Democracy at the Margins
In any case, two recent news articles have caught my attention. The first, here at The Guardian really is a manifesto of sorts for a resurgent civil society in the EU. The signatories apparently think that volunteering on a mass scale will presage democratic renewal. The second, here at The New York Times is a brief report on the electoral surge of the "Pirate Party" in German electoral politics. This insurgency seems only slightly less naive. Here are some top-of-the-head reactions.
Working in reverse, I would simply point out that - setting aside the apparently right-wing inflections of the Pirates' politics - political discontent is not a sufficient basis for "direct democracy." There is a naivety at work here in the notion that there are technological solutions (internet voting) to problems of political institutions. The Pirates seem to think that if only everyone simply acted on their ethical commitments and voted directly things would be remarkably different for the better. Count me unpersuaded. First, among the things we understand about voting is that different methods of counting votes (even from the same initial distribution of inputs) often generate quite different electoral outcomes. Institutions matter. Second, the very fact that the Pirates are contesting seats in regional legislative assemblies - in itself an admirable course of action - is a reminder that argument and debate are essential characteristics (both historically and conceptually) of representative institutions. And, to the best of my knowledge, the internet does not afford a terribly useful platform for productive exchange of political views. We may not reside in Cass Sunstein's dystopian virtual world, but where exactly do we find productive political exchange, instances where people actually listen and change their minds?
As for the luminaries (many of whom I admire) who are trying to persuade us that rejuvenating civil society will enhance democratic politics, I am not at all persuaded. This seems a variation on the argument that democracy presupposes robust "social capital" for which I have never seem a terribly coherent or compelling argument. There are a number of problems with the proposal being floated here too. How are the multitudes of volunteers to be coordinated? Can they actually accomplish more than providing compassionate care on a on-to-one basis? Nothing wrong with that, but it will not remedy any large scale problem. How will the putative moral uplift that such a campaign will generate actually get translated into politics? Isn't this proposal simply a capitulation to the neo-liberal view that government cannot provide remedies to aggregate problems? Can reliance on charity/philanthropy and volunteerism do anything more than further undermine the notion that persons deserve political-economic security as a matter of citizenship? Won't the sort of campaign being peddled here simply further subvert confidence in the efficacy of democratic politics? If the problem is that the 'politics of fear' is subverting the notion of a common Europe, what is required is a political campaign that might directly reply to the apprehensions and anxieties of those who are frightened or insecure. That would be a democratic reply, and a direct one to boot.