Neoliberalism, the Street, and the Forum (or what the Eurozone could learn from the Greek left)

My Greek Uncle Rathos spent two months living in the dark. In September 2011, in response to pressure from its European creditors, the Greek government imposed a new property tax to be paid via electric utility bills.[1] A construction contractor hit hard by the financial crisis, my uncle couldn’t make those tax payments and so his electricity was cut off. Reportedly, 350,000 other households suffered the same fate.[2] This was just one in a series of austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and other lenders to deal with the supposed debt crisis: i.e., that Greece’s ratio of debt to Gross Domestic Product was too high.[3] But rather than find ways to pump up Greece’s economy and thus its GDP, the IMF and Eurozone leaders have focused on bringing down its debt. Austerity measures toward this end have included wage cuts and layoffs of civil service workers, reduced job security and severance pay for private sector workers, reduced benefits and imposed budget cuts, all of which have exacerbated unemployment levels that, as of this writing, are about 27% overall and 60% for those under 25.[4] Additionally Greece was called on to engage in “structural change,” that is, to make its economy more conducive to market processes via methods such as privatization.[5] There is no alternative, the people are told: you have to get your house in order and the only way to do this is to increase taxes, privatize government agencies, and cut government spending. “There is no alternative,” a favorite phrase of Maggie Thatcher’s when she deregulated and privatized Great Britain’s economy, now has its own acronym, TINA. And it is the iron logic guiding fiscal public policies ever since Maggie Thatcher’s day, our neoliberal era.

But of course there are alternatives. For one, rather than try to wrest from a struggling economy every euro that could go to lowering its debt, efforts could be made to build the economy. The bigger the GDP, the lower the debt-to-GDP ratio. But this Keynesian way of thinking is passé. The current thinking calls for no thinking at all. Why think over vexed and fraught and divisive issues when we can simply invoke an economic truism: bring down government spending and let markets flourish. That is the mantra of neoliberalism. But whatever the mantra or truism—previous eras and societies each had their favorites, including the Keynesian one itself —whenever one is invoked and discussion is ended we are in the midst of an “anti-political” era, a bad place for a polity (or union of polities, such as the EU) that considers itself democratic to be; yet this is where we are now.[6] And that is the problem this chapter addresses.

I do this by leaning hard on what the word politics actually means, which I will explain shortly, and by rethinking the relationship between three somewhat idealized (by me for the purpose of this chapter) realms of contemporary political communities: the neoliberal political halls of state, the people on the streets (“the social” or social movements), and the people in deliberative political forums (“the political,” which could include both elected officials who dare to think and citizens who want to think through the difficulties too, that is, to engage in the political). Hence the title: neoliberalism, the street, and the forum.

The major philosopher I engage here is Hannah Arendt. Perhaps no other thinker has conceptualized the political so robustly yet in the process so demeaned what social movements do. Here I engage her thinking and try to think with her beyond her to show that the relationship between the social and political is not oppositional but complementary, and that together they can powerfully counter neoliberalism’s anti-politics. Establishing the right complementarity between contestation and deliberation is crucial for finding a path out of the gridlock of the politics of “no alternative.” I proceed as follows: first, I say a bit more about neoliberalism’s anti-politics; second, I consider the tensions between the social and the political; third, I reconsider what political deliberation is; fourth, I give a brief account of the political writ large; and fifth I close with a section on what the social activist contributes to politics, the challenge to think what we are doing.

Neoliberalism’s Anti-politics

In the years between the Great Depression and the late 1970s, “we were all Keynesians” and it was common practice in developed countries to regulate business and trade, from the US Glass-Steagall Act that separated banking from venture capital to the trade barriers that benefited domestic products and labor.[7] But Margaret Thatcher helped put an end to all that, privatizing the public sector, dismantling regulations, lowering trade barriers. Leaders of other countries (from the US to China to Argentina) followed suit. Today, supposedly, we are, if not all neoliberals, definitely either suffering or benefitting from neoliberalism. Those at the very upper echelons of the income distribution keep getting richer while the poor are as poor as ever.[8] The financial collapse of 2008 managed to further transfer funds from the very poor and the middle class to the ultra-rich.

As David Harvey puts it, “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey 2005, 18 of 710). Neoliberalism is both a set of ideas and a practice, the first pristine, if heartless, and the second pragmatically sullied.[9] Ideally, according to neoliberalism, markets should function without government interference, but in practice markets fail and governments come to the rescue—not so much to save the citizenry but to save the bankers and chieftains of business.[10] During the post-Depression era of regulation, economies the world over were relatively stable, and so neoliberals began arguing that crises were behind us and it was time to deregulate and unfetter the market (Stiglitz 2010). But it was the regulations that led to stability, as Stiglitz notes, and without them the world has experienced one economic crisis after another.[11]

Nonetheless, neoliberalism has become hegemonic. World leaders, rather than wrestle with these problems on their own terms, defer to neoliberal measures as technocratic solutions to social and economic problems. For example, European leaders have insisted on austerity measures to deal with the economic crises in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, despite evidence that austerity measures only aggravate matters —and that the problems were effects of neoliberalist policies (Herndon et al. 2013). Worse, these decisions were not made through the democratic process afforded by the European Union, that is, in the European Parliament, but rather behind closed doors by a few select heads of state. Rather than be led by public will formed in a democratic process, they invoked technocratic market solutions. Commenting on this development, Jürgen Habermas told a reporter, “for the first time in the history of the EU, we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy” (Diez 2011).

Neoliberalism depoliticizes. As Benjamin Barber clearly explains, politics is the practice of a collectivity deciding what to do in the midst of uncertainty and disagreement (Barber 1984). Politics engages that uncertainty; it takes seriously that people have different points of view and values and concerns. Democratic politics tries to find a way for all those affected to come to some kind of agreement about what ought to be done in the midst of all this uncertainty and disagreement. But neoliberalism denies any uncertainty. It offers up a seeming truth: that unfettered markets create more prosperity for all. So when political leaders turn to neoliberal “solutions” rather than admit to uncertainty and the need for public deliberation and choice, in the rich Aristotelian sense,[12] they are depoliticizing these very political matters.

Not only are neoliberal policies often unsound and antidemocratic, they are blind and deaf to the suffering of those they harm. And the parties that created the problems are often rewarded while the innocent suffer. Moreover, neoliberal policies reaffirm the status quo, and the presuppositions of neoliberalism go unexamined. Those in power come to take it as “natural” and “just the way it is,” and because they are largely personally unaffected, they cannot see what is amiss with the dominant order.

But those adversely affected can see the harm firsthand, especially once they have joined together with others likewise affected. Enrique Dussel describes the process by which those who are victims of a dominant system can become critically conscious of its failings and able to imagine new alternatives (Dussel 2008 and 2013). These victims become socio-historical actors able to articulate and chart a new direction. But because what they are calling for can sound so alien and unnatural to the norms of the dominant order, they can be dismissed as irrational, strident, or even dangerous. In another idiom, we can call these critical communities of victims protesters, dissidents, activists, and social movements. They are the people of Occupy Wall Street and Puerta del Sol. They are the “Dreamers” in the United States, young undocumented immigrants who dared to march in public. They are the advocates for the plight of women, gays, transgendered people, animals, ecosystems and other others. If they manage to capture the public imagination, they can put new items on the public agenda, which may then be taken up by a political process that will then deliberate on a much wider and far-reaching range of alternatives than it would have otherwise. As a result policies that might have been previously barely thinkable by the body politic can become a reality. A perfect example is the movement in the United States for marriage equality.

Social Movements have made great strides in many countries. But as neoliberalism escapes national borders, as it becomes globalized, the challenges multiply. Increasingly, there are fewer ways for political processes, including both social movements and deliberative bodies, to hold globalized neoliberal forces accountable. Moreover, there is much tension between social movements and deliberative bodies, with the latter accusing the former of being uncivil and the former accusing the latter of being beholden to the dominant order.

The remainder of this chapter offers a way out of this impasse.

Tensions Between the Social and the Political

At the outset of this book the editors write that, “while the streets have seen the most intensive social mobilization of the past decades, the realm of politics has shrunk.” This may seem paradoxical at first. In the past decade, millions have taken to the streets the world over in protest of one thing or another. Are these demonstrations political? In one sense, surely: demonstrators are expressing hopes for decisions and actions to be taken in one direction or another. But in another sense, they are not: politics is collective choice, not merely expressions of preference, however strongly expressed, over what should be done (McAfee 2013). But the point the editors were making was not about social movements but about the realm in which “judgment and responsibility, …imagination and change” take place, that is, the space for political deliberation and action. And in a robust democracy it would begin at the local, ward level and bubble all the way up to representative assemblies. Clearly Angela Merkel and other world leaders are not engaged in anything like this kind of political imaginative action, as they are captives of the neoliberal dogma of unavoidable “structural change.”

I will broaden the frame of politics shortly to identify how social movements fit into the political, but for now I want to focus very specifically on the meaning of what is quintessentially political. For Arendt, the political has the following features: (1) Human beings distinguish themselves (become a “who” and not just a “what”) through their speech and action in the company of others, others who may record these words and deeds to save them from futility. (2) Political actions create something new and no one can predict what they will trigger. (3) When people in all their plurality come together in the space of appearance, a form of power emerges, not strength and certainly not violence, but a power potential that can be used toward world-disclosing and world-building activities. “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company,” Arendt writes, “where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities” (Arendt 1958, 200). (5) And a fifth point, less explicit in any single text of Arendt’s but drawn from the whole, is that politics calls for “thinking without banisters,” that is, without appealing to any given truth or foundation. (This is what is problematic in the trans-ideological policy consensus of neoliberal structural reforms, i.e. labor and product market liberalization and deregulation.) And it really calls for thinking, as in the two-in-one activity when I question what I am thinking one moment and then turn it around and think about it from another side. Nothing can be taken as a given, as “just the way it is.” In collectively fashioning our world with others, there are no antecedent metaphysical or even technical truths to lean on. We are left with wooing the consent of others on the basis only of how compelling our vision might be.[13] So politics for Arendt is a communicative process of thinking and deciding and creating new realities.[14]

So the very essence of politics is, as Aristotle, Arendt, and many others have noted, deciding what ought to be done on matters of common concern in the midst of uncertainty and disagreement. “A political question thus takes the form,” as Benjamin Barber put it in 1984, “What shall we do when something has to be done that affects us all, we wish to be reasonable, yet we disagree on means and ends and are without independent grounds for making the choice?”[15] Barber points out that the heart of politics is deciding what action to take “under the worst possible circumstances, when the grounds of choice are not given a priori or by fiat or by pure knowledge.”[16] That is, politics is the practice of deciding what to do when we have no basis for agreement. Echoing Arendt, Barber writes, “To be political is thus to be free with a vengeance—to be free in the unwelcome sense of being without guiding standards or determining norms yet under an ineluctable pressure to act.” Without a standard and in the midst of a plurality of points of view, politics is the practice of wooing the consent of others, of debating and deliberating, weighing and choosing, imagining and constituting new futures. For Arendt, politics is decidedly not about exercising coercion or violence to get one’s way. Rather it is about exercising public freedom in concert with others to decide the future. It will also involve (to draw in some of Arendt’s later work on judgment), appreciating others’ different perspectives and trying to offer directions that people with these other points of view would agree to in order to successfully woo their consent. For Arendt, then, all real politics is participatory and deliberative. In short, it squares very nicely with theories of deliberative democracy, which describe how people collectively work through their differences to decide what to do.

A problem in Hannah Arendt’s theory of politics emerges, though, when she tries to clarify its meaning by contrasting it to the private and to the social (Arendt 1958). The private, taking place in the household, is she argues the space for attending to bodily needs and the reproduction of life. The public space of appearance, namely the city, is for her where politics takes place, that is the speech and action through which things would be decided. Over time the economic, reproductive activity that had occurred in the household moved out into society, into guilds, factories, and other visible spaces. But not everyone’s needs were met and eventually the wretched poor would make their demands (Arendt 1963, 109-113). Today we would call these demands social justice claims and consider them to be political demands. But Arendt drew a bright line between questions of need and matters of politics often in ways that are quite shocking and problematic (e.g., her opposition to forced desegregation). Hence it is more difficult to tie together what Arendt meant by the social and social movements today. But I will try.

For Arendt, the rise of the social was the process whereby things that had been hidden in the household—intimacy, labor, and work, that is, all reproductive and productive life—seeped into visible society and started eroding both the private and public life (Arendt 1958, 45). The “life process itself” has over the past few centuries “been channeled into the public realm” so that most people are now seen in terms of what they do for a living rather than how they distinguish themselves as citizens (Arendt 1958, 45-47). Or they come into the public square beseeching others to attend to their bodily needs. The social, Arendt worries, with its attention to the mere reproduction and production of life, has eclipsed the political. The social’s focus on mere life aims for liberation from deprivation; whereas the political aims for collective participation in creating something new.

Arendt’s point is partially true. Many social movements are focused on equal access to the necessities of the “life process itself,” including movements against poverty and for fair housing, nutrition, clean water, etc. Other movements are for something “higher” than that, especially those movements aimed at political freedom, the right to vote, the right to be treated with dignity. Unfortunately, Arendt did not appreciate how much “mere life” was fundamental and certainly a precondition for being a citizen. Nor did she anticipate how neoliberalism’s austerity measures — including cutting off people’s electricity in the dead of winter — would threaten life itself. On this point, the contemporary Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel rightly argues that life is the foundation for any kind of politics and the deprivation of life is what often kick-starts political engagement and any real social transformation (Dussel 2008 and 2013). Moreover, Arendt’s bright line between the social and the political misses the connection between the two. Richard Bernstein notes that Arendt “does not do justice to the fact that every revolutionary movement in the modern age has begun with a growing sense of some grave social injustice, with the demand for what she calls liberation” (Bernstein 1986, 255). Nonetheless, I think the Arendtian point to hang on to is that, to be political, social justice claims are not only about the maintenance and reproduction of life itself but also about having standing in a community to help shape that community’s future. We can disagree with Arendt about whether or not social justice claims are political, but I think we should agree with her that these do not exhaust the meaning of politics. There is more to politics than attending to needs.

Another distinction between the social and political is important: where the political is deliberative, the social is not, at least not in broad strokes. Social movements—whether the malheureux of the French Revolution which Arendt denounces or demonstrators on the streets outside World Trade Organization meetings—in general are very suspicious of deliberative decision-making.[17] This is not to say that they do not value deliberation within their own movements—Occupy Wall Street was known for its wide-ranging and long discussions. Rather they act and demonstrate in opposition to some aspect of the prevailing system; they are rarely interested in deliberating with representatives of the system—though they might agree to meet to convey their “demands.” Social movements are sometimes the flip side of neoliberalism. Each side will have its pet solution and resist any call for wrestling politically — as defined above — with the matter.

Many social movements square with interest group politics, which sees politics largely as a zero-sum game with parties fighting over scarce resources and action being largely strategic and communication rhetorical. With that kind of political imaginary, activists in social movements would think political deliberation to be foolish. Deliberative theory arose as an alternative to that mindset (Barker et al. 2012, 4-8) and tried to create an imaginary of politics as legitimate collective choice. Where interest group politics is a naked clash of power, most deliberative theorists hope for something closer to Arendt’s account of the political.

Whether there can be any kind of complementary relationship between the street and the forum depends a great deal on how political deliberation is understood. There are a number of approaches, from the strictly rationalist one that focuses on reason-giving to those that are more open to emotion, narrative, and plurality of perspectives. The reason-giving approach is better known and draws the following sharp distinctions about what counts as deliberative:[18]

  • Rhetoric vs. Reason. Where movements and interest groups use language strategically to manipulate audiences, deliberative bodies should aim for the “unforced force of the better argument.”
  • Passion vs. Being Objective. People are mobilized by their emotions and passions, but deliberation calls for a cool detached approach to public matters.
  • Uncivil vs. Civil. Where the activist is strident and disrespectful of public order, the deliberator is respectful of other reasonable points of view.
  • Particular vs. Universal. Activists aim to improve their own lot, while deliberation calls for arriving at policies that would benefit all.
  • Dissensus vs. Consensus. Those who are serious about deliberation are more hopeful about the possibility of coming to some mutual agreement.

It would seem, then, that these two approaches to politics are at loggerheads. But this is only the case if we adopt a very narrow understanding of what political deliberation is. There is an alternative account that I find both more plausible and promising, which I turn to now.

Political Deliberation: Reason-Giving or Choicework?

The philosophical literature on deliberative democracy is vast, but there are two constants throughout virtually all of it. First is the idea that a collectivity of free and equal citizens can and should address together political questions of the form, “What ought we to do?” As Habermas puts it, this question arises “when certain problems that must be managed cooperatively impose themselves or when action conflicts requiring consensual solutions crop up” (Habermas 1996, 158). Second is the idea that deliberation on such questions is first and foremost a cognitive enterprise in which participants engage in the back and forth of reason-giving. As James Bohman writes in a recent essay, “At the core of deliberative democracy, in any of its forms, is the idea that deliberation essentially involves publicly giving reasons to justify decisions, policies or laws, all of which are the means by which citizens constitute and regulate their common life together” (Bohman 2009, 28). Or, as Habermas writes, “Handling these questions in a rational way demands an opinion- and will-formation that leads to justified decisions about the pursuit of collective goals and the normative regulation of life in common” (Habermas 1996, 158).

I share the first idea: that deliberative democracy focuses on collectively addressing questions of what should be done. But I depart considerably from the second view—that deliberation is primarily a cognitive process of justification via reason-giving, or that we must “handle” these questions “in a rational way.” I disagree because I think cognition is only a small part of what goes on in deliberative practice. I see deliberation as a means of inquiry and integration: by inquiry I mean starting with uncertainty and actively trying to gauge what road is better and by integration I mean appreciating the plurality of views in the room and trying to fashion them together in something like Kant and Arendt’s enlarged mentality. The reason-giving focus misses what is central to making difficult choices both personally and politically. No doubt there are moments in a deliberative process when deliberators will offer reasons in support of their views; but these are just moments in a process whose character is fundamentally different. Choice and will-formation are not simply cognitive matters. Certainly reasons enter in but more central are matters of purpose, value, identity, and aspiration: these are deeply affective, and the process of choosing is not done until we have come out the other side, reconciled and willing to go down one life path rather than another.

While it may be possible for people to deliberate dispassionately, rationally, and coolly in an attempt to reach universally acceptable norms and policies, it is hardly necessary for them to do so. Based on my own experience observing and convening many deliberative forums, the political aim of deliberation is to achieve a shared sense of what ought to be done. [19] Therefore it is important for deliberators to work through the costs and consequences of various courses of action. But this notion is nearly entirely absent from any of the deliberative theory literature in the Habermasian and Rawlsian veins. In that literature the focus is on reasoned argumentation among free and equal citizens who are motivated to reach a rational consensus (Cohen 1999, 74-75). Some theorists would bar the door against anyone coming in with any airs or gripes (e.g., Gutmann and Thompson 1996). That would effectively exclude half the citizenry.

A key difference between the reason-focused deliberations imagined by theorists and the ones I have observed (especially those of the National Issues Forums, see is that the latter are led by moderators trained in the process of “choicework,” a term coined by Kettering Foundation President David Mathews who had been in conversation with the public opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich about developments in more participatory democracy.[20] In an earlier version of the six democratic practices described below, Yankelovich identifies three stages: (1) consciousness raising, (2) working through, and (3) resolution (Yankelovich 1991, 63-65). The first is the early stage of people giving problems a name and making them meaningful; the second is the deliberative process of deciding what ought to be done about the problem; and the third is the process of coming to a public judgment and will on the matter. Yankelovich specifically uses the psychoanalytic language of “working through” to make sense of what happens in deliberation when people are wrestling with choices, values, and tradeoffs. “When people are caught in cross pressures, before they can resolve them it is necessary to struggle with the conflicts and ambivalences and defenses they arouse” (Yankelovich 1991, 64). Choicework is the process of moving from initial and often erratic public opinion to more reflective and often stable public judgment. As an opinion researcher, Yankelovich had seen how it could take decades for the public to go through this process. Holding public forums that “force a choice” is a way to condense this process and move the public along.

Any path taken means that another will not be. In choosing, we have to deal with consequences and mourn the losses of what we choose not to pursue. This is a truly difficult and momentous aspect of choice. To appreciate it one needs to recognize that much political choice is not simply a choice between what one group wants versus what another wants. Often any one of us has to choose because we cannot have it all, no matter how much we want to. We have to decide, and going through the process of decision involves mourning the path not taken.

Any community that is undergoing a difficult choice is dealing with deep questions of identity. It is when we—individuals, communities, peoples—are undergoing difficult choices that we find that what is difficult is at bottom a question of what kind of people we want to be. The question of immigration simmering in the United States is fundamentally a question about what kind of nation the United States should be, in terms of ethnicity, generosity, cohesiveness, openness, and all. Ultimately, whether on the immigration debate or on school policies, in our difficult choices we are shaping the contours of our common world.

As I discuss elsewhere, this is a deeply affective process (McAfee 2013). It calls for understanding others’ points of view, which invites participants to talk about their own stories and how they came to hold their views. It also involves understanding what is at issue in the issue they are addressing, that is, how they are personally connected to it and what is at stake for them.

These can be emotionally charged deliberations. What keeps them civil is not that people are being polite to each other (though that’s a nice thing) but that they are oriented to things having to do with civic, that is, public life. So even angry protesters can be considered civil.

Even without strong dichotomies between the social and the political, the differences between social movements and deliberative bodies are real, with the first being more oriented to social and political criticism and raising public awareness of a problem and the second oriented more to deliberatively choosing what to do. But even as different as they are, the differences are not necessarily oppositional. As I will show in the remainder of this chapter, the relationship can be complementary: each is an important moment in a larger democratic political process that is able to challenge effectively the technocratic politics of “no alternative.”

The Political Writ Large

The more that elected officials defer to market solutions, the more important it is for the public sphere to become political—political in the sense of identifying what the important challenges are; deliberating and deciding in the midst of uncertainty and plurality of views what ought to be done; and developing public judgment and will about matters of common concern. Absent such public will, leaders can continue their neoliberal policies unchallenged, their legitimacy unquestioned. The divergence between public will and elite decision-making leads to legitimation crises that demand resolution.

In this light it is, I think, important to see the specific functions that social movements and deliberative public bodies can play as part of a robust public political process that can counter the depoliticizing actions of government leaders. By seeing the difference between them it is possible to see how they perform distinct functions in a larger political process. Moreover, we should see these different functions taking place as different moments and any one of us can shift from one function to another, from mobilizing to deliberating to organizing.

The Kettering Foundation (KF) has identified six “democratic practices” that citizens should engage in for democracy to “work as it should.”[21] These nicely delineate the various moments of democratic public work. The following description of these steps is KF’s language.

  1. Naming problemsto reflect the things people consider valuable and hold dear, not expert information alone.
  2. Framing issuesfor decision making that not only takes into account what people value but also fairly lays out all the major options for acting—that is, with full recognition of the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
  3. Making decisions deliberativelyto move opinions from first impressions to more shared and reflective judgment.
  4. Identifying and committing civic resources, assets that often go unrecognized and unused.
  5. Organizing civic actionsso they complement one another, which makes the whole of people’s efforts more than the sum of the parts.
  6. Learning togetherall along the way to keep up civic momentum.[22]

KF sees these all as practices that a deliberative public can engage in. I want to show that there is also an important role for social movements. The first two practices are matters of identifying what a problem is and how we might think of it. Often this task falls on social movements to raise awareness of a problem and show how it is a problem (Habermas 1996). The third, deliberating, is a matter for deliberative publics, and it can take place informally throughout society (Mansbridge 2012, Young 2012) as well as in more formal town meetings. Practice four (identifying and committing civic resources) picks up on Arendt’s notion of public generative power, that when people come together they can create new potential. Also they can see how to make use of something that has previously gone fallow. Both social movements and deliberative bodies play a role here. Practice five is the step to action, often decentered and uncoordinated but complementary. (A nice example is the farm-to-table movement with farmers, merchants, chefs, and consumers finding ways to create more sustainable food economies.) And the sixth step, learning, is about remaining open to judging how it all went and what could be done differently going forward. (This is the antithesis of any “best practices” model.)

These practices don’t necessarily occur in any linear fashion. Moreover they are iterative. A first pass through a problem may turn up new unforeseen consequences and problems. This is what is so important about the sixth stage of learning, which I think resonates a bit more clearly in an Arendtian frame, especially her ideas of thinking and judging (Arendt 1978). Learning is a process of critically reflecting on a state of affairs, internally and collectively practicing the two-in-one back and forth of considering and reconsidering our thoughts about matters, being open to seeing something differently, not reifying some practice or institutions as “just the way it is.” Learning, then, loops back into re-naming and re-framing problems. The policies that a deliberative process may have resulted in may bring about unforeseen consequences that a social movement then names and begins to frame.

These six practices focus on what publics can do, including both social movements and deliberative publics; but they also point to the legitimacy question I mentioned above. If the public in its informal deliberations (what Mansbridge calls “everyday talk”) begins to develop public judgment and will X, but elected officials are operating on notion Y, then the government’s legitimacy comes under question. For ultimately the power and authority of any state in the modern era derives from public will. When the state becomes oblivious to its real source of authority, then it loses its legitimacy and risks becoming corrupt (Dussel 2008).

Thinking What We Are Doing

In closing I deepen the discussion of how social movements can productively challenge and engage deliberative publics and then how these deliberative publics can do their work more expansively. In a 2001 essay, Iris Marion Young pushed back against the ideals of deliberative democratic theory to show some of the virtues of the non-deliberative social activist. In the essay, “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy,” Young put a hypothetical social activist in conversation with a deliberative democrat to show how their “prescriptions for good citizenship” clash:

As I construe her character, the deliberative democrat claims that parties to political conflict ought to deliberate with one another and through reasonable argument try to come to an agreement on policy satisfactory to all. The activist is suspicious of exhortations to deliberate because he believes that in the real world of politics, where structural inequalities influence both procedures and outcomes, democratic processes that appear to conform to norms of deliberation are usually biased toward more powerful agents. The activist thus recommends that those who care about promoting greater justice should engage primarily in critical oppositional activity, rather than attempt to come to agreement with those who support or benefit from existing power structures. (Young 2001, 671)

Earlier in this chapter I broadened the narrow view of deliberation as “reasonable argument” to include emotions and attachments. But still the social activist will likely bristle at the call to sit down and talk. There are a number of worries that the activist will have:

  • that not all affected will be included or represented in the discussion, especially those most harmed by the prevailing political order,
  • that the norms of deliberative discussion favor those who are most articulate and educated,
  • that “existing social and economic structures have set unacceptable constraints on the terms of deliberation and its agenda” (Young 2001, 682), and
  • that the prevailing “common sense” may be systematically distorted by ideology or hegemonic norms, constraining participants’ social imagination over what alternatives are possible (Young 2001, 685-687).

The first two of these can be handled pretty well. Informally, those who convene deliberative forums can make a concerted effort to get representatives of all affected into the room, perhaps by starting with the questions, “Who else needs to be here? Why aren’t they here?” More formally, those who convene deliberative forums that make explicit claims to represent the populace, such as Deliberative Polling, can and do use the tools of random sampling to include a cross-section that represents all. The second concern can be addressed by having (1) experienced moderators and (2) a broad understanding of deliberation as choicework that welcomes multiple forms of deliberation, as I discussed earlier.

The third and fourth concerns are more substantial and, in fact, true. As someone who has been involved in framing issues for public discussion, I can attest to the constraints that existing social and economic structures set on the range of choices put forward. This isn’t simply bad faith on the part of the issue framers; it’s a matter of meeting the public where it is, giving people a familiar place to start. And this leads straight into the fourth worry, that the prevailing common sense renders some alternatives invisible. By “naturalizing” the way things are, cultural hegemony or ideology makes it nearly impossible to see how things might be otherwise.

It is here that social movements have work to do. As Young writes,

Because he suspects some agreements of making unjust power relations, the activist believes it is important to continue to challenge these discourses and the deliberative processes that rely on them, and often he must do so by nondiscursive means—pictures, song, poetic imagery, and expressions of mockery and longing performed in rowdy and even playful ways aimed not at commanding assent but disturbing complacency. One of the activist’s goals is to make us wonder about what we are going, to rupture a stream of thought, rather than to weave an argument. (Young 2001, 687)

The last line of this quote echoes Hannah Arendt’s admonishment to “think what we are doing.” It is for lack of such thinking that injustice and evil arise. We need to think so that we don’t take “the way things are” as natural and immutable; but because we are often caught up, we fail to think. Social movements can help us think what we are doing.

This is why the ideas of a social movement that seemed radical and outlandish years ago can seem commonplace today. If successful, they rupture hegemonic ways of thinking and put previously unimagined issues on the public agenda. They can identify problems and frame new alternatives, just as the abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights movements have done, and as Dreamers and gay marriage activists are doing today. The role then of public deliberation is to seriously consider and include these new alternative frameworks in their deliberations.

This can allow for a political process that can see beyond what is and imagine things different. As neoliberalism becomes globalized and world leaders abandon the political, it is ever more important for transnational public spheres to harness both the counterhegemonic power of social movements as well as the power of deliberative publics to do the work of working through a wide range of possible direction, weigh the costs and consequences in a deeply engaged way, come to public judgment, and develop public will that can hold even the most remote leaders accountable.

In sum, I have argued that social movements are centrally involved in the democratic practices of a larger political process. This schema of democratic politics writ large suggests that many of the oppositional dichotomies between social activism and public deliberation are wrong, including many of the adjectives used to describe each side (e.g., reasonable versus emotional). It is important to appreciate how the power of the dominant order, no matter how democratically achieved, needs to be regularly assessed by a public sphere robust through both its mobilizing and organizing. Only in this way can the creative political potentials of deliberative and contestatory practices pose a serious challenge to the iron reason of the hegemonic TINA logic.

Works Cited

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[1] Final text and volume in which this is found

As the Wall Street Journal reported on December 21, 2013, “In September 2011, after facing a budget shortfall just months after receiving its first bailout from international creditors, Greece imposed a real estate tax that it placed on electricity bills and is collected by the country’s power company. Known as the haratsi, the tax has become one of the most unpopular measures Greece has undertaken in its bid to improve its fiscal health. Greece is now replacing this tax with a new one, which effectively shifts the tax burden onto the assets of tax payers rather than just assessing the income of those possessing the property. The law has been given the nod by the country’s international creditors, its euro zone partners and the International Monetary Fund, who are demanding that Greece moves ahead with a series of structural reforms to keep funding lines open to its EUR240 billion rescue package.” (Stamouli 2013)

[2] KTG 2013.

[3] According to Trading Economics, Greece’s ratio topped out at 170.3. Japan’s ratio is now 211, but no one seems to be rushing to impose austerity on Japan. Germany’s ratio is about 80% and the U.S.’s is 102%. Retrieved February 25, 2014.

[4] Kitsantonis 2013.

[5] For a discussion of structural change, see this IMF interview with the Harvard economist, Dani Rodrik: Retrieved February 22, 2014.

[6] This isn’t just a European phenomenon. David Brooks notes the same about the United States, that the old policies of investing in the economy are outmoded and that structural change is on the horizon. Retrieved February 25, 2014.

[7] See Time magazine’s December 31, 1965, cover story: “The Economy: We Are All Keynesians Now.”,9171,842353,00.html. Retrieved February 22, 2014.

[8]See The Economist’s story, “The rich get richer,” September 12, 2013. Retrieved February 25, 2014.

[9] This distinction between ideal and sullied neoliberalism may map on to Albena Azmanova’s between the Stepmother and the Daddy State (Azmanova 2010, 397). Briefly she charts the following stages of capitalism: (1) nineteenth-century entrepreneurial capitalism; (2) organized capitalism that emerged in the 1930s with regulations and policies aimed at economic growth; (3) the emergence of neo-liberal “disorganized” capitalism which coincided with post-industrial knowledge economies; and (4) what she sees as an emerging stage of reorganized capitalism triggered by the need to attend to the consequences of globalization, namely the emergence of winners and losers. The state overseeing stage 2 capitalism, a.k.a. regulatory and the welfare state, she calls the Nanny state; disorganized neo-liberal stage 3 has a Stepmother state; and stage 4 a Daddy state. I’d say that as soon as deregulation began, Daddy has been waiting in the wings to bail out capital when it fails (e.g., is “too big to fail). Neoliberals demonize the state (as a stepmother) when it threatens to regulate; but then turn to daddy as soon as they need to be rescued. These are not two separate stages but two oscillating moments within a neoliberal era, though it is true that social justice claims in response to neoliberal globalization are still developing.

[10] Both David Harvey and the Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz point out this hypocrisy. See Harvey 2005 and Stiglitz 2010.

[11] In the US alone we can count the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, the housing bust of 2006-2012, the dot com bust of the 1990s, and the recession of 2008.

[12] As Aristotle noted, we do not deliberate about what is the case; we deliberate about what we might bring about: “What we do deliberate about are things that are in our power and can be realized in action”; about things that are inexact and whose outcomes are unpredictable, about matters of action rather than matters of science. And “when great issues are at stake, we distrust our own abilities as insufficient to decide the matter and call in others to join us in our deliberations”(1980, 1111a32, 1112b3–10). Ultimately, “the object of deliberation and the object of choice are identical” because what we are doing in our deliberation is trying to decide what to do. Aristotle went to great pains to make sure his students understood that deliberation is not aimed at matters of fact but is aimed at indeterminate matters of choice and action. This is a lesson missed by those who may think of deliberation as ascertaining moral truth. We deliberate about what we should do, and on questions of great consequence we bring others—different others—into our deliberations so that we have a better chance of making a better choice that will work for the community as a whole.

[13] I am pulling together Arendt’s theory of judgment with her concepts of speech and action, plurality, and the space of appearance. See Arendt 1958, Arendt 1963, and Villa 1996.

[14] This kind of politics shows up in self-organizing communities around the world, including empowered participatory governance projects from Porto Alegre, Brazil, to Kerala, India (Fung and Wright, 2003). Another example is the organizing work of the Industrial Areas Foundation in the United States, especially in Texas and the Southwest (Warren 2001). All work to create horizontal webs of power, to develop and harness citizen knowledge and perspective, and to increase the agency of all those in the community so that the community itself decides in what direction to move. So rather than be directed—or mobilized—from without, they are organized and directed from within. Because they are focused on using their own wisdom and agency to improve their communities, they create new kind of relationship with their elected officials. Rather than going to them to beseech, they approach them more as partners and equals in changing their communities. Even the “poorest of the poor” victims become sociohistorical actors.

[15] Barber 1984, 120-121.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Speaking of the malheureux, Arendt writes, “For the masses, once they had discovered that a constitution was not a panacea for poverty, turned against the Constituent Assembly as they had turned against the Court of Louis XVI, and they saw in the deliberations of the delegates no less a play of make-believe, hypocrisy, and bad faith, than in the cabals of the monarch” (Arendt 1963, 109-110).

[18] For criticisms of this view, see McAfee 2004 and 2008.

[19] See McAfee 2004, 2008, and 2013.

[20] In the late 1970s, Proposition 13 was placed on the California ballot to severely cut back on property taxes and funding of public services. The proposition passed, and California’s public infrastructure has suffered ever since. Yankelovich and Mathews worried that this instance of direct democracy would undermine grassroots democracy itself, so they started working together on way to develop more reflective public judgments rather than the knee-jerk reactions at the ballot box.

[21] I use the term “citizen” loosely to mean all who are part of a political community, whether or not they are formal citizens. The Kettering Foundation is an operating foundation based in Dayton, Ohio, that has been involved for 30 years in understanding citizen public deliberation, well before “deliberative democracy” became a staple of political philosophy. It has focused on local deliberations on national issues, teaming with Public Agenda in New York to write “issue books” for public deliberation. Their guiding notion is that public deliberation is primarily a process of “choice work” (working through the loss that any direction entails) rather than reason-giving (though in the course of deliberation sometimes reasons will be exchanged.) I have been an associate of the Kettering Foundation for 25 years and have been using that experience to develop an alternative to the dominant model of deliberative democracy. See McAfee 2008.

[22] The KF website on democratic practices is here: See also Mathews 2013, 119-125.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


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