Unpolitical Democracy – Undemocratic Politics


By Christos Mantoudis

3 Models of Unpolitical Democracy

The desire of policy makers and interest groups to reach the best possible policy outcomes has increased the significance of expert knowledge in contemporary politics. Political institutions across the world rely more and more on technocratic expertise, substituting individual and collective subjective opinions with the arguably apolitical objective knowledge of episteme. Indeed, the increasing complexity of politics in the era of global capitalism requires policy solutions that go beyond the average knowledge of politicians and citizens. Transnational institutions such as the EU, for instance, are highly dependent on the advice of scientific agencies. Nevertheless, technocracy has been heavily criticized for dominating the political realm, leading to an epistemic rather than popular rule (Mouffe, 2005). New models of deliberative democracy, though, promise to reconcile the hegemony of expert rule and suggest a harmonization of public deliberation and epistemic involvement, in what is termed as depoliticization of democracy (Urbinati, 2014). However, the claim that democracy can effectively be depoliticized has been often challenged by theorists and political thinkers.

Drawing from the work of Cornelius Castoriadis, this paper argues that democracy is inherently political and any attempt to depoliticize it by relying on expert knowledge strips democracy of its radical potential, which is no other than the possibility of change. Special emphasis will be given in the different conceptualization of knowledge in the liberal and the radical democratic political tradition. The first section of this text will present three theories of unpolitical democracy through the work of Urbinati.

Three Models of Unpolitical Democracy

All three theories of unpolitical democracy (epistemic, negative power judgment and republic of reason) share common theoretical grounds, building upon the concept of deliberative democracy. The goal is on the one hand to empower citizen engagement by fostering deliberative procedures as legitimate means for reaching political outcomes, substituting traditional parliamentary means (Urbinati, 2014). On the other hand, through the assistance of expert knowledge which is seen as subjective, unbiased and unpolitical, citizens will wield new skills necessary for their political education. Unpolitical democracy theorists realize that politics has become a complex process where highly technical knowledge is often required. Citizens do not have the means or the time to reach such levels, therefore they need to be assisted by technocrats (Pettit, 2002). Overall, there is very little faith in the capabilities of individual citizens to act rationally. Therefore, the post French Revolution attack on democracy is prevalent in all theories of undemocratic politics (Urbinati, 2014).  Another basic premise according to Urbinati, is that political party discourse contaminates public discourse and leads to sub-optimal outcomes, as parties employ manipulative, vote-seeking rhetoric. One could argue that unpolitical democracy attempts to rid citizens from the patronage of political representatives and parties and empower them through the assistance and the education that comes with their exposure to highly specialized expert knowledge. In other words, we witness a shift from the input to the output side of democracy, where citizens participation equals to active judgment of decisions designed rationally by experts and non-political bodies. Based on that reasoning democratic legitimacy is drawn from procedural quality.

The first model of unpolitical democracy is the epistemic approach. According to this theory, good procedures lead to the truth, which is the ultimate goal of politics. The objective according to Estund (2008), is to reach correct decisions for the public good. What truly matters is the outcome and not the procedure. Citizens should in full transparency be able to deliberate and decide on a given agenda designed by experts. Deliberation is accompanied by collective decisions, taken within a range of equally correct options according to values of reciprocity and altruism. For Estund epistemic democracy is beneficial for citizens in two ways. First of all, it educates citizens morally, as they learn to make decisions collectively, with respect to tolerance, autonomy and individual freedom. Secondly, democratic proceduralism and deliberation expose participants to superior epistemic knowledge and adds to the individual intellectual growth.

Similarly, Negative Power Judgment (NPJ) theory is committed to procedural transparency and fairness. NPJ envisions democratic politics and citizen participation as a tribunal where citizens assume the role of judges (Rosanvallon, 2008). The goal is to enforce public control on political decisions, by increasing transparency as well as checks and balances. Here bureaucracy and technocracy are equally important in facilitating political dialogue over policy outcomes, install legal avenues and procedures allowing for citizens to tackle decisions and hold politicians accountable. For Rosanvallon NPJ is enhancing democratic politics because it establishes direct citizen supervision of politics, as citizens have all the technical assistance and knowledge they need to judge both policies and politicians.

The last model on unpolitical democracy is the Republic of Reason (ROR). Leading theorist of ROR is Pettit (2002), who claims that democracy needs to be depoliticized if deliberation is supposed to dominate public life. Individual passions are to be restrained because they lead politics to sub-optimal outcomes. Instead, democracy should be seeking the for the common good and not be government by electoral outcomes. Governments must aim in producing high quality policies, advised by experts and not politicians. Parliamentary politics should be minimized to a yes or no vote by predetermined policies and citizens are ought to interact with politics through legal avenues which will effectively allow them to assume the role of judge. ROR and NPJ share the same vision of a citizen who like in a tribunal judges on good or bad decisions. To better understand the theoretical basis of unpolitical democracy, the following section will briefly look into the way liberal tradition envisions democracy, education and the citizen.

Education Through Democracy

Unpolitical democracy recognizes the need of a well-informed demos in reaching the desirable political outcomes. In a sense, those theories develop on the classical liberal tradition of education through democracy (Estlund, 2008). Liberal philosophy emphasizes the importance of a well-educated citizenry and elevates it as a priority of the liberal democratic construct. Rawls (1993) for instance, argues that values of reciprocity, critical rationality, conflict resolution and fairness can only be cultivated through democratic procedures. These values are essential for humans to peacefully and harmoniously coexist in a complex and highly interdependent world. Citizens should possess all the skills to effectively judge upon political decisions as well as vote for the most capable to better represent their interests. However, liberal democratic theory envisions a consensus-seeking demos, focused on the output side of democracy and less as an active bearer of political change (Mouffe, 2005). The objective of liberal democracy is not political change, but rather the preservation of the status quo and its protection from popular sovereignty. In fear of destabilization liberal democracy had always been hesitant in giving more competences to the individual and the demos (Castoriadis, 1987). For Rawls, individual autonomy is the ability of the subject to independently pursue his/her interests in the public realm uninterrupted from societal constraints. Democracy, therefore, is a way of peacefully compromising individual preferences and for that citizens need to be educated through active participation.

Largely inspired by the liberal democratic narrative, unpolitical democratic theories see democracy as a process of controlled change. Despite its emphasis on deliberative democratic practices, proceduralists seeks to maintain the status quo by captivating the political agenda. Collective action does not generate political change but rather resembles a legitimizing factor for decisions taken by the truth-bearers (experts) who belong to an a-political realm. Nevertheless, the unpolitical nature of scientific knowledge is highly questionable. In many cases technocratic involvement to politics was far from emancipatory for citizens. The study of Eyal et.a. (1998) describes the brutal ideological shift imposed on the post-communist world by the technocratic neoliberal governments, installed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Committed to the ordoliberal doctrine of economic growth, political elites assisted by experts, implemented policies antithetical to the collective memory and political practices of Eastern European peoples. Expert knowledge became the vehicle for the implementation of neoliberal policies, minimizing the pro-welfare culture in the name of economic growth and competitiveness. People had to internalize a way of life characterized by permanent austerity and adaptation to conditions of economic shocks, deliberately employed by governments and experts.

In sum, the argument of an unpolitical intellectual elite has been empirically (and philosophically) falsified in several historical circumstances. Knowledge under those circumstances seems to become more paternalistic and less emancipatory. The next and final section will emphasize on the political aspect of democracy, as a necessary condition for radical social change.

Repoliticizing Democracy

As previously discussed, unpolitical expert driven democracy is hostile to the unpredictable change that comes with democratic politics. For Urbinati expertocracy is impatient with the diarchic nature of democracy (will, opinion) as it violates individual doxa. Despite the egalitarian elements one can observe in these theories, in reality they fail to materialize the main strength of democracy, which according to Castoriadis (1991), is change as creation. Castoriadis envisioned democracy as mode of rule inherently political that allows for the realization of collective imaginaries. Democracy in other words is the vehicle for individuals and societies to actively criticize and interact with social reality, uninterrupted by any kind of superior authority. Indeed, the philosopher admits that politics requires a set of skills that are not to be found in the kind of professional education people receive in modern societies (Castoriadis, 1987). His position regarding the value of knowledge in the political realm, what he terms paideia, is as important as it is for unpolitical democracy thinkers. The difference lies in the objective of knowledge. While unpolitical democracy seeks to cultivate knowledge for better judgments, Castoriadian paideia is concerned with a set of reflective and creative skills that allows individuals to autonomously articulate their own political solutions to public issues. The technocratic concept of knowledge ideally enhances the intellectual abilities of a passive political subject, unlike paideia which empowers individuals to critically assess collective utopias and ethically self-identify within the realm of social imaginaries.

Therefore, social institutions such as school, family, customs should employ a kind of knowledge aiming in the harmonization of the individual with the social world, but more importantly be open to criticism which will in turn allow for their substitution with new institutions through democratic politics.

Castoriadis perceives societies and individuals as the main political actors. In contrast to the liberal democratic individualistic nature of the subject who acts separately from social institutions, the philosopher sees no ontological dichotomy between the two.

Individuals and societies autonomously coordinate political life, by continuously reorganizing institutional structures. Individuals are both socially instituted and instituting actors, engaged in a creative process of confrontation for the actualization of collective imaginaries. It is no accident that Castoriadis uses plural when referring to imaginaries and ways of organizing the social world. What becomes obvious in unpolitical democratic theories is that politics should be looking for correct answers and the truth. However, in politics there is not one correct answer (Urbinati, 2014). In sum, there are multiple ways of framing, expressing social reality as well as responding to public issues. For Urbinati unpolitical democrats want to minimize the possibility of errors, which could potentially threaten the liberal institutional framework. Both Urbinati and Castoriadis argue that uncertainty is inherent in politics, nevertheless errors and sub-optimal outcomes can be educating for political actors. Democracy can and should be seen as a process or trial and error facilitating organic change.

— Castoriadis, Cornelius (1991). Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, trans. David Ames Curtis. New York: Oxford UP.
— Castoriadis, Cornelius (1987). The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press.
— Estlund, D. (2008). Democratic authority: A philosophical framework. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
— Eyal, Szelényi, Townsley (1998). The Ideology of the Posy-Communist Power Elite, In: Making Capitalism without Capitalists: The New Ruling Elites in Eastern Europe. London: Verso, 86-112.
— Mouffe, Chantal (2005). The Return of the Political. London: Verso.
— Pettit, Philip (2002). Republicanism: A theory of freedom and government. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
— Rawls, John (1993). Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press.
— Rosanvallon, Pierre (2008). Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
— Urbinati, Nadia (2014). Democracy Disfigured. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

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