Problems of Democracy

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The opening decade of the 21st century sees democracy entrenched as the ideal to which all should aspire who do not already enjoy the best of all possible political systems. But to assert that alternatives to democracy are (even) worse is hardly to give a positive argument in its favour: Plato’s objection, that the “ship of state” requires expertise to steer it that “the many” do not possess surely deserves a better answer. But what? And is an answer to be found in “democracy itself” (whatever that may be) or in what democracy makes possible?

And even once that’s dealt with, what about “actually existing democracy”? If, as Zizek argues, ‘Multi-party liberal democracy “represents” a precise vision of social life in which politics is organized so that parties compete in elections to exert control over the state legislative and executive apparatus’, is that the best democracy can do? Indeed, just what is to count as democracy? And again, is an answer to this question to be sought in some substantial element of the very idea of democracy or in instrumental terms, such as the practical consequences of adopting this or that view?

This project is intended to be a continuing and explicitly multi- and inter-disciplinary conversation that aims to bring together people from a wide range of disciplines to focus on what “democracy” might mean; on what – if anything – might justify democratic as against other social arrangements; and on visions of democratic practice that go beyond the pusillanimous, platitudinous and ultimately self-regarding charade that is the reality of western liberal democracy.

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The project will explore the following core indicative themes;

1. What Counts as Democracy?
~ What are the assumptions that lie behind democracy? Is democracy an end in itself, or does it serve other values and goals?
~ “Government by, for and of the people”: what political, epistemic and/or other commitments might such an ideal entail?
~ Is ‘What counts as democracy?’ in any sense a moral question?

2. Is Democracy a Good Thing?
~ What exactly does democracy have to recommend it?
~ What are the connections between democracy and equality? And what does equality amount to? Is it self-evident that equality is an end to be pursued; or are there substantive arguments in its favour?
~ How does democracy understand freedom? And is freedom a self-evident good?
~ Alternatives to democracy

3. Forms of democracy
~ Considerations of representative, delegated and discursive models of democracy
~ Is there a case for lotteries to replace – or supplement – elections?
~ The scope of democracy: state, nation, corporation, workplace, “community” and locality

Related themes will also be identified for development and exploration. Out of our deliberations it is anticipated that a series of related cross context research projects will develop.