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.
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.
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
- PSR INTERVIEWS #14: Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum (PART 1)
- Asenbaum, H., Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory, Political Studies Review 2021