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  • Decentering Democracy:Inclusion and Transformation in Complex Societies
  • James Bohman (bio)

In Inclusion and Democracy, Iris Young continues her project of transforming the basic categories that guide our thinking about justice and democracy. In some of her previous work, Young challenged the normative appropriateness of univocal categories of membership, calling for a "differentiated" conception of citizenship that took into account the role of social groups in modern polities. Here Young has set out to systematically generalize this theoretical project through rethinking the idea of inclusion that has guided many of the fundamental reform movements of democratic societies, including movements of workers, women and people of color. Young challenges us to re-think the concept of inclusion when it is applied to complex and large-scale modern democracies, especially if we are to break the "vicious circle" between democracy and injustice. Echoing Dewey's claim that the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy, Young argues "impediments to the ability of democracies to enact more just policies are best addressed by deepening democracy" (35).1 Yet, Young's overarching ambition appears more transformative. Borrowing a phrase used by Jürgen Habermas and Gerald Frug, her argument seeks to "decenter" democracy in such a way that the dynamic between injustice and democracy ceases to apply (46-47, 121). Many democratic norms and mechanisms are indeed "decentered" in the arguments here in order to make them more inclusive: deliberation, representation, group membership and identity, the public sphere, the relations of the local to the regional and the global, and so on.

How might democracy be decentered? As expressed by Habermas, the goal is to rid democratic theory of some of the metaphysical assumptions that it inherited from eighteenth century voluntarism, about the collective will of "the people" controlling social processes.2 In deliberative democracy, assumptions of the same sort are made in favoring face-to-face interaction in a single forum, so that such a deliberative body could take society as a whole as the object of a singular and orderly process of collective deliberation. Instead, Young argues that the motivation for the decentered view is that democratic politics is embedded in the "context of large and complex social processes the whole of which cannot come into view, let alone under decision-making control" (46). In this way, Young decenters democracy along two dimensions: the micro-dimension of the communicative processes that constitute decision making and at the macro-dimension of the scale of interlocking levels of governance from cities to regions to global society. For Young, the first involves the recognition of the place of social perspectives in just and wise democratic decision making; the latter requires having smaller units embedded in larger units whenever the scope of people's actions and contexts of interaction constitute a common world. Understanding democracy in this way allows the genuine requirements of reasoning, communication and political unity under circumstances of pluralism to come into view.

One of the central insights of Inclusion and Democracy is that it locates the project of decentering democracy in the politics of the present, in the struggles against structural inequality and in the problems and opportunities presented by increasing pluralism and globalization. At the risk of exaggerating some of the differences between our views, I propose that Young does not go far enough in decentering democracy, for two main reasons: first, because of the theory of objective social structure and the social distribution of perspectives and knowledge; and second, because of the orientation of its politics of inclusion to the "unavoidable" functional capabilities of the institutions of the nation state. Given the kinds of social facts of pluralism and interdependence that are its premises, the task of decentering democracy today is a much more constructive one, requiring normative, conceptual and institutional innovation that goes beyond the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion typical of state oriented democracy.

I motivate this disagreement with three different aspects of Young's argument. First, since arguments for decentering democracy are always explicitly or implicitly arguments about the relation between social facts and norms, I take issue with the empirical basis of the argument for decentering democracy. This is perhaps clearest in her analysis...


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pp. 49-55
Launched on MUSE
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