- Shaping Democracy, Rethinking the Democratic People: Ferguson’s Sharing Democracy
What does it take for democratic citizens to mutually get along? How can they cooperate and trust each other? Why do they accept institutional decisions as legitimate even when they do not derive from unanimous consent? Otherwise put: what makes them into ‘the people’? In her first, thought-provoking book, Michaele Ferguson provides unconventional and illuminating answers to this set of questions. She critically revises the widespread scholarly belief that some kind of commonality is crucial for unifying a people into a collective agent and turning their diverse claims into a common political project.
In a nutshell, Ferguson is taking on a mainstay of mainstream democratic theory about community. These thinkers have argued that the everyday “cacophony of diversity” cannot prevail over the sense of “common purpose” if individual men and women living under the same government want to identify themselves as one people. In Ferguson’s understanding, we need to challenge the presupposition that, without the unifying force of commonality, democratic individuals are not able to form a community. The tendency of political theorists over recent decades to think democracy only in terms of commonality has been so pervasive that it has left completely unexamined the question of how such commonality is produced. Shared identity, affective bonds and collective agency are not given a priori; rather, according to Ferguson, they stem from a dynamic process of meaning-making in which human beings experience the world by ascribing meaning to the commonalities they claim.
Through such phenomenological approaches to the way democracy is shared on a daily basis, she suggests an alternative conception of democratic life based on the ordinary freedom of citizens to shape the world they share. In contrast to her own position, she believes that the common emphasis on whether and what citizens share paradoxically produces an anti-democratic effect insofar as it obscures how they share: that is, contemporary understandings are grounded on a poor conception of personal responsibilities as well as on a failure to appreciate how human agents actively produce, rather than passively assume, their common ground. Because of this failure, Ferguson argues that many current thinkers picture dissenting or minority claims as inherently damaging to a polity, a cacophonous and disruptive set of forces that break homogeneity and collective bonds.
Looking at the path-breaking events of the “Arab springs” in Tunisia and Egypt as a paradigmatic case of active engagement by the people in their appropriation of the political sphere, Ferguson’s books encourages democratic theorists to revise their traditional perspective over the relation between the many and the few and to develop a novel understanding of democracy that emphasizes the everyday capacity of the people to exercise power and actively shape the world they share. The hermeneutics the author advances through her competing narrative of democratic life is crystal-clear from the first. She suggests that “acting without knowing” is the most typical condition through which citizens experience democratic politics: they do not know in advance what the outcome of their action and interaction will be. The fact of coming together with individuals and groups without any chance to control the result of combined actions is, in the words of Ferguson, the consequence of “sharing democracy in a world inhabited by plural others” (8). This is precisely where the normative appeal (the “allure”) of commonality lies: it promises that we can mutually trust each other and accept institutional decisions even if we had no role in their making. Assuming that democratic citizens have a certain kind of commonality, they must obey the laws as if they had passed them themselves. Such a view promises to paper over the anxieties that come with giving up a certain amount of certainty and control in order to engage in politics. Yet, a different understanding of how democracy is ordinarily shared moves beyond such fictitious beliefs; we must acknowledge the fact that the outcomes of democratic (inter)action are uncertain in order to empower the people as meaning...