Issue 167, December 2021: Five democratic alternatives to representative democracy

No. VI / Composition No.II (1920) Piet Mondrian Tate

Five democratic alternatives to representative democracy
167, December 2021

Guest editors: Lars Bo Kaspersen and Liv Egholm


Five progressive responses to the grand challenges of the 21st century: An introduction

Lars Bo Kaspersen and Liv Egholm

We are living in a world which is severely crisis-ridden and faces some major challenges. The fact that we are currently facing a genuine global pandemic (COVID-19) brings about even more uncertainty. The social and political institutions, which emerged and consolidated during the 20th century, and which created stability, have become fragile. The young generation born in the 1990s and onwards have experienced 9/11 and the ‘war against terrorism’, the financial crisis of 2008, changes to climate, environmental degradation, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. The generation born between 1960 and 1990 have had the same experiences along with severe economic crises in the 1970s and 1980s and the Cold War. Some of these challenges are in different ways intertwined with capitalism and its crises, while others are linked to the rapid development of new technologies, in particular innovations within communication and information technologies. This introduction lists the most important grand challenges facing the world as they have emerged more recently. The five articles following this introduction address some of these challenges, with particular attention to the problems of capitalism and democracy and the relation between these two areas. Most authors agree that climate change and the destruction of the environment are the biggest and most pertinent problems to address, but it is their stance that we can only meet these challenges if democracy is functioning well.


Associative Democracy: From ‘the real third way’ back to utopianism or towards a colourful socialism for the 21st century?

Veit Bader

Associative Democracy (AD) has been developed as a specific response to statist socialism and neoliberal capitalism, drawing on older traditions such as associationalism, democratic socialism, and cooperative socialism. As the ‘real third way’, it is distinct from neoliberal privatization and deregulation in the Blair–Schröder varieties of social democracy and in the conservative Reagan–Thatcher–Cameron varieties. This article summarizes what seemed to make AD an attractive realist utopia: its combination of economic, societal and political democracy; its focus on democratic institutional pluralism in all these regards; its considered moral/political minimalism; and its practical experimentalism. It recapitalizes some of the important economic, societal and political changes during the last decennia that seem to make AD plainly utopian again. It focuses on an outline of basic principles and institutions of socio-economic alternatives to capitalism because, if neoliberalism rules supreme, no viable alternatives can emerge and grow. Even if there is not one institutional design that fits all countries and contexts, we can show what the basic tenets of such alternatives are and how such a colourful democratic socialism relates to and can integrate other approaches such as ‘circular economy’, ‘foundational economy’ and ‘radical social innovation’. The hope is that AD’s broad institutional pluralism and its emphasis on practical experimentalism show new ways of thinking which are urgently needed for sustainable and socially fair economic development and for renewing representative democracy.

Democracy, citizenship, and corporate governance reform: How to deal with the internationalization of corporate activity

Grahame Thompson

Commercial companies are increasingly being recognized as agents of societal governance operating alongside the public authorities in their traditional role as governance bodies. In addition, companies are claiming to be ‘corporate citizens’ in the way they deal with their environmental, employment and social/ethical responsibilities. Given the fact that large corporations are now heavily internationalized in their operational characteristics – with branches, subsidiaries, affiliates and extended supply chains operating in multiple jurisdictions – can such organizations be brought into a democratic register? Citizenship and democracy are conventionally associated with a territorial state, national sovereignty and jurisdictional independence. So, how can internationalized companies be subject to democratic forms of governance? An added problem arises with platform companies and blockchain organized digital currency providers whose operations transcend national borders from the start. This contribution discusses the issues of and provides a way for considering corporate democracy afresh in these rapidly evolving contexts.

Masses on the stages of democracy: Democratic promises and dangers in self-dramatizations of masses

Christiane Mossin

The political significance of masses is more obvious than ever. The aim of this article is to develop a conceptualization capable of capturing the dangerous (totalitarian) as well as promising (potentially emancipatory) aspects of masses. It argues that, intricately, the dangers and fruitful potentials of masses are born out of the same fundamental structural features. We may differentiate analytically between different kinds of masses, but all masses contain elements of ambiguity. The mass conceptualization developed builds on a critical, deconstructing interpretation of selected Bataille texts centering on ontological features of individuality and collectivity. Especially, Bataille’s concepts of ‘myth’ and ‘sacrifice’ are accentuated and critically transformed. Contemporary examples of masses – right-wing anti-establishment movements, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter – are presented and reflected through the prism of sacrifice, with the aim of highlighting the multifaceted and complex nature of the dynamics of masses.

Sortition-infused democracy: Empowering citizens in the age of climate emergency

Andreas Møller Mulvad and Benjamin Ask Popp-Madsen

This article addresses two great global challenges of the 2020s. On one hand, the accelerating climate crisis and, on the other, the deepening crisis of representation within liberal democracies. As temperatures and water levels rise, rates of popular confidence in existing democratic institutions decline. So, what is to be done? This article discusses whether sortition – the ancient Greek practice of selecting individuals for political office through lottery – could serve to mitigate both crises simultaneously. Since the 2000s, sortition has attracted growing interest among activists and academics. Recently it has been identified in countries like the UK and France as a mechanism for producing legitimate political answers to the climate challenge. However, few theoretical reflections on the potentials and perils of sortition-based climate governance have yet emerged. This article contributes to filling the gap. Based on a critique of the first successful case of sortition used to enhance national environmental policy – in Ireland in 2017–18 – we argue that sortition-based deliberation could indeed speed up meaningful climate action whilst improving the health of democratic systems. However, this positive outcome is not preordained. Success depends not only on green social movements getting behind climate sortition but also on developing flexible, context-specific designs that identify adequate solutions to a number of problems, including those of power (providing citizens’ assemblies with clear agenda-setting prerogatives beyond non-binding consultation); expertise (allowing assembly participants to influence which stakeholders and experts to solicit inputs from); and participation (engaging wider parts of the citizenry in the deliberative process).

On the necessity of prefigurative politics

Lara Monticelli

The purpose of this article is to elaborate on the concept of prefiguration by outlining the necessity of its contribution to a progressive public philosophy for the 2020s. In the introduction, I explain how the object of critique for many social theorists has shifted over the course of the last decade from neoliberal globalization to capitalism understood as an encompassing form of life. In light of this, I enumerate the features that should define a progressive public philosophy: radical, emancipatory, and decolonized. The introduction is followed by an overview of the academic debates emerging after the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007–8. Among these, accelerationism fundamentally rejects the incorporation of prefigurative politics in any emancipatory political agenda. To better understand this position, I examine the origin and meaning of prefiguration and prefigurative practices in more detail in Section III. In it, I argue that prefigurative politics entails a holistic approach to social change that digs its roots in feminist and ecological thought and focuses on social reproduction and the preservation of life rather than solely economic production. Subsequently, I deploy the case of Occupy Wall Street to show that a growing number of contemporary social movements are implementing a dualistic strategy that simultaneously combines repertoires of action typical of protest movements with prefigurative practices focused on the embodiment of alternatives. This dualism, along with the limited success of Occupy Wall Street in concretizing its claims and goals, has led prefigurative politics to being labelled as incompatible with, if not even hindering, any emancipatory strategy. My argument instead is that prefigurative politics constitutes a fundamental and necessary component of any political strategy aimed at transcending contemporary capitalism since it conceives progressive social change in an ontologically and epistemologically different way with respect to political parties and protest movements. Taking this into consideration, I conclude that conventional politics and prefigurative politics can be seen as having the potential to mutually reinforce each other and that prefigurative politics should be acknowledged as a pivotal concept in establishing a progressive public philosophy for the 2020s. Only by doing so, will this philosophy be truly radical, emancipatory, and decolonial.

Review Essay: Post-Marxism with substance: Beilharz circles Marx

Chamsy el-Ojeili

Peter Beilharz Circling Marx: Essays 1980–2020 (Brill, 2020)

Circling Marx is both a window on to the forces and concerns that have shaped Thesis Eleven over four decades and an intellectual portrait of the singular post-Marxism of one of its leading thinkers. Beilharz emphasises the existence of multiple Marxes but leans towards a Marx who suggests an expanded materialism, a non-Bolshevik Marx, and a Marx of motion, rather than laws. Addressing Marxism and socialism more widely, Beilharz again underscores multiplicity, favouring those thinkers and currents that acknowledged complexity and limits, that staged something of a conversation between Marx and Weber, and that took distance from the teleology, vanguardism, and hubris that has marked parts of the Marxist tradition. Moving into more clearly post-Marxist territory, through important encounters with Heller and Feher, Bauman, Smith, and Castoriadis, Beilharz’s optic prioritises place, cultural traffic, and ambivalence, combining categories of ambitious scope with epistemological and normative circumspection, criticism with world affirmation.

Book review: Idolizing the Idea: A Critical History of Modern Philosophy

Peter Murphy

Book review: Discorrelated Images

Marcus Maloney

Book review: Spectres of Fascism: Historical, Theoretical and International Perspectives

Chamsy el-Ojeili

Notes and Discussion:

A postcolonial/decolonising critique of Zygmunt Bauman: A response to Dawson

Ali Rattansi

Whiteness, Judaism and the challenge of the postcolonial critique: A response to Rattansi

Matt Dawson

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