Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Pierre Rosanvallon provides an interesting little introduction to the “Republique des Idées” supplement to Le Monde for the 29th of April, 2009. It can be accessed online here.

This supplement is on the occasion of a three-day forum to take place in Grenoble the 8th, 9th, and 10th of May.

Democracy, Rosanvallon begins by asserting, has always been a form of government in tension with itself: “l’imperatif de compétence et la demande de proximité, le nombre et la raison, la fidélité aux engagements du mandat et la réactivité aux changements, le développement de prodédures contaignants pour la pouvoir et l’execise d’une volonté souveraine.” Democracy must be rethought, “au-delà des procédures électorales représentatives.” The economic crisis, he says, simply exacerbates the already obvious need to find new ways to create social cohesion both in the present, and between the present and the future—as he puts it, “d’inclure plus fortement le future dans le présent.” This moment of crisis could, ought, must open a new era in democratic governance.

Rosanvallon sets out three basic lines along which this rethinking and remaking should take place. “l’extension des procédures et des institutions au-delà du système électorale majoritaires; l’appréhension de la démocratie comme une forme sociale; le développement d’une théorie de la démocratie-monde.”

For this first axis, it seems that Rosanvallon has in mind two basic issues. First, majoritarian forms of representation are prone to various forms of exclusion. An awareness of this and a willingness to deal with it in ad hoc, flexible, ways is crucial. When, for a bundle of socio-historical reasons, a group (which might be defined in many ways) is excluded from the normal modes of representation, other forms of representation should be found. Rosanvallon here mentions the parité movement. Second, ‘public’ institutions should be transparent and accountable. This is a way of supplementing, or deepening representation because, I gather, it is allows the public sphere to function. I wonder if this is to be thought of as a way of letting 'technocratic' impulses play out safely? Public decisions should be submitted to public discussion and detailed evaluation by those who can claim to be experts.

The second axis is, “appréhender la démocratie comme une forme de société, et pas seulement comme un régime.” Democracy is not merely a form of government, but must rather be a mode in which society organizes itself so that everyone may be (feel) included within it. Rosanvallon says, “ce sont les formes générales de la solidarité qu’il s’agit de ranimer.” This is not a technical solution that is sought, but a political one. Indeed, this is something like an ontological repositioning because the whole point is to assert that the ‘social question’ cannot be separate from that of democracy. The social and political are not different domains.

Before mentioning the third axis, I want to pause and point out that although Rosanvallon’s call to think of society as both horizontally inclusive (of everyone) and vertically inclusive (of the future), is reminiscent of the late 19th century, of the solidaristes, his call to reintegrate the social and the political is exactly the opposite of the “invention of the social” performed by that era of French Republicanism (Donzelot). I wonder if we can think of Rosanvallon’s mode of analysis as an attempt to resuscitate a certain kind of republicanism—on one level minus its technocratic impulses, and on another level transforming its ‘socialization’ of political conflicts into an ‘institutionalization’ of today’s conflicts. On the one hand, Rosanvallon clearly says that the fabric of French society has suffered from the disassembly of the social safety net. He is, however, clearly aware that contemporary political problems are declined along ‘cultural’ as much as (more than) ‘class’ terms. Hence the need for different, not simply majoritarian, public institutions. Indeed, it might be argued that it is wrong to assert that the problems of the late 19th century were simply ‘economic’ rather than ‘cultural.’ It is worth thinking a bit more about how the conditions of the question are different in the two periods, and where Rosanvallon’s account differs from solidariste ones because of these conditions, or because he believes he has learned from their mistakes.

The third axis along which Rosanvallon argues democracy must be rethought, and around which the Grenoble conference will be organized, is the question of global democracy. This is an extremely thorny question, and the one about which Rosanvallon says the least in this quite short introduction. In essence, he says, global governance institutions cannot simply reproduce possible models for national institutions on a larger scale. Again, transparency will be key. There are no doubt practical reasons why a sort of ‘global parliament’ wouldn’t function as desired. Yet the answers that pop into my head about why ‘global’ governance simply can’t work (in some sense) like national governance tend to be answers that I would not accept in a national context. Such reflection, it seems to me, raises difficult and fundamental questions. I know that scholars such as Nancy Fraser have done interesting thinking about ways that various forms of sovereignty and organization might overlap and fit together in a global context. Still, I think Rosanvallon is correct, traditional forms of national governance won’t work on a global scale, but this is because they no longer work on a national one either, no longer make sense in, as it is so often said, an increasingly globalized international environment. Easy to say, hard to think meaningfully about.

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