Archive for January, 2014

The Life-World of Democracy

The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy by C. B. Macpherson. Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2012. 120pp., £11.99, ISBN 978 0 19 544780 4

Democracy in the Making: How Activist Groups Form by Kathleen M. Blee. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 211pp., £18.99, ISBN 978 0 19 984276 6

Democracy is considered to be the most legitimate form of governance as it provides people with the freedom to choose their representatives and decide the way in which they would like to be ruled. With the ‘Third Wave’ of global democratisation, many of the previously authoritarian and communist states were forced by civil society to make transitions to democratic forms of governance. The Third Wave of democratisation was essentially concerned with the ‘procedural’ forms of democracy and was primarily a result of political process and choices of a variety of civil society actors which played important roles in dismantling the bureaucratic authoritarian structures and establishing political democracy. Civil society thus came to be considered as an important agent of democratisation. Following this, scholars like Ernest Gellner declared: ‘no civil society no democracy’. However, some scholars have criticised the Third Wave of democratisation for its role in spreading capitalism and neo-liberal markets. Other scholars have rejected the Third Wave theorists’ claim of civil society as a democratic force. Several studies have recently shown that civil society may not always contribute positively towards democracy promotion. It is in this context that C. B. Macpherson’s The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy and Kathleen Blee’s Democracy in the Making provide significant insights into the relationships between liberal democracy, the market and civil society.

The central questions in Macpherson’s book are: what is liberal democracy and what are its limits and prospects? What kind of relationship does liberal democracy share with individualism, capitalism and market freedom? Following a historical analysis of the life and times of liberal democracy from ancient times until today, Macpherson discovered that the liberal position has very often been associated with capitalist principles. However, he argues that ‘the fact that liberal values grew up in capitalist market societies is not in  itself a reason why the central ethical principle of liberalism … need always be confined to such societies’ (p. 2). For him, the ethical principle of liberal democracy ‘has out-grown its capitalist envelope and can now live as well or better without it’ (p. 2). For a proper continuance of liberal democracy, argues Macpherson, it is important to downgrade the market assumptions and upgrade the equal right to self-development. In exploring the limits and possibilities of liberal democracy in recent times, Macpherson discusses three existing models: (1) protective democracy – which protects people from ‘rapacious’ government; (2) development democracy – the means of individual self-development; and (3) equilibrium democracy – which regulates competition for power among elites. In addition, he proposes a fourth model to make democracy participatory by creating widespread opportunity for citizen participation other than through political parties (p. 114).

Macpherson’s participatory democracy model goes beyond the arena of elections, political parties and voting and advocates the equal right to self-development in the arena of civil society. It is in this context that Blee’s Democracy in the Making investigates the relationship between civil society activism and democracy. Based on an intensive study of more than 60 emerging grassroots activist groups in Pittsburgh in the US between 2003 and 2007, Blee explores how grassroots activism shapes democracy ‘beneath and beyond the state’ (p. 4). The central question that she asks is about ‘how emerging activist groups work and what prevents them from working better’ (p. 9). Addressing this, Blee emphasises the processual nature of activism (instead of institutional or structural) and argues that although ‘grassroots groups are an important source for democratic renewal’ (p. 138), ‘not all grassroots civic activism is democratizing’ (p. 4). Grassroots activism can move decidedly towards undemocratic goals, such as efforts to restrict the political rights of immigrants or prisoners (p. 4).  Despite this, Blee is hopeful. For her, the paths of action and interpretation in activist groups, even those that steer in non-democratic directions, are created by members. They are not inevitable outcomes of structural conditions. Hence, they are neither automatic nor unchangeable (p. 138). Considering this, Blee concludes that it is not just creating activist groups and getting people to participate that will strengthen democracy; what is more important is that activists also need to take steps to ensure that their groups fulfil their democratic potential. Grassroots activism can only strengthen democracy when it nurtures a broad sense of possibility (p. 140).

Macpherson’s book provides an excellent historical and philosophical account of the various models of liberal democracy, whereas Blee’s book, supported by numerous empirical examples, discusses how the life of liberal democracy is transformed by civil society activism. Both these books are well argued and make significant contributions to the literature on democracy and civil society. They are a delight to read and should be recommended to students of political science and historical, comparative sociology.

Sarbeswar Sahoo
(Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India and
Max-Weber-Kolleg, Erfurt, Germany)
@ S. Sahoo (2014) Political Studies Review, Vol.12, Issue.1, pp.101-102