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«WITHIN democratic theory a remarkable consensus is emerging around Tocqueville’s view that the virtues and viability of a democracy depend on the ...»

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Mark E. Warren: Democracy and Association

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For COURSE PACK and other PERMISSIONS, refer to entry on previous page. For more information, send e-mail to permissions@pupress.princeton.edu One Introduction WITHIN democratic theory a remarkable consensus is emerging around Tocqueville’s view that the virtues and viability of a democracy depend on the robustness of its associational life. The consensus is rooted in a renewed appreciation for the limits of states and markets as means for making collective decisions and organizing collective actions. Associations promise other ways of getting things done, from supporting pubic spheres and providing representation to cultivating the virtues of citizens and providing alternative forms of governance. When institutions are properly designed, according to the consensus, associations provide the social substance of liberal-democratic procedures, underwrite the very possibility of markets, and provide means of resistance and alternatives when states or markets fail. Moreover, when associational life is multifaceted and cuts across identities, communities, geographies, and other potential cleavages, it provides a dense social infrastructure enabling pluralistic societies to attain a vibrant creativity and diversity within a context of multiple but governable conflicts.1 A robust associational life may enable more democracy in more domains of life, while forming and deepening the capacities and dispositions of democratic citizenship. Finally, for those committed to political equality, associations promise the means for voice for those disfavored by existing distributions of power and money.2 There are, of course, many other reasons to value associational life.

Most if not all of the goods related to sociability, intimacy, socialization, and freedom have associative dimensions and conditions. My interest in associational life here, however, is somewhat more narrowly focused on its democratic effects. I use the term effects because associations formed for a variety of goods and purposes may serve democratic goods and purposes as well. To be sure, there are often trade-offs between democratic and other kinds of goods. The extent to which freedom and democracy trade off, for example, is a staple of liberal political thought. But there are many cases in which a single purpose produces a variety of effects that, although different, do not trade off against one another, as when a nonpolitical association develops skills of organization that can be put to political use in other venues. And sometimes the trade-offs among associational effects are internal to democracy, a problem that has gone almost unremarked in the literature. The solidarity required for effective political 4 CHAPTER ONE voice and representation, for example, may work to dampen dissent and deliberation within the association, and thus limit members’ experiences of dealing with conflict by deliberative means.

Given the current state of democratic theory, however, it is virtually impossible to relate these democratic hopes and expectations to the kinds of associational life we have or might have in the future. Associational life may be moving to the center of many democratic theories today, but there has been relatively little theoretical work that specifies

• what we should expect associations to do for democracies or

• why we should expect associations to carry out these democratic functions.

This book is a modest attempt to think about and theorize these two questions.

The most important reasons to attend to the associational terrain of democracy have less to do with democratic theory, however, than with social and political changes that are surpassing its conceptual capacities.

Our received democratic theories were crafted during an era in which the nation-state was consolidating and had become the primary locus of nonmarket collective action. Under these circumstances, the business of doing democratic theory was relatively simple—at least compared to what it has become. Democratic theorists could focus on questions of representation, inclusion, distributions of state and state-sanctioned powers, and the characters of citizens. These traditional issues in democratic theory are hardly obsolete. Strong constitutional states are necessary to robust democracies, remaining central agents in achieving distributive justice, enforcing rights, providing security, and carrying out many other functions necessary to democracy. But they are now less encompassing of politics and collective action: the locus, domain, and nature of politics is changing, becoming more extensive and many times more complex.3 The era of the nation-state is not gone. But the forces and capacities distinctive of the state are increasingly overlaid by numerous other forces and contingencies, so much so that the terrain of politics is no longer focused solely by state-centered institutions, organizations, and movements. Nor, with changing modes of production, technology, and communication, is the landscape of economic interests as it was even a few decades ago. Combine these changes with an increase in identity politics and other postmodern features of political culture, and we can see that we are now faced with the very generic problem of rethinking the nature and location of collective action.4 The new prominence of associations—and the need for a democratic theory of association—needs to be understood broadly within this context, which involves four distinct although interrelated features. In different ways, each pushes the question of association to the foreground.


Globalization Numerous forces are now pushing toward interdependencies among nation-states, including the development of global markets in finances, capital investment, labor, manufacturing, and services. There is an absolute increase in the numbers of immigrants and refugees flowing across borders. Environmental degradation likewise flows across borders, in many cases producing global effects. Global security alliances are in flux, as state-based actors such as NATO seek to redefine their missions in the aftermath of the Cold War. At the same time, new forms of communication are enabling new global publics, especially in the areas of human rights and environmental issues. There are new global associations as well as new transnational political regimes such as the European Union (EU) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) labor and environmental riders. Each such development means that states lose some of their control over their resources and populations, a condition that can limit the extent to which democratic self-rule can be achieved through the state. But these same developments can weaken the powers of predatory states, while opening new, global venues of democracy.5 Differentiation Late-modern societies reproduce themselves through differentiated systems and sectors, each with its own distinct logics, purposes, criteria, and inertia. At the highest level of abstraction, states are differentiated from markets, with states attending to matters of social order through law and administration and markets organizing production and consumption via the medium of money. States and markets are in turn differentiated from systems of social reproduction located in families, schools, religious institutions, and other social groups. Late-modern societies likewise involve specialized systems for the reproduction of knowledge and culture located in universities, sheltered government research programs, and institutions devoted to arts and culture. More generally, differentiation enhances capacities for segmented collective action, not only owing to the advantages of specialization, but because distinct sectors develop their own norms and criteria. Markets respond to effective demand, art responds to aesthetic criteria, states work within the domain of positive law and administrative law, science develops factual claims, families cultivate primary socialization and intimacy, and so on. At the same time, differentiation tends to politicize society in ways that constrain these enhanced capacities. In differentiated societies, states do not control the resources necessary to the reproduction of society. Ironically, perhaps a measure of the success of liberal-democratic constitutionalism is the extent to which capacities for collective action migrate into society. But these same developments


shift political conflict into society in ways that exceed the capacities of state institutions to mediate. In addition, differentiation fuels coordination difficulties—not just because of the lack of agents with capacities to coordinate, but also because the criteria embedded within sectors are often incommensurable. For example, socialization within families often conflicts with demands of the market; art for art’s sake can conflict with moral socialization; market-driven demands for technology can conflict with pure science; and ethics of duty cultivated by religious and secular moral codes can conflict with the instrumental reasoning typical of markets and government bureaucracies. Differentiation thus increases sectoral capacities for collective action, while also increasing the zones of political conflict and undermining political responsibility. The state’s control over coercive resources makes it a key player—maybe even the ultimate player6—but it increasingly lacks capacities to respond to political conflict, let alone engage in global planning.

Complexity While increasing differentiation increases capacities, it also increases the complexity of collective actions. As Ulrich Beck has argued, the era in which collective actions could be conceived on the modern model—the application of rationally developed and monitored plans to deal with social problems—is over. Large-scale collective actions within complex environments produce unintended consequences, which in turn politicize their environments in reactive ways. Owing to the unanticipated side effects of engineering-based models of social change (for example, the costs of monoculture and pesticides in food production, dysfunctional neighborhoods resulting from planned urban renewal, birth defects caused by new medicines, and stockpiled nuclear wastes), there is a broadly based public skepticism about large-scale planning—what in a similar spirit James Scott refers to as the unmasked pretensions of “high modernity.”7 We have, in Beck’s terms, entered into an era of risk avoidance.8 In a “risk society,” collective actions are accompanied by political calculations that distribute risk according to the constituencies that are mobilized by any given plan. Risk consciousness tends to focus on complexity and contingency, increasing the potential political opposition to any given collective action. As Claus Offe puts it, “The larger the horizon of ‘actually’ possible options becomes, the more difficult grows the problem of establishing reflexive countertendencies which would make reasonably sure that one’s own action remains compatible with the ‘essential’ premises of the other affected spheres of action.”9 This “absence of concern for consequences” is crisis inducing and erodes tolerance for modernization processes.10 In Beck’s terms, political institutions have become subject to an increasing “congestion”: mobilization around distributions of risk produces an “inINTRODUCTION voluntary deceleration” of the political capacities of governments as “various groups and levels of decision-making... mobilize the legal means of the state against one another.”11 Pluralization and Reflexivity These developments are intertwined with changing patterns of individuation. Owing to their differentiation, complexity, and fluidity, modern societies array multiple biographical choices before individuals. As with other developments, this one is paradoxical as well. On the one hand, individuals are subject to the late-modern condition of choice. Choice cannot, as it were, be refused, nor can the responsibility that accompanies choice.

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