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  • Overcoming Complexity:Institutionalising Deliberative Democracy through Secondary Associations
  • Stephen Elstub (bio)


One of the most significant criticisms levelled at deliberative democracy is that it is an irrelevant, utopian and counterfactual ideal because it is unachievable in modern, large and complex societies.1 In order to sufficiently explore the issues of institutionalization, this paper is unable to review its normative arguments and it therefore starts from the premise that deliberative democracy is normatively desirable. However, in order to achieve normative goals deliberative democracy needs 'devices' or institutions to 'enact' it,2 and to 'bring it down to earth'.3 The belief here is that an associational democracy can make important contributions to achieving this, specifically by enabling deliberative democracy to adapt to, and overcome, many of the aspects of social complexity that include increased social pluralism, scale, inequality of deliberative and political skills and resources, the increasing reliance on specialists, and globalization, that form such significant barriers to its institutionalization.

This suggestion is linked to key functions of democracy that secondary associations, located in civil society, are particularly apt to fulfill. It is argued here that they are suitable locations for governance, providing the principle of subsidiarity is applied; that they can provide effective information and representation; increase and improve the provision of information; which enables them to contribute to public discourses in the public sphere; and can foster key political and civic skills and dispositions. However, not all associations will be able to fulfill all the functions that are attributed to them in this article. The fact that they are apt to fulfill one function may well mean they are unsuitable to fulfill another, with some types of secondary association hindering democracy, rather than promoting it.45 This variability in the suitability of associations to fulfill these key democratic functions is not essentially a problem, providing there is a diversity of specialized associations to form, what Warren terms a 'democratic ecology of associations', which means all the functions can still be fulfilled.6

More significant problems for an associational democracy, to effectively contribute to the institutionalization of deliberative democracy, are the current socio-economic inequalities prevalent in the current associational system, the difficulty of ensuring associations are themselves deliberatively democratic and linking deliberations within the associational system with broader collective decisions. Therefore, an associational model is just one possibility that, in a deliberative democracy, would have to be combined with a whole array of other institutions that also fostered key features of deliberation and democracy and helped it adapt to social complexity. In this sense, secondary associations are far from the whole solution, but the argument here is that they are an important, and necessary, part of that solution.

The Barriers of Social Complexity

Modern democracies are plagued by the problems associated with social complexity.7 For Femia 'social complexity' is associated with the 'number and variety of elements and interactions' present' and is increasing, primarily due to rapid changes in technology.8 This increase in social complexity has led to a decline in the relevancy, potency and ability of the nation-state to fulfill many functions, meet the needs of society and meet standards of democratic legitimacy and this has led to a reappraisal of the state across the world.9

There are many aspects of social complexity, but this article will focus on those that are perceived to be the most significant barriers to deliberative democracy. The first of these is social pluralism as societies become ever more diverse and multicultural. An increasing perception of the state is that it excludes certain subordinate social groups. It is thought that the state's universal approach is becoming increasingly unable to take account of differences between social groups and this has caused the corresponding retrenchment of the state as a welfare agency.10 Similarly, increasing pluralism has compromised the effectiveness of traditional, and formal, representative structures of liberal democracies, as their ability to include all social groups in decision-making has correspondingly declined.11 Increased pluralism also makes deliberative [End Page 14] democracy unlikely, as it decreases the chance of reaching consensus on a common good and makes the inclusion of all relevant views harder to attain.



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pp. 14-22
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