1992: Associations and Democracy

Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers London & New York: Verso, 1995

Few issues occupy a more central place on the political agenda around the world than democracy. In Latin America, military dictatorships have abandoned the direct levers of power in favor of more or less open, liberal democratic regimes. In South Africa, the anti-democratic apparatuses of apartheid have been replaced. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Communist regimes have collapsed, to be replaced with the conventional institutions of democratic representation. And while democratic breakthroughs still seem far off in some parts of the world — in China, in the Middle East, in much of Africa — it is clear that in most of these places, pressures for democratic politics are likely to increase in years to come.

This upsurge in democratic impulses in those corners of the world in which democratic institutions have previously either been absent or crippled has not been matched by impulses for a revitalization of democratic forms in the developed, capitalist democracies. Throughout the West the past decade has witnessed an erosion of belief in the capacity of democratic institutions to effectively intervene in shaping social and economic life and help solve our most pressing problems. A common refrain is that government is part of the problem, not the solution. Rather than seeking to deepen the democratic character of politics, the thrust of much political energy in the developed industrial democracies in recent years has been to reduce the role of politics altogether. Deregulation, privatization, reduction of social services, curtailments of state spending have been the watchwords, rather that participation, greater responsiveness, more creative and effective forms of democratic state intervention.

In the context of these global political developments, rethinking a wide range of questions about democratic institutions is an urgent task. This is as important for the future of those countries embarking on the transition to democracy as it is for those countries with established democratic institutions. In particular it is important to rethink the problem of the institutional forms through which democratic ideals are actualized. As the tasks of the state become more complex and the size of polities larger, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the 19th century seem increasingly ill-suited for the novel problems we face in the 21st century. "Democracy" as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially-based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices. Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, participation, responsiveness to changing needs and effective forms of state policies.

Perhaps this erosion of democratic vitality is an inevitable result of complexity and size. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to have some kind of limited popular constraint on the activities of government through regular, weakly competitive elections. Perhaps the era of the "affirmative democratic state" — the state which plays a creative and active role in solving problems in response to popular demands — is over, and a retreat to privatism and political passivity is unavoidable. But perhaps the problem has more to do with the specific design of our political institutions than with the tasks they face as such.

This book revolves around a specific institutional proposal elaborated by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers for deepening and extending the democratic state. At its heart, the proposal involves invigorating secondary associations in ways which enable them to be, on the one hand, effective vehicles for the representation and formulation of the interests of citizens, and on the other hand, to be directly involved in implementation and execution of state policies. Secondary associations include such things as unions, works councils, neighborhood associations, parent-teacher organizations, environmental groups, women’s associations, and so on. They are characterized by, on the one hand, their organizational autonomy from the state, and on the other, by their role in politically representing and shaping the interests of individuals. The Cohen/Rogers proposal, then, is to enhance democracy by transforming the ways in which such associations mediate between citizens and states. This poses a range of difficult issues: enhancing the political role for such associations risks undermining their autonomy from the state and turning them into tools of social control rather than vehicles for democratic participation; secondary associations often illegitimately claim a monopoly of interest representation for specific constituencies and any formal role in democratic governance risks consolidating such monopolistic claims; the shift from a primary emphasis on territorial representation to functional representation risks strengthening tendencies towards particularistic identities, thus further fragmenting the polity. These, and many other issues, are discussed at length in this book.

The book begins with an extended presentation by Cohen and Rogers of this model of democratic governance. This is followed by a series of wide ranging commentaries on the essay by the participants in a workshop-conference held at the Havens Center for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin in January, 1992.