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The Beautiful Enigma of Radical Democracy

From: Theory & Event
Volume 1, Issue 3, 1997
10.1353/tae.1997.0016

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Alan Keenan

C. Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996)

David Trend, ed., Radical Democracy: Identity, Citizenship and the State (New York: Routledge, 1996)

In the world of the American academic left, "radical democracy" has become an increasingly frequent topic of discussion. But what exactly is radical democracy? Is it the replacement -- whether at the level of terminology or of practice -- for "socialism," as Stanley Aronowitz argues, and as others imply in both of the volumes under review? Is radical democracy the answer to the dead ends of identity politics, as Chantal Mouffe and others suggest? Or is radical democracy just another name for ineffective coalition-style identity politics, as some of its critics contend? Does radical democracy describe an agenda for a post-Welfare State politics of the left, able to reinvigorate the ideals of participation, local control and autonomous public spheres? For better or worse, radical democracy can mean all these different things, which, together with the frequently imprecise and confusing uses to which the term is put, can make it rather difficult to follow current debates over its meaning and usefulness. Yet, despite such frustrations, many of the most interesting debates in contemporary political and social theory find themselves bound up in discussions about radical democracy. And while both books under review ultimately leave one wondering just how helpful a term radical democracy -- as opposed to plain old "democracy"--is, the simple appeal of its theoretical kernal -- the vision of a mode of politics in which the democratic ideals of equality, freedom and popular control are allowed their most complete sway and fullest application -- is powerful enough to make exploring its conceptual limitations well worth the trouble.

A New and Improved New Left?

For Stanley Aronowitz, writing in Radical Democracy: Identity, Citizenship, and the State, "radical democracy is achievable by creating institutions of popular control in which decisions are lodged with those directly affected by them, a realignment of economy and the polity entailing the reintegration of various apsects of life within smaller regional economies and social units" [99]. One of the few concerted efforts in the above mentioned volume of essays to define the particular nature of radically democratic politics, Aronowitz' "Towards Radicalism: The Death and Rebirth of the American Left" argues that the American left's trouble (indeed, their disappearance as an organized public force) is due largely to its abandonment of such a radical vision and its absorption into the political establishment -- in particular, through its association with the regulatory and welfare state. By tying its ideals and projects so closely to the bureaucratic state, the left abandoned its participatory vision (and the popular base such a vision could have mobilized), even as this opened space for the right to pose as the champion of the "local control" and "personal freedom." For Aronowitz, recapturing this ideological ground will require a truly radical vision, with the aim of bringing into being a politics of the broadest possible participation. Such a vision involves seeing, for instance, economic relations (including those of the family) as fully political -- rather than technical -- issues, properly under popular (though not centralized, state) control. Defining radical democracy at one particularly Arendtian moment as "a form of social organization in which each individual possesses the capacity for speech and exercises it," Aronowitz argues that for such a society to be possible, it "must organize itself in such a way that necessary labor is subordinate, both in its significance and in its duration, to free time" [98]. The democratic left, then, needs to be in the business of proposing "a concrete utopia"--e.g., shared work, a guaranteed income, democratized workplaces, ecologically sustainable technologies, and decentralized and egalitarian social services [99]--able to respond effectively to the deep sense of powerlessness that affects citizens of all classes and social strata. Except for a timely critique of the influence on today's social movements and identity politics of the New Left's "populist guilt"--according to which "the duty of the left was to uncritically identify and support those peoples, social groups, and individuals deemed to be the most oppressed" [93]-- Aronowitz' radical democracy looks a lot like the New Left. Much the...


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