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Democracy against Proceduralism


Steven Klein (@stevenmklein) is a Lecturer of Political Theory at Kings College London.

For the past fifty years, equality has been a central theme of analytic political philosophy. Given the longstanding connection between movements for equality and movements for democracy, one would think that philosophical egalitarians would be committed to democracy. Yet the way philosophers approached equality let democracy fall to the side. Starting from Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, equality was seen as a matter of ensuring everyone had equal life prospects regardless of their so-called “natural endowments”—talents, intelligence, and so forth. Equality became a matter of correcting for various misfortunes, natural or social, while remaining sensitive to people’s choices. Justice, then, means equalizing people’s material resources and opportunities, and we should judge political institutions by the extent to which they realize such equality. Democracy does not really come into the picture here. For many of the most influential Rawlsian theorists of equality, democracy is only superior if it improves justice understood as distributive equality—and we should feel free to adjust who can vote if it will improve justice.

Elizabeth Anderson’s seminal article “What’s the Point of Equality?” upturned this luck egalitarian project. Most pointedly, she challenged the degrading nature of the luck egalitarian focus on correcting for “misfortune,” as well as how it tends to leave out in the cold those who face material deprivation if that can be traced to their “choices.” Rather, she argued that the point of equality was not correcting for misfortune in our material chances but rather ensuring we can relate to each other as equals. And this meant that democracy should be central to realizing equality. Even if a non-democratic procedure may better realize material equality, it may nonetheless elevate certain individuals to positions of power in a way that undermines relational equality.

Following Anderson, theorists have further developed this connection between democracy and relating as equals. Democratic institutions, a variety of scholars argue, are essential to equality because they ensure no one individual or group wields power over another. The basic argument is this: under conditions of disagreement, we need to figure out what authorizes the coercive power of the law. A fair voting procedure, one which ensures no individual will always be the decisive vote, means no individual or group will tend to determine the content of the law. Thus, even as the law embodies a sort of power over us, no one individual or group exercises power over us. Rather, this power is fairly distributed by the voting procedure, thus ensuring we all preserve our standing as equals despite the fact that the state (potentially) coerces us if we violate the law.

As I argue at more length in a recent article, I believe that these arguments are right that a large part of the point of democracy is to help us create and preserve relations of equality—and that this insight can help guide the LPE project of expanding democracy into the economy and administrative state. Yet there is a danger in identifying democracy with proceduralism. In this respect, these theories of democratic proceduralism mirror contemporary liberalism as an ideology in public discourse, one which emphasizes the need for fairly resolving deep-seated disagreements but, in so doing, abstracts from questions of the organization of power in society.

After all, where are these fair democratic procedures? In every existing democracy, voters vote not for laws but for representatives, who are then meant to aggregate their views into laws. Even where there are referenda, they are situated within a variety of complex institutional mechanisms that shape the “directness” of democracy. And in all cases, procedures mediated by political parties and other organized groups that engage in various forms of political organizing and campaigning that extend beyond the single act of voting. To be sure, advocates of the liberal proceduralist view recognize that actually democratic systems are more complex than their simplified models of fair voting procedures. But it’s not just a matter of going from a simplified model to a more complex reality. Instead, our normative models will tend to draw our attention to certain features of actually existing institutions, and so implicit in such models is a theory of the structure of political institutions and how political institutions realize principles like equality. Put differently, the stylizations we use matter: they shape our evaluations of actual institutions and to inform our ranking of various alternative institutional structures.

In this respect, such liberal views of democracy mirror a broader infatuation with procedural fairness in contemporary politics. For contemporary centrist liberalism, the fundamental problem of politics is overcoming persistent and deep disagreements driven by value pluralism. From this perspective, the basic problem of politics is that of legitimacy–why people should obey the law even if they deeply disagree with it—with democracy standing as the potential solution.

Yet the consequence of this is a narrowing of our conception of power and so of what democrats should care about. Power becomes narrowed to the capacity of the state to coerce and democracy becomes about preserving the integrity of electoral procedures. This view misses how democratic institutions interact with the organization of power throughout society—ranging from relatively formal institutions like labour unions or advocacy groups through to the more diffuse capacity of the people as a whole to mobilize.

To capture these facets of democracy, we need an expanded concept of power. We need some account of the power people hold by virtue of their ability to act with others, and not just in virtue of their formal capacity to coerce or sanction. This is power as “power-with,” which exists because other people voluntary cooperate with you in realizing some goal or goals. Take, for example, the power of a labor union. Some of this power is constituted through coercive, legally-sanctioned power, that is, the fact that employers have certain legal obligations (however patchily enforced) to recognize unions, respect strikes, and so on. But as any organizer knows, the real power of the union resides in the voluntary cooperation of workers to realize their shared goals.

And this leads to the key point for thinking about democracy: political institutions are not just mechanisms for distributing power-over, as through fair voting procedures. They also have ongoing effects on the organization of power in society, enabling some groups to cooperate and impeding the efforts of others. For example, constitutional structures with many veto points, such as the American state, tend to facilitate small, concentrated interests while weakening the power of large-scale, mass organizations. What we need to evaluate, then, is the extent to which political institutions facilitate the organization of less powerful members of society and enable their cooperation, and not just whether they fairly resolve political disagreements.

This provides more reason to abandon the “agency instrumentalist” view that Kate Jackson has critiqued here. Liberal proceduralists tend to also have an instrumentalist view of the state, with the state seamlessly implementing the laws produced through fair procedures. From a democratic power perspective, in contrast, the state is simply one concentration of power among others—to be sure, one that can become relatively depersonalized and so valuable for preventing capture by small groups, but nonetheless not something that can be defined a priori in terms of its ideal structure. Rather, we need to approach it as both facilitating the organization of democratic power, insofar as a relatively neutral state will be less rigidly tied to the interests of any single social group, but also a constant threat to that collective power insofar as actors within the state will also pursue their own interests. Thus, in addition to questions about the internal democratic structure of the administrative state, we need to examine how the different designs of government policies enables or disables the agency of different groups in society. Will this policy enhance the organizational capacity of workers? Of ordinary citizens? As many political scientists have argued, policy makes mass politics, insofar as government policies can create constituencies and so enhance the organizational capacity of ordinary citizens. And the history of things like the welfare state are full of examples where policies generated unexpected forms of mass mobilization and organizing.

Finally, this view of democracy and power rejects any conceptual or pre-political distinction between public and private and so between “economic” and “political.” If democracy is about the equalization of power, understood in terms of organizational capacity, then there is no hard distinction between political institutions, which alter such power through their formal procedural features, and economic institutions, which alter that power through the norms and policies governing work, contracts, the internal structure of corporations, and so on. Thus, this view also allows us to conceptualize the democratization of the economy without that simply meaning the absorption of economic activity into the state. Rather, the economy is also a domain of organized actors, and we can evaluate the extent to which an economic constitution realizes democracy by the extent to which it enables less powerful groups, such as workers, to cooperate, organize, and so alter who has the power to set the rules that govern economic life.