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The Good Society 11.2 (2002) 65-69

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Ian Shapiro's Democratic Justice

Democratic Justice "All the Way Down"

Nancy L. Rosenblum

Collective life is not reducible to power relations, but power relations suffuse virtually every human interaction. The view that domination is the principal source of injustice, and that the experience of injustice is most often one of arbitrary domination, guides Ian Shapiro's work. A "democratic way of doing things" is the best if imperfect protection.

This starting point sets Shapiro's work apart. His concern about political participation is guided less by a regulative norm of political equality or an articulated theory of just outcomes than by anti-domination. Also distinctive is his focus on correctives, on responses to "power management failures." This is Shapiro at his best, insisting that "those who fight for democracy often define their goals reactively. Sure as they are about the fine details of what they are against, they are less clear about the texture of what they hope to create." He directs this advice to political theorists. Political theory should not restrict itself to the conceivable and aspirational; it is a source of "creative pragmatism." It can avoid the "whiff of irrelevance" given off by ideal theory. It can justify not only principles but also institutional "re-design."

So Shapiro's approach stands in contrast to theories of the common good that justify democracy in terms of just outcomes, and to deliberative democratic theories in which mutually acceptable reasons and the possibility of consensus eclipse not just disagreement but the basic democratic dynamic of competition. Shapiro exhibits a refreshing appreciation of politics as dissensus, of hierarchy as ineliminable, and takes his orientation less from philosophy than from empirical social science. Specifically, he subscribes to the heart of Schumpeter's account of democracy as political competition that disciplines leaders with the threat of losing power and provides incentives to be responsive. This view is minimalist, insuring neither accurate representation nor security against injustice. But it does tend to de-legitimize and dis-entrench power holders. It makes them vulnerable, and that goes some way toward the goal of anti-domination.

Instead of restricting Schumpeter's insights to elections to political office Shapiro imports them into social life generally. He attributes to liberalism (unfairly on my view) the mistake of focusing exclusively on government tyranny, of perpetuating the "antipolitical fallacy" that some private spheres are beyond the reach of politics or, even less plausibly, that they are not themselves domains of power. The point is to extend vigilance against domination beyond political institutions to all the arenas of power, that is, to all arenas, to every domain of human activity at every stage of the life-cycle: marriage, child-rearing, work, death.

This is an ambitious aim, and the temper of Democratic Justice is not particularly tempered. What distinguishes this theory is less Shapiro's prescriptions than his grounds, anti-domination, and the severity of his diagnosis of "actually existing democracy." Shapiro is a muscular democrat, staring down offending social groups and institutions and bringing them to their knees. There's no sentimentalism for pluralism, independent voluntary associations, groups, or "cultures" here. I would describe this as tough love except that no love is lost. In a recent essay Shapiro professes "zero tolerance" for nondemocratic associations because he interprets deviations from democratic norms as private despotism. In short, he exhibits a harshness toward institutions and associations. He flirts with the danger of publicly enforced congruence between the norms and practices of political democracy and the internal lives of groups "all the way down." The liberty elements of liberal democracy are sometimes eclipsed.

Shapiro's severity is particularly notable because he is not battling opposition ideologies but family arguments within liberal democratic theory. It is notable, too, because he focuses on advanced democracies where (except for indigenous tribes) groups and associations do not claim a right to exercise political authority over members or to enforce their own systems of civil, personal, or criminal law. Shapiro is not talking about segmented pluralist societies; his cases are...


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