suggest complimenting the deliberative ideal with compatible yet diverse other ideals. Rather than understanding democratic innovations exclusively as deliberative spaces, I propose looking through the kaleidoscope of democratic theory and making use of the wide variety of existing democratic theories. In this way, we can rethink democratic innovations from agonistic, participatory, and transformative angles. This lets us see democratic innovation in a new light. It helps us both to identify aspects of existing democratic processes we haven’t been able to see before, and it also helps us to identify instantiations of democracy that we previously hadn’t identified as democratic innovations.
What, then, is the result of applying the kaleidoscope of democratic theory? What does a novel understanding of democratic innovations look like?
So far, we know what democratic innovations look like from a deliberative angle. Following their Habermasian roots, deliberative democratic innovations have been particularly concerned with creating the “ideal speech situation” – they are staged as egalitarian islands amidst a world dominated by hierarchies and exclusions. This has led to an extreme focus, if not an obsession, with design. The idea here is that we can structure participants’ interactions – not the contents they express but the way they express these contents. This has had beneficial effects, particularly for marginalised groups in society participating in democratic innovations. Nevertheless, the undemocratic aspects of this approach are evident. Design means limiting and pre-determining participants’ behaviour.
If we supplement the deliberative with agonistic, participatory, and transformative lenses, democratic innovations take on a new meaning. Rather than top-down initiated design, democratic innovation may emerge organically from grassroots mobilising and everyday interaction. Agonistic, participatory, and transformative democratic theory teaches us that democracy may occur anywhere – not just in official democratic processes such as election campaigns, referendums, or citizens’ assemblies, but wherever people meet and exchange ideas and opinions about how society should be governed. Rather than formal, state-run institutions, in the reading I propose, democratic innovation may include informal institutions such as social movement spaces, everyday conversations, societal conventions, and even language and thinking patterns.
Could you give us a concrete example?
Take language as an informal institutional arrangement as an example. Here, let’s zoom in on the debate about personal pronouns. Many advocate explicitly identifying oneself with pronouns including she/her, he/him, or they/them. The mere act of such a declaration constitutes a democratic innovation. Previously it was assumed that we could visually deduce each other’s gender. Making a conscious gender declaration breaks with these established patterns. It democratises gendering as now the control over gender identification lies with the individual democratic subject. The option of self-identifying as they/them allows for a rejection of the established gender binary and identifying otherwise. Democratic innovation, then, can happen in every type of institutional setting that governs us – be it formal or informal.
This does not mean that formal institutions such as deliberative mini-publics are excluded from this understanding of democratic innovation. But the novel understanding presents them in a new light. It draws attention to the inherently interruptive nature of democratic innovations. Where formerly decisions were made by the political elite, mini-publics and other formal democratic innovations interrupt this mode of governance and demonstrate that democracy can be practised otherwise.
What are the major differences between participatory, agnostic and transformative perspectives?
The wealth and diversity of democratic theory are incredible. What is fascinating about the participatory, agnostic, and transformative perspectives is that each of them offers an entire world we can dive into, immerse ourselves in, and relish in the democratic vision it generates. The participatory perspective draws attention to bottom-up participation in unlikely places like workplaces, schools, public administration, and even prisons. Albert Dzur’s Democracy Inside is truly insightful. He sheds light on democratic innovations such as Inside-Out courses, in which free college students and inmates meet weekly to learn about criminal justice or community conferences in which perpetrators, victims, and witnesses meet and reflect on incidents of perceived wrongdoing from different angles. Participatory democratic innovations appear not as top-down designed political institutions but as organically emerging democratic spaces that are organised by civil society actors or public servants.
The agonistic view adds new insight to this approach. Agonistic democracy does not focus on formal political institutions but on language as an informal institutional arrangement that affords and governs how we express ourselves and what we think. In addition to the focus on language, agonistic democracy is concerned with emotion, passion, and affect. At its core, agonistic democracy is about venting suppressed conflict but at the same time preventing conflict from becoming destructive. Hence, creating a safe space is important. Mary Paxton’s Agonistic Democracy opens our eyes to a range of democratic innovations that are mostly outside the realm of the deliberative view. She suggests various seating arrangements, speech tokens, personal testimony instead of expert facts, and controversial topics for debate. More than anything, agonistic democracy does not prescribe one ideal setting but opens our view to the many forms democratic innovations can take on.
I suggest maintaining the internal integrity of each of these perspectives, including the deliberative one, and allowing ourselves to switch between them. It’s like cycling through various different landscapes, immersing ourselves, and learning something new in each of them.
While the agonistic and participatory perspectives suggest reform of a flawed democratic system, the transformative perspective proposes a profound systemic change that breaks with capitalist logic. Such deep transformation has been advocated in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. But what transformative democracy means for democratic innovations has hardly been explored. Alexandros Kioupkioulis’ The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics does a magnificent job at breaking things down by focusing on one concept: the commons. Common-pool resources such as land, water, and knowledge are not simply property that is collectively owned. They constitute a democratic practice – a radical democratic innovation. Wikipedia, the Ancient Greek polis, and occupied public squares all illustrate that transparent and open collective decision-making is possible.
We can see how diverse these three perspectives are. My suggestion is not to combine and hybridise them in some sort. Rather, I suggest maintaining the internal integrity of each of these perspectives, including the deliberative one, and allowing ourselves to switch between them. It’s like cycling through various different landscapes, immersing ourselves, and learning something new in each of them.
Questions and production
Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London
- PSR INTERVIEWS #14: Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum (PART2)
- Article: Asenbaum, H., Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory, Political Studies Review 2021