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Discipline Course – 1

Semester – 2

Paper: Political Theory: Concepts and Debates

Lesson: Democracy

Lesson Developer: Sukant Vyas

College/Dept: Dyal Singh (Evening) College

University of Delhi


Just like all other terms and concepts in Political Science, there is a lack of consensus
about the meaning of the word „democracy‟. It is, in other words, an inherently
„contested‟ concept. We will witness this contestation in the course of this chapter when
we will study the different emphasis placed by each definition of the word, the varying
elements of democracy, and different theories about democracy.

The Semantics:

The term democracy has its roots in the ancient Greek word „demokratia‟. In this word
„demos‟ means „people‟, and „kratia‟ means „rule, or power‟. If we combine these two
combinations the literal meaning of the word „democracy‟ comes out to be “rule by the

In this literal meaning of the word „democracy‟, the second Greek root word „kratia‟ is
not that much problematic, because in political science we are mainly concerned with
matters of „rule‟ and government. But, even then in this context also, whether a
government or ruler is actually supposed to rule or serve, still remains a debatable
question. Moreover, the Greek root word „demos‟ which means „people‟ is much more
problematic and contested one. One can understand the word „people‟ as signifying
„human beings‟ simply. But would every human being be considered as part of the „rule‟
in all the countries? Of course, it is only the citizens of a country who would be entitled
as part of the „rule‟ within a country. But, again, does this word „people‟ also include
women in itself? Literally speaking, the word „people‟ should signify also the women of a
particular country, because they are also today the citizens of that country. Similarly,
the word includes all the people living within a country, irrespective of their caste, class,
gender, religion, educational qualification, and economic background. Therefore, we
should be clear in our understanding about the word „people‟, that it actually means the
„common people‟. We have to; thus, qualify the etymological meaning of the word
„democracy‟ or „demokratia‟ as implying the „rule of the common people‟.

The Definition:

The contestation about the root words of the term „democracy‟ also extends to its
definiteness. By far, the most popular definition of the word „democracy‟ is attributed to
the President of United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, who in his „Gettysburg
Address‟ coined democracy as a „government of the people, by the people, for the
people‟. Even this famous definition raises similar questions concerning the identity of
the „people‟ and the nature of their „rule‟ and government. Strictly speaking, even today,
a „people‟ normally signifies the „citizens‟ of a nation-state. But in the age of
Globalization, because of the massive movement of „people‟ across continents, it has
become evident that it is very difficult to decide as to who actually constitutes „a people‟?

Let us, therefore, consider some of the other popular definitions of „democracy‟:

 In his book „Democratic Political Theory‟, Ronald J. Pennock defines democracy as

„Government by the people, where liberty, equality and fraternity are secured to
the greatest possible degree and in which human capacities are developed to the
utmost, by means including free and full discussion of common problems and
interests‟ ( 1979:7 ). This definition advanced by Pennock emphasizes about
rights and deliberation for the development of the individual personality as the
cornerstone of democracy. But it somewhere leaves out the procedural aspects of
the functioning of democracy.

 Adam Przeworski in his book „Democracy and the Market‟ describes that
„Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. There are parties, division
of interest, values and opinions. There is competition, organized by rules. And
there are periodic winners and losers‟ (1991:10). This definition purely subscribes
to the procedural aspects of democracy but leaves out other substantive issues.
We will discuss about the procedural aspect of democracy in the later parts of this

 Another definition which covers some of the other important aspects of

democracy has been provided by Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl who
describe that „Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which
rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting
indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected
representatives‟ (1991: 76). This definition focuses on the functional aspect and
determines „accountability‟ as the crux of democracy.

 An almost similar but simple definition has been given by Tatu Vanhanen who
describes democracy as „a political system in which different groups are legally
entitled to compete for power and in which institutional power holders are elected
by the people and are responsible to the people‟ ( 1997:31).

 Albert Weale writes that „ In a democracy important public decisions on questions

of law and policy depend, directly or indirectly, upon public opinion formally
expressed by citizens of the community, the vast bulk of who have equal political
rights‟ (1999:14).

The above mentioned varied definitions clearly indicate difference in emphasis and
perspective. But no single definition can encapsulate all the varying aspects of broad
phenomena like democracy. In order to have a better understanding of democracy
we need to have a detailed discussion of its basic elements.

The essential elements:

In the year 2004, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that
lays out some of the „essential‟ elements of democracy, including:

1) The separation and balance of power,

2) Independence of Judiciary,

3) A pluralist system of political parties and organizations,


4) The rule of law,

5) Accountability and transparency,

6) Free, independent and pluralist media,

7) Respect for human and political rights,

But this delineation of essential elements of democracy does not explicitly mention
one of the most important ingredient of democracy which distinguishes it from the
opposite i.e. dictatorship. This most important element of democracy is „the presence
of a strong opposition‟. The relevance of democracy rests mainly upon this feature
which makes it much more transparent and inclusive form of government. Although
it is one of the earliest feature of democracy, but today it has in its broad
ramifications become a radical aspect of democracy. The presence of a strong
opposition may simply mean the presence of an opposition party which is almost as
stronger as the party or parties in power. Why a strong opposition is necessary for
the functioning of democracy? Why not allow an absolute and unhindered rule of the
majoritarian, successful party? Why should we delay the functioning of government
and make democracy a „slow‟ form of government? Opposition and prolonged
discussions slow down the making of decisions. Why should we sacrifice the time of a
„people‟? Why not have a fast paced decision and policy making system? Is
dictatorship not better than a democracy where there is no opposition at all? This is
the major lacuna of most of the definitions of democracy. They do not clearly indicate
the basic distinguishing element of democracy which not only differentiates it from
dictatorship but also clarifies that democracy means something other than
dictatorship. The „presence of opposition‟ is not restricted to the political arena and is
not only the mainstay of an opposition party. It, today, clearly indicates towards the
most discussed element of good governance also. It is the debate about „freedom of
expression‟ which is essentially linked to the issue of „presence of opposition‟. If any
government today is trying to suppress the freedom of expression, right to protest
etc. Than literally speaking, it is not a democracy at all.

Similarly, in order to constrain and balance political authority, and to protect the
rights of the individuals and the minorities, as well as to ensure the rule of law,
democracy requires that the written law of the land or the „constitution‟ should be
followed and considered as supreme. In other words, it is only through the
constitution that a clear demarcation of separation and balance of powers can be
codified. The constitution should ensure the segregation of power. Democracy
requires that the control of the political state and its decisions should be the
prerogative of civil elected representatives only and the military, specifically, should
be subordinate to the authority of elected representatives. In no way in a democracy,
should the military have any decisive say in the functioning (other than security
measures and some foreign policy issues), or in the formation of the civil democratic
government. The needs of the time are that there should be a clear demarcation of
powers between the civil and military spheres in government.

Moreover, the powers of executive and legislature should not only be constrained
judicially through a constitutional system, but there should be enough provision for
the existence of some separate and autonomous agency which may be able to
monitor, investigate and punish elected and non-elected officials at all levels of

government, so far as the cases of corruption etc. are concerned. Such a

constitutional autonomous body should not only have the almost absolute power to
not only investigate but also to charge even the highest functionary of the
democratic government. This is aligned with the issue of independence of judiciary

One of the essential elements of democracy is the presence of an independent and

non-discriminatory judiciary. Judiciary does not merely uphold the constitution and
the law of the land, but also protects the liberties of individuals and groups.
Moreover, it is essential that the decisions of judiciary should be enforced and
respected by other centres of power.

Democracy also demands a pluralist system of political parties and organizations.

Any group that adheres to the constitutional principles should be allowed to form a
political party and contest elections. Apart from parties and elections the citizens
should also have access to multiple channels of expression and representation for
their interests and values. For this the citizens should have the freedom to form and
join diverse associations and movements. A healthy civil society, therefore, is
essential for the successful running of every democracy.

Under a true rule of law, all citizens should be considered equal both politically and
legally. Even the state and its agents are also subject to rule of law. Rule of law
protects citizens from undue detention, exile etc. It protects the citizens from undue
interference in personal life by the state as well as non-state actors.

Accountability and transparency also uniquely characterize every democracy. It is

mainly through periodic elections that the accountability of the rulers to the ruled is
secured. There should also be some absolute accountability among different organs
of government. Apart from certain crucial security and foreign policy matters the
governance should be totally transparent. This helps to protect constitutionalism and
the deliberative process also.

Democracy requires that the citizens should have unfettered access to multiple
sources of information. This access mainly comes through a system of free,
independent and pluralistic media. Even the citizens should have substantial freedom
of expression, belief, assembly, and demonstration. Deliberative aspect of
democracy, specifically, demands that religious, cultural, ethnic and minority groups
should be provided the freedom to express their interests. They should also be free
to speak their native language and to practise their cultural norms and values.

This brief discussion about some elements of democracy would always remain
incomplete because of two reasons. First of all, the elements of democracy have
emerged in various sequences and degrees and at different paces in countries.
Secondly, the list still keeps on attaching some new elements of democracy
depending on different contexts and time. Also, with regard to each theory and
ideology of political science „different‟ emphasis might be attached to essential
elements of democracy. Some radical thinkers, both Marxist and non-Marxist, may
put emphasis on entirely some other set of essential elements altogether. Therefore,
one of the better ways to understand democracy would be to have a look at the
different theories of democracy.

Procedural Democracy

The Semantics:

Procedure can be defined as a process or system for accomplishing something. It

signifies a particular course of action. Procedure and process are not synonymous. A
process may be defined as a series of actions to achieve an end or aim. But
procedure is to be considered as a series of actions which are conducted in a certain
manner or in an established way of doing or achieving something. Procedure implies
action, course, operation or modus operandi. It emphasizes a routine or a strategy,
or a game plan. The result or the end or aim is of course important, but much more
important is the way of transaction. Simply speaking, it basically focuses on the
method of doing something. It is like a set of guidelines that one would follow in
order to complete a task. Most often a procedure lists some details that are to be
followed to achieve an end. The formation of these details is a highly scientific task
which is carried on by experts who provide step-by-step explanation of conducting a

Similarly in a procedural democracy, it is the series of actions, the method, the

modus operandi, which is the centre of attention. How to explain about the procedure
which best results into a democracy? Of course, it is through a detailed description of
„law‟ which has to be followed in order to achieve the objective. This form of
democracy, therefore, eulogizes about the procedure established by law. That, if this
procedure is followed, the automatically result would be a perfect democracy.
Through law, through the constitution, details are prescribed as to how to bring
about and maintain a democracy.

This understanding of democracy posits that for a society to be considered

democratic, it should be governed by a particular set of procedures, which derive
from some specific ingredient, which are:

1) Free and fair elections are the hallmark of democracy. Procedural democracy
is mainly characterised by citizens choosing to elect their representatives in
free elections. It assumes that a fair electoral procedure is the core of
democracy. Therefore all procedures of election, as established by law, should
be duly complied with. There should also be enough provision for
governmental, as well as independent bodies or organizations, to ensure
compliance of due procedure of elections.

2) Procedural democracy focuses on the competition of political parties in an

electoral system. Ensurity of free and fair competition among parties is
necessary for the functioning of democracy. Law and the constitution should
clearly prescribe rules and guidelines for political parties to follow the due
procedure of elections. It is mainly through political parties that the
representative government of the people is established. Political parties
control the legislature and bring out policies and new laws and run the
government. Therefore free and fair competition among parties should be
ensured by providing clear-cut procedural guidelines to political parties by
way of law.

3) Another basic ingredient of procedural democracy is „universal suffrage‟ which

indicates the right to vote by all adult citizens of a country. In other words

universal suffrage or universal adult franchise implies the right of all adult
citizens to vote without any discrimination of caste, creed, gender, colour,
race, educational qualification, and economic status. Procedural or otherwise,
democracy hinges upon the idea of one-person/one-vote political equality. It
indicates that the right to participate in the voting process should be available
to all the adult citizens of a country.

4) Another important ingredient of the procedural aspect of democracy is

neutrality or procedural fairness. Principle of neutrality in procedural
democracy implies that the state and government should provide a neutral
framework of rights and the citizens should be free to choose their own values
and ends. The latent idea is that the government should not enforce, through
its policies and laws, any particular conception of good life. That means
governance should be devoid of any hard ideological inclination, other than
that of benefit to citizens. Political ideologies should not particularly guide any
democracy. Democracy in itself is „the‟ ideology. Procedural fairness requires
that the government should be totally secular. It should not be partial and
should not be allied with or committed to a particular party viewpoint. It
should recognize and respect the belief or practices of all groups in a society.
It should be totally detached or non-partisan so far as the conceptions of good
life are concerned. The procedural finiteness would itself lead to the ultimate
democratic goodness of life of citizens.

5) According to procedural theory of democracy one of the key characteristic of a

democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government.
Responsiveness is synonymous with liability, answerability and responsibility.
The government officials are responsible to ensure procedural effectiveness.
They are responsible to take care of the procedures. Responsiveness is an
obligation to carry forward an assigned task to a successful conclusion,
according to procedures set by law of the land. Procedural democracy,
therefore, is a form of government that emphasizes the procedures that
enable the people to govern or how decisions are made.

The emergence of a procedural definition of democracy can be traced back to the

writings of Joseph Schumpeter. In his book „Capitalism, socialism and democracy‟
(1942), Schumpeter replaced the classical definitions of democracy which
depicted it as „the rule of the people‟ or „rule of the common good‟. Instead he
provided a notion of the democratic method. For Schumpeter the democratic
method is a type of institutional arrangement by way of which political decisions
can be arrived. For Schumpeter, through this method individuals acquire the
power to decide and make policies. This is accomplished by way of a competitive
struggle for the votes of people.

Procedural democracy clearly encapsulates the minimalist conception of

democracy. It only recognizes a minimum level of freedom of assembly, speech,
organization and press. It does not incorporate them as the determiner or actual
measures of democracy.

Another, major book „Democracy and Development‟ written by Adam Przeworski

et al, states that „„democracy‟ is a regime in which those who govern are selected
through contested elections‟ (2000:15). This book provides a classification of
democracies and dictatorships covering all countries in the world between the
years 1946 to 1999. For Przeworski and his colleagues, democracy is simply a
system in which government offices are filled as a consequence of contest in
elections. They only recognize the presence of institutional framework as
sufficient. Thus, for them, in order to be a democracy there should be an elected
executive and an elected legislature, and in elections at least two or more parties
should compete.

Procedural theory seems to give credence to the anti-democratic logic of the

„elitist theory of democracy‟. The elitist theory eulogizes the argument in favour
of limited political participation and limited franchise. For it, democracy means
freedom for competition among elite groups only. Elites control and use the
government for their benefit and are not accountable to the masses.

The elitist theory advocates minimum accountability through periodic elections.

Thinkers like Vilfredo Pareto have described that the elites win power because of
courage and cleverness. Gaetano Mosca elucidates how elites are more united
than the masses and therefore they govern. Robert Michels propounded „the iron
law of oligarchy‟, that power in all organizations tends to get centralized in few
hands only. Schumpeter and Sartori declare that the role of common masses is
limited only to choose from among different elites. C. Wright Mills identified that
political, economic and military power groups are the real power wielding body in
the United States. G. William Domhoff asserts that the elite class which owns and
manages banks and corporations dominate the American power structure. Others
like Robert D. Putman, George A. Gonzales, James Burnham and Thomas R. Dye
have also highlighted that elitism is the basic governing structure in different
dimensions in various societies.

Such aristocratic delineations of the elitist theory have been refuted by the
advocates of „pluralist‟ theory of democracy like Karl Mannheim, Raymond Aron,
A.F.Bentley, David Truman and Robert Dahl etc. These pluralist thinkers describe
that the policy-making process is a highly decentralized process of bargaining
among relatively autonomous „groups‟. They repudiate the claim of elitist theory
of democracy that policy making is not the will of an „elite‟ or chosen few. It is an
outcome of the interaction of all groups who make claims upon particular issues.
But the pluralist theory also projects that various pressure groups compete for
political influence and politics is biased towards the corporate power. Because of
the uneven distribution of socio-economic power it is only a few groups that have
edge over the others.

The essential focus of these theories is on the mere procedural aspect of

democracy whether it is through elites or groups competing in the mere process
of selecting the incumbents through electoral process or in the contest of policy
making. Both fail to divert their attention from the procedural framework.

The procedural conception of democracy therefore leads to the „fallacy of

electoralism‟. It privileges elections over other dimensions of democracy. It fails
to focus its attention on the outcome of the procedure. Procedural conception of

democracy treats not only the people but democracy itself as a means or
instrument for the formation of a government.

Deliberative Democracy

The Semantics:

Deliberation is a method of thinking on problems together and finding solutions

through discussion. It is an approach of decision making in which conscious
citizens consider facts from various points of view. They converse with one other
to think critically about options before them and in the process they are also able
to enlarge their perspectives and understanding. Deliberation thus has great
educative value. It does not consider the participants as unequal and views that
every person has the equal capacity for deliberation. Deliberation tends to fortify
democracy. It is the true spirit of democracy as it centres on one of the most
determining elements of democracy i.e. freedom of speech and expression.

In a deliberative democracy the attention shifts from mere voting to the primary
source of legitimacy. Public deliberation has many benefits for the society; it
provides legitimacy to the system. It results in better policies, furthers public
education, increases public trust and tends to reduce conflict.

In order for a democratic decision to be legitimate, it must be preceded by

authentic discussion, and not merely the aggregation of preferences that occur in
voting process. Its basic proposition is that in politics it is not only power that
counts but healthy discussion and arguments too. It can be practised both in
representative and direct democracies. In its elitist form principles of deliberation
apply to elite decision making bodies only such as the legislature and courts. But
in its populist form deliberation applies to citizen groups who in a democracy are
empowered to make true decisions. The democratic element applies only when
through deliberation decisions are made by the people or by their elected

The Athenian democracy of Greek period is considered as the earliest example of

such democracy. It was both deliberative and direct; decisions were made directly
by the people after prolonged deliberation. But in the modern period direct
democracy is not possible in largely populated societies. But the spirit of
deliberation can still and should guide democracies.

The term „deliberative democracy‟ was coined by Joseph M.Bessette, the title of
whose book is „Deliberative Democracy: The majority principle in Republican
Government‟ (1980). But it was only in 1990s that this term began to attract the
attention of political theorists. Some of the contemporary contributors to the
notion of deliberative democracy are – Jon Elster, Jurgen Habermas, David Held,
Amy Gutman, Joshua Cohen, John Dryzek, James S. Fishkin and Seyla Benhabib.

Supporters of deliberative democracy reject the theories of democracy which base

politics on power or interest and aggregation of preferences. At the core of this
conception is the „reason-giving‟ requirement (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004:3).
Jon Elster also emphasizes that deliberation is about argument, in fact arguments

addressed to people committed to rationality and impartiality (1998:8). Citizens

and their representatives are supposed to give reasons for their claims by
responding to the reason of other‟s in return. Deliberative democracy stresses
political talk rather than merely voting, debate rather than choice. It challenges
the earlier notions of accountability. Instead of formal electoral accountability, it
emphasizes periodic giving of explanations or reasons to those who are subject to
decisions. In other words, it emphasizes on the transparency of governance.

Supporters of deliberative democracy challenge the validity and desirability of

notions like – interest aggregation, economic utility, methodological individualism
and the premises of rational choice or collective choice or public choice and game
theories. They aspire about a democracy where citizens may come together and
participate in public deliberations and discussions. Civic engagement and open
discussion help create a public space where business common to all citizens may
be conducted. They emphasize ideas such as common good, virtue, common
action and political education. One major argument for deliberation is that it helps
us in discovering the truth. That is why Bernard Manin had written in his book
„The Principles of Representative Government‟ that debate discovers truth, hence
the best way to make laws is through a body that can debate, such as a
legislature or parliament (1997:185).

Theory of Deliberative democracy is basically a normative theory. It claims to be

a better way of dealing with pluralism. Its basic intent is to bring out the issue of
accountability. It replaces the voting-centric viewpoint with a talk-centric way of
governing in a democracy. It focuses on the communicative process of opinion
making that may precede voting.

Instead of making consent as the conceptual core of democracy, deliberative

democracy brings in the issue of legitimacy which is based upon accountability of
the government. The legitimacy of a political order comes up when it can be
justified to all those who live under its laws. Accountability implies giving an
account of something. Issue of accountability comes up when there is
articulation, explanation and justification of public policy by the government. By
giving more respect to reasoning rather than opinion and rhetoric, in deliberative
democracy there is a greater chance of much widely shared consensus to
emerge. It comes out to be less biased and promotes sympathy with the
opposing views.

But in a deliberation the most skilled in rhetoric may sway the decision in their
favour. Deliberation is a somewhat difficult and rare form of communication.
Russell Harding in his chapter on „Deliberative Democracy‟ argues that
deliberation on a society wide large scale is neither feasible nor desirable. He
thinks the people have little incentive to engage in sophisticated deliberation as
envisaged by the deliberative democracy thinkers. Therefore large scale
discussions and deliberation on issues concerning the wide array of public
concerns is not likely to come up. (2009:213-246).

Deliberation may not always produce reasoned discussion but rather group-think
and narrow-mindedness. Therefore, in order to have better deliberation, some
good institutional design must be present. Moreover, some aspects of state and
governance may not be open for public deliberation e.g. matters related with

issues of national security and defence policy, foreign policy and sensitive issues
of minority cultures and values.

Participatory theory of Democracy

The central assertion of participatory theory is that individuals and institutions

cannot be considered as separate from one another. Carole Pateman suggests
that the representative institutions as they exist today are not sufficient for
democracy (2003:41). Participation has great educative value, nevertheless. It
develops the qualities and skills necessary for democratic governance. It has an
integrative effect and it helps in the wider acceptance of collective decisions.

Participatory society is necessary for existence of democratic polity. It requires

democratization of the political systems so that socialization through meaningful
participation can take place in all areas of political life. The authority structures
must be organized in such a way that citizens can participate in decision making.
For participatory theory the realm of the „political‟ is not confined to only the
national government sphere. It talks about political equality in a broader sense.
Political equality means the equality of power in determining the outcome of
policies and decisions.

Participatory theorists indicate that many representative democracies today face

serious problems of legitimacy. Because of the non-participatory nature of
democracies there is inadequate political understanding among the electorate,
problems of low voter turnout abound, and increasing numbers of violations of
accountability by government officials have become the order of the day not to
mention the routine eruption of cases of corruption.

Participatory theorists very often mention about the rich political life of citizens of
direct Greek Athenian democracy. Compared to the ancient Greek democracy the
contemporary democracies offer very limited opportunities for citizen
participation. That is why they recommend restructuring of contemporary
democratic life so that apart from sparse indirect participation at the time of
elections for representatives, there should be some avenues for participating
directly in politics. Although the participatory theorists do not indicate that we can
return to the Greek times but regular participation of maximum number of
populace is, for them, the requirement of the day.

Benjamin Barber argues that if citizens are given greater opportunities to voice
their political views they would themselves make collective decisions that they
now delegate to their representatives. (1984:40). Participatory democracy
thinkers hold the hope that giving citizens opportunities to participate directly in
political decision making will result in their better understanding and interest in
politics. They maintain that if given the choice citizens will begin to participate in
politics instead of pursuing only their private pleasures.

Some arguments of participatory theorists remind the ideas of Jean-Jacques

Rousseau. One is their basic premise that political participation is a central part of
the good life from human beings. Secondly, widespread participation is necessary

to prevent the abuse of power by government officials. Participation, thus, is a

necessary means to a good life as well as an essential part of good life.

Carole Pateman (2003:43-46) also uses the works of Rousseau, John Stuart Mill
and G.D.H.Cole to outline a participatory theory of democracy. Rousseau had
described that institutional structures have an impact on individuals. Primarily
being a feminist thinker, Pateman (1988) describes that the social contract is also
premised upon an unspoken sexual contract. The sexual contract asserts the
difference between private and public sphere. This is no longer politically relevant
and is built upon the idea of natural subordination of women. That is why
patriarchy exists even today. On this basis Pateman criticizes the present
democratic institutions, discourses and even capitalism.

For Pateman (1970), the shortcomings of today‟s democracies are numerous.

First of all, there are very few arenas for citizen participation. Secondly, issues of
class and gender influence the attitudes concerning participation and
empowerment. Third, there exist many contradictions between notions of formal
equality enshrined into law and the deep factual inequality faced by women and
lower classes. Echoing the „radical‟ understanding of democracy, Pateman asks
for drastic changes in the present institutional structures of democracy, including
democratization of everyday life. Such democratization involves radical changes
in gender relations, domestic labour and national distribution of power and policy-

Another participatory theory in the radical framework is that of Jacques Ranciere.

He also asks for re-conceptualization of the „political (1999). The radical theory of
Ranciere harbours a strong appreciation for the importance of participation. It
identifies participation through various forms of activism and protest that are
totally excluded in other accounts of democracy. For him, politics comes up if a
group that has been otherwise excluded asserts its equality or when the so-called
natural order of domination is interrupted by those who have so far been
excluded from participation (1999:40-41).

Radical theory of Democracy

The Semantics:

The term „radical‟ is derived from the Latin word „radix‟, which means „root‟. It is
indicative of a person who wishes to take his/her political ideas to its roots.
Radical also implies a change or an action which affects the fundamental nature
of something and is far-reaching and thorough. It is characterised by its
departure from tradition and is innovative and progressive. The radical will tend
to be hostile to the status quo. But it would be mistake to think that a radical
must be on the „left‟, or pertains to Marxist notion only, it can also be
characteristic of the „right‟. It intends to challenge the established views in any
field of human endeavour. As a thought it tends to concentrate on the
fundamental aspect of a matter and wants to change the reality according to it. It
favours extreme or ask for fundamental changes in political, social, economic
institutions and conditions. Accordingly, most of the contemporary parties and
groups which are aligned with Marxism, feminism, ecological issues or green

politics, anti-capitalism, anarchism anti-globalization, subaltern politics, identity

politics, minorities - ethnic, racial, caste and language based, even white
supremacists, skinheads, fascists, Nazis, terrorists etc. are often depicted as

Radical theory of democracy has been propounded by many contemporary

political thinkers. These thinkers include Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Judith
Butler, William Connolly, Jaques Ranciere, Claude Lefort, Sheldon Wolin, Michael
Hardt, Antonio Negri and Giorgio Agamben.

Radical theory of democracy tends to remind us about the roots or the essential
features of democracy. It also 'problematizes' some concepts like consensus and
participation. It is a state of political being. It is not a kind of government in
itself; rather it is an end of government. It comes into being when citizens begin
to realize that they also have values, beliefs and the skills to govern themselves.
It advocates widespread individual awakening consistent with commitment to
community, cooperation, mutuality and inclusion. It is a form of politics that
recognizes diversity and invokes participation from a variety of social spaces. It
basically asks for the expansion of political participation in a meaningful way. It
encourages constant proliferation and involvement of new communities, identities
and voices. In other words, it reminds us about the ongoing and unending
process of democratization.

Some of the important insights of radical democratic thinkers can be delineated

under the following headings:

Perpetuity of contest and ‘agonism’: Radical theory of democracy not only points
towards but also encourages and provokes contestation, disagreement and points
towards differences. It considers disagreement as a necessary part of democratic
process. Differences cannot be resolved through discourse of formal discussion
only. Simply speaking, total consensus is a misnomer. Democratic attitude
implies respect for „differences‟. Trying to do away with differences is
undemocratic. Radical theory of democracy does not seek to deter the differences
of opinion or to create absolute consensus and points towards perpetuity of
contests in public life.

„Agon‟ is a Greek word which refers to an athletic contest which does not merely
aim towards victory or defeat, but emphasizes the importance of the struggle
itself. It recognizes that a contest or struggle cannot exist without the opponent.
Consequently an agnostic discourse is not merely to be identified by a conflict of
opinions but also by mutual admiration about different viewpoints.

Different viewpoints, disagreements and contestation are a necessary part of

contemporary life. Any attempt to subdue them and to arrive at complete
consensus is the major drawback of democratic regimes today. Democracy today
has become a contest between the majoritarian and minority voices.

Identity formation and marginal democratic politics: Radical theory of democracy

maintains that politics is a space in which identity takes place. Politics is also the
mechanism through which identities are formed. Majoritarian intent of democracy
jeopardizes the marginalized. This simply leads to injustice towards the members
of certain socio-political groups.

Identity politics is basically concerned with the attempts of marginalized groups

to create a community based on cultural, social or ethnic features. It includes the
efforts of caste based groups, indigenous people, homosexual and lesbians, and
people of colour to get recognized. Marginalization is the central notion of identity
formation and politics. It appeals to a distinctive identity of its own which
differentiates it from the „mainstream‟. Marginality describes how certain forms of
experience are taken as peripheral. It is the by-product of patriarch, imperialism
and ethnocentrism. The „marginal‟ depicts a position which is best defined in
terms of the limitations of a subject‟s access to power.

Marginalization or social exclusion refers to processes in which individuals and

groups are systematically denied opportunities, resources, and rights. It leads to
struggles for recognition of an identity. Because of exclusion the affected
individuals and groups are prevented from participating fully in socio-political life.
Radical theory of democracy, therefore, recognizes the importance of the
demands of the „excluded‟ for inclusion in the political-democratic sphere. It is an
attempt to include the aspirations of various minorities into the democratic

Radical democratic Reforms: Even though the radical theory of democracy cannot
be reduced to the Marxian conception, there are some similarities between the
two. Marx‟s critique of liberal democracy aimed at clarifying that in capitalist
society the bourgeoisie is ruling supreme whatever representative institutions and
democratic rights may be there. What Marx criticized was the lack of real
democracy, what he pushed for was more democracy, radicalization of the
democratic demands of the proletariat revolution leading to the overthrow of the
dominance of capitalist –class society itself.

Radical theory of democracy does share and largely accept the Marxian critique of
liberal-capitalist institutions. But it does not talk about thorough-going or total
socio-political change. It does not accept the Marxian notion of revolution. In fact
its perspective is not limited to only one major class of society, i.e. working class.
It does talk about poverty, destitution, exploitation and disempowerment, but its
concern is towards a number of categories of people and issues. It is against
status-quo but it advocates a reform based politics. Socio-political reforms
suggested by this theory are of course very broad-based which demand complete
overhaul of the system, but nevertheless, radical democratic theory shuns the
word „revolution‟.

The Civil Society of Social Movements and Contention: Radical democracy

thinkers highlight the increasing and positive role of new social movements in
contemporary civil society. Democracies channel contention through civil society
and social movements. Social movements basically thrive only in democracies.
They benefit from the democratic right to speech and expression, right to
assemble peacefully and the right to associate. With the expansion of
democratization the frequency of public and collective claim making or contention
increases. Radical democracy takes disagreements as an inherent part of
democratic process. Democracy facilitates the expansion of new voices and new
identities. That is why contention is not bad. But contentious politics which
reflects through revolution, civil wars and violent inter-group competition is not
advocated by the radical theory of democracy. According to this theory the

various social movements that come up sporadically in different democracies are

an indication of good health, even if a minority of citizens participate directly in

The civil society of social movements is expanding the conception of the „political‟.
It is bringing in the hitherto neglected groups of people into the political arena.
Radicals indicate that people are getting disenchanted with political parties also.
That is why anti-party or anti-politics sentiments are rising and the membership
of political parties is also decreasing. Although it is doubtful whether this trend is
good for the health of democracies or not, but the articulation of equality based
demands by the neglected sections of society needs to be recognized. The
„political‟ has to imbibe the minority voices.

Counter-hegemony of democratization and equalization: Radical democratic

theory postulates that the existing hegemonic power relations are totally
undemocratic. Hegemony has also become the intransigent power of the
dominant classes to envisage their interests as „the‟ interest of all. The majority in
democracies dominate. The less powerful and especially the minorities have been
subjected to suppression. Radical democracy advocates that this is now the time
to let go free the issues and demands of the minorities. There is a need for
counter-hegemonic politics. And it is occurring already, the people who have been
subjected to suppression are expressing their voices albeit in different non-violent
as well as violent forms. Unless and until democracies listen to their criticisms
and oppositions in a peaceful manner, there is a danger of them becoming violent
because the realization of counter-hegemony seems to have dawned upon
people. On the other hand of the spectrum, the „realists‟ point towards, thus, the
increasing proliferation of police-state today. Increasingly the so-called
democratic governments today are resorting to very drastic and anti-human right
policies and laws to subdue such democratic movements. Military and police are
called in, stringent laws and acts are declared, and what not, to suppress the
emerging voices. This is not democracy. Radical democracy tends to correct this

Most often it is economic and corporate interests that are subduing the voices of
the downtrodden groups. Various types of capitalist interests have had
subjugated the interests of the local people. Not only environmental and
ecological concerns but also moral and ethical issues are now the major concerns
of radical struggles in many countries. The lust for power and money has created
beasts out of humans. Corruption, violence, exploitation etc. characterize many of
the so-called democracies today. Radical democracy advocates and supports the
counter-hegemony small-politics against all this. It indicates that protests by
common citizens are already being witnessed all over the world. Feminist
movements, green politics, subaltern concerns, anti-corruption movements etc.
are becoming the main part of everyday life, and also the major cause of
government change, in many a democracies. Radical thinkers of democracy, thus,
do not only advocate but also simply point towards the new radical upsurges
taking place all over the world. The time has come to listen to them and to
incorporate their real democratic feelings into the mainstream.

However, in actual practice, even the most institutionalized democracies in the

world today are afflicted with issues related with unequal access to power,

favouritism, corruption, cynicism and voter‟s apathy. The different theories of

democracy have still not adequately addressed these real grass root issues. They
only advocate mechanisms to solve these daunting issues without going deeply
into the real cause of these so-called afflictions. That is why we find that even
democracy today is in crisis and seems to be deviating away from its most
essential determining features. That is why; Robert Dahl used the term
„polyarchy‟ instead to characterize the limited forms of democracy that we
witness today.

In fact, democracy should be taken as a developmental phenomenon. There is,

and has never been, a „perfect‟ democracy anywhere in the world till date. The
elements of democracy appear in varying sequences and degrees, and paces in
different countries. Any theory of democracy has to keep pace with these
changing issues of the times. The only solace, nevertheless, is that still till date
democracy is the only form of political system where widespread liberty exists,
where citizens have choices to select alternative governments, and where the
voice of disadvantaged groups is getting heard.


Dr. Sukant Vyas

Associate Professor

Department of Political Science

Dyal Singh (Evening) College

Lodi Road

New Delhi.

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