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Pluralism and Democracy – Conditions for a Reconciliation
The analysis I would like to develop here begins from a statement of fact: today, it would appear,
everybody is (or at least claims to be) both a pluralist and a democrat.
In other words: these two concepts – ‘pluralism’ and ‘democracy’ – seem to have become part of
a family of concepts that defines the contemporary political common sense (along with others
such as ‘human rights’ and the ‘rule of law’).
It is sufficient to take a look at any contemporary manual of “good governance” to see that the
two terms are very often used in conjunction, and sometimes even interchangeably with each
What I would like to do in this presentation is not to question this association, but rather to
examine its philosophical foundation.
The way I propose to do this is by looking at a number of contemporary strands of democratic
theory that claim to operate a reconciliation between pluralism and democracy, in order to
examine their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately try to extrapolate the conditions for a
defensible reconciliation.
The presentation will be divided in three parts. In the first two, I will examine two dominant
strands of contemporary democratic theory that I think fail, for opposite reasons:
- On one hand, ‘deliberative’ theories of democracy provide an interpretation of the
concept of collective self-government that appears incompatible with a full recognition of
the value of pluralism, because it remains oriented towards a normative ideal of
- On the other hand, the ‘agonistic’ strand of contemporary democratic theory radicalizes
the notion of pluralism to such an extent that ultimately makes it abandon the orientation
towards an ideal of collective self-government.
On the basis of these claims, in the third part of this presentation, I propose to focus on a different
strand of democratic theory, which I think succeeds in reconciling pluralism with democracy,
because it provides a purely ‘procedural’ conception of democracy, that detaches it from the
deliberative ideal of ‘consensus’, while retaining an overarching orientation towards collective
From this, I will then proceed to extrapolate some of the philosophical conditions for a defensible
reconciliation of pluralism and democracy in the conclusion.
Let me begin, then, by outlining my objection to ‘deliberative’ theories of democracy.
From the point of view of the history of political thought, these can be understood as an attempt
to rehabilitate the Rousseauian ideal of popular sovereignty – and in particular the notion of
collective autonomy – in the light of the critiques that had been made against it during the first
part of the XXth century by so-called ‘elitist’ and ‘minimalist’ theories of democracy.
The core of the objection had been that Rousseau’s theory is predicated on a reified conception of
the ‘people’ as a substantive entity, unified by its convergence on a number of concrete projects
and desires: the so-called « general will ».
For this reason, it was held to be incompatible with a recognition of pluralism and especially
individual rights.
The contemporary strand of ‘deliberative’ theories of democracy has attempted to adapt this
conception of popular sovereignty to pluralist societies, by substituting the reified idea of the
‘people’, as a unified and homogenous entity, with that of an ongoing process of deliberation,
oriented towards the formation of a ‘consensus’.
Democracy therefore ceases to be understood as the instantaneous exercise of a « general will »,
and begins to be understood as the process of the creation of such a will, through the means of
This is supposed to reconcile the notion of collective self-government with that of pluralism
because it implies that social differences do not need to be coercively abolished, but can become
the object of the process of deliberation itself.
Jurgen Habermas, one of the most prominent exponents of the ‘deliberative’ strand of
contemporary democratic theory, has formulated this point by saying that his conception of
democracy reconciles the ‘republican’ idea of collective self-government with the ‘liberal’
concern for pluralism, because the institutionalization of a process of collective deliberation
requires the recognition of certain fundamental rights that imply the legitimacy of individual
Democracy therefore becomes the process through which all these individual differences are
reconciled with each other in search for a common ground.
The core of my objection against this conception of democracy is that, even though it recognizes
the legitimacy of pluralism as a starting point for the process of political deliberation, its goal
remains that of overcoming differences of opinion, through the achievement of a deliberative
This implies that differences of opinion are not seen as something valuable in themselves, but
rather still as a problem, that needs to be overcome.
Thus, the theory does not really incorporate a recognition of pluralism as a value, but only as a
background fact: precisely the fact that needs to be transformed and in a sense negated by the
political process.
My contention is that the underlying reason for this persistent incompatibility of ‘deliberative’
theories of democracy with a full recognition of value pluralism, is that most versions of this
strand of thought still retain one of the core aspects of Rousseau’s doctrine of popular
sovereignty, which is the essentially ‘epistemic’ conception of politics.
That is, in other words, the idea that politics consists in the process of trying to discover a ‘truth’
that exceeds it, whether this be understood as the « general will » or as a deliberative ‘consensus’.
When a political theory is based on these premises it is difficult for it to accept pluralism as a
value, because the ‘truth’ is by definition one.
Thus, from this point of view, differences of opinion can only be understood as a sign of error.
In the light of this point, I will now move on to discuss those that I have called ‘agonsitic’
theories of democracy.
Historically, this strand of thought emerges precisely out of a critique of the ‘consensualist’
aspect of deliberative theories.
Relying heavily on the insights of so-called post-structuralist or post-modern philosophy, and
especially its critique of the classical notions of subjectivity and rationality, ‘agonistic’ theories of
democracy have argued that all forms of social identification, including the drive towards
‘consensus’ itself, necessarily imply the suppression or repression of latent forms of difference.
For this reason, they have advanced that a theory of democracy based on the recognition of
pluralism cannot be reduced to the search for a ‘consensus’, but must rather seek to call into
question the existing forms of social identity that prevent the emergence of new and latent
Elevated into an organizing principle of society, this translates into a conception of democracy as
a form of society that refuses to crystallize into any given form, but rather institutionalizes the
process of its own revision.
Democratic institutions are therefore understood as the means to avoid closure on any specific
social form, leaving the space for social contestation and the emergence of new and latent forms
of identity always « open ».
This is what I take to be the core, for example, of William Connolly’s explicitly ‘agonistic’
conception of democracy, but also implicitly of other theories now in vogue, such as Claude
Lefort’s and Jacques Rancière’s.
The problem I have with this strand of democratic theory is that I think it loses one of the
essential components of the notion of democracy along the way: that is, the notion of collective
self-government; or, to put it in other terms: the orientation towards an ideal of collective
The reason is that the notion of collective ‘self-government’ necessarily supposes a ‘self’ that
exercises power on itself.
However, from the point of view of the ‘post-modern’ critique, all forms of subjectivity and
identity are necessarily repressive of potential forms of difference.
Thus, the project of autonomy itself is included amongst the range of things that constantly need
to be resisted and undermined.
The result, is a purely negative conception of politics, that leaves no room for a normative
distinction between the existing forms of social order that reflect the will of their members and
those that don’t.
This aspect of self-determination is nonetheless essential for any meaningful conception of
Thus, it seems plausible to suggest that while ‘agonistic’ theories are indeed faithful to their
pluralist premises, they are ultimately not really democratic.
Having outlined my objections to both the ‘deliberative’ and the ‘agonistic’ strands of
contemporary democratic theory, I will now move on to outline a third strand, which in my
opinion succeeds in reconciling pluralism and democracy.
The way I propose to label this strand is ‘procedural’ democracy, since this is the way in which it
is normally called by the authors who have contributed to its development.
I am aware, however, that the label is not very helpful because both the ‘deliberative’ and the
‘agonistic’ strands of contemporary democratic theory contain a ‘procedural’ element too. It will
therefore be necessary to clarify the differences between them in concreto.
The best way I can think of doing this is to follow a historical path.
The conceptual origins of the specific theory of democracy I want to outline and defend here lie
in the critique of the traditional notion of ‘sovereignty’ that was carried out in the first part of the
XXth century by a set of authors known as the English ‘pluralists’, such as Harold Laski and
William Cole.
Their insight was that sovereignty cannot be understood as the exercise of an autonomous and
independent « will» on a society that remains conceptually opposed to the state. Rather, the state
must be seen as the outcome of the interplay between a plurality of different « groups » within
On this basis, procedural democrats such as Hans Kelsen have argued that democracy ultimately
consists in a set of procedures ensuring that the outcome of the interplay between these different
« groups » reflects the underlying distribution of forces, in conformity with the democratic values
of freedom and equality.
In his book on The Essence and Value of Democracy, for example, Kelsen has claimed that the
value of the majority principle as a decision-making rule lies in the fact that it produces outcomes
which maximize the number of individuals that can be considered free within a given social
order, while treating all equally.
The result is a conception of democracy as an ongoing process of negotiation between a plurality
of social groups, aiming to find reciprocally acceptable compromises, for the purpose of
garnering a majority in parliament.
The key difference between this conception of democracy and the one I have identified as
‘deliberative’ is that in this theory there is no expectation that the outcome will overcome existing
social differences, by approximating a context-transcending idea of ‘truth’ or ‘rationality’, which
can become the object of a ‘consensus’.
Kelsen was fully aware that no such conception of ‘truth’ is available in the political domain, and
for this reason the only claim he made for the majority principle is that it produces compromises
that fairly reflect the underlying distribution of forces.
Thus, in a sense, the notion of ‘compromise’ replaces that of ‘consensus’; but the distinction is
not only terminological, because in one case social differences are overcome and subsumed; in
the other they are preserved and articulated with each other.
At the same time, the ‘procedural’ conception of democracy is also different from the ‘agonistic’
one because the idea of a ‘compromise’ between a plurality of social groups still approximates
that of a social order that reflects the will of its members.
Thus, it retains the orientation towards an idea of collective self-government, even if this is
understood in a different way from ‘deliberative’ theories of democracy.
To put it in terms of a formula, we could perhaps say that the ‘procedural’ conception of
democracy is based on a conceptual separation of the notions of truth and freedom,
while both the ‘deliberative’ and the ‘agonistic’ theories bundle them together,
either to defend or to reject both.
Before moving on to draw the implications of this, I think it may be useful to clarify a further
aspect of the ‘procedural’ conception of democracy, in order to underscore its specific relevance
to the contemporary debate on the notion of pluralism.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many of the distinctive elements of this specific conception of
democracy were appropriated by a group of American political scientists such as Robert Dahl and
Anthony Downs both as a description and as an implicit justification of so-called ‘western’ and in
particular ‘American’ democracy.
What made this ideological use of the theory possible was the reduction of the set of social
« groups » amongst which democratic institutions are supposed to generate a ‘compromise’
merely to the set of economic « interest-groups ».
This resulted in a conception of democracy essentially as an arena of negotiation between a
plurality of different lobbies: a conception that bears an uncanny similarity with Marx’s idea of
the state as the organ for the resolution of conflicts amongst the bourgeoisie, and which may help
to explain the reasons for its increasing fall into disrepute since the beginning of the 1970s.
What I would like to emphasize here, however, is that this is by no means the only possible
evolution of the ‘procedural’ conception of democracy, nor the one that appears most faithful to
its basic premises.
On the contrary, the way in which I think this theory can be made applicable to the present
context is precisely through an expansion of the range of issues to be settled procedurally, so as to
include not only interests, but also values, projects and culturally-specific world-views.
This is the strategy that was pursued for example by authors such as Norberto Bobbio and
Giovanni Sartori throughout the latter half of the past century and which led them to identify in
the political party the necessary organ of mediation between individual interests and values and
the social ‘compromises’ to be achieved at the level of the state.
More recently, Richard Bellamy has sought to apply this conception of democracy specifically to
the question of ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ pluralism, which (while certainly not the only one) is
amongst the most prominent ways in which the issue of pluralism emerges in contemporary
The central idea I seek to advance here is therefore that democratic institutions can be understood
as the framework within which all kinds of politically significant differences can be negotiated,
not for the purpose of being overcome, but rather for the purpose of finding reciprocally
acceptable ‘compromises’.
On the basis of this suggestion, in conclusion, I will attempt to extrapolate some of the abstract
conditions for a defensible reconciliation of pluralism and democracy.
The first has already been pointed out: uniting pluralism and democracy requires dissociating
democratic theory from the ‘epistemic’ conception of politics that appears to be implicit in the
idea of a search for ‘consensus’.
For, if politics is understood as the search for ‘truth’, difference can only be understood as error.
Thus, to repeat the formula I used above: the notion of freedom must be separated from that of
The second condition, however, cuts in the other direction, because it consists in a limitation of
the range of permissible pluralism, to allow for a ‘consensus’ on the specific procedures that
enable the articulation of existing differences.
This is a necessary condition of the ‘procedural’ conception of democracy I have attempted to
outline and defend, because the ‘consensus’ on the procedures is what allows individuals and
social groups to negotiate their differences within a commonly accepted framework.
Thus, the relationship between the ‘procedural’ conception of democracy and the notion of
consensus needs to be complicated: while not posited as its ultimate telos, a minimal consensus,
at least on the procedures, is a necessary condition for its reconciliation with pluralism.
Of course, this poses the question of the available grounds for this minimal ‘consensus’ within a
pluralist society.
My last contention, however, is that in order to supply an answer to this question it is not
necessary to have recourse to some notion of ‘truth’ or ‘rationality’, because it is possible to
provide an argument based exclusively on the premises of pluralism itself.
The basic idea is that the procedures of democracy ought to be accepted because they expand as
much as possible the range of different forms of life that can be made to live together peacefully
and freely.
Thus, even if the range of acceptable pluralism is not infinite, it is in the interest of expanding it
as much as possible, that pluralism itself must be restricted.