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The Democracy Project

Introduction to the Series: Author’s Note

‘The Democracy Project’ is a series by The Philosophy Project whose aim is to introduce their readers with some major texts and theories in the field of democracy that have a continuing relevance. Democracy is the most used and abused word in our everyday language yet we are not entirely aware of the world of debates around the word, concept and the category of democracy. This short series will take you through the writings of five different theorists on democracy. The reason to choose these five authors was very random and we do not mean to put across the discourse that they are prominent theorists of democracy. We only want to introduce some basic views that anyone curious about philosophy should be aware of. The series derives its name from David Graeber’s book The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (2013) where he writes of the 21st century anarchist movement – The Occupy Wall Street (2012). Although his work is not being reviewed in this series, this book is highly recommended to the readers. I would like to express my gratitude to my Professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dr Rinku Lamba, whose Master’s level course titled ‘Democratic Theory’ helped me immensely to write the upcoming short explanatory essays. In this series, the essays flow in a dialectical fashion: they interact with, respond to and criticize each other. Topics ranging from elitist to deliberative democracy are covered although many other important texts are left out due to space constraints. The aim of this series is to not to feed the readers with information but allow them to critically reflect. Feel free to comment and reflect on these essays and keep the democratic spirit in you alive. Hoping that you would continue to question and criticize, I will take your leave, thank you!

-Vipanchika Sahasri Bhagyanagar

PhD Candidate (Sociology), Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi


Critical Reading of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835): The place of Equality, Associations and Self-Interest in a Democracy

While Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835) is full of information and outright skepticisms about the future of democracy, I see his optimism in making democracy a workable project. His text talked of theoretical and historical foundations, and also the practical application of democracy. Democracy has a long history. However, Tocqueville is talking about the modern form of democracy. The introduction to Democracy in America addresses a set of interrelated questions:

1. What is the contingent factor for the evolution of democracy?

Democracy emerges from conditions of equality. Unlike other theorists, Tocqueville did not think that equality was natural. Instead, it was introduced to check the power of aristocracy by the King and the King by the nobility. The passion for equality soon led to a new form of government. It is democracy. This democracy is entirely different from previous forms of governments because it necessarily abandoned the old aristocratic institutions, ideas and customs. (Tocqueville here comes across as an acultural theorist.)

2. Why is there a need to study democracy?

Democracy is a novel form of politics, and that it is to stay as long as equality of conditions is passionately pursued. Hence, reading democracy becomes essential. However, reading it in America is crucial because Tocqueville saw the French democracy being "abandoned to wild instincts". Studying American democracy can help him understand where French democracy has gone wrong and where it can work.

And that is why his book seems to be a project to understand and enquire about the virtues and vices of this form of government- Democracy. It is striking to read how Tocqueville presented that democracy is not an innately virtuous form of government. Today every country is in a hurry to declare itself as a democracy because it comes with some moral values, but according to Tocqueville democracy in itself does not signify a good form of government and society. Hence the third question that this introduction address is:

3. Is this democracy that emerged out of equality, an inherently noble form of politics?

Tocqueville makes two points spread across the piece to convey that democracy is not an inherently noble form of politics:

A. While celebrating this Equality and Democracy, Tocqueville also seems to have cautioned the readers of the breeding envy, materialistic attitudes that result from democracy. But rather than outrightly rejecting a form of government with its own merits and demerits, Tocqueville seemed to have set a course to understand the vices much better to develop solutions to managing this form of government well.

B. Distinguishing between Democracy in America and France. In France, he says, "Democracy… has grown up like those children who have no parental guidance, who receive their education in the public streets, and who are acquainted only with the vices and wretchedness of society." (Introduction, Democracy in America, 1835) This only shows that democracy can go in the wrong directions too. But should we abandon democracy? Far from that, Tocqueville wants to understand how to perfect it.

4. Equality is to be blamed?

Flowing from the two broad questions about equality and the need to study democracy, Tocqueville draws the reader's attention, at several instances, that democracy is not a perfect form. Although it is a workable project. In other words, it has no fixed trajectory, and it needs to be worked on to give it a shape and destiny. How does it work? One answer: Associations and self-interest. While these two almost sound oxymoronic, let me explain Tocqueville’s ideas here briefly. Tocqueville saw equality as a threat because he observed in France and America that equality has broken the link that held the society together and released the individualism from it. Therefore, from his travels to America, Tocqueville reached a conclusion that associations are a way to check the growing individualism.

His love for associations is corelative to his fears about despotism. Associations represent a striking balance between equality and liberty that is very crucial to the health of democracy. Rather than an over dependence on state, Tocqueville prefers an associational democracy. But that is not to say that he simply a theorist of civil society for he seems to be always in a quest to figure out the new kind of politics. But one may question, what binds the people together to form association? It is the self-interest. The self-interest that democracy may soon not become a despotism. Having seen post revolution France, he identifies this novel feature of associations in America that are perhaps responsible for a smoothly functioning society.

All said, we should continue to question the social position of the author and the relevance of his writings in this newly, globalized and neo-liberalized version of democracy that we now have. Let us know what you think about it.


Robert Michels’ Democratic Elitism: An Outline for Realizable Democracy based on Scientific Analysis

Robert Michels’ book Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1911) leaves us with a fresh understanding of democracy, its problems and the ways to counter them (at least to some degree). What is very peculiar to Michels’ analysis is the element of “Oligarchy” in democratic forms. My essay attempts to provide an overview of certain issues that seem to run through his discussion around democracy. I find three crucial issues that need a discussion to understand his central argument:

  1. Oligarchy in the “forms of democracy”

  2. Scientific analysis of Organization/Leaders/Masses

  3. Two regulatory principles: Ideology and efficiency

Michels’ focus, in his essay, is primarily on the oligarchical tendencies in the “forms of democracy”. Though significant attention is given to the discussion on Political Parties, he suggests that any form of democracy (even anarchical!) will go in the direction of oligarchy. “Forms of democracy” I interpret as any form of democratic organization (like, the Political Parties) formed for or to fulfil the ideals of democracy. Nevertheless, because oligarchy emerges out of democratic forms, democracy is unattainable. That is why he attempts to not sketch an ideal or a “pure” form of democracy like most philosophers do. Instead, he seeks to outline a realizable form of democracy. It comes out clearly when he calls democracy a “fable”: it is something that we all look for, but never get there.

We can never get there because of the oligarchical tendencies that democracy inherently possess as it is like any other organization. His understanding of the “pure” form of democracy comes closer to an Athenian direct democracy where there is no leader ruling over people. It is people ruling over themselves. Moving away from it, Michels undertakes a scientific analysis of two aspects: Organization and Leaders/Masses. Michels suggests that oligarchy is inevitable. He suggests that there are some specific fixed properties of organization and masses. For instance, for him, masses are “incompetent” and “amorphous”. And so, by being a mass itself defines their future, that is, they are going to be led. There comes a necessity for leadership to organize people, their views and interests, and other technical reasons. He takes up a two-stage analysis to explain the phenomenon: Leaders arise spontaneously, but there is a second stage where the oligarchy becomes “irremovable”.

On similar lines, for efficiency in an organization, oligarchy becomes a characteristic feature of any organization. Leaders, Organization, and Masses are interdependent variables (Because masses are incompetent, the organization requires leadership and vice versa). He understands this phenomenon as science and makes a scientific analysis. By scientific analysis, I mean to say that Michels seems to be assuming that the variables in his analysis are seen to be holding specific indispensable properties. And these properties determine their course. Like the chemical compounds whose properties will determine how they react to different situations. (On the side note, the question that needs to be pondered upon: Is it methodologically appropriate to reduce the non-linear behaviors into a set of scientific principles?)

However, Michels makes an interesting point: through democracy, oligarchy crops up, and it is democracy that is the cure to oligarchy. In other words, while the organization properties in a democracy eventually makes it oligarchical, the act of chasing this fable of democracy will help mitigate the ills of oligarchy. How? Democracy has a natural tendency towards developing critical attitudes. Alongside, education can also help the masses get equipped to control the competent few in parties. However, on the other hand, democracy also gives rise to bureaucracy which tends to become oligarchical. It is curious to see how democracy both sustains and acts as a “palliative for the disease of oligarchy”. After all, Michels’ finds democracy beneficial is because it maintains a delicate balance between criticism and the rule by competent few. These two regulatory principles - criticism by the mass and the efficiency of competent few - provide an outline of Michels’ idea of a “realizable” democratic form.

What are your ideas about the signifiers of elitism in Michels’ analysis? Is it appropriate to say that only the “competent” can rule and that masses are ignorant? What is the significance of demos in democracy if masses are considered merely ignorant?


What is Dewey’s Model of Democracy?

Democracy, for Dewey, is all about debate, discussion, persuasion and consultation. His understanding of democracy is starkly different from the elitist conception (that of Robert Michels’), where the masses are considered to be ignorant. More generally, all the Elitist Theories (ET) of Democracy consider that masses are ignorant by nature. And that they cannot ever be able to rule themselves. The ET theorists consider this feature of the masses as the characteristic feature of the modern form of democracy. Mass has fixed properties and cannot be changed. And so, the rise of competent class to rule is a “necessity” (Michels, 1911).

On the other hand, Dewey, in his Public and Its Problems (1927), considers that inactive masses as a problem of the public, not a natural condition and therefore it needs rectification. Instead of arguing that oligarchy is the only way out for managing the masses, Dewey’s democracy is one where there is an emphasis on the rejuvenation of the local communal life. It is about restoring the public spirit. Democracy is both a process and an end to Dewey. While attempting to outline what democracy is to Dewey, I also want to argue that it is a realizable and realistic form of democracy (because it is primarily on this point that elitist theories have rejected the agency of masses in deciding their policies – in other words, to ET theorists, because the masses are ignorant, a pure form of democracy by the people remains a fable forever).

It is significant to stress that Dewey’s vision of democracy is not all unrealizable or utopian. His conception of democracy redefines the aspects that we generally take for granted: territorial states and competition. Rather than acting as boundaries that harbour hostility, for Dewey, they are meant for formulating a way for collective action within these boundaries. And competition is redefined as learning from humankind. While writing about how to make democracy more deliberative, Dewey is not oligarchy-blind. He states that there was an economic oligarchy ruling at the time of his writing. However, Dewey makes a remarkable observation that there is oligarchy only because the rulers are not informed about the needs of people. Instead of blaming the people for the existing oligarchy, he writes that the very reason for oligarchy to emerge because the leaders cared less for the needs of the public. He says that only those who wear a shoe knows where it pinches.

Hence, what is more unrealizable is to rule without due consideration of people’s needs and amongst the growing hostility. In contrast, his form of democracy is a life form (continuous circulation of the needs from the communal life to the decision-makers). It is not a kind where experts know it all, given their intelligence and competency in specific fields. Because experts in industrial and technical fields cannot, by default, be considered as competent rulers, for they have little to no idea about the people’s real needs. To assume that masses are incompetent to rule and hence have no say in the governing process seems to be going against democratic values, to Dewey. That is why he goes to an extent to say that the world has suffered much because of the leaders and authorities.

Dewey’s way of approaching democracy is very compelling, for he is not dogmatic about the properties of masses, leaders and organizations. He seemed to have explored the problems of democracy that can be only tackled with more democracy (i.e., through discussions and consultation). Because, like he stated, policies need to be looked at as only hypothesis on which deliberations should be encouraged. Strict adherence to police and general theories that comes under the clad of “science” may lead to a dead-end knowledge. In sum, Democracy to Dewey is a continuous exploration of the methods to public participation. Democracy is where the public has a space to put forth their needs and discuss and act upon their outcomes collectively. Democracy is no oligarchical rule by a particular class for the interest of certain people.

Do you also think, like Dewey, that leaders are the cause for suffering in the world? Do you think populism caters to people’s needs as the populist leaders seem to emerge from people?


The Methodological Fallacies in Democratic Elitism by Peter Bachrach

Peter Bachrach’s (1967) criticisms of the explanatory theories in their book The theory of democratic elitism reveal some of their methodological problems which I shall highlight in this essay. Their methodology of studying democracy leaves one with no direction about what to do to overcome the oligarchical tendencies. He emphasizes the need for developing a more normative theory of democracy as opposed to the explanatory one. The Explanatory Theory of democracy is one like an elitist theory (ET). It explains the features of current day democracy. Like, how the masses have been inactive and how a class is ruling over these masses. Bachrach implicitly suggests, I understood, three main interconnected issues associated with democracy: participation, people’s will and people’s dignity.

And it is these that need to be figured in the theorizations about democracy. I see that his central argument is to highlight these methodological fallacies with ETs and then emphasize a need for a normative theory of democracy. The three methodological issues with ETs can be categorised into three:

  1. Ideological theory

  2. Democracy as a Political Method

  3. A narrow, non-realistic “Political”

Bachrach contends that ET is primarily ideological. Though it claims to be describing the reality of modern democracy, Bachrach claims that it is intensely ideological. It is ideological, for it rejects to see the importance of ordinary people in shaping the democratic body. They strictly adhere to the liberal principles and do not attempt to reconcile them with the classical democratic theory. By prioritizing one over the other, these theories are championing only one kind of political method and not the process of arriving at a political end.

The political method merely looks at the satisfaction of the procedures. This method of looking at democracy will not allow for greater democratization of decision making, so much so that it tends to define little participation of people at the end of the inputs as the best form of democracy. Here, political equality is narrowly understood as equal suffrage. So when elections are happening periodically with freedom of discussion, ET scholars have called it a democracy. This freedom of discussion and elections do not always translate into taking greater participation in decision making.

Strikingly, the ET scholars see this as a benefit for democracy since the mass anyway has no competency or expertise to make decisions. However, Bachrach also writes that not all political methods are elitist. For instance, John Dewey also insisted on the political method of discussions, debate, and persuasion to restore the public spirit. But the kind of methods that ET scholars are insisting upon can be used to justify the elite-mass structure intact. Alongside, the “political” as understood by elite theorists also raises concern about their touting of a “realizable democracy”.

Far from reality, the elitist theorists conceived “political” in a very narrow sense. Here, the private companies, for instance, do not figure in the definition. This leaves their organizational structure to remain undemocratic. Few private organizations have the share in ruling the country. But they are not considered political by ETs. So, that shows how ETs are not realistic as they claim, for their understanding is narrow. So is the case with being ideological while claiming not to be one.

Bacharach finds problems with this methodological approach, seemingly leading us to a dead-end and not giving any new direction. He believes that while talking about democracy, one should not simply dwell on the end but should be considered with processes. He rejects the elitist one-dimensional view of democracy that is a direct manifestation of the methodology these theorists have adopted.

Do you think that the theories that claim to present only the reality tend to obscure the agency by covering up the normativism? If yes, are they real anymore or are they tainted by the political bias? More significantly, is knowledge about democracy intricately linked to the power play of the academic and political world?


Deliberative Democracy? Introducing Joshua Cohen

In his oft-cited essay titled Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy (1989), Joshua Cohen gives the outline of what a deliberative democracy is and what it is not. While giving us a structure of “ideal deliberative procedure” (hereafter, IDP) that the social institutions should mirror, Cohen clears some common misapprehensions about deliberative democracy. The institutionalization of deliberation does not mean bringing back direct democracy. It rather means to equip citizens with the autonomy and deliberative capacity to propose issues for a political agenda and debate over them. Thus, the institutions in a deliberative democracy are not meant to act as “exogenous constraints”. Because these institutions shape the people’s preferences and convictions. The pre-condition for deliberative democracy is that free expression, including the “nonpolitical expressions” that are not directly linked to the policy preferences, are also protected, because they may still be helpful in decision-making. Hence, it is safe to assume that Deliberative democracy is not sectarian because political justification follows only a free discussion among equals.

Cohen’s essay is critical of John Rawls’s idea of fairness and how that would lead to a democracy. Rawls’s arguments seem too “instrumental and indirect” to Cohen. For Cohen, Democracy is not derivative. One cannot locate democracy’s value in terms of other ideals, such as fairness or equality. Democracy has an intrinsic value, or in his words, it is a “fundamental political ideal”. He elaborates it by outlining IDP of a deliberative democracy. By providing only few requirements, he incites the reader to ask if provision of richer background requirements for deliberation may cut-short the deliberation itself. The richer the requirements the less they can discursively emerge leading to something like the Rawlsian ideal. Deliberative democracy, then, for Cohen, is “an association whose affairs are governed by public deliberations of its members”. Put simply, Cohen’s model is where deliberations define the terms of association and in turn these terms define the deliberations.

Imbued with the stipulations of free, reasoned deliberations among equal citizens, the institutions are committed to advancing common good and autonomy. The two threats to autonomy – preferences determined by circumstances and psychological adjustments to subordination – would hamper the deliberations for a common good. By modelling the institutions that can reflect the five formal requirements including the co-recognition of deliberative capacity, one can eliminate these threats to autonomy and encourage deliberations towards common good.

This modelling of institutions in accordance with the formal requirements lead us to substantiative account of deliberative decision-making. Deliberations are said to make the outcomes legitimate. However, one cannot always attain a “rationally motivated consensus”, during which a voting based on majority will be taken. But if deliberative democracy ends up taking a vote, how is it any different from a democracy that aggregates preferences?

Cohen would answer this question by pointing us towards the stipulation that citizens in a deliberative democracy are “committed to finding reasons that are persuasive to all”. By keeping the difference intact between deliberative collective decision-making and aggregate preference decision-making, Cohen redefined our understanding of “voting”. In such a democracy, deliberators are the decision-makers. Andrew Rehfeld’s article which escapes the trustee/delegate dichotomy is helpful to understanding the decision-making in this proposed model of deliberation. These decision-makers’ aim could be good of whole or part (which ever specifies the common good), rely on their own judgement (autonomy), and more responsive to sanctions (as it is stipulated that terms of association should be reached at through deliberations).

Two questions remain: If IDP is concerned solely with decision-making as he enunciated, is Cohen silent on the informal opinion formation through media and political parties and is reducing complexities of societal system to a legal system where discussions merely occur for the sake of making decisions? And second, by proposing IDP as opposed to Rawlsian fairness ideal as the requirement for social institutions to mirror, is Cohen claiming that deliberation inherently is democratic? Would deliberation not exclude people who are not willing to or cannot deliberate due to, let’s say, disabilities?


References other than the main text:

Rehfeld, A. (2009). Representation Rethought: On Trustees, Delegates, and Gyroscopes in the Study of Political Representation and Democracy. American Political Science Review. 103 (2), pp 214-230

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