PSR INTERVIEWS #14: Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum (PART 2)

“Democratic innovations always struggle with their neoliberal and capitalist context. Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting. What we call democracy today is a hybrid between the democratic logic of the self-rule of the people and the capitalist logic of competition and hierarchy” – says Dr Hans Asenbaum. This interview is the second and final part of our conversation with this researcher and a PSR author, who covers new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics. You can learn more about democratic innovations in his PSR article: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum, 2021 (sagepub.com).

Political Studies Review: You discuss a participatory approach, in which the major axis of the critique comes from the dehumanising properties of institutions. What are the most effective ways to apply participatory innovations to public institutions? Have any experiments been done in this area?

Dr Hans Asenbaum: The dehumanising effect of institutions stems from their functions to govern us. They structure interactions and decision-making procedures, leaving little leeway for creativity, playfulness, or serendipity. What is surprising, however, is that participatory democracy happens within such institutions despite their rigidity. The participatory spirit creeps in and claims space when teachers decide their curriculum in a participatory and inclusive manner together with students or when a community reparation board invites victims and perpetrators into a dialogue.

Of course, state institutions are not always open to this participatory spirit, and its realisation to a large extent depends on the goodwill of individuals in power positions. This is why social movements are crucial in challenging these institutions. The Black Lives Matter movement is a case in point. Their actions constitute democratic innovation by interrupting the racist structures that govern societies around the world. This interruption is not only realised through a negative moment of protest but also through a positive moment of building a peer-help network.

Political Studies Review: In terms of the agonistic approach, you write that it’…has long remained vague about institutional manifestations of its ideal and has mostly referred to the contentious politics of social movement.’ The transformative perspective is also linked with social movements in your article. Have you been able to spot any of the features of these approaches in any of the significant social movements in recent years, such as Occupy Wall Street, Indignados, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, or any others?

Dr Hans Asenbaum: Movements such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), Black Lives Matter (BLM) and their predecessors have played a crucial role in inspiring theories of agonistic and transformative democracy. Hence, these theories are not only useful for analysing these movements but the movements also serve as the theories’ empirical sources. Now, this is the wonderful thing about democratic theories – and normative political theories more generally –; they each shed new and different light on the same phenomenon. This means we do not have to choose whether XR or BLM are either agonistic or transformative movements; they both harbour aspects of agonistic and transformative democracy.

State institutions are not always open to this participatory spirit, and its realisation to a large extent depends on the goodwill of individuals in power positions. This is why social movements are crucial in challenging these institutions.

The profound revolution XR calls for in the face of the dramatic climate crisis and the shattering of racist ideology and practice BLM advocates resonate with the transformative democratic perspective. Far beyond reform, it needs profound cultural and economic change to tackle the climate crisis and racism. Despite this revolutionary outlook, from an agonistic angle, we can see how both movements do not understand their opponents as enemies to be destroyed but as adversaries who are receptive to dialogue. Their views need to be challenged, and their practices disrupted. Such agonistic approaches are reflected in street protest and social media contestation of the respective movements.  

Black Lives Matter protest, London, June 2020, phot. E. Kania

Which of the developed solutions can be utilised in modern, democratic institutions most effectively?

The focus on social movements in the agonistic and transformative accounts doesn’t mean that the type of democratic innovations I’m suggesting cannot be realised within state institutions. Indeed, state actors are enablers of democratic bottom-up participation. This is what the participatory perspective highlights in particular. Participatory budgeting is a great example of how democratic innovations can be realised from a participatory democratic (rather than a deliberative) angel. The history of participatory budgeting also illustrates that whether democratic innovations emerge bottom-up or top-down is not necessarily a mutually exclusive question but that there actually can be a fruitful interface between the state and social movements.

The agonistic perspective further adds insights into how the state can facilitate democratic innovations beyond the deliberative paradigm. Mary Paxton suggests a Contestation Day, which is modelled after Ackerman and Fishkin’s Deliberation Day. Before general elections, citizens would meet for small group debates in the agonistic manner Paxton suggests. The new understanding of democratic innovations, I suggest, allows us to think even further. What if the state would provide social movements and civic initiatives the funds to set up their own democratic innovations? Democratic innovations, then, could be state-sponsored but social movement-run. I have made this suggestion together with Frederic Hanusch. We argue that instead of focusing on reasoned deliberation through the verbal expression of arguments, new democratic spaces could focus on non-verbal deliberation through artistic expression and play. This could be realised in democratic playgrounds and democratic ateliers as new democratic innovations that allow participants to prototype solutions to political problems.

What major challenges for applying democratic innovations would you highlight?

Democratic innovations always struggle with their neoliberal and capitalist context. Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting. What we call democracy today is a hybrid between the democratic logic of the self-rule of the people and the capitalist logic of competition and hierarchy. Capitalist democracy translates self-rule to the representation of the people by the elite. The power the people hold in this process is reduced to choosing among elite actors in staged party competition. Election campaigns follow market principles of product promotion and profit maximisation. The Schumpeterian ideal has become reality. This has been convincingly argued by Ellen Meiksins Wood.

Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting.

Democratic innovations, as I understand them, break with this capitalist logic and in doing so recapture democracy’s egalitarian spirit. Instead of delegating decision-making power to the elite, people deliberate and decide for themselves. Instead of competing with one another, they aim at mutual understanding – here the deliberative perspective is helpful. Democratic innovations interrupt capitalist hierarchy by demonstrating that self-rule is possible. Of course, there are convincing arguments that democratic innovations themselves are co-opted by neoliberal logic. They may only pretend to realise democracy while actually functioning as a governing tool of the powerful. We have to be aware and mindful of this problem. This is why bottom-up co-creation of democratic innovations is so important.

What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?

The kaleidoscope of democratic theory my paper introduces reaffirms the value of theory triangulation. Triangulation is highly valued in empirical research, but it is hardly used in the field of theory and, in particular, in normative theory. Normative theories are commonly seen as mutually exclusive because each theory proposes its own ontology and its own complete worldview. By employing the kaleidoscope of democratic theory, we don’t compromise the internal integrity of each perspective. But we are still able to draw on a diversity of theories. I think this approach is particularly fitting for democratic theory because the value of pluralism is at the very heart of democracy.

The kaleidoscope approach also prioritises deep normative commitments. Discussions in democratic theory lately have moved away from normativity. Instead of focusing on normative models such as deliberative, participatory, agonistic or transformative democracy, democratic theorists suggest pragmatist approaches that are more problem-oriented. While I acknowledge the value of this argument, I worry about losing democratic theory’s firm normative grounding. Instead, I encourage exploring new ways of diversifying and creatively engaging with normative models.

In which direction normative democratic theory will develop is an intriguing question. How will deliberative democracy develop, and what may come after deliberative democracy? We are all part of this debate, and I’m looking forward to participating in it.

ABOUT

Hans Asenbaum is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. His work focuses on new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR INTERVIEWS #14: Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum (PART 1)

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” – says Dr Hans Asenbaum. This interview is the first part of our conversation with this researcher and a PSR author, who covers new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics. You can learn more about democratic innovations in his PSR article: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum, 2021 (sagepub.com).

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.

ABOUT

Hans Asenbaum is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. His work focuses on new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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There is a certain inconsistency between theoretical expectations about the behaviour of political parties under democracy, and recent developments concerning the rise of protest politics, the appeal of populist parties and the overall crisis of liberal democratic institutions” – says dr Alejandro M. Peña.

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Podcast #18: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory- Hans Asenbaum

Democratic innovations such as citizens’ assemblies are commonly conceptualized from a deliberative democratic perspective. Here, citizens come together to deliberate political issues and jointly develop solutions. While this perspective is important, the wide range of democratic theories has much more to offer” – says dr Hans Asenbahm.

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