Global Democratization: Soup, Society, or System?

By Dryzek, John S. | Ethics & International Affairs, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview
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Global Democratization: Soup, Society, or System?


Dryzek, John S., Ethics & International Affairs


The prospects for global democracy are starting to receive serious attention from scholars and political reformers alike. Working on the premise that global electoral democracy is not feasible, I will identify and compare three emerging ways of thinking about democracy in global politics--ways that I refer to as a soup, a society, and a system. Briefly, a soup refers to the proliferation of democratic practices within existing patterns of international politics; a society has a set of constitutive norms and discourses that might be more or less democratic in their content, production, evolution, and interchange; and a system is composed of differentiated and ordered components linked to the production of collective outcomes, and might therefore seem the obvious objective when it comes to democratic innovation in international politics. However, system is not necessarily a higher-order concept than society, because it may lack the depth of shared understanding and degree of solidarity that "society" can connote. And sometimes the requirements of a system may be so at variance with existing practices that it is more feasible to think in terms of soup or society. Soup, society, and system are basically frames for the interpretation and evaluation of practices (ranging from transnational social movement activism to international negotiations, to the operation of networks, to the decisions of states). But they also contain the seeds of programs for future democratic development.

Robert Keohane points out that "the conditions for electoral democracy ... do not exist on a global level," but this only means that "rather than abandoning democracy, we should rethink our ambitions." (1) Fortunately, contemporary democratic thinking is not tied exclusively to elections, and much of it emphasizes instead a communicative aspect of democracy. This paper therefore undertakes analysis rooted in the communicative and, in particular, deliberative aspects of democracy, within which legitimacy is sought through the participation of those affected by a collective decision (or their representatives) in consequential deliberation about that decision. A deliberative orientation sharpens productive understandings of what both "society" and "system" can mean in global politics, in the form of a deliberative society and a deliberative system.

Deliberation may be defined as communication that induces reflection upon preferences, links particular claims to more general principles, and exhibits what Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson call reciprocity: that is, communicating in terms that others who do not share one's normative framework can accept. (2) In a deliberative light, democratic accountability means, literally, giving an account rather than being subject to the sanction of electoral defeat. Democratic legitimacy is therefore to be found in the right, opportunity, and capacity of those subject to a collective decision (or their representatives) to participate in consequential deliberation about the content of that decision. This basic principle of deliberative democracy is no less applicable at the global level than at any other level of governance.

Deliberative democracy is not just a school of thought in democratic theory. It is also a real-world reform movement for particular kinds of political innovation. Barack Obama has endorsed deliberative democracy as a program consistent with the U.S. Constitution. (3) Perhaps more surprisingly, the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party has permitted experimentation in public deliberation, even as it resists competitive elections (beyond the local level) and constitutional guarantees of rights. (4)

From a global perspective, a communicative and deliberative approach to democracy has a further advantage over conceptions of democracy for which competitive elections are the sine qua non in that it is not modeled on developed liberal democracies. As Amartya Sen has pointed out, democracy as government by discussion or public reason is much more pervasive in the world's various political traditions than democracy as voting, whose history is tied to that of Western liberal democracies.

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